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Transport / Pentland Ferries has had ‘very tentative discussions’ on Shetland link

There ‘may be options in the future’ for other vessels using a revamped Grutness pier

Pentland Ferries' former main passenger ferry the Pentalina. It was replaced by the MV Alfred.

ORKNEY’s Pentland Ferries says it has had “very tentative discussions with various parties” about a service to Shetland.

But a spokesperson told Shetland News that it has not approached Shetland Islands Council (SIC) about potentially using a revamped Grutness pier in the South Mainland for a new service.

SIC development director Neil Grant told a meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council on Wednesday that an Orkney operator had enquired about potentially using the facilities.

It is understood the company in question is Gill’s Harbour, which is Caithness based but is where Pentland Ferries arrives into the mainland.

Back in 2017 Gill’s Harbour chairman Bill Mowat expressed his support for a ferry from Caithness to Shetland – run by Pentland – as he felt it would be beneficial to tourism and commerce.

John O’Groats Ferries, which operates a passenger-only service between Caithness and Orkney, said it has not had contact with the SIC.

Grant mentioned how the Grutness pier – which is set to be revamped in the coming years to cater for a new ro-ro Fair Isle ferry – may, potentially, support other vessels in the future.

The SIC was awarded £27 million from the UK Government earlier this year for a new ferry and harbour works at Grutness and Fair Isle itself.

Shetland South councillor Alex Armitage said at Wednesday’s meeting: “One constituent in the south end previously raised the question of future links to Shetland and suggested a fast service between Grutness and Orkney or Caithness.

“I know this funding is specifically with the Fair Isle connection in mind but what options would the Grutness pier that’s being proposed for the Fair Isle crossing potentially be able to support a larger vessel?”

Grant responded: “In terms of the bid that we put forward that was accepted by the Department for Transport, there was already quite a lot of detail in there.

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“The design of the pier at Grutness and indeed the infrastructure at Fair Isle, whilst it’s going through detailed design at the moment, the overall structures are pretty much tied down.

The Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd at Grutness. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

“If it can be used in the future, if other users can use it – that’s I guess something that needs to be considered.”

Grant reiterated that the main purpose of the facilities will be provide a ferry service to and from Fair Isle.

However, he said had already been in contact with an “Orkney operator” on this.

“The answer I gave them was that this is a very specific project and it’s being provided funding for specific specifications,” Grant said.

“There may be options in the future for the use of the infrastructure for possibly other ferries, possibly fishing vessels. I’ve also spoken with some people in that respect as well.”

Pentland Ferries runs services between Orkney and the Scottish mainland.

While the spokesperson said it was not Pentland who had contact with the council, they said the company is “always open to new opportunities”.

A ferry link between Shetland and Caithness on the Scottish mainland has previously been mooted over the years but has never come to fruition.

It had been estimated that a trip between Caithness to Shetland could take up to six and a half hours.

Meanwhile the timescales around using UK Government funding to pay for a new Fair Isle ferry are “incredibly tight” – with the council looking at ways of speeding up procurement.

A report presented to a meeting of the full council on Wednesday warned that the funding window closes on 31 March 2026.

And the remaining life of the existing Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd IV, without significant investment, is four years.

The report highlights a number of risks, from weather delays to price increases and material shortages.

Allison ‘Flea’ Duncan. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Delays in the project could lead to potential additional costs to maintain the vessel, or result in the “failure of the ferry service to Fair Isle”.

This led to Shetland South councillor Allison Duncan calling for an extension of the deadline and talks with MP Alistair Carmichael.

Meanwhile Lerwick North and Bressay member Stephen Leask said he did not want the project to become the council’s “HS2” – referring to the UK Government’s much-delayed high speed rail line through England.

The current project timescales indicate that an invitation to tender for civil infrastructure construction works would be required to be issued by September to meet the project programme.

Planning permission has now been approved to revamp the harbour facilities at Grutness to allow a new ro-ro ferry to berth.

Plans for similar work in Fair Isle remain under consideration.

The council is also hosting market engagement events in Lerwick and Edinburgh to understand appetite from contractors regarding the harbour works.

The project team is also exploring alternative procurement routes for the infrastructure construction elements to “de-risk” the timescales associated with detailed design and procurement of construction contractors.

Meanwhile the council is currently recruiting for an engineer and deckhand for the Good Shepherd.

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