Orcadian Column, 5 October 2023

4 Oct 2023

Happy retirement to MV Golden Mariana, which completed her final journey between Papay and Westray at the end of last week. Built in Devon in 1973, at 50 years old the Mariana was the oldest vessel in the Orkney Ferries fleet, and almost certainly the oldest passenger vessel operating in Scotland. Such pedigree deserves parliamentary recognition so I was happy to lodge a suitable motion which has attracted strong cross-party support.

It’s not just her age that is so impressive, of course. She has proved adaptable in serving various islands around Orkney over the years, even if she is most closely associated with and held in deepest affection by the Papay community. Nor was it just scheduled routes either. I vividly recall trips aboard the Mariana with the Sanday football team in the 1980s. Boisterous return journeys from Westray may also explain why local fishermen would pick up the occasional Mitre football bobbing around off the Red Head in Eday.

Finding a replacement for the Mariana has not been straightforward. The Nordic Sea’s performance on the Papay-Westray route has been ill-starred and Northerly Marine’s Explorer has been chartered to cover the service for now. It does though illustrate that while the need to replace Orkney Ferries’ ageing fleet is becoming ever more urgent, any new vessels must be fit for purpose in operating these lifeline routes.

Unfortunately, the Ferries Task Force set up between Scottish Government and OIC has lost momentum since it was launched back in January. Meantime, cost estimates for replacing the fleet and questions over the role for fixed links have presented opportunities for Ministers to further delay any final decisions. These are delays our island communities can ill-afford.

This will doubtless be the strong message emerging from a conference being organised by Westray Development Trust next weekend. I’m looking forward to taking part in discussions about how we secure vibrant future for Westray and Orkney’s other smaller isles. As well as transport, I suspect housing, digital infrastructure, and health and care provision will feature prominently.

As a Sanday man, it should perhaps pain me more to admit that Westray has led the way over recent decades when it comes to providing different economic opportunities that in turn help attract and retain population in the isles. Westray has also created a more joined-up tourism offering, prompting neighbouring islands to review how they might capture similar opportunities. None of this has been easy, of course, nor always successful. However, there is a ‘can do’ attitude in our islands which can be worth its weight in gold.

Similar challenges face all our isles, albeit solutions may need to be tailored in each instance. This was a theme picked up over the weekend by SNP MSP Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch, Kate Forbes. In a wide-ranging press interview, Ms Forbes spoke about how communities across the Highlands & Islands function differently before going on to claim the Scottish Government has failed to recognise those differences or the needs of the region. She’s right, of course, although it’s quite the admission for someone who entered 2023 as Finance Secretary in a Scottish Government she subsequently sought to lead.

The comments also reflect the schisms within the SNP, which are increasingly played out in parliament and in public day after day. Last week, for instance, saw Fergus Ewing suspended from the parliamentary group as punishment for earlier supporting a vote of no confidence in Green Minister, Lorna Slater. Mr Ewing intends to appeal this decision, thereby ensuring that this messy and acrimonious episode for the First Minister and his party is prolonged.

It's hardly the perfect backdrop to a byelection on Thursday where the SNP hopes to retain its Westminster seat in Rutherglen & Hamilton West. Labour is currently the overwhelming favourite to win, a situation that would have been unthinkable a year ago when Nicola Sturgeon was still at the peak of her powers.

It’s some time since MV Golden Mariana was at the peak of her powers, but as she and Ms Sturgeon prepare for retirement from front line duties, they leave behind choppy waters and ample evidence about how difficult it can be to find a suitable successor.

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