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Fixed Links

Written by Tom Wills

March 25, 2021

This picture shows my view when I’m working up in Bluemull Sound: it’s less than a mile from the Ness of Cullivoe to the shore of Unst on the other side and I’ve often stood there thinking what the view would be like if Yell and Unst were already linked.

If I’m elected as Shetland’s MSP, I will take the case for investing in tunnels or bridges to the heart of government and use every opportunity to secure the funding we need. The environmental, economic and social arguments building fixed links between our main islands are clear to me: we need to get on with it.

Shetland’s location and geography make it one of the most beautiful places to live in the world, but it’s also a place with unique challenges when it comes to transport. Many islanders’ lives are governed by a ferry timetable and they can spend a significant chunk of their income on ferry fares. In winter, services can be delayed or cancelled. As a teenager in Bressay I confess I enjoyed having a day off school to wait for a gale to pass, but it is disruptive for Shetland workers and businesses. Building bridges and tunnels between our island communities would help sustain them: commuters and emergency service vehicles could travel at any time, new economic opportunities would be created and in the long run, there would be cost savings for the SIC.

Not so many decades ago, transport between the North Isles was limited to small flit boats and visits every few days by the Earl of Zetland. Economic growth was painfully slow: this was recognised by visionaries within Zetland County Council (as it was called then) and, following study trips to Norway in the 1960s, they decided to invest in an inter-island, roll-on, roll-off ferry system. This enabled island communities – and also the Shetland Mainland – to prosper and grow.

Until quite recently Shetland Islands Council (SIC) resisted any central government involvement in the running of this world-class but expensive system. Oil reserves helped cushion the financial hit of the service, but it became evident that the ferry service was no longer affordable for the island’s authority alone. The 2008 financial crisis and the austerity policies of the Westminster Government made extra funding difficult to secure, however under the SNP the amount of ferry funding received by the SIC has steadily increased and recent negotiations delivered full funding for the running costs of Shetland’s internal ferries.

We are, however, at a crossroads: an ageing fleet and ferry terminals mean major investments will be required in the coming years. The savings in ferry costs and fossil fuel use are obvious, but the capital sums involved are very large – bigger than our islands authority can bear by itself. As a community I think we need to engage with the Scottish Government as an equal partner, to decide which way to go and how these things can be funded. We need to look again (in full financial and technical detail) at tunnels and bridges as a spend-to-save measure for both the Scottish Government and Shetland Islands Council. This process should also include a proper consultation on the solutions local folk want to see – and a plan for replacing those good quality jobs on the inter-island ferries.

We need look no further than our northern neighbours in Faroe for how to connect an archipelago. They’re lucky, of course. They can core through basalt to create relatively economical, dry tunnels which are the envy of the world. Our geology is fascinatingly complicated, which is why Shetland is a UNESCO Global Geopark [1] – but it’s also why tunnels through the rocks underlying Bluemull, Yell Sound and the Whalsay sounds will likely be more expensive than the Faroese ones.

There’s another reason the Faroese succeeded, though: they decided to get on with it. They found a way to fund fixed links and they had the courage of their convictions to see it through.

At this critical time for the islands’ economy, Shetland needs a representative at Holyrood who will work hard and engage in constructive dialogue to find the best way forward. I’m committed to doing just that.

Yours for Shetland,


Ref 1 – Shetland UNESCO Global Geopark | Shetland Amenity Trust – see also this great map: 66491fdf75d6a7273c89c1c0f2c5ef67.png (2465×3543) (