Ruaridh Pringle, June 2007

     Uist councillors are renewing a longstanding campaign for a breakwater at Uig to make ferry crossings more reliable.

     As Benbecula and North Uist councillor Uisdean Roberts explains: ‘The problem is that the ferry can sail as far as Uig, but then waves plus winds just push the ferry off the pier if wind is in the wrong direction. Snapping mooring cables seem to be getting more and more common.’

     This has meant occasions when the ferry has crossed all the way from Lochmaddy in heavy weather only to have to turn back.

     ‘It seems a shame the boat can’t dock when it gets there. And the forecasters tell us that high winds are due to increase with global warming.’

     Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne, he points out, has nothing to do with the pier, which is owned by Highland Council. Uig was the last of the three ports on the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy route to be commissioned, and received its last major refurbishment in 1984.

     Some make the point that there seems little incentive for Highland Council to address the situation, as the main beneficiaries will be covered by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

     ‘The Comhairle have spent a lot of money on improving Lochmaddy pier,’ says Mr Robertson. ‘Some argue that the Scottish executive should own and run all the piers. We’ve been pushing for this for a few years now.’

     This is a view shared by Donald Manford, councillor for Barra and South Uist, who also sits on the board of the Highlands and Islands Strategic Transport Partnership (HITRANS).

     ‘The situation with these ports,’ he says, ‘certainly on the west coast, is outdated. Their development is part of the transport development of this country, and so should be brought to a national level.’

     ‘We’re now of course in a difficult political game,’ Uisdean Robertson notes. ‘The HITRANS chair has stood down – his replacement is yet to be announced – and then there’s the new councillors and the new executive. This will all take a few weeks to settle.

     ‘The only headway we’ve experienced so far was that HITRANS have acknowledged that there was a problem.’

     For Donald Manford the issue is as much about providing excellent all round service as providing a breakwater.

     ‘Uig is in need of significant development to provide the services expected of a 21st century port. That boils down to ensuring it gives more protection in adverse weather. It also needs its facilities developed to make it more user friendly, and allow passengers between the ticket office and the waiting area and ferry without the distress currently caused.’

     Mr Manford claims a change in attitude towards the needs of travelling customers is needed. ‘The terminology for a port like Uig is a “Modal interchange”: when you change from one form of transport to another. The facilities must be developed into the type which ease this change, to make transport throughout the country begin to reach the standard that’s on the continent.’

     This ‘modal change’ particularly affects pedestrian passengers. Some winter sailings arrive in Uig (on time) after the last bus has left, and arriving by bus from mainland towns can mean unavoidable overnight stays in Portree or Uig.

     Additionally, long waits for inflexibly scheduled buses are often unavoidable, there are no efficient links to some major towns - nor between the ferry and the rail network terminus at Kyle (potentially the quickest and most comfortable way of reaching the south after flying) - and for many, ticket prices on Scottish Citylink’s non-subsidised bus routes serving Uig are prohibitive.

     ‘We need to develop integrated transport,’ says Donald Manford. ‘It is down to Highland Council to develop it. Unfortunately, there’s not been a desire or a willigness for them to engage seriously in that.’

     Asked whether he thinks that, with limited funding available, Highland Council might be forgiven for perceiving Uig’s facilities as adequate, Mr Manford responds: ‘It is far from a perfectly functional port! There are schools in the islands in danger of closing because the people to go to schools aren’t there. This is connected with the fact that the facilities for getting to the islands are so expensive, and not of the standard expected of a twenty first century society.

     ‘A breakwater isn’t the answer on its own to the inadequate port facilities, but it is one element of it.’

     Tony Usher is general manager of harbours for Highland Council. ‘From discussions in the past,’ he says, ‘The Council’s been supportive of the idea of a breakwater - although it’d be a project funded from the Scottish executive, so I’d imagine the process would involve a feasibility study to ensure the breakwater would do the job required.

     ‘We’ve had local elections and a change of government, so nothing’s progressed recently, although we’ve been discussing it.’

     He doesn’t accept that the port at Uig’s been neglected. ‘It’s been extended to take a bigger ferry. We installed extra dolphins in 2001.’ Dolphins are a means of extending a pier using ‘islands’ linked by walkways. ‘We also carried out upgrading works to the pier itself in 2005 and 2006, and spent an awful lot of money repairing storm damage.’

     Does he think a breakwater’s necessary?

     ‘I think how much disruption’s being caused by storms needs to be balanced against cost and efficiency. But we think it should be looked at by Highland Council, and, if feasible, considered by the Scottish Executive for funding.’

     When asked why there’s been no progress in the last 20 years, he responds: ‘It’s all down to the Scottish executive, who don’t have a lot of money available for all the projects on their rather large programme, which have to be approached on priority basis. Is a breakwater the top priority compared with other island services? Is a breakwater the right solution, and how many days sailing will it save per year? I’m not sure.’

     A point made by Hugh MacLennan, press officer for Caledonian MacBrayne, is that councils derive income from pier dues. ‘It runs into millions, and goes into council coffers.’ Pier dues between Uig and Lochmaddy are 6p per passenger and 28p per car per sailing, included in ticket prices. ‘This is just something we live with.

     ‘Without going into specifics,’ he says, ‘we’d support any move to have the reliability of the service improved, or the operating capacity of Uig as a facility increased, and would cooperate fully with any suggestions being made.

     ‘We’ve one of the best ships in the fleet operating that route. It’s not in our interest to do anything other than operate a hundred percent reliable service. We don’t have a view on what the best solution is at present, but we agree that the weather causes disruption from time to time.

     ‘However, a breakwater would cost six million pounds or upwards. Perhaps an argument could be made for that money being better spent on improving the integration and quality of public transport services to and from the ferry.’