Indy movement must end its denial over ferries

by Michael MacLeod

Caledonian MacBrayne has been a presence in my life for as long as I can remember. From a schoolboy taking a ferry to the mainland for holidays, to a student returning home for a funeral, to a father returning with my newborn children, it has always been a CalMac ferry that has carried me home. Many family members and even more friends have worked for the company. And I have worked for them for nearly a decade. It used to be a source of pride to say I worked for Caledonian MacBrayne, an integral part of Hebridean life.

However, in recent years things have changed. CalMac are struggling and much of the blame for this lies squarely at the door of the Scottish government. The introduction of Road Equivalent Tariff on the ferries was the beginning of a massive increase in traffic. People’s holidaying habits have changed too – more and more people are coming to see the beauty of the Hebrides, be it in cars, campervans or on bikes, which has placed even more strain on a under pressure service.

Every vessel within CalMac is doing more work than they did a decade ago. Sailings have increased to accommodate increased demand, but this has the effect of cutting the time it is possible to carry out maintenance on vessels. Additionally, there is a need to get vessels in and out of drydock as quick as possible – there is no give in a drydock schedule which, for the first time ever, has seen a vessel needing to carry out its scheduled drydocking well into June. The problem now is that CalMac have no spare vessels. A long-term issue such as that which has recently befallen the 38-year-old Hebridean Isles leaves CalMac needing to cut their cloth to fit and unfortunately, as is often the case, it is Lochboisdale in South Uist which suffers. They have seen their ferry service removed for a month for the second time this year. CalMac have just enough vessels to run the service if nothing breaks down. Given that many of the vessels are over 25 years old, these can and do occur with increasing rapidity.

Islanders and the maritime trade unions have been warning this day was coming for years. With an ageing fleet being worked harder than ever before with less maintenance time available it was inevitable and avoidable. When something goes wrong on one vessel it has a knock-on effect throughout the fleet as several vessels may need to shuffle to keep some semblance of a service – as is highlighted by the case of South Uist, sometimes even this is not possible.

Protesters in Glasgow demonstrating against the reduced ferry services to the islands. Image credit: Daibhidh MacThom/welovestornaway.com

Recently, on social media, ferries have become a political football. As well-meaning islanders have put across their own lived experience, as they have tried to express the impact that this is having on their lives, they have been labelled liars by people who do not use the ferries. They are called “unionists” because they have the temerity to suggest that the handling of the West Coast ferry services by the Scottish government has fallen well below any acceptable standard. And, as a supporter of Scottish independence myself, it is sad to say that all this vitriol is pouring forth from supporters of an independent Scotland.

Set aside the fact that South Uist and Barra returned one of the highest majorities in favour of a Yes vote in Scotland for just a minute and try and imagine a world where criticism of the Scottish government is not an attack on indy but an attack on the mishandling of a lifeline to the islands.

If you imagine really hard, you can maybe see a world where the constitutional question is not at play here – there is an issue with ferries and no amount of Central Belt browbeating is going to change that view in the islands. Hebrideans are trying to hold the Scottish government to account. We are recognising them as having the ultimate responsibility for ferries in the Hebrides, yet those who claim to support an independent Scotland want us to blame Westminster. Recognition of responsibility only when things are going well is no recognition at all. As a trade unionist, it is interesting to note the crossover here between those who are rampant trade unionists when it is within the remit of Westminster to help solve an industrial dispute, yet fall back on the tired old cliché of “Labour party-led unions” when it is Holyrood holding the purse strings.

An oft-repeated response to any mention of ferries is that 98% sailings operate on time so there is no problem. What this does not consider is the wholesale withdrawal of the Lochboisdale–Mallaig service – removing from South Uist its own direct link with the mainland. If Aberdeen Football Club were to be banned from playing football next season due to their shirts being too red, would it be acceptable to say to their fans “Ah but 98% of the SPFL is playing every week!”? Whilst this may be a blessing in disguise for their fans, everybody knows that it is the 2% not working that is the issue, not the 98% going to plan.

It is time that those who wish to see an independent Scotland start to realise that not everything in Scotland can be viewed through the lens of Yes/No camps. Are the unionist parties and their supporters making political hay out of the ferries? Of course they are. Does this detract from the legitimate concerns expressed by Hebrideans over ferries? No, it does not. Some of the nonsense being espoused on social media recently shows a real lack of critical thinking from those who wish to see an independent Scotland – you do not win converts by calling them liars.

I would like to see Yes supporters start to accept there are major issues surrounding ferries that must be resolved. The Scottish government needs to hold roundtable talks with all those who depend on ferries, islanders, Island ferry groups (who usually but not always actually represent the business sector with differing needs to those of the islanders), maritime trade unions, councillors, cross-party MSPs and CalMac to come together and work out a ferry plan which will see a publicly-owned CalMac restored once again as a source of pride for islanders, a holding stitch in the fabric of the islands.

In 20 years’ time, I want my own children to return with their own newborn children on a CalMac ferry, wholly owned by the independent Scottish nation. But to get to that point, islanders must be listened to now and not ridiculed by those who want us to place our faith in an Edinburgh-based government.



Michael A MacLeod is a trade unionist hailing from the Isle of Barra. He works for a well-known West Coast ferry company and has been an member of the Republican Socialist Platform since its formation.

to get Heckle delivered to your inbox