Reporter Jennifer Jones visits Arran to find out how they dealt with ongoing ferry issues during the pandemic. 

Tom Jessop, runs Arran Alpacas and Balmichael Glamping on the road to Blackwaterfoot.

An idyllic getaway surrounded by fluffy friends, they were due to open before the pandemic but have now adapted to fit this new post-Covid world.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: Tom Jessop with his alpacas. Tom Jessop with his alpacas.

He told the Herald: “We are fairly small. When we just reopened in May after lockdown, then we had a really bad time with the ferry, and we had quite a few cancellations then.

“We were quite lucky in the sense that a lot of our customers were understanding, and whenever we do get a cancellation, our first port of call is to try and move them to an alternative date.

“Eventually we are losing money because you move them to a date that then can’t be sold later down the line.”

There are two ways to get on the island, the main route between Ardrossan and Brodick, and a two-hour detour by road to Claonaig to Lochranza. Tom is worried about the long term reputational damage if it appears so difficult to reach Arran,

He went on: “We’ve had loads of customers coming from quite far down south who were quite happy to drive all the way round to the Claonaig but that adds a huge amount onto their travel plans.

“We have a mix of customers, those who are Arran regulars who know exactly what is going on. You have some folk who have never come to Arran before and you get an email from them a week before, ‘oh I haven’t booked my ferry and there are none available’ – though we tell everybody when they book about it.

“And this year we had that big period until August 9 where the ferry capacity was really limited. Then people on the ferry started to catch Covid, and you had different cancellations due to that and the weather.

“I saw some statistics the other day, there were about 4-5 percent of ferries cancelled, and this year it’s been 17 percent.

“The worry for us, and a lot of other Arran businesses, is that it is a short-term issue when the ferries are cancelled, but it is the long-term reputational impact, when somebody goes to book their holidays for next year, they’ll remember the hassle with the ferry getting on and off the island.

“It is the long-term impact – and I think there doesn’t seem to be a huge recognition of a problem from a Scottish Government perspective.”

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: The Caledonian Isles has been impacted by Covid cases this summer. The Caledonian Isles has been impacted by Covid cases this summer.

The crossing between Ardrossan and Brodick is one of CalMac’s busiest routes.

It could also be considered one of the most accessible, with Arran dominating the 100 miles of the Ayrshire coastline, and reachable within 35 minutes from Glasgow by public transport, unlike more remote islands further up the western Argyll and Highland coast.

Yet 2021, which should have been the year to capitalise on the staycation boom, saw Arran hit by repeated ferry cancellations.

Across the entire network CalMac cancelled about one in 19 sailings in the first nine months of 2021.

Those 6,431 cancellations were more than for the whole of 2019 when there were 5,650.

The Scottish government-owned operator is on course for its highest ever annual number of cancellations.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: The new Brodick terminal - but Ardrossan hasn't been started yet. The new Brodick terminal - but Ardrossan hasn't been started yet.

Tom continued: “We understand that some ferries will go off because of weather, and it is out of your control, but it would be great if there was more openness of communications, why things are going wrong, or even a willingness to help.

“At the moment, it just seems like they will cancel a ferry then it is over to everybody else to sort the mess out.”

With Covid restrictions and lockdowns, there is a sense of defiance across Arran where people have almost got used to being trapped on the island.

One resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “It is a nightmare trying to get a booking on the ferry. The only way to get a booking is to actually call into the Brodick terminal, who are brilliant. The staff there are great, they’ll do anything they can for you.

“Even phoning them you get sent around a call centre. It is better going in – it is the only way to deal with it.

“I was born here. This is the worst it’s been.

“It’s not just CalMac, the Scottish Government as well, look at the money that is being spent in a new ferry, that when it does arrive, it probably won’t fit the port, so they are going to have to alter the ports, instead of doing two small ferries as a shuttle service.”

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: Clair Reeves owns the Bay Kitchen in Whiting BayClair Reeves owns the Bay Kitchen in Whiting Bay

Clair Reeves has owned and run The Bay Kitchen and Stores in Whiting Bay for the last seven years. The shop, one of the last three independent village stores left on the island, is considered the community hub for the village.

The gentle ebb and flow of customer traffic still centres around the daily delivery of newspapers from the mainland, which should arrive around 8.30am. However, if the newspapers are late, or even don’t make it, Clair reckons she can lose between 10 and 30 per cent of her daily takings.

She explained: “We are used to it in the Winter, some normal level of disruptions, but it just seems it is increasingly more and more about the little breezes, and it stopped. Above all, there is a lack of confidence that the right decisions are being made.

“Because of ferries, the papers come in about 8.30am. On Monday, nothing came in.

“If we must stop relying on newspapers, I will have to change my entire business model and be much less of a village shop.

“You can see people coming in for the milk, the newspapers, their potatoes, their eggs, if I can’t rely on the newspapers, I will need to turn this into an upscale deli which will alienate most of my current elderly customers.”

Clair continued: “I have a lot of different suppliers, so we haven’t seen the empty shelves that the Co-op has seen. The Co-op has struggled and that is the bigger issues to do with HGV drivers.

“Luckily in my case, I have 15 different suppliers and I can get something from somebody else, but it has affected our supply chain massively.

“We try and be as sustainable as possible, we buy out fruit and vegetables from local growers, but you can’t grow enough on the island to support those people who want avocados and oranges, so we bring it into the mainland.

“The newspapers didn’t come in on Monday, the fruit and vegetables didn’t come in on Monday. I had a massive wholesale delivery planned as well; everything came in on Tuesday.

“I was lucky the staff were able to adjust their schedule and come in the next day instead, but I hate to do these things at last minute and cancel their shifts.

“We have a personal relationship with all our customers, we notice when they aren’t well, we notice when we don’t see them, we look out for them, we will deliver to them, that will all change if I have to change the business model.”

Even though there is a new ferry waiting to be finished, work hasn’t begun on the upgrades to the Ardrossan port to accommodate it.

Warnings about delays, disruptions to service and additional strains on the service aren’t new, but one possibility is the port of Gourock as an alternative in bad weather – which happened a few weeks ago.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: John Simmons, the postmaster. John Simmons, the postmaster.

John Simmons is in the business of deliveries. As Whiting Bay’s postmaster, his job is to get things on and off the island.

He reckons there is hope in Gourock, adding: “It was nice to see it going to Gourock last week, it has opened up another port so it gives us a chance at least of getting in.

“But this new pier at this side has added to the problem. It used to be westerly winds that affected the boat going into Ardrossan. Now we are affected by easterly winds getting into Brodick. It seems to be getting steadily worse and worse.”

Bad news for a newsagent

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: Jimmy Gordon, Lamlash's newsagent Jimmy Gordon, Lamlash's newsagent


ARRAN-BORN Jimmy Gordon runs the newsagents in Lamlash and has witnessed a steady decline in the ferry service.

They are now expected to book on a ferry up to two weeks in advance to ensure they can get the van off the island.

He said: “Calmac are a law unto themselves. Lorries get off the island every day, which is fair enough, but they get priority.

“The last time I tried to book on, they said come back and we will wait and see if there has been a lorry cancelled. That’s four vehicles that could get on in the place of one of these big HGV lorries. How do they get priority when other people can’t?

“The cancellations do affect us. We are reliant on goods and trying to get to the mainland as we pick up our own stock.

“If you are trying to get to the cash and carry, you need to book the van on in advance.
“We also have the vans coming in. It is difficult. 

“If we don’t get the newspapers, nobody comes out. It is the same story all over the island.”

“The bigger businesses get priority because they can do block bookings, but if its just one van, a lot of firms are not coming over to the island to do work because boats cancelled.”

A new issue has emerged with Covid cases this summer, which have led to cancelled ferries Even the port, as happened in Ardrossan several weeks ago, can be shut down over one or two Covid cases.

Jimmy said: “You don’t shut down a railway station when a staff member gets Covid, or the trains. If you live on an island, you got to expect some of this. I’ve lived here all my life, but it seems to be getting worse.”


The struggles to get on - and off - the island for both locals and tourists

It had taken me four attempts, but I finally managed to get over to Arran to speak to residents about the ongoing ferry crisis that had dogged the headlines over the summer, writes Jennifer Jones.

I know what it is like to get trapped on the island at short notice. In 2017 was with a group of 20 people, including kids, for a weekend workshop. 

And the dreaded red alert ping came on the last day of three rainy days in Lamlash.
Explaining to a home-sick young person that there was no way on and off the island unless you were airlifted in an emergency, whilst frantically ringing around hotels and bunkhouses to see if they had a spare 20 beds to accommodate our group.

We were in luck, but I often wondered what we would have done on that rainy January night with only one car between us.

As I write, following my visit to the island, the notifications for the CalMac service updates ping away, cancellation after cancellation, each one will have an impact on the people trying to get to the island, and those trying to get home.


CalMac respond:
Tommy Gore, Area Operations Manager (Clyde) for CalMac, said: “Our priority is to ensure people can travel, but this past year has been incredibly challenging due to Covid restrictions.

“Each year there is growing demand for ferry travel which we have to manage carefully, as there are not any spare vessels we can call on to increase services. Covid infection rules also meant that we could only offer one third of our usual spaces on board for most of the summer season.

“Our staff work hard to carefully manage demand from tourists wanting to staycation with local residents wanting to travel, as well as goods and services needing to be transported. This is why we always encourage people to book in advance as much as possibly if they want to guarantee travel.

“Poor weather conditions are the main reason why sailings are cancelled – more than 80 per cent of cancellations across the network last year were caused by this. Covid cases also account for a large number of these.”

Check out this week's Ardrossan Herald for part two of this series.