CELEBRATING 20 YEARS OF OPERATION
It’s 20 years since Pentland Ferries first started its short sea crossing across the Pentland Firth from St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay to Gills Bay in Caithness. And as the Banks family – who own and run the business – celebrates this important anniversary, we reflect back on how the journey first started – and how far it has come.
When salmon prices declined in the 1990s, Andrew Banks decided to move away from the aquaculture business and launch a ferry service.
There was no public backing for the operation and the competition on the route was – and still is – subsidised by the government. Using private funds and limited manpower, Andrew’s first challenge was to create the infrastructure required at both St Margaret’s Hope and Gills Bay.
In 1998, with some knowledge from services run by his father and uncle in the 1970s, and an enormous amount of determination, Andrew secured the plant at auction and, with the help of only three other men, began the physical build of the breakwater and infrastructure for the link span at Gills Bay.
Four years on, a linkspan was installed at St Margaret’s Hope and another at Gills Bay.
The latter having been built in St Margaret’s Hope and transferred to Gills Bay on the MV Pentalina B (formerly the Caledonain MacBrayne ferry, Iona).
With terminals in place and the Pentalina B upgraded to the satisfaction of the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the service launched on 3 May 2001.
There had been years of manual work and financial hardship, but when the service was finally up and running, the popularity of the new venture soon became evident.
The first crossing attracted 12 passengers, five cars, and, on the return journey, the first of many commercial vehicles to take advantage of the new service. One month in and Andrew was confident that the business would be a success.
Crew at work onboard the Pentalina B.
The arrival of the MV Pentalina in 2009 was transformational for the business.
Pentland Ferries came into its own with passenger figures leaping up by 20% in the first year of service. The next two years also showed a significant increase of 17% and 13% respectively, steadying out at 8% in subsequent years. The service reached close to capacity at 150,000 passengers per year before the launch of the MV Alfred in 2019.
The build team and Banks family gathered at the Pentalina launch day.
Visit Scotland EXPO, Laura and Susan Banks, Kathryn Scollie, Louise Banks.
During this period of growth, the family was proud to see Andrew’s achievements recognised when he was awarded an OBE in 2014.
The MV Alfred came into service in November 2019.
Built by Strategic Marine at Vũng Tàu shipyard in Vietnam, the £15 million vessel is 30% bigger than the Pentalina, with space for 98 cars, 12 articulated trailers, and 450 passengers. The ship is not only very spacious, it’s more comfortable and, with two additional thrusters, handles better than its predecessor.
Notably, the MV Alfred is the most environmentally-friendly ferry to come to Scotland and already boasts an award from the Green Tourism programme, which recognises the commitment of tourism businesses to sustainability and is seen as a prestigious hallmark of environmentally sensitive practices and operation.
The MV Alfred is more than 60 per cent more efficient in terms of fuel consumption and emission levels than other comparable ferries operating in Scotland.
The ship’s design, LED lighting, and fuel efficiency all contributed to the bronze-level Green Award, as did the use of local food suppliers, wind turbine, and other waste reducing and recycling initiatives that the company encourages passengers to embrace onboard ship.
MV Alfred was named in honour of Andrew’s father, on whose wisdom the business is built.
Andrew said: “I tell my children what my father said to me: as long as there are people living in Orkney, they need a ferry service, and you’re holding the key. That key is Gills Bay. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, people want a short ferry crossing.”
He was right. In 20 years of operation, Pentland Ferries has carried millions of passengers and vehicles across the Pentland Firth.
While Andrew is at the helm, he is very ably supported by his wife, Susan, who heads up the financial management of the business, and daughter Kathryn, who is the designated person ashore and deputy company security officer. Meanwhile, daughter Jenni is currently on maternity leave from her role in the company and son David works shoreside, while his wife Louise assists with administration.
To mix metaphors, it has, by no means, been plain sailing for the Banks family.
Competing with a government-owned and subsidised service was never going to be easy. Pentland Ferries has weathered all sorts of storms, including legislative and legal wrangles, but there is an inherent streak of calm determination that runs through the generations that keeps the Pentland Ferries ship on a very steady course.
There is, without doubt, more to come from a family that quietly goes from strength to strength, whatever obstacles present themselves along the way.