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August 3, 2010

Vital transport link at risk

The Isle of Jura is renowned for its whiskey, its remote beauty and as George Orwell’s hideaway where he wrote 1984. It is also, as Orwell himself described it, one of the most un-get-at-able places in the country – until two years ago, visitors could only reach it by two ferries via Islay. Recognising that a direct link with the mainland was vital to their island’s future, the community launched a new ferry service.  Now the ferry and the island’s economic recovery is under threat

It is the hideaway which George Orwell famously described as “an extremely un-get-at-able place” and where he wrote his acclaimed novel 1984.

Now it appears Orwell’s statement about Jura will ring even truer as its direct ferry to the mainland is under serious threat.

Although the Prime Minister likes to take his holidays on the island – where 210 people live today – a lack of other visitors means that unless £12,500 can be found soon, the first direct ferry service to the mainland in almost 40 years will have to cease in the middle of next month – six weeks before the end of a three-year pilot.

If that happens nobody knows whether the ferry, which runs from the beginning of April to the end of September, will ever start again.

The fast passenger route was launched by a community company in 2008 with grant aid from Argyll and Bute Council.

For the first time islanders and tourists could get to Lochgilphead in an hour, compared to a journey three times as long going via the neighbouring island of Islay to catch the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Kennacraig from Port Ellen or Port Askaig.

But the islanders based their figures on a projection that on average seven of the 12 passenger places would be taken on fast crossing between the island’s main settlement of Craighouse and Tayvallich, five miles from Crinan.

These proved rather optimistic and only five and a half seats were taken on the average trip.

Deborah Bryce, community plan co-ordinator with the Jura Development Trust, said the direct ferry was vitally important to the island.

“It has carried over 6000 passengers since it began in 2008 and generated around £30,000 per annum to the local community supporting and helping to sustain local businesses,” she said.

“If we lost the ferry we would not be going back to where we started, but further back. Since the ferry began we have a new award-winning restaurant, The Antlers, a privately owned hotel and more visitor accommodation. The community have now lost their sense of isolation and look forward to what and who the ferry brings.”

She said the trust would be contacting the council to ask for help funding the shortfall so the service can finish its trial. “We now have accurate figures that indicate the ferry needs 55 to 60% subsidy, which I understand is less than the average subsidy given to most transport services in Argyll, but would certainly make it viable,” she added.

A council spokeswoman said any request would be considered but added: “The Jura Passenger Ferry has been allocated £27,457 for 2010/11, made up of £24,196 allocated two years ago and an extra £3261 allocated in March.

“Due to budgetary constraints, the council was unable to award the full £5624 requested by the Jura Development Trust in March.

“The other eight community transport projects also only received a proportion of the funding they had asked. They were all informed of the funding which had been allocated to them at the time. So it was known from the start of this year’s season that the Jura Passenger Ferry would have a shortfall, which it was hoped could be made up by increased fares, increased patronage on the ferry or the trust receiving funding from elsewhere.”

David Cameron is a fan of Jura having had holidays on the Tarbert Estate owned by wife Samantha’s stepfather Viscount Astor. But direct access has been a problem ever since 1972, the last time a MacBrayne’s ferry provided a service to the mainland.

For decades there was debate over a ferry crossing between Jura and Argyll that Islay drovers used to get cattle to market 200 years ago. Many feared it would turn Jura into a busy thoroughfare for its more populous neighbour.