A Brief History
Prior to the early 1970's Passengers and goods had been carried by a mixture of methods:
- For years, the mainstay of the Shetland internal services had been run by the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company, using the Earl of Zetland, which had been subsidised by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.
- The Overland route from Lerwick to the North Isles which consisted of three different coach operators and two different boat operators had been started just before the start of WWII, and then grew to rival the Earl.
- Private Charters
- Local fishing boats.
with the Earl was that she was quite a large ship and therefore
could not reach some of the piers of the communities that she was
serving, such as Symbister, Skerries and Fetlar. This necessitated
using flit boats rowed by members of the local community. Each community
had its dedicated flitboat skipper and crew. The schedule consisted
of three trips per week (weather permitting) to Yell, Unst and Whalsay
and once a week to Skerries and Fetlar. Goods would be handled many
times between their despatch and arrival destinations, and sometimes
goods arrived damaged. This was clearly expensive, inefficient and
The overland route provided more crossings in sheltered waters and the fares were more stable, and even with the operators only using small boats it was proving popular with passengers. Of course only goods such as passengers and their luggage and motorcycles could be carried this way. The Earl on the other hand often had to cancel sailings due to winter storms and the inability to operate the flit boats.
This state of affairs was clearly unsatisfactory and in 1960 a report by Mr MacGillivray, Managing Director of Prince Line, on behalf of Zetland County Council as it was then known, concluded that a Vehicle Ferry System would be needed. Further more he concluded that the Earl had only ten years of useful life left in her.
A visit to Norway by an Advisory Panel of the Highlands and Islands in 1961 observed a system similar to what would be needed. Mr K H Oppegård of Møre and Romsdal Fylke visited Shetland and made a report on behalf of Zetland County Council on what would be needed. From what they had seen in Norway they believed the introduction of vehicle ferries could do more to offset the disadvantages of life in the Outer Isles than any other single amenity that was ever likely to be provided.
Initially five new ferries were ordered of a type very similar to ones being used in Norway such as the Rovdehorn, which made a trial visit using temporary link spans. These vessels ordered were named Fivla, Geira, Grima, Fylga, and Thora. Also a large pier and link span building program had to be started.
On the First of May 1975 under local government reorganisation the old Zetland County Council merged with Lerwick Town Council to became the new Shetland Islands Council. Ferries were operated by the Roads Department from the old offices on the upper floor at Grantfield with some roadmen (mostly Merchant Navy Seamen) acting as relief ferrymen.
As had been the case in Norway, the new ferries proved immensely popular and usage increased rapidly.
It soon became apparent that the earlier type of ferry was proving inadequate on the busier routes and this necessitated a further round of shipbuilding. The 30 November 1982 saw the Hendra enter service. On her entry into service the First Fivla was sold.
On the 22 April 1985 the New Fivla entered service. Consequently the First Geira was sold a year later
On the 2 July 1988 the new Geira entered service.
On 19 April 1991 the Bigga entered service, being the first true thee lane Ferry to be owned by Shetland Islands Council.
The Leirna entered service on 14 November 1992 on the Bressay route to replace the Grima. This was also the year when Ferry Operations were taken over by the Marine Operations Department of the Shetland Islands Council and moved from the old Grantfield Offices to the Port Administration Building at Sella Ness.
Fair Isle has been served by four vessels by the name of Good Shepherd. Like Foula, this vessel has to be taken out of the water on a cradle for safety from the sea which sets into the North Haven. The crossing between Fair Isle and Shetland Mainland is a very dangerous twenty four miles of fast flowing tidal water which requires to be navigated with exceptional local knowledge of the tide.
On the 24 May 1986 the specially built vessel Good Shepherd IV entered service. She is a small cargo ship based on the design of an 18m LOA trawler.
The older Good Shepherd III which this vessel replaced and which had been taken over by the council was renamed Koada and used principally on the Papa Stour service until her replacement in April 2004 by the newly refitted Filla, now renamed the Snolda.
The twenty first century saw the introduction of newer ferries to replace the original ferries now approaching thirty years old or more. The first was the Linga, which entered service on the Whalsay route in May 2002, to replace the Thora, which was utilised as a reserve vessel together with the Grima
The First Filla was replaced by the New Filla in May 2004 being like a larger version of the former vessel, but with a EU Passenger Certificate to allow the carriage of 30 passengers. A feature of the new Filla is the ability to supply the Skerries with water in times of drought.
The Island of Foula had long had a problem, as the Harbour is only large enough for use by a small boat which must be lifted out the water, yet the boat also needs to be seaworthy enough to carry all the Island's goods and passengers across sixteen miles of open Atlantic Ocean to the Shetland mainland. One of the earliest vessels to be based there was the Advance, which was propelled by sail and oars. Today the original Advance is turned upside down and acts as a roof on a garage at the cottage known as the Knowes next to the Widows Houses at the South end of Lerwick.
The Island Lass was built around 1950 to replace her. This vessel was owned by the Islanders, but unfortunately she was lost. Two boats called Westering Homewards, the first being a converted RNLI lifeboat, undertook this role until a new Westering Homewards was built, but this vessel was withdrawn from service. In the meantime the Koada was used as a stopgap, but the Koada could not remain during the winters because the Harbour is unsafe during bad weather. A much better vessel based on a Cygnus hull was fitted out by Richardson's Boatyard at Stromness Orkney and named New Advance. She entered service on 12 November 1996. She is capable of being lifted out of the water in Foula and can carry up to twelve passengers and cargo.
By the year 2000 it had become apparent once again that with increasing use of the ferries and changing work patterns of the inhabitants of the North Isles, many of whom had jobs on the Mainland, newer larger ferries would be needed on the Yell Sound Service. Consequently two new ferries were ordered from the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland, which had also built the Linga and New Filla for the Shetland Islands Council. Daggri was delivered in June 2004, and Dagalien a couple of months later.
Consequently two more ferries were sold; Grima and Fylga, leaving Thora as the last surviving ferry of the original five.
On 20 November 2006 Atlantic Ferries took over the operation of the Foula Ferry service, using the New Advance on a lease contract.
For details of all the current ferries please see the Shetland Islands Council Ferries website.
A full version of this "Brief History" in 29 pages from 1868 to the present containing 38 B/W and colour Photos and three General Arrangements is available from the Technical Library, Ferry Services, Sella Ness, Shetland. ZE2 9QR. The cost is £8.60 including postage.