This article was published as part of our Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

THINGS change, that is a constant of life. In 1944, my grandmother, I know, was washing the household clothes in the river, and likely for many years after. By the time she died in 1983, she had an automatic washing machine having passed through and discarded the “twin tub” – a decidedly non-automatic and frequently-breaking-down type of washing machine.

At the moment, in most of our islands, we are at the “twin tub” stage of transportation – namely, the roll-on, roll-off ferry. We have passed the lifting of cars into the cargo deck with slings, but we are not yet at a seamless automatic flow of vehicles – and people too, of course. And despite faster ferries carrying more vehicles, more people, on more routes, at cheaper real-terms prices, than ever before, just like the twin-tub washing machine, we know there is a better way. This is particularly, acutely true in Uist, with one ferry recently having a sprinkler system issue while the other hit a pier, taking them both out of service – twin tubs would be a pun too far!

A better system is needed urgently. Imagine if you will, or do not bother imagining. Let us take a look at what is happening in the Faroe Islands – islands further north and almost further west than anything we have in Scotland. No, I am not wanting to concentrate on their almost completed 5G telephone network, well ahead of the UK, on a topography worse than Scotland’s Highlands, or population that has grown 10% in a decade. But the four Faroese, kilometres-long, under-sea tunnels (ignore their legion of land tunnels), that would end the perennial Rest-And-Be-Thankful issue very quickly.

Two of these tunnels – which replaced ferries – were completed before 2007 when I first visited. The third, the Eysturoy Tunnel, was opened in December 2020, with a roundabout 70m under the North Atlantic, where three roads in sub-tunnels meet. The combined tunnelling length is 11km. The cost was a billion DKK – or £10.2 million per km. This tunnel was less than half the price of the CMAL ferry hulks on the Clyde. Tunnels, clearly, are do-able and sensible to build in Scotland too.

The fourth tunnel is to the 1200 population on the island of Sandoy. I hesitate to say final tunnel, because the Faroese are building a fifth to Sudroy – which, as the name suggests, is their most southerly island. This will make the other four almost look like small rabbit holes when it opens later this year.

The Sandoy tunnel is 10.8km in length. Digging was started on each end of the tunnel on June 27, 2019, both ends have now met, and it is expected to be opened for traffic before the end of this year. This tunnel also has thus been faster in construction than the ferry hulks at Ferguson’s on the Clyde – oh, and again, cheaper too! An obvious critical point is that no tunnels will need to be built in later decades to replace these tunnels, as is the case with Scotland’s ferry-go-round.

It is expected that the Sandoy tunnel will carry 300-400 cars a day, which is double the current ferry traffic. It is easy to see why it will be double, as the journey times will obviously be faster, with no check-in times (which has been the CalMac mantra since the advent of faster ferries, thus leaving journey times much unchanged), and, crucially, a tunnel can be seen as a ferry that sails every second of the day, while a ferry is like a tunnel that opens once or twice a day and after much palaver lets people pass at very slow speeds.

So why don’t we do in Scotland what the sensible Faroese do? Well, despite having a hundred times larger population in Scotland, we do not have the levers of self-government and allied apparent self-confidence that the Faroese have – but I would argue those issues are not insurmountable on this. We can, like the Faroese have done, use international investors to bridge gaps. The Sovereign Wealth Fund of Abu Dhabi, “Mubadala”, is open to conversations, and there will be others. We should also bring our contract models of public procurement in line with Nordic models and risk-share more between client and contractor, which should make construction costs cheaper than we normally achieve.

Meantime, Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart this week said a network of tunnels is being “seriously thought about”.

The Scottish Government is also looking at the possibility of tunnels to the island of Mull, and also on the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra. Despite being the MP for only two of these prospective tunnels, I cannot decide which one I would want first – all have good arguments in their favour. A tunnel to Mull would, at a stroke, save the Scottish Government the need for three ferries! A tunnel across the Sound of Harris is needed as the Sound is not safely navigable at night or at lower spring tides, according to the Maritime Coastguard Agency, thus obviously has capacity and bottle neck issues. On a social argument, the Sound of Barra wins out, and like a Harris tunnel, makes the more Hebridean chain traversable in a day. In Shetland and Orkney there is also gentle interest.

In many ways, it does not matter where the first is built, because the biggest barrier is not in technical know-how or finance – it is in people believing all this is possible. So once the first community benefits from a tunnel are seen, the clamour for tunnels will take on a life of its own.

There are some voices who worry that ferry replacement tunnels will ruin the character of an island or islands. This is an understandable reaction and I have heard it before when it came to linking islands large and small with bridges and causeways.

However, there are no voices anywhere to get rid of these bridges and causeways – their advantages are obvious to all. Similarly in the Faroes, there are no voices to get rid of tunnels. In fact, people all seem agreed on more connectivity at the moment regarding ferries, with no one shouting that fewer ferries would maintain our “island character”. Like the washing machines, when the automatic is used, no one washes clothes in a river or twin tub again, no matter the “quaintness” or the “character” – utility wins out. So bring on the tunnels.