BY ADAM GORDON
The Small Isles Community Council chair has said that island residents should not be “held hostage” by Highland Council’s relationship with CalMac amid delays to harbour maintenance and cancelled sailings.
Speaking to the Free Press this week, chair Camille Dressler said that residents of Eigg had at times been stuck in the middle of the local authority and the ferry operator in what she described as a “complete breakdown in communication” between the parties.
At present the Small Isles are served by the MV Lochnevis vessel which launched in 2000. However, since May the community have been lobbying for maintenance work to be carried out at Eigg harbour, as Ms Dressler explained.
“As the chair of the community council, I have had numerous correspondences with the Highland Council to establish that they would stand by their statutory obligation to do a bathymetric survey — which they haven’t carried out for 10 years — to make sure that the approach to Eigg harbour is safe in very low tide.
“There seems to be an issue of more sand being there than there used to be. There also seems to be a problem with the fenders at the pier which were reported to the harbour authority on 5th May and nothing was done to fix it.
“There were also problems with the fenders on the harbour at Muck, and Highland Council was contracted to fix them there but neglected to fix the ones on Eigg at the same time.”
She added: “I just feel that as the Highland Council is getting pier dues from CalMac, they should have a regular schedule of maintenance.
“I know that the Highland Council is extremely strapped for cash, but the communities that are depending on ferries such as the Lochnevis for a lifeline shouldn’t be held hostage by the problems they have with the finances or the relationship they have with CalMac.”
Ms Dressler said that a Highland Council contractor was now on the case, but highlighted that islanders have also been troubled by cancellations during a period in which the local economy was seeking a final boost for the year from visitors.
She said: “The month of September was crucial to get a few visitors on the island and there have been cancellations left, right and centre because of bad weather, direction of wind and tidal conditions which have really created a lot hassle for customers on and off the island.”
Supplies to the shop on Eigg are delivered via Mallaig, where the Spar shop receives its orders while provisions for the island are sent to the CalMac office there. However, if there is a cancellation then the delivery has to be sent back to the supplier.
“We are not going to starve but what is annoying is that shop orders have had to be sent back to the supplier because they can’t be delivered,” said Camille.
Addressing the cancellations, she said: “We understand that CalMac won’t endanger any of its vessels — they are in such a precarious position as they don’t have any replacement. If anything happens to the Lochnevis they can’t replace it.”
Ms Dressler said her contact at the council was very pleasant and quick to respond to the islanders requests but added: “What worries me is that the council seems to want to encourage the community to complain to CalMac and it’s not our place to do that.
“It’s our job to make sure the schedule of maintenance is done and in a timely manner. No community complaint is going to change a master’s decision because that’s final.”
She added: “We are not sure on what basis the master’s decisions are based — there are factors that are obviously beyond our knowledge but they are not communicated to the community in any great detail.”
She said that CalMac representatives and members of the harbour authority appeared to have come to an agreement but added that it was “quite alarming” that Highland Council’s harbour authority had to taken so long to deal with what is a statutory obligation.
Community are not caught in the middle of debate, says councillor
Caol and Mallaig councillor Allan Henderson, who represents the Small Isles, has said that Eigg has not been caught in the middle of a debate between the local authority and CalMac and that decisions on pier repairs were down to the harbour master’s judgment.
Councillor Henderson (pictured) told the Free Press that the islanders understood the council’s efforts to make sure that the piers and harbours were in top condition but said that it has not been possible due to the logistics involved.
He said: “When a problem is identified and that will most likely be caused by a vessel berthing and putting strain on the fender, or whichever part it comes in contact with, the Highland Council need to instruct marine carpenters to fix.
“Invariably the repairer will have a schedule of work and also needs to find a weather window to venture out into the sound. I do not believe the Eigg problem was identified when the Muck work was completed.
“Even when the Eigg repair was identified the Highland Council harbour manager did not see it as an impediment to the CalMac vessel berthing, but still the repair company were once again given an instruction to mobilise and repair.”
He added: “This is not the community being caught in the middle of a Highland Council-CalMac debate but rather the master making his judgement call.
“While the council tries its best to have the piers and harbours in A1 condition, it is just not possible all the time with the logistics involved. I believe the islanders understand this.
“The council have also commissioned a bathymetric survey this year to help the masters navigate the safe channels in the Small Isles harbours.”