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The CalMac ferries fiasco has been devastating for Scotland’s fragile island economies


3 min read

It was a momentous day on 22 November 2017 at the Ferguson shipyard on the Lower Clyde. The pipes played. Little children waved their Saltires while no less a personage than Nicola Sturgeon descended to perform the launch of the MV Glen Sannox, proud addition to the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet.

At her right hand was the Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf. “This was my first launch as transport minister,” he enthused. “So it was really emotional when the ship hit the water.” Emotional and also a little bit risky, as the Scottish government had been warned, since the vessel was nowhere near ready to launch. 

In order to give Ms Sturgeon a suitable backdrop, “windows” had been painted on the ferry. In some eyes, the occasion became a metaphor for Sturgeon’s career – a bold exterior with not much behind it. Five years and six months later, the Glen Sannox still languishes in the yard, uncompleted.

Five years and six months later, the Glen Sannox still languishes in the yard, uncompleted

Alongside her lies a sister hulk which remains unnamed, though I have suggested that “MV Nicola Sturgeon” might be a fitting tribute to the lost leader. The cost of this debacle will reach £400m, more than quadruple the original cost. It is a tale of stunning incompetence and political opportunism and is at the heart of a much wider crisis.

Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) is a publicly owned company which, since time immemorial, has provided connections to Scotland’s western seaboard with around 30 vessels. Keeping the fleet in good order is not rocket science. The rough formula was to acquire a new vessel each year and retire one of the veterans. Until a decade ago, it worked pretty well.

Then, for inexplicable reasons, they stopped building ferries. It is one of the few amusing facts in this saga that there are now more vessels still operating in the CalMac fleet that were launched when Margaret Thatcher was in office than under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon combined (even including the one with painted-on windows). Ordering two ferries from the Ferguson yard was already playing catch-up.

The yard had been building CalMac ferries for decades and it had been quietly helped by successive governments to win public sector orders that kept it afloat. There is a book to be written about how it all went wrong under the SNP. Suffice to say, Ferguson’s was landed with an order that it was incapable of delivering to anything near the schedule or cost. Far from helping the yard (now bought out of administration by the Scottish government), this has ruined its reputation.

However, the cruellest impacts are reserved for island communities which desperately need a reliable ferry network to sustain trade, tourism and normal life. Instead they have a diminished fleet of ageing vessels which are increasingly incapable of fulfilling that mission. For fragile island economies, the implications are devastating.  

A symptom of the problem is that annual statutory overhauls, when CalMac ferries sail off to Birkenhead or the Clyde, are being delayed in order to maintain the threadbare fleet. Then when they finally get there, far more problems are discovered than anticipated and further delays occur, leading to more weeks of cancellations and diversions.

There is relief on a horizon that stretches into 2026. The Scottish government was eventually forced to order four more ferries – from Turkey. It is a fair bet they will be delivered before the two hulks on the Clyde which are now six years behind schedule. 

In the meantime, Ms Sturgeon has gone and her loyal transport minister from that November day in 2017 has replaced her. What could possibly go wrong? 


Brian Wilson, former Labour MP for Cunninghame North

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