IT BEGAN as an off-the-cuff remark by a travelling musician on CalMac’s newest ferry route between Campbeltown and Ardrossan and ended up in a row between SNP minister Mike Russell and West Coast Motors bus chief Colin Craig.
The operator of the Glasgow-Campbeltown bus route has accused Mr Russell of describing it as running a “shitty” service when the minister launched the ferry link between Kintyre and Ayrshire.
The education secretary and Argyll and Bute MSP hit back at West Coast Motors managing director Colin Craig, denying he had made the comment.
However, in turn Mr Craig - whose firm operates the route for Scottish Citylink - said the minister’s words had been “at best ill-advised” and “inappropriate”.
Scottish Citylink is one third owned by Stagecoach, whose chairman is Brian Souter - one of the SNP’s biggest donors.
Timetables show the bus takes four hours 12 minutes between Glasgow and Campbeltown, compared to two hours 40 minutes for the ferry, plus around one hour travel between Glasgow and Ardrossan. Vehicles must also check in at least 30 minutes before sailings.
Mr Russell, standing in for transport minister Keith Brown, is understood to have asked a guitarist passenger aboard the inaugural sailing last Thursday for his reaction to the new service.
He is believed to have said: “It beats the shit out of trying to play on a bus for four hours”.
The minister, speaking at a reception to mark the launch after the ferry arrived in Campbeltown, said: “It sure beats the shit out of being on a bus for four hours.”
West Coast Motors said Mr Craig, who was not at the event, had heard from six people who had attended that Mr Russell had criticised the bus service.
In a letter to the minister the following day, seen by The Scotsman, Mr Craig wrote: “I understand from several people who listened to your speech last night at the Campbeltown ferry terminal that you described your journey from Ardrossan to Campbeltown on the new CalMac ferry as “it beats the shitty four hour bus journey” and that you suggested this would make a suitable slogan for the new ferry service.
“I find it astonishing and deeply insulting that you would use this slanderous language to describe our service.
“Your remarks are deeply offensive to our workforce.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said Mr Russell had contacted Mr Craig as soon as he received the letter, “to assure him that he did not make the comment referred to in his letter, to tell him what he did say – as attested to by others present – and to offer to meet to further set Mr Craig’s mind at rest.”
He said: “Mr Russell has consistently been supportive of local businesses including West Coast Motors and this continues to be the case.”
However, the bus operator said it remained angry at the remarks.
Its spokeswoman said: “Regardless of the exact wording, Mr Russell’s comments were at best ill-advised and inappropriate.
“We do not believe that it is fair or right for a government minister to make comparisons between a commercial, seven- days-a-week, 364 days a year bus service that serves not only Campbeltown but many communities throughout Kintyre and Mid-Argyll without public subsidy with a three-days-a-week, heavily-subsidised ferry service.”