wilson brian 3Say it quickly in the verbiage of government and it might not sound a lot but £100 million should actually go a long way in devolved Scotland.

Hundreds of classroom assistants … relief for councils facing another agonising round of cuts … a bit of pressure off NHS staff …. something left over for island communities…

The possibilities are endless.  So it becomes truly staggering that £100 million – and probably much more – is the excess cost of building two ferries which currently sit as rusting hulks in Port Glasgow. That’s £100 million for absolutely zilch.

This week, Holyrood’s Rural Affairs and Connectivity Committee began an inquiry into the phantom ferries.  With respect, it is ill-equipped for the task, which requires forensic skills and the authority to call every relevant witness and summon all internal Scottish Government communications.

The history confirms that these witnesses should include Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay, along with Jim McColl.  It is crystal clear this has not just been a shipbuilding fiasco but a political stunt at every stage, without regard to cost or implications for ferry-dependent communities.

Billionaire Jim McColl, two Calmac ferries in Argyll and Derek Mackay, who could well be the next First Minister.

The SNP’s defence is that they “saved” Ferguson’s (having allowed it to go into administration) by awarding the CalMac contract. Anyone who questions that masterplan  would have condemned Ferguson’s to extinction and can be dismissed as anti-Scottish naysayers – the line abrasively peddled by Mackay when he published a “turnaround director’s” report which passed every buck to McColl and Ferguson’s management.

However, the truth is that governments of all hues repeatedly “saved” Ferguson’s for decades (without it entering administration).   What none of them did was squander £100 million by orchestrating a contract which the yard was physically incapable of fulfilling.

Any doubt about this reality was laid to rest at the opening session when the GMB union convener at Ferguson’s, Alex Logan, explained the impossibility of building the vessels – currently known as Hulls 801 and 802 – side-by-side as attempted.

Mr Logan also pointed out that – five years on –  there is still no finalised design which meant it was like “building a jigsaw when you’ve got missing parts. You’re never going to complete it”.  The two Hulls were supposed to be sailing by 2018.

The critical question is how on earth the contract was awarded by the Scottish government quango CMAL in these circumstances. In spite of its appalling record of botched projects, CMAL seems untouchable – perhaps because it knows too much about where the real orders came from. That is why politicians should be called to account as star witnesses.

According to McColl, he was “begged” by SNP ministers to take over Ferguson’s in 2014, when he was a prized pro-independence performer (albeit from the safe distance of Monte Carlo).

On September 5th, McColl delivered the required script: “I have no doubts about making such an acquisition in a Scotland that could soon be independent”.   Salmond drooled in return about “one of Scotland’s greatest job creators” and thanked the administrators for “the speed at which they have moved” to complete the merry deal.  Raised hard-hats  and photo-ops all round.

The next requirement was the CalMac contract and the ruse was to claim the ferries were so novel in dual-fuel design that they fell outside EU procurement rules.  Even this is now disputed by CMAL (who ordered them) but say “building LNG ferries is commonplace in Europe” in order to further pin further ignominy on Ferguson’s.

In 2015, it was Sturgeon’s turn to don the hard-hat amidst cheering workers. By 2019, it had passed to Mackay once the rift with McColl was complete and the yard acquired by the Scottish Government – without a clue what it will do next if and when the ferries are completed.

The final irony will be if the hated Brexit creates conditions in which contracts can be awarded at will by Ministers. Even then, it might be prudent to design the vessels first and send somebody round to check if the yard can build them, as well as set up the photo opportunity.

After all, £100 million and counting will still be a lot of money.


There is only one criticism of the decision by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to make Gaelic the default language in primaries one to three – it should have happened 45 years ago when the islands authority was established.

No language can survive without a home. Anyone who opposes actions which recognise the challenges faced by a minority language is, however honeyed or harsh their words, effectively advocating extinction.

There is no danger of any child growing up without competence in English because they are taught through the medium of Gaelic. And, of course, parents can opt out if they don’t fancy it for their child.

I challenge anyone to produce evidence that children with Gaelic competence are disadvantaged in education or life. That exists only as a prejudice. There is, however, abundant evidence of enhanced performance through bilingualism.

Some say “why not offer Italian or Mandarin”?  I agree. Scotland has an abysmal record on language teaching. Immersing children in a second language during early primary years need not be restricted to Gaelic. Responding to that demand, where it exists, would be a positive, creative approach – rather than nasty, negative sniping.

I wrote last week about the limited point of Gaelic’s “official status”.  But this is at the other end of that spectrum – a practical attempt to maintain continuity in places where Gaelic is a living language, but still an imperilled one.

As for the Tory education lady who said silly things, she should check her own party’s record over recent decades on pro-Gaelic initiatives. From the days of George Younger, they have been positive and respected. She should not break the consensus in pursuit of cheap applause.



  1. Interesting views from an ex Labour Minister with views more right wing than Jacob Rees Mogg.

    Maybe Mr Wilson is right. Maybe the SNP should have just let Ferguson’s and the 400 local jobs it supported, plus that of the wider economy, go down the pan.

    What’s a hundred million among friends asks Brian. Well it’s a thousandths of the hundred thousand million being spent down south on HS2.

    Yes that’s right, HS2 now forecast at £100,000,000,000. Not bad work for the boys in the south. Not bad at all considering it started at fifty eight thousand million and has now nearly doubled.

    Or what about London’s Cross Rail Brian. Wee bit of a couple of years delay and cost over run with the price increasing from around 14 billion to now over 18 billion. But what’s the odd four thousand billion among friends Brian.

    Be good if your columns could maybe address big issues like this or has the cat got your tongue Brian.

    And if I may dare say it, your commentary and views being reflected here maybe reflects exactly why your Labour Party got one seat in Scotland at the last General Election.

Leave a Reply