Island Life and Ferry Failures

If you catch a Calmac ferry to the islands, you will “Uncover the magic of the Scottish Islands” and enjoy “our spellbinding natural landscapes” and you will travel to “our world class outdoor playground” so says their website.  Here’s the questions. Whose playground, whose landscape and whose islands?  

South Uist, is not as empty or wild a place as the tourist literature would like to make out. This spellbinding playground is the home of Real People in a Real Place as Derek Thompson articulated so marvellously in his essay of the same title. It is not just some “enchanted land of summer… beautiful and slightly hazy, a place for a holiday”. The marketing spin has more than a few holes in it, and maybe a discussion for later, but they successfully reinforce the perception that the islands’ main value is as a holiday destination.  What about those who live ‘there’ and want to travel in the other direction? If you cannot get a ferry ‘there’ to uncover its magical delights – what’s the reality of not being able to get a ferry to the mainland. 

For most of June, Calmac withdrew its Lochboisdale (South Uist) service offering 6 days notice to islanders, businesses and families and no real compensation for the losses.  This follows years of disrupted Calmac service where South Uist has been particularly singled out.  In Winter 2019-20 statistics show that 67 (43%) out of 156 sailings did not operate, and in Winter 21-22 the months of November, December, January, and March together saw only 21 Mallaig-Lochboisdale sailings operate-that is around one quarter (25%) of the timetabled number so a failure rate of 75%.  

The alternative journeys involve travelling to other islands and connecting with other ferries. The travel time, emotional energy and the additional expense this necessitates is tantamount to an additional tax burden.  Within an already fragile rural economy that is dealing with generations of depopulation this exacerbates this cost.  It is impossible to reimburse this time and financial loss, and Calmacs refund process cannot make up for a missed family wedding or funeral.

As a friend recently said imagine a hole appeared on the M8 and traffic stopped for a week. Then Imagine it happened again and again, and again. Then the traffic was stopped for a month. Then Imagine that the M8 was only opened for 10 operational days this year. That is life on South Uist without a ferry and we pay the same taxes as everyone else in Scotland. 

Travel is the stuff that the day-to-day fabric of island living is made of. With the withdrawal of the ferry service another friend has become so proficient in re-arranging travel plans that that I’m sure she could sell her skills professionally.  Her knowledge of ferry timetables, tide times (some boats and planes are governed by such), logistics, watching and predicting weather and the (inadequate) Calmac reimbursement process are second to none.  

It is frightening to think that the Scottish Government had no control over the withdrawal of the ferry service – all the power lies with Caledonian MacBrayne and their algorithms.  It is a serious injustice to these communities and a clear breach of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018.    The Islands Act lists the parent company of Calmac Ferries as a body with a duty to consider island community impact and not treat any island unfairly to favour others. Who enforces and monitors that?

It is no exaggeration to say the ferry is a life-line for all islanders. Without it, the island dies; the culture and language with it.  Islanders are not some exotic species to be viewed as some quaint anthropological pass time or capitalist toy for a Government quango. It might seem an over simplification to say that islanders have the same personal and professional ambitions and needs as their mainland counterparts.  There are understandable delays and quirks in the system, which is to be expected with a service that is dictated to by the weather. Cancelling a service with no notice, consultation or legislative logic is not a quirk in the system – it’s an injustice and an abuse of the people who live there.

When I was wee, the Glasgow train arrived at Oban 10 minutes after the ferry sailed from Oban to Lochboisdale.  The next ferry was another 6 hours wait away.   Rattling around in Oban as a teenager, was a miserable affair, no costa coffee back in 1982.  This wait in Oban was before another 5-hour ferry journey (or 7 hours via Castlebay).  Our parents would tell us how much better it was for us than it was for them, and they were just grateful that their children, as young Gaels, were included in mainland opportunities like – the Youth Commonwealth Games, the Outdoor Camp trip and Top of the form competition.  It’s still a sore point, Fort William knocked us out.   

The fact that Scotrail and Calmac at best could not communicate with each other or at worst, were deliberately frustrating each other’s service at the expense of its service users, us, wasn’t something we complained about, not officially anyway.  This timetabling joke went on for years. As, islanders, Gaels, we occasionally try and evoke the spirt of the land raiders, but in general we have no appetite for protest or confrontation, post Culloden anyway!  Arguably the fight was beaten out of us.   

Other than some mythical tales, creatively embellished by my storytelling family, I did not learn my own history until I was 28, and I’m still learning and we’re all still deconstructing. The suppression of land, language and culture has been strategically embedded in our part of the world for about 300 years.  My father’s mother, Ceit Bean Earsaidh Raghnaill (a major contributor of Gaelic Song to the School of Scottish Studies and Tobhar an Dulachais) went half a mile to school to be beaten daily for speaking Gaelic by the English-speaking headmaster, a strategic policy introduced by the education board – placing English teachers in Gaelic areas.  So successful were the colonisers, that my other granny would lavish genuine praise on me for reading Shakespeare and having a better command in the English language than she thought she had.  Placing no value on the Gaelic poets and by default ourselves, English was the route to success, it was the progressive language.  An academic future meant that you’d get off the island.  The cultural memory survives many generations, it has an impact and it is real. So, yes, I landed in Glasgow and the University. The depopulation continues. 

Scotland has a diverse culture, many languages (old and new) and unique geography.  Some of us look forward to an independent future to make the best of these assets within a fairer democracy.   The Gaelic speaking islands are something that adds to that unique identity. The language having survived against the odds.  But recently I’m asking myself, maybe it is not as celebrated and protected as we’d like to think it is under SNP.  For over 10 years the ferry service has worsened, when it needed to be enhanced. With that track record, our elected politicians have been as effective as a chocolate teapot.  Not resolving this issue has made them complicit in the on-going depopulation, some would say clearance, of the island.  The ferry situation threatens health, education, businesses as well as broader existential threats like the loss of our language. To add insult to injury the Scottish Government have recently announced that the publicly funded company Calmac are likely to secure the contract for another 10 years. Are this government having a laugh?  Reward incompetency and inefficiency with a long term contract.  This has a rotten whiff of what goes on in Westminster.  The ferry injustice is the straw that promises to break the camel’s back. Replace ‘ferry’ with health, education, employment and housing services on the island and everyone can furnish you with a story on unfair treatment.   Unlike our parents, we are no longer grateful, our economic and cultural inequality makes us angry.  

On Saturday 24th June we organised a march in Glasgow in support of the South Uist Community which had its ferry service withdrawn for a month.   There was a strength in this determined well-behaved march.  One day, history will spillover and we’ll be looking for reparations way beyond a cancelled ferry fare. 

There is no island life without a ferry. 

Comments (11)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Who is the author of this piece? The writer is usually identified in Bella articles.

    1. Its Rhona. should be in the top right?

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        Thank you. It is there now.

        I had difficulty accessing the site yesterday because of security checks being carried out (as the screen message said) and then these were timed out. It seems OK today.

  2. John Robertson says:

    1. Winter cancellations are mostly to save lives – what should they do? Just risk it.
    2. There is another ferry crossing from North Uist, closer to South Uist than many mainland ferry ports are to most big Scottish towns.
    3. ‘Imagine that the M8 was only opened for 10 operational days this year.’ Just a daft comparison. The M8 links 3-4 million folk. There are 1 800 on South Uist and many never use the ferry at all.

  3. Alistair Taylor says:

    What is stopping Scotland from having an efficient ferry service?

  4. mark says:

    This part really resonated with me as I am sure it will with many folk: ‘Other than some mythical tales, creatively embellished by my storytelling family, I did not learn my own history until I was 28, and I’m still learning and we’re all still deconstructing. The suppression of land, language and culture has been strategically embedded in our part of the world for about 300 years.’ It’s so sad that many people will go to the grave without ever knowing their history. When I was younger I was told my father’s side of the family were descendants of a Welsh sailor who jumped ship at the mouth of the River Lossie, I was almost 50 before I did my genealogical research & found out this story (which I’d always been sceptical about) was total tripe. Such is the insidious nature of British imperialism 🙁

  5. Douglas Young says:

    I traveled to Mull this summer. The ferry was over an hour late. The Calmac captain had diverted the ferry to come to the aid of a private yacht in distress. Didn’t see that reported in the Unionist media. It doesn’t fit the narrative. The pice above seems to say the ferry services were worse in the early 80s and much worse prior to that. As such do we think expectations have changed? There are significantly more mainland folks making a lifestyle choice to live their dream on a Scottish island. I suspect a high proportion of the issues are the unrealistic expectations of people not used to island life. As to beating the SNP with the issue. Ask yourself do you think a unionist majority government in the Scottish Parliament would have the interest oo Islanders front and centre of their agenda? This issue is a smokescreen it’s being used to sow the seeds of doubt over the SNP proficiency to govern. I haven’t hear any solution being put forth by other parties or Islanders. Might be best to privatise it. Oh hang on that would make prices increase and most likely jobs would be lost in the quest for efficiency savings. Or shareholder dividend as it’s also known. Be careful what you wish for.

  6. Niemand says:

    ‘World class outdoor playground’ – what a stupid and almost insulting slogan as if we should see a place that people live and work in is simply a ‘playground’ for visitors. I don’t any such place should be called a playground.

    It has been a long while since I was up this way but my memory is that the ferry service was good (I used both ferries, North and South Uist and also the one to Harris) and link with busses excellent, also the same in Orkney and Shetland. What’s gone wrong? All this has happened under the watch of the SNP. No excuses.

  7. James Mills says:

    May I ask why the demonstration /march was in Glasgow ?
    Calmac , I believe , has their HQ in Gourock , while the Holyrood Parliament is in Edinburgh . So why choose Glasgow ?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      I suspect it was because the organisers had been assured BBC Scotland and the Herald would cover it.

    2. I think it was because there is a sizeable Uist community in Glasgow. Probably got better coverage than an event in Gourock too?

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