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Community / Relief for Fair Isle community after ferry funding pledge

Islanders have expressed their delight as a replacement Good Shepherd edges closer

The Good Shepherd. Photo: SIC

LOUD enough to make your ears ring, hard to access, sea-sickness inducing – a journey on the ageing Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd does not exactly come with a great reputation. 

But the remote island community now has a larger, more seaworthy ferry firmly in its sights after funding for the Good Shepherd’s replacement was awarded by the UK Government.

There has been plenty of reaction from local politicians and beyond about the £27 million pledge – but what about from the island itself?

One representative said a replacement ferry has 100 per cent backing among those on the island – although that is a community with a population of less than 50.

Fair Isle is located between the Shetland mainland and Orkney, and the council-run ferry takes around two and a half hours to travel to the isle from Grutness in the South Mainland.

The 12-passenger ferry is nearing the end of its life, and for nearly 40 years it has provided a notoriously bumpy ride through the infamous Sumburgh Roost.

She does not meet current accessibility standards – passengers get on the boat via a gangway, and accessing the seating area involves a climb down ladder through a hatch.

The lifeline link is also unreliable in poor weather, often cutting off supplies to islanders in the winter.

Neil Thomson.

Former skipper Neil Thomson said there has been a long-held wish from many for a ro-ro boat, where vehicles could drive off instead of being lifted by a crane as they are now.

He said the isle is “certainly needing a new boat”.

“We get folk phoning up and when they see that we don’t have a ro-ro service then they don’t come here,” Thomson said.

He said the current Good Shepherd was built in 1986, and she was just meant to be in service for 20 years.

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“2006 was her replacement supposedly, and now it’s going to be nearer 2026.”

He first worked on the Fair Isle boat in 1983, and finished up a couple of years ago having been skipper for more than a decade.

Thomson joked that the boat is “pre-ark technology – because Noah had a ramp” and called it a “glorified yoal” due to the way items have to be lifted on and off.

He added: “The politics [of the new ferry funding] I disagree with, but a new boat I certainly agree with.”

Local community association chairman David Parnaby said residents were full of “relief and happiness”, as well as gratitude towards those who worked on the funding bid.

“It should really be a big boost in terms of our transport network,” he said, which also includes flights from Tingwall Airport.

He said the boat link was “absolutely crucial” for most simple but important things like taking in sheep feed and transporting domestic rubbish away from the isle.

“It [the new boat] is also going to be nice for the crew as well. They endure some really rough crossings,” Parnaby said, adding that the ferrymen are always on hand to help any passengers suffering on board.

He did acknowledge though that the experience of a trip on the Good Shepherd hammers home the isolated nature of Fair Isle, an alluring and mystical characteristic for many; more so than the plane, which takes around 25 minutes.

Eileen Thomson, a daughter of ex-skipper Neil, said most local people tend to go into the Good Shepherd’s cabin, “lie down and don’t move for two and a half hours”.

Fair Isle.

“The Good Shepherd IV is a very ‘rolly’ boat, so even on good days the boat rolls and pitches an awful lot. I reckon I’ve only ever had one trip where I actually felt okay,” she said. It’s a shame we can’t change the Sumburgh Roost!

“The boat is also incredibly noisy, you can’t hear anyone speak and it makes your ears ring. It’s bad enough for a passenger but terrible for crew.

“The good points are you get very well looked after by the crew who are experienced, professional and dedicated, and if you can manage to stay on deck, you can see all sorts of wonderful wildlife – dolphins, porpoises, whales and plenty of birds too. 

“I believe the new boat would be quieter, a peerie bit quicker and will be less mobile in the waves so generally a more comfortable experience. And not to mention better for taking our essential cargo.”

Marie Bruhat, meanwhile, moved to Fair Isle in 2017, and the knitwear designer said a new ferry could have significant knock-in benefits for the island.

“Fair Isle as a place of unique interest for the UK,” she said.

“It’s also good to see the council progressing this and hopefully this is the first step for Fair Isle to get this much needed life link secured.

“Fair Isle’s other priorities, like population, housing and tourism are linked to transport and everything is co-dependent, which means the knock-on effect of getting a new ferry is much bigger than what one could think.”

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