Islanders warned of more ferry disruption as CalMac 'bows' to whisky lobby

The Islay Festival <i>(Image: Islay Festival)</i>
The Islay Festival (Image: Islay Festival)

State-owned ferry operator CalMac has warned users that there will be disruption for other lifeline island routes as it runs additional sailings in a settlement over a row over one of the world's most famous whisky festivals.

Ministers intervened in the row which saw the annual Fèis Ìle, or Islay Festival, being put at risk after being left "high and dry" by Scotland's ferry fiasco.

The organisers of the festival, which was originally part of a plan to revive the Gaelic language, said they had been left facing "significant difficulties" after CalMac failed to provide the usual additional sailings to allow whisky lovers and festival-goers to attend the nine-day long event which started last Saturday.

The festival of music and malt which showcases the islands' distilleries, community and culture features tastings, tours, beaches, walks, ceilidhs, sunsets and sunrises and has a history that goes back to 1984, when it was called the Islay Festival of Malt and Music.

It continues to grow in size and stature and regularly brings upwards of £10 million pounds to the local economy.


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But organisers said it was in "serious jeopardy"  in March until moves were finally made to schedule extra services.

Ferry capacity issues were exacerbated today when services to Coll, Tiree and Barra were suspended because of electrical control issues with 26-year-old MV Clansman's starboard engine.

Services to and from Islay and Colonsay were also suspended due to a number of crew cabins onboard MV Hebridean Isles being unavailable which affects crew hours of rest requirements. CalMac said vessell deployments had been reviewed and no alternative vessel was available.

And one of the west coast's busiest ferry services between Gourock and Dunoon was cancelled on Wednesday because of problems with the Dunoon linkspan with a replacement bus due to be brought in.  The service is expected to be further disrupted on Thursday.

The situation has already raised concerns from one ferry user group which has been pushing for better cover on the Isle of Mull after what was described as "two consecutive weekends of a disrupted and inadequate timetable" due to the vessel shuffling required for Fèis Ìle.

This comes as its regular vessel, the MV Isle of Mull was scheduled to be removed to cover Islay on two major pinch points, last weekend and again this weekend (June 1 and 2) at the culmination of the festival.

The Herald: CalMac
The Herald: CalMac

Earlier this month the vessel had to be kept on a route to South Uist to provide vital supplies - after a pier usually used for fuel deliveries to the island was condemned.

Messages to ferry users from CalMac about the shifting vessel pack to deal with the Islay Festival say the additional sailings have come following consultation with local communities, and warned that "other routes will be temporarily impacted as a result".

They have said that if a booking has been affected "we do apologise for this, and our port team will be in touch with you in date order to provide further information and support".

It has already led to cancellation of a series of services to and from the Mull port of Craignure, with the island having had to rely on 21-year-old MV Coruisk and nine-year-old MV Loch Frisa, two of the fleet's smallest major ferries, with the user group saying they provide too little capacity for vehicles and foot passengers.

There has also been a reduced timetable for the service between to and from Mallaig on the Isle of Skye.

It comes amidst a run of breakdowns and reshuffling of the ferry pack to try and keep services going across the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service.

One ferry user group official said that CalMac were on a "losing wicket" between its owners, the Scottish Government and the whisky industry both putting pressure on to act over providing more capacity to cover the festival.


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"They have no choice but to bow to the whisky lobby and the politicians no matter what disruption it causes to other islands and islanders," he said.  "It is precisely this situation that gives some credence to the argument that CalMac should be totally separate from government."

Organisers of the Islay event had warned in early March that despite other island festivals in the summer season having additional ferry support Islay had "been left stranded".

They launched an online campaign urging supporters to share social posts on the issues, to email Scottish ministers and to let CalMac know of any problems they have experienced.

It is organised by a committee of volunteers and the island’s distilleries who said that without extra ferry sailings, the festival was going to suffer "widespread ramifications that will seriously affect the island’s economy".

But in response, the Scottish Government's Transport Scotland agency said they had called on CalMac to ensure that there was "sufficient ferry capacity" for the event which led to a shuffling of the vessel pack.

It comes as MV Caledonian Isles, one of Scotland's oldest and biggest ferries, remains sidelined until at least late August after CalMac was landed with a £5m repair bill over rust.

The Herald:
The Herald:

The ferry operator had warned in February of disruption across the Clyde and Hebrides network as a result of steelwork issues with the 31-year-old MV Caledonian Isles which serves on the Arran route, one of the busiest on the Scottish coast, and is due to be replaced.

It has been out of action since going for an overhaul at the start of January and it had been hoped in the last update that it would be back by July to help with the busy summer period.

Issues with the ageing fleet have meant that the summer only service from Ardrossan to Campbeltown has been scrapped for a second year.

The summer service never started last year as it became a casualty when the 38-year-old MV Hebridean Isles was out of service.

Some 18 of CalMac's 31 working ferries that were in service in 2021 and deployed across Scotland are now over 25 years old.

A CalMac spokesman said: "CalMac does all it can to prevent vessel redeployment and service changes. Whilst this is sometimes unavoidable, the arrival of new vessels in the next few months will enable us to improve reliability and certainty of services."

"We engage proactively with organisers of various events across the CalMac network every year to provide support. This year, we worked with the Fèis Ìle organisers to provide extra ferry services at both the start and end of the festival.

"We monitor demand around events such as Fèis Ìle and it was clear from our booking data that extra sailings would be required, with some sailings at the start and end of the festival at capacity as early as February.

"We consulted with all communities on a redeployment plan to support Fèis Ìle a couple of months in advance of the event and recognise that providing extra support to the festival does result in reducing capacity on another route for a short period of time."

"An amended timetable has been in place on the Islay route since January due to ongoing infrastructure upgrades at Kennacraig to prepare new vessels coming into service. The amended timetable means turnaround time has increased and therefore reduced the number of sailings we can operate. That meant, without putting extra sailings on for Fèis Ìle, it would have had fewer sailings than it typically does."

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