In the year where the Isle of Bute has been hailed as The Sunday Times best place to live in Scotland, its residents have never been more divided. Some think it’s merely a case of mainlander privilege to bare this perspective considering they have never experienced many days of ferry cancellations and missed mainland appointments. Others revelled in the pride of their community being placed on the map. Finally Bute was getting the credit its scenic coastal landscapes so deserved. In essence, while some welcomed this as a much-needed boost to the economy through publicity and tourism, others were fearful of what this meant for the 15×4 miles Firth of the Clyde island.
But let’s be clear — this isn’t like the Viking invasions of the 11th Century. Day-trippers aren’t packing bags for a day of plunder and pillage in Bute’s town of Rothesay. They’re here to share the fruits of what the islanders are able to feast on all year round — or at least some of it. This is where the Bute cynics may have a point:
The Sunday Times panelists alongside tourists likely have little understanding of what it’s like to be at the mercy of a lifeline service that is currently hitting headlines across the nation for unreliability. CalMac, the UK’s largest ferry operator (in terms of number of routes and vessels), has come under fire from both the press and its highly-dependent islander customers and commuters. Consequently more and more Bute residents are returning to an age old question: Does Bute need a bridge now more than ever?
According to Google Trends, the search terms ‘CalMac’ and ‘island bridge’ peaked—perhaps not so coincidentally— at the exact same time in mid February 2022 when reports of delays to shipbuilding started to surge in Scottish media. Headlines included ‘ferry delays’ and ‘decimated ferry services’ in reference to CalMac. All of this came as rising tensions between Ferguson Marine Engineering Limited (FMEL) and Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) were being brought to light. John Sturrock QC describes the relationship between the two companies as ‘personal animosity’ which were contributing to delays and ‘costing the tax-payer a fortune’.
Not only this but recently there have been calls for resignations within Scottish parliament if the delays continue. Kate Forbes, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, had projected that the overall cost of building new vessels had increased by over £8.5 million. According to The Scotsman, Ms Forbes said that she recognised how pertinent it is to complete these ferries for vulnerable islands and the reasoning was due to ‘outstanding legacy cabling issues’. It must be noted that these ferries were contracted by CMAL, which is government owned and government subsidised.
Due to these delays, older vessels are still in order which in turn impairs reliability due to technical issues and frequency of required servicing. For instance, one vessel that served the Isle of Arran had been out of operation until early May due to an engine failure and consequently, CalMac’s managing director, Robbie Drummond, has had to recognise that such an occurrence is detrimental to both island economy and to vital healthcare.
The Daily Record reports that pubs have been running out of alcohol, tourism has declined (which has been recognised as an island’s ‘lifeblood’) and has become unendurable for those who require the ferry services to attend hospital. Most importantly, Mr Drummond issued a statement on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland that clarified money being spent on maintenance had increased by 70% in the last 5 years. CalMac is running purely on ‘ageing fleet’ and vessels that are well beyond their lifeline. This has real life implications for islanders.
The Scottish Ferry Review found in its consultation questionnaire in 2010 that the ageing of CalMac vessels are not singular to Arran, but have covered a far wider scope for many years. Within the review they stated that: “In tandem with the increasing fleet age, the rate of bringing new vessels into service has been reducing over time with a greater time period evident between commissions.” The review found that in 1974 the average age of vessels was 13 years old and by 2012 this average had shot up by 9 years to 22.
The reviews’ recommendation to reduce this trend was that vessels needed to be replaced ‘at a rate approaching one per year’ and that assuming these vessels have a lifespan of approximately 30 years, the predicted average age would need to be reduced from 22 to 19.5 years old. So, what does this mean for Bute?
Currently Bute operates with 2 main vessels from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. These are the MV Argyle and MV Bute. Often times in Winter months the MV Coruisk is also put into service to tackle tempestuous weather in replacement of either one of the Rothesay ferries. At the north end of the island the MV Loch Dunvegan operates alone from Colintraive to Rhubodach.
The youngest of the 4 vessels at 15 years old is the MV Argyle and the oldest is the 31 year old MV Loch Dunvegan. The average age of all 4 vessels combined is 20.5 years old, taking it over the recommended national average age of 19.5 years for CalMac vessels. For a company that displays one of its main qualities as ‘modernisation’ on their web page, having a vessel in service on Bute that has operated since 1991, does not seem to substantiate this claim of modernity. The review does not corroborate this either. This has been seen in practice and poses great difficulties for the Isle of Bute. More required servicing and technical issues have prevented more than just a ‘day-trip’ but vital services and resources.
According to a particular case on the 13th December 2021 posted to a community Facebook group, CalMac’s website showed that the MV Bute had been withdrawn from service due to a ‘technical fault’. Its replacement, the MV Coruisk, was delayed in the adjustment which seen the service for the latter half of that day and the remainder of the following day cancelled. Thereafter it remained on a single vessel timetable with the MV Argyle.
It’s important to highlight that there is also a significant issue with single vessel operations and in the same review, it was raised that: “We do not believe a single vessel operation constitutes provision of a lifeline ferry service” and this is exactly what CalMac brand themselves as on both the David MacBrayne website and the CalMac website: a lifeline service. It is not difficult to understand why many may feel that it’s unjust to constitute CalMac as this type of service when, often times, it does not live up to the provisions that it should.
How The Pandemic Ignited the ‘Bridge Debate’
The Isle of Bute community Facebook group has the second largest number of members (14,000) amongst the Scottish islands, second only to Skye (38,000). This community group was once a place that solely consisted of scenic pictures representing Bute’s wildlife before turning into a public discussion board to air concerns for other Brandanes (Bute residents) to respond to — which more often than not— has its habits of turning into heated debates.
On the 7th December 2021, a woman who runs a well-known hotel on Bute posted to the page in an obvious rage that was directed at CalMac and tagged councillors, urging them to get involved with her complaint. The woman had stated that she had arrived an hour and a half early at Wemyss Bay for the last sailing. She attempted to purchase a ticket but allegedly staff reported that the network was down and she’d have to pay by cash.
After explaining that she didn’t have cash as she was sure that CalMac had become a cashless company, she was told that she would not be able to travel unless she went to the nearest cash machine (which would require her to walk over a mile to the co-op in the rain, by a dark busy road) and acquire some: “The refusal to let a single passenger travel on the last sailing and to assume it is acceptable for anyone to be able to walk a mile and a half in the dark has left me flabbergasted.”
This was the only option provided. She stated in her post: “Yes I’d asked if someone could pop into Rothesay before the boat sailed and pay for me. Yes I’d asked if I could pay on board at the cafe and yes I’d asked if I could do a bank transfer. Everything I suggested was shot down in flames.”
She continued: “The only suggestion that was given to me was to sit in the car and wait to see if the network came back on — if it didn’t I’d not be allowed to travel.”
When the woman was finally able to get cash, she then had to walk down to the foot passenger ticket office — despite being a vehicle passenger— as the vehicle office claimed that they weren’t allowed to handle cash: “You couldn’t make it up. Not one apology was issued and the bad faith towards this company grows by the day.”
This event occurred exactly 3 months after Bute Councillor Liz McCabe announced that there were issues with members of the community not being allowed to pay their ferry fare by cash: “For those who may not know, when travelling with CalMac you CAN pay by cash as a last resort. Seemingly we have been able to do for some time. However I have had some people telling me this was not the case for them.”
One responder to this statement said: “They wouldn’t let my husband when the rest and be thankful was closed! Point blank refused at Wemyss Bay.”
Issues with payments during the course of the pandemic sparked outrage in the community with some maintaining that CalMac were using their power to exploit islanders. One responder to the 7th December incident said: “Surely if the card payment network was down, then there should have been a contingency plan put in place?”
While others declared it was a ‘disgrace’ and ‘dreadful behaviour’ for a company. Another responder stated: “Absolute disgrace and if you complain it’s a waste of time. Build a bridge.”
As December went on, the Isle of Bute community page filled up with phone screenshots of ‘technical difficulty’ warnings from CalMac’s website, ferry cancellation complaints and soon, the idea of bridge building had resurfaced. It appeared that the community was truly beginning to lose faith and losing it very close to a time where sons, daughters and grandparents would be depending on these lifeline services to spend time with their families for Christmas — for some, the first time in many years due to the pandemic.
In an obtained FOI, over 2,201 scheduled sailings for the entirety of Bute in 2021 were cancelled compared to only 854 pre-pandemic. Granted, there are many external factors that simply cannot be managed by CalMac but it does leave wonder as to why there were also almost 1.5k less scheduled sailings than in 2019?
After contacting an individual who regularly and openly spoke quite positively about CalMac online, I asked for their opinion on a bridge as they are a regular commuter due to their job as a delivery driver. They were initially willing to co-operate but as the questions turned to issues around the use of ferry services, this person shut down all conversation by informing me that their boss is not happy with them talking to journalists and that if I wanted any more information, I was to contact their marketing team. The marketing team I later found out was the marketing of a distribution company who rely heavily on CalMac for business. Purely from speculation, I believe that this was an attempt to avoid decrying a company they so heavily depend on. Again, this is speculative.
There is nothing that seems to ignite debate in an island community like presenting the group with a poll centred on a bridge. The poll that posed the question: ‘Does Bute need a bridge now more than ever?’ garnered a staggering 687 respondents, 387 of which (the majority), voted in favour of such endeavour and the remaining 300 voted against.
The main argument for those in favour of a bridge centred on the quality of ferry services to and from the island which has already been extensively touched upon in this investigation. However, some moved away from the notion of ‘the quality of service’ and more onto the idea that the external factors that impose a threat to ferry services are of equal issue i.e weather, COVID and technical issues. Although not the company’s fault, these are still valid reasons for desiring the freedom of what being connected to the mainland could bring. One respondent stated: “Living on the island has become more difficult during uncertainty of ferry especially during winter months, a bridge would solve that problem.”
While another stated: “I would just like the freedom it would give you should you be running late and the ferry is away at least there is an alternative way home instead of having to pay a hotel to stay over.”
A lot of ‘pro-bridgers’ acknowledged that they didn’t want rid of the ferry services on Bute altogether, they would just prefer to have an alternative option available in which they had access to mainland facilities and resources.
As mentioned earlier, tourism is the main source of economic success for many Scottish islands and with islands like Skye, who in its first year of having a bridge, over 61200 vehicles crossed which was more than the official numbers of the ferry according to the Evening Express, there is no wonder why this appeal exists on Bute.
Besides economy, the most gripping point came in the form of vital services such as healthcare.
Highland Healthcare Branch Secretary Dawn MacDonald stated that a bridge could mean “the difference between life and death” as well as prevent missed appointments due to bad weather and ferry breakdowns. The most poignant of Mrs MacDonald’s statement came in the form of a life or death situation: “Years back, a GP’s daughter took an asthma attack and the delay in getting her to a hospital on the mainland almost cost her her life. It was too close to death for the GP’s liking and subsequently, he moved away.”
A spokesperson for Bute’s Kidney Patient Support also highlighted the issues of healthcare on the island: “Before the dialysis unit opened on Bute in November 2021 there was no treatment on the island. Patients had to go to Inverclyde 3 times per week. They went by ambulance transport each day, but you will understand if there was bad weather or breakdowns on the ferries then they couldn’t travel.”
Bute Kidney Patient Support was community and trust-funded. This is a resource that was created through the help of Dr Marshall Trust contribution as well as the campaigning and fundraising of Bute’s community and businesses. Without either — this resource may never have come to fruition.
The spokesperson also confirmed that: “… the mainland does have higher quality resources. The unit on Bute is classed as a satellite unit so if a patient has other health issues etc. then they may have to go back to receiving dialysis at Inverclyde.”
Finally, in regards to patient satisfaction it was believed that the island unit has been a “god send” to patients, however, “living on an island does have its limits” in regard to vital care services.
This leads to a very interesting point from the ‘anti-bridgers’ who believe that: “This is island life, if you don’t like it, move away. You chose to stay here. Move. Simple.” But is it really so simple?
Firstly, many islanders did not exactly choose to stay on the island. They were born here and as humans — they don’t get a say in that. Secondly, house prices are not as affordable on the mainland as they are on Bute— this is what constitutes part of the appeal for the ‘best place in Scotland’. As of November 2021 the postcode of PA20 (which covers the entirety of Bute) has an average house price of £109,906 compared to other areas merely across the water such as Wemyss Bay at £182,958 and Glasgow at over £200,000.
Another resident explained why it’s not as simple as just getting up and going: “Due to the boats being very unpredictable and my partner working on the mainland we are now looking to relocate, he lost thousands this winter due to ferries being cancelled. If there was a bridge I wouldn’t need to move away from the place I call home where all my family are.”
Independence is another issue that was raised amongst those against a bridge. What would this mean for the independence of the island and would Bute still be able to hold onto its islander status? From the example of Skye, it would be safe to assume so, even if at very least by name. The logistics may be a little more complicated in terms of island benefits but it can be argued that island concessions would be far less needed with adequate accessibility to both essential and recreational facilities. Afterall, these island benefits are only in place for the sake of equity. It is accepted as a universal fact that rural communities are less advantaged than their mainland counterparts. However, politically, islands are synonymous with the character of ‘independence’ therefore a more compelling question posed to you reader is: Is the Isle of Bute ever truly independent if it is dependent on CalMac? Is it truly ever independent if its community is at the mercy of one company?
In media, we discuss the dangerous threat to democracy that media monopolies pose and that plurality and diversity are ways of maintaining democracy so best as we can as members of the Fourth Estate. Can this same principle be applied to rural communities where it is clear that business monopolies exist? These are certainly questions worth thinking about.
The vocal passion for the opposing side was so distinct in contrast to the ‘pro-bridgers’. In fact, so passionate that I had received a peculiar email in response to my proposition on the community Facebook group. The email address was generated from an encryption mail website named ‘Proton Mail’ and the sender was disguised with an alias. They had urged me not to take this investigation any further and linked me to a blog post that they seemed to create in direct response to my poll. It highlighted that any investigation for the sake of “journalism” would instead be “insincere” and “malicious”.
Though clearly not open for discussion, the sender made some fascinating and well-researched points that laid down the foundation of the anti-bridge argument. Some of which included the extortionate cost of such a project. If we disregard hypotheticals if only for a moment and move more to practicality, we can look at the case study of Skye.
The bridge cost £39 million to construct and not without great controversy initially. After a toll was applied to the bridge by the US company that owned it, protests arose and soon, the Scottish Government bought the Skye bridge, eradicating the toll which had generated criminal charges and public unrest. If the Scottish Government are struggling to finance and deliver new vessels on time, this certainly leaves room for skepticism when it comes to financing and delivering a bridge.
Visual aesthetics, uniqueness of character and the enjoyment of remoteness were all other incredibly valid points brought up amongst the Facebook comments. Many were also concerned about the environmental impact and rightly so. The anonymous author of the blog who stated that if the bridge were to be built at Colintraive and Rhubodach: “[they] are within a National Scenic Area (and one of only seven in the Argyll and Bute region) so development of any kind would face tremendous roadblocks from communities, authorities and environmentalists.”
You can view their extensive points against the idea of a bridge on Bute here.
This investigation concludes that it isn’t so much ‘pro’ or ‘anti-bridge’ so much as it is ‘pro better services for islands’. Though the debate is shrouded in hypotheticals, there is value in looking at its practicality which case studies such as Skye can provide, albeit with its differences. There is no doubt that those in favour of a bridge are not necessarily calling for a bridge as much as they are calling for better, more modern and reliable services, better governance and more freedom of choice for their island. There was a real impression that this is a community that has exhausted all other options when it comes to pleading for better. The practicality of such a huge endeavour will forever remain debatable.
Finally, though much of the community did not feel compelled to speak out on this topic when approached, it is clear that it’s a touchy subject for some islanders. And often the things that aren’t talked about are certainly the things that need to be talked about. Divorce, death, illness and sex. They’re all difficult topics. And for islanders — bridge building seems to be one of them.
The voices of Bute’s community matters – after all, it is the people of Bute who these council-centred issues affect. If nothing is said, nothing can be done. Some islanders were agitated or fed up by the proposal of such a question regarding the bridge with remarks such as “not this again”. But actually — yes, this again. Yes, ‘this again’ because it is a question that has been left unanswered. If it was a problem that possessed a solution, it wouldn’t have to be solved. And until there is an answer or solution, you can expect to see the ‘bridge debate’ continue to arise in conversation. Whether you choose to partake in it or not is purely personal choice, but those who want to be heard should be heard.
My aim was to move this debate along and to provide at least *some* answers to its surrounding questions. And sometimes investigations can pose more questions than it does answers. That rings true for this. I went into this investigation with a curious mind and a genuine desire to find an answer to this age long debate. However, being raised on Bute, I also wanted islanders to think about the institutions that they are governed by and the way their community is run. Knowledge can only be gained through the provision of information and only then can productive action be taken with that knowledge.
Thank you to all who have collaborated with me on this piece and to the community for providing me with insightful data. Your voices and opinions are incredibly important to the progression of rural communities.
Feature Photo Credit: Isle of Bute by John Williams, 2016.