Page last updated at 10:58 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 11:58 UK

Storms rage over Sunday sailings

Loch Portain
The Loch Portain runs on the North Uist to Harris service

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

The plan to launch a Sunday ferry service from the Scottish mainland direct to Lewis and Harris has sparked petitions, legal argument and a resignation.

Those opposed to the proposal have been worried that it will bring an end to a way of life on the Western Isles.

Supporters of the move hope it will make travel to and from the islands easier and encourage more tourism and new business opportunities.

They will be celebrating the news that ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne has given the green light to the sailings, starting this Sunday.

The row has been running for years, with more than its fair share of twists.

Opponents suffered a blow in 2006 when a Sunday service started from North Uist across the Sound of Harris from Berneray, an island linked by a causeway to the island, and Leverburgh on Harris.

Put simply, it would be unlawful to have a ferry running but deny access to, for example, a Jew or Catholic or for that matter an atheist
Gordon Jackson QC

The ferry, the Loch Portain, made its first sailing in April of that year after being requested by North Uist residents.

But some people living on South Harris argued that Sunday must be strictly observed as a day of rest. Some left marks of their disapproval at the quayside.

Yellow tape bearing the words "Caution Keep Out" was tied across the ferry slipway and several posters bearing the words "remember the Sabbath day" were posted on surrounding signs and buildings.

The following year, CalMac said it was considering sailing directly to Lewis and Harris on a Sunday.

The company said it had received "a number" of requests for seven-day sailings to Stornoway and would hold discussions with the council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Ferry prices

However, last March the ferry operator announced that it would not embark on the sailings in the immediate future.

Its board discussed the issue, but postponed taking any decision until the details of a road equivalent tariff (RET) pilot had been agreed.

The Scottish Government is now running a trial of RET on routes to the Western Isles.

The pilot links ferry prices to the cost of travelling the same distance by road.

Meanwhile, rival petitions were drawing support to campaigns for and against the service.

Equality act

The dispute stepped up a gear in May this year when CalMac said it had been approached by the Equality and Human Rights Commission following a complaint which suggested it was operating in breach of the Equality Act 2006.

The company then received legal advice from a QC who said it would be unlawful to refuse to run a service because of the religious views of just part of a community.

June saw a senior councillor quit his post over the row.

Donald John Macsween, vice-chairman of transportation, said he could not support Comhairle nan Eilean Siar's policy of opposing seven-day sailings.

Mr Macsween, a member for the Point ward, has openly campaigned for Sunday sailings over the last nine years.

'Human rights'

Later that same month, Sabbatarians on Lewis said they had been given legal opinion which dismissed CalMac's view that it was obliged by law to sail on Sundays.

The Lord's Day Observance Society consulted Gordon Jackson QC and called on the ferry company to back down from "destroying" the traditional Sabbath.

They said that Mr Jackson's view was that a six-day timetable did not erode an individual's human rights unless access to a ferry was denied on religious grounds.

Mr Jackson said: "If a service is being provided, for example a ferry is running on a particular date, it would be unlawful to deny that service to any person because of their religious belief or lack of it.

"Put simply, it would be unlawful to have a ferry running but deny access to, for example, a Jew or Catholic or for that matter an atheist."

The council has said it will ask the Scottish Government to intervene and overturn the decision by state-owned CalMac.

So it waits to be seen whether the saga has any more twists in store.

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