The lifeline connection by sea from the north of mainland Scotland to Orkney and Shetland is the stuff of legend.
To the islanders, in fair weather and foul, the ships of NorthLink Ferries play a vital role in their day-to-day lives, maintaining their year-round supply. To visitors, the role is somewhat different, offering a voyage of discovery to a Scottish island group where a Scandinavian influence remains strong, especially in relation to local folklore, and both island chains have strong, although distinct, local cultures.
The company operates three passenger vessels; the Hjaltland and Hrossey sail daily on the Aberdeen to Lerwick in Shetland service, with frequent calls at Kirkwall in Orkney, while the Hamnavoe sails from Scrabster in Caithness to Stromness in Orkney. In addition, two freight ships are operated; the Hildasay and the Helliar.
This Stromness route is the oldest continuous service across the Pentland Firth, dating from 1856 when it started as a continuation of the railhead at Thurso. Today, the ships of NorthLink Ferries are still called the ‘North Boats’ by locals, a nod to The North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company, formed in 1875 from a merger of various Scottish shipping businesses, more usually known as “The North Company”.
In 1961, the North Co was taken over by Coast Lines, operator of coastal, short-sea and ferry services around most of the British Isles. Ten years later, Coast Lines was, itself, taken over by the P&O Group and, in November 1975, the services to the isles came under the banner of P&O Ferries (Orkney & Shetland Services). In P&O colours, the first ro-ro vessel in the fleet was delivered in September 1974. The St Ola entered service at Stromness in January 1975 and went on to faithfully serve the Scrabster route until 1992. A further rebranding occurred in 1989 with the name P&O Scottish Ferries being adopted.
The subsidised Northern Isles ferry services were put out to tender in 1999. A joint venture between Caledonian MacBrayne and RBS Group won the contract and began operation in October 2002 as NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries. A further tender in 2005 saw Caledonian MacBrayne, free from the RBS venture, named as the preferred bidder. Forming NorthLink Ferries Limited and adopting the branding and vessels of its predecessor, it began operating the Northern Isles ferry services on 6 July 2006 for a period of five years. In May 2012, Transport Scotland announced that international service company Serco was the preferred bidder, ending Caledonian MacBrayne’s 10 year involvement with northern isle’s ferry services. That contract is due to end later this year.
My appetite for sailing to the northern isles had been whetted as long ago as 1988 when I started writing the ferry column in Sea Breezes and was delighted to hear from the late noted historian Alastair McRobb with news of the ships from his part of the world. Alastair’s regular notes often contained news of vessel movements in heavy weather, but sailing at the end of last summer, there would be no foul weather for my first crossing and I was treated with perfect sea conditions to explore the fascinating coastline of the northern isles.
My first sighting of the Hamnavoe, that would take me from Scrabster to Stromness, was from Holborn Head above the ferry terminal. As I watched the ship make her way across the Pentland Firth, well known for some of the fastest tides to be seen in the world, I was struck by her external appearance; her clean white hull with eye-catching Viking Norseman Magnus, portrayed that this was indeed a well maintained ferry.
The Hamnavoe is largest and fastest vessel to ever serve on the Pentland Firth route at 8,940 gross tonnes, 112 metres long, and a maximum speed of 20.5 knots. The ship was built by Aker Finnyards in 2002, along with her larger fleetmates Hrossey and Hjaltland. Her name is derived from the Old Norse “hafnvagr” which means haven or harbour voe. It is also an old Norse name for the town of Stromness.
Touring the Hamnavoe with Captain Ivor Mackay, one could see she is designed with full comfort in mind for her 600 passengers, with well-appointed lounges, bars and dining facilities. There is the premium Magnus Lounge where passengers can avail of complimentary teas, coffees, soft drinks, nibbles, newspapers and, on morning sailings, a bacon roll! Surprisingly, for a crossing of just 90 minutes, some cabin accommodation is provided and is to a very high standard. Captain Mackay explained that passengers arriving at Stromness in the evening can book to spend the night on board the Hamnavoe before travelling on the morning sailing to Scrabster.
My first impression of a well maintained ship was confirmed on board; it was obvious that the Hamnavoe’s crew are very proud of their ship and nowhere was this more evident than in her engine room. Being led from the control room into the engine spaces, I was impressed to witness the 2nd Engineer collect a rag from a container by the watertight door. As we passed through, with rag in hand, rails were wiped as a matter of course. Touching and feeling surfaces; I have not seen this done for a very long time and the old practice, so simple in effect, demonstrated the level of care in this cleanest of engine rooms. And the engines themselves? Two 9 cylinder MAK Diesel units together providing a maximum of 8,680 kW.
Coming back up on deck, we were about to pass two of Orkney’s most spectacular landmarks. The Old Man of Hoy is one of the tallest sea stacks in Britain and St John’s Head which is one of the highest vertical sea cliffs in Britain. What a magnificent sight The Old Man of Hoy is, a 137m tall sea stack of red sandstone perched on a plinth of igneous basalt on the west coast of Hoy. Nearby, St John’s Head is one of the highest vertical sea cliffs in Britain which rises to a sheer 352m above a rocky beach. The horizontal beds of sandstone at St John’s Head have weathered to give dramatic vertical red and yellow cliffs, which are especially vibrant with a low evening sun.
After rounding St John’s Head, we were passing through Hoy Sound, north of the island of Hoy and to the south of Mainland Orkney. To the east is the natural harbour of Scapa Flow, sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy. Its waters have been used by ships since prehistory and it has played an important role in travel, trade and conflict throughout the centuries - especially during both World Wars.