Business leaders, who have been told there will be no compensation from the Scottish Government for those hit by a month-long cancellation of services to long-suffering South Uist, organised a demonstration yesterday to show contempt for the decision-making.
An estimated 500 residents, 200 cars, 40 vans and 20 lorries converged on Lochboisdale – the port which links South Uist to the mainland – in a protest over CalMac’s decision to cancel almost every ferry service in June due to continuing problems with its ageing fleet.
But the issues were exacerbated over the weekend when CalMac blocked motorhomes from going to and from North Uist from Saturday morning because of a problem with MV Hebrides’ mezzanine deck.
The space for vehicles had been drastically cut because of the problems which led to CalMac bringing in a rule stopping motorhomes from boarding.
One resident, Jamie MacIntyre, who lodged a complaint with the ferry operator, said: “Are you compensating the campsites for loss of earnings? How was this decided? I don’t recall a community consultation? Have you been in contact with those with motorhomes already in Uist and told them they have no means of leaving given the dire situation in Lochboisdale?”
By 1pm on Sunday, CalMac told users the issues with the decks had been resolved but that some customers who were disrupted would continue to be affected into Monday “whilst we re-instate” their use.
The Lochboisdale protest. Credit: Carla Regler
It came as the start of a complete shut down of services to and from Lochboisdale began on Saturday.
MV Lord of the Isles was taken from the South Uist service to cover as a relief service to and from Islay as MV Finlaggan leaves for an overdue service.
That comes as MV Hebridean Isles was expected to return to the Islay route this weekend but instead will remain in dry dock as its “pitch control issues” continue – having been sidelined for months.
The continued disruption comes despite the introduction of MV Alfred to the fleet – brought as a nine-month charter from Pentland Ferries with the approval of the Scottish Government at a cost to the taxpayer of £1m-a-month.
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CalMac has admitted that the vessel is not capable of using the port of Kennacraig to provide services to and from Islay – meaning that it remains at Arran.
Disruption to the Lochboisdale route earlier this year led to claims that it was having a worse economic impact on the islands than the Covid lockdowns.
John Daniel Peteranna of the of the Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group, which organised the South Uist protest said the response to the protest shows people were 100% behind the campaign for action.
It was organised with a circular stating: “It is time for us to make a stand”.
It said that the demonstration of community feeling would be a “show of solidarity against the constant abuse of our ferry service and our community”.
It said: “There are many people who have been doing all they can in their power to improve the ferry situation for Uist, with zero progress. In fact, things have got worse.”
Mr Peteranna said: “This shows the strength of feeling there are is here that it is totally unfair to prioritise others above Uist.”
“I think there should be a management change at CalMac. The transport minister cannot control them and they are not listening to the customers. Our confidence in CalMac is zero.
“The attitude seems to be that we will do what we want, what suits us as a company best and stuff everyone else.”
He said the group had met with transport minister Kevin Stewart seeking solutions but said that so far there were none.
“People are leaving the island,” he said. “The atmosphere is awful. People are depressed – the government think we are expendable.
“CalMac effectively decide which islands survive and which don’t.
“All they can come up with is the risk matrix said to decide on which ferry goes where. It relates to the least disruption over passenger numbers. If they are using passenger numbers that is a problem because we keep getting cuts to our ferry so the numbers will be poor.”
Lochboisdale protests. Credit: Carla Regler.
Uist has been amongst the worst hit by ferry service issues in recent times.
Uisdean Robertson, chairman of the local authority Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s transport committee, said the Lochboisdale service was being repeatedly singled out for reduced services.
The Herald revealed in August last year that shops on Uist were forced to ration essential items amid widespread ferry cancellations due to a broken-down vessel.
It came after the loss of MV Hebrides was taken out of service for a third time in a matter of weeks because of an issue with its CO2 firefighting system – which is a safety issue.
South Uist is reliant on a daily lorry crossing to supply shops.
Lochboisdale had later been out of action to ferries between September 24 and October 8 to allow for repairs to the linkspan used by the ferry.
But it emerged that an alternative route for people to Lochmaddy on North Uist was being hit with cancellations by further concerns over safety due to pier works and adverse weather.
The state-owned ferry operator CalMac is having to handle an ageing ferry fleet with new vessels Glen Sannox and Hull 802 still to be completed by nationalised shipyard firm Ferguson Marine as the costs of their construction have soared from the original £97m contract and delivery is over five years late.
Mr Peteranna, whose South Uist-based renewable energy company supplies wind turbines to help make homes self-sufficient, said: “Compensation was rejected and the minister said if we go down that route we lose services elsewhere.
“MV Alfred had come in but for us there is no improvement. I will look at the news and see that the Scottish Government has plans to stop depopulation of the islands. I feel like someone is taking the mick.
“Is one arm of government not talking to the other? It is quite shocking.”
Robert Morrison, operations director for CalMac, said of the motorhomes ban: “This was an extremely difficult decision and I understand that this will be disruptive for the local community and for customers who had planned to use this route. I apologise for the affect that this cancellation will have and can assure customers that we are working hard to get vessels back in service.”
Minister for Transport, Kevin Stewart spoken directly to the chairman of CalMac’s parent company David MacBrayne Erik Østergaard – the former head of ferry fiasco owners CMAL – to “express my disappointment at how the communications have been handled”.
He said: “It is important that communities are fully engaged when further disruption comes so soon after just having services restored. I have been very clear with CalMac that they must continue to explore all avenues as I am fully aware from my recent visit the direct impact the loss of service is having on the community.”