Friday 27 May 2022

The Extremes Of Plane & Boat Travel (1)

We're Getting There - Just About!

Orkney is an archipelago situated off the north coast of the island of Great Britain. Orkney is 10 miles north of the coast of Caithness and has about 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited. The largest island, the Mainland, has an area of 202 square miles, making it the sixth-largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles. Orkney’s largest settlement, and also its administrative centre, is Kirkwall.

It is therefore necessary to be able to travel from island to island which leads to a network of ferries and air routes. When fbb was creating "Getting Around The Highlands And Islands" for Southern Vectis, the Orcadian complexity gave the somewhat lesser old man the screaming abdabs!

The timetable booklet kindly sent by correspondent Keith covers more or less the whole lot!

There are four ways of getting from the Big Mainland to the Orcadian Mainland.

Traditional proper big ferries run from Scrabster to Stromness ...
... and Aberdeen to Kirkwall. 
In fact the Kirkwall terminal for Northlink is no longer in the harbour at the town. It has a posh purpose-built terminal and linkspan at Hatston (Google Earth, upper left) ...
... which is much easier to access, by boat as well as by heavy lorry.
But it is all not quite as simple as that - oh, no sir.

The name on the boats is Northlink! (they link you to the notrth - geddit!)
Some would suggest that the (un) friendly Viking is telling you, in clear and concise Nordik terms (?), to push off and go somewhere else! The service has been through troubled times.

The operator used to be P & O Scottish Ferries as below at Stromness.
Pretty much everything that floats is in the thrall of the Scottish Government, so by 2002 the tender was re-let.

The subsidised Northern Isles ferry services, previously run by P&O Scottish Ferries, were put out to tender in 1999. A joint venture between Caledonian MacBrayne and The Royal Bank of Scotland, named NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries, won the contract and began operation in October 2002.
A variety of factors, including competition from rival operator Pentland Ferries, the Norse Island Ferries group created by local hauliers concerned about NorthLink's proposed freight pricing, and higher-than-expected operation costs, contributed to financial difficulties within the company. In response, the Scottish Executive Transport Group (now Transport Scotland) made additional subsidy payments of £0.6 million and agreed to restructure subsidy payment timing.

In mid-2003 the company indicated that it would be unlikely to complete its contract due to the ongoing financial difficulties. NorthLink defaulted on its lease payments for the vessels in July and August 2003, and in April 2004 the then Scottish Executive announced that the service would be re-tendered due to NorthLink's inability to fulfil the terms of its contract.

The company continued to operate under interim arrangements until April 2006 while a new contract was secured.

Caledonian Macbrayne is, perversely, owned by the Scottish Government!

On 19 July 2005, the Scottish Executive announced that three companies - V-Ships, Irish Continental Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne - had bid to provide ferry services to the Northern Isles. Irish Continental, however, withdrew its bid in October 2005, leaving two potential operators on the closing date of 1 December 2005. Both of the remaining bids complied with the contract requirements, but Caledonian MacBrayne's lower bid meant that it was awarded the contract. 

Hmmm? The Scottish Government (in a thin disguise) won the tender from The Scottish Government! 

But after all the kerfuffle the next re-tendering was on its way. This too, was a mess with the two routes first offered separately, then re-bundled as there was "insufficient interest" in the split business.

On 4 May 2012, Transport Scotland announced that Serco was the preferred bidder. This decision was legally challenged in the Court of Session by rival bidder Shetland Line (1984) Limited, but unsuccessfully. On 29 May 2012 however, the court overturned the suspension and Serco was confirmed as the new operator, ending Caledonian MacBrayne's 10 year involvement with Northern Isles ferry services. The contract lasted for a period of six years and was worth £243m.

So what happened in 2018? Nothing! But ...
... the contract was awarded to Serco again after numerous delays.

It has been a right mess.

One of the reasons things got difficult for the "Northlink" project was the arrival of a competitor.

Pentland Ferries was founded by its present managing director, Mr Andrew Banks, in 1997. Banks obtained a 99-year lease on the Gills Bay terminal ...
... about 3 miles west of John o' Groats. After two years work improving the site, and further work at St Margaret's Hope, he started operating the short sea crossing in May 2001. The service operates year-round with the custom built passenger and vehicle catamarans.
The newbuild is called Alfred ...
... and is bigger, posher and "greener".

The service tuns three round trips at day, seven days a week unloading at St Margerets Hope (southern terminus of the X1 bus - remember?).
It is a fair toddle back to the town ...
... but, fear not hardy foot passenger, our friend the X1 terminates at the Pier, seen clearly here with the lavish bus passenger facilities!
The Piermaster's office (adjacent) shares the Orcadian love of lavishness!
But the Pentland Ferries advert cum timetable in the Orkney booklet is a powerful call to use the short, cheaper sea route.
We must not forget the fourth and shortest sea route available to foot passengers ONLY. It runs from John'o'Groats to Burwick, right at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay and the closest point to the Big Island's Mainland! Burwick's passenger terminal is modest!
But the ferry is modest!
The service is equally modest!
And there is a bus stop at the Gills Bay terminal as well.
And a very rudimentary bus service from Stagecoach ...
... that doesn't connect with the ferries!

Orkney does it better with an X1 bus every 30 minutes!

But there are loadsa inter-island ferries to investigate. More fun, folks.

 To Be Continued ... Saturday 28th May? 


  1. Andrew Kleissner27 May 2022 at 12:53

    Er ... I think you're looking at the wrong ferry terminal. The bus seems to make a good connection at Gill's Bay.

  2. The Stagecoach 77 does connect with the Pentland Car Ferry at Gills Bay. It has a connection from Inverness on the X99.

    The John o Groats passenger only ferry is accessible from the bus station, but no 77s connect - The ferry boat fills in with wildlife cruises.