Orkney Islands Stories and Tips

Short Sea Crossing to Orkney

Bay at St Margaret's Hope Photo, St. Margaret's Hope, Orkney Islands

For centuries it has been the dream of Orcadians to have a short sea crossing across the Pentland Firth. This stretch of water between the Orkney Isles and mainland Scotland is among the stormiest in the world. Thirteen-knot tides whirl through it creating whirlpools and white water. During World War II the mainland of Orkney came closer to Scotland due to U-47 creeping over and through a gap in the line of sunken block ships protecting Scapa Flow, the northern anchorage for the British Fleet, against attack. She torpedoed and sank the battleship Royal Oak at her moorings with the loss of 800 men. As a result Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the permanent sealing of the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. The resultant concrete barriers support a causeway that link the four southern islands of Orkney to mainland Orkney and bring mainland Orkney closer to mainland Scotland.

During the summer months since the 1980s a passenger service has carried passengers from John O’ Groats to Burwick on South Ronaldsay with a passage time of 45 minutes. It enabled passengers to cross in the morning, have a bus tour of the Orkney mainland and return at night. The only car ferry, however, continued to ply from Scrabster to Stromness a journey time with a new subsidised ferry of an hour and a half (previously two hours).

The story I am about to tell is strange. It has a hero and several villains. It started in the 1980s when Orkney Island Council decided to create a car ferry service over a short sea crossing from Gills Bay on the Scottish Mainland to Burwick on South Ronaldsay in Orkney. They spent tens of millions of pounds on a new ferry and building a terminal and linkspan at Gills Bay and at Burwick. Their service started on the 15 August 1989 and ended on the 16 September 1989 when the linkspan at Gills received damaged from storms. Recently the passenger-only ferry, which runs from John o' Groats during the summer, has used Burwick.

Andrew Banks was able to establish the long sought short sea crossing in the face of a concerted campaign to undermine his enterprise, by well funded public bodies. With a tiny team of trusted colleagues and without a penny of public funds, Andrew Banks, a quietly spoken Orkney farmer's son, built terminals and started operating a frequent, cheap, short route between Orkney and the Scottish mainland. He achieved this in the face of a concerted campaign to stop him. This is the story of an idea and of the man who battled against the odds to make that idea a reality. It is on the one hand a miracle and on the other an outrage.

In the late 1990s Banks decided to reintroduce the short sea crossing and tried to get the use of the Gills terminal but Orkney Council refused. It was only after he started building his own a short distance away the council relented and he got a 99-year lease on the site. This hostility appeared to be due to Orkney Council failure to set up the short sea route itself. With a handful of local workers and some second hand construction machinery Andrew spent two years, living in a caravan onsite, making the terminal better able to withstand the swell and weather experienced.

He sold his fish farm to finance the purchase and refitting of a ferry the Pentalina B, which was nearing the end of her useful life. Orkney Enterprise and two banks had turned down his loan applications. Highlands and Islands Enterprise rejected a grant applications.

Despite all opposition by the summer of 2001 his company Pentland Ferries was ready to start regular sailings to St Margaret's Hope in South Ronaldsay. The pier here he adapted by installing a link span. This terminal an hours sailing from Gills Bay had the advantage of sheltered waters from all wind directions. The first sailing, in May 2001, was half the price and half the journey time of the subsidised Northlink – for the first time ever Orcadians could get to and from the mainland by sea in one day.

While Banks was fighting to set up a service the Scottish government was piling £50 million in subsidy into the rival Northlink service to finance new terminal buildings, piers and boats. Banks responded by offering a free service if he received the subsidy instead – a move which might have saved taxpayers £20m a year.

Even with the improvements at Gills the sea conditions still caused problems. The only way to provide the necessary shelter was to extend the pier. Fortunately an old floating dock was available to buy at Lerwick, Shetland. Andrew had it cleaned of all contaminants, towed to Gills Bay and sunk adjoining the terminal. The dock filled with concrete and spoils from dredging now forms part of the pier.

Just before Christmas 2008, a new futuristic efficient catamaran ferry arrived in Orkney after an epic voyage from the Philippines. She was Pentalina, flagship of Pentland Ferries and she offers a year-round unsubsidised service between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland. Andrew Banks is still fighting to gain use of the terminal at Burwick, which Orkney council built but left in an inadequate state for regular sailings. Banks even offered to carry out the work at his own expense to bring the terminal up to standard. If he succeeds in this it would again half the short-sea journey time to Orkney. Only authorities, which are working against the public interest could oppose this but oppose it they do.

Their reasoning appears to be that if Banks gains the use of this terminal then the subsidised North Link service would probably lose all its business. Why use it when there is a service that takes only a third of the crossing time, is cheaper and a lot ‘greener’. It also has a route across the Pentland Firth largely sheltered as in the middle of the Firth are two significant islands, Stroma and Swona which offer shelter to a ferry using this route. It is only in rough water for minutes.

A new book ‘Pentland Hero’ by Roy Pedersen describes Andrew’s fight in detail and the history of sea routes to Orkney and the ships providing them. An exceptionally outspoken Lord George Robertson, a board member of Western Ferries and at one time the head of NATO, writes the foreword to ‘Pentland Hero’. He notes: "This is the story of how the islands of Scotland ... have been betrayed by the very authorities they trusted to protect their vital connectivity with the mainland."

Andrew Banks a quietly spoken Orkney farmer's son has boldly gone where others feared to tread.

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