According to sources close to events, the saga kicked off on Friday afternoon when the Hebridean Isles, currently operating the freight run, developed an electrical problem which, when resolved, required sign-off by the Marine and Coastguard Agency.
This took several hours to secure so that when the vessel reached Ullapool, hauliers were informed that she would not be doing the second return crossing from Stornoway because the working hour limits would be exceeded.
At one point, it seemed a compromise had been reached with the ferry doing a single run from Stornoway to Ullapool. Contact was made with Ullapool to ensure that a berth would be available and it seemed the delayed cargo would be shifted.
However, by the time the Hebridean Isles reached Stornoway, this was not acceptable to CalMac, though it is not clear where that decision was made, and the second freight run was cancelled in both directions.
This left about 14 articulated loads lying overnight including three which contained farmed salmon and one with shellfish. With no freight coming in from the other direction, supermarket shelves in Stornoway were depleted of fresh produce.
Tensions rose on Saturday morning when the Isle of Lewis failed to eat into the backlog of freight traffic while allegedly taking not only all booked cars and camper vans but also the entire unbooked queue of about ten vehicles.
D.R. MacLeod – CalMac’s biggest customer – told the Gazette: “We are about ten or eleven artics down. This morning we got zero on. These people are a law to themselves and the contempt we are treated with is down to the fact that there is a complete monopoly”.
The Loch Seaforth is expected to return on Monday after six weeks absence. However, pressure is certain to continue for major reforms and an inquiry into all circumstances which have led to recent events.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar recently presented the Scottish Government with a list of actions required to bring return ferry services to some resemblance of normality. Top of their list was the leasing of the Pentalina to resolve the current crisis.