Stornoway has exclusively been a destination for smaller vessels, but that’s set to change. A new deepwater port will open for 2024. However, concern remains that the island won’t cope with such an influx. Calum Brown investigates.
Facing into Stornoway’s trademark seaspray atop the cusp of a bracken-strewn viewpoint, grasses tumbling down to expose crashing waves over baron rocks, it’s hard to ignore the beauty of Scotland’s Hebridean settlement.
There’s more than atmospheric solace on offer, too.
The Hebridean capital provides some of Scotland’s finest culture and wildlife, not to mention a wide array of national cuisine and awe-inspiring heritage. As a proud community that revels in celebrating patrimony and keeping pace with modern demands, Stornoway successfully offers paradise on earth.
The cruise industry knows of Stornoway’s pleasing mantra more than most; Cunard refers to the area as a “place of harmony and diversity”, whereas P&O Cruises proudly calls Scotland’s Outer Hebrides an “area renowned for its unspoilt natural beauty”.
Yet, there’s been a big problem for cruise lines wishing to offer larger-scale voyages through the self-proclaimed ‘gateway to Scotland’. As Alex MacLeod, CEO of Stornoway Port Authority, says: “[Cruise] ships pass by but cannot currently come in. They can only drop anchor off the coast.”
The island’s unique cuisine and bespoke attractions have long been unreachable for larger vessels that breach the city’s limited accommodation for shipping. That is, until now, as there’s a big change coming for the 2024 season.
Realising Stornoway’s potential
The unprecedented requirement for a deepwater facility has enticed Stornoway Port Authority into action. After rounds of funding and planning, efforts have been underway to develop Scotland’s only north west port capable of welcoming the big guns. The cost? A casual £49m.
According to documents from December 2020, the funding package promised £10m from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, £37.5m from the local council and £1.5m from the Stornoway Port Authority.
The Scottish government also offered extra support if targets were met, although there are claims this help barely materialised.
However, regardless of political strife behind the scenes, construction has ultimately pushed forward.
The new facility, which is due for completion in November, will be capable of accommodating cruise vessels up to 360 meters in length, with a water depth of 10 meters below Chart Datum to overrule the tidal basin during low tides.
The deepwater port’s impressive berthing potential will therefore facilitate the likes of Cunard’s QM2 and Queen Victoria. However, the greatest leviathans – such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships – remain too vast to dock.
Besides enabling the Hebridean islands to realise their full potential as basecamp, the new port will provide a portal for exploring areas previously exclusive to expedition ships and smaller groups of passengers.
“Without the deepwater terminal, we were never going to facilitate bigger numbers”, MacLeod explains to Cruise Trade News.
“There’s been demand and a long-held need for the cruise industry to have a west coast base. They can’t do certain routes overnight without Stornoway. We are positioned in the right place for the cruise industry and we have a product to sell – the Hebrides.”
He’s not wrong.
The Hebridean Islands are hugely popular with tourists and cruise enthusiasts. Visitor numbers to Scotland’s west coast continue to increase following the rude interruption of the pandemic, with more than 100 vessels booked for the April-September 2023 season.
Tens of thousands of visitors are due to venture forth into Stornoway – stepping from the deck into Hebridean paradise.
John Swinney, Scotland’s former deputy first minister, previously described the project as a “game-changer” for the islands, with ambitions to grow further industries around Scotland’s cruise sector – including clean energy generation and a new platform area for industrial use.
Yet, arguably, the greatest impact of the new port undoubtedly falls on the local economy. The subsequent cruise seasons will bring a significant boost for many businesses in the islands as they continue to recover from the socioeconomic and geopolitical challenges faced in recent years.
A mammoth effort
The project has been a huge undertaking. While the terminal has claimed the media spotlight, there’s been a herculean amount of work revolving around what lies beneath. In particular, salvaging two age-old shipwrecks that would otherwise pose a hazard to incoming cruises.
The largest wreck, located near the port’s navigation channel, was SS Portugal, a coal hulk which transcended from view following an escape from its mooring in 1953. The second culprit – cargo ship SS Alabama – ran aground after dragging her anchor during a storm in 1904.
Although SS Portugal appeared broken up when examined in 1976, the remains lurked within Stornoway’s main access channel. Contractors McLaughlin & Harvey removed the coal hulk, whereas the wreck of SS Alabama was reduced in height. And that was only the starting point.
By the time of completion, almost 500,000 cubic meters of material will have been removed from the seabed, complemented by thousands of hours’ worth of dredging, blasting and reclamation works.
“People are excited. As construction progresses, people can visualise the new port”, a spokesperson for Stornoway Port Authority said. Such an attitude certainly captures the increasing sense of communal anticipation.
Speaking with local businesses, several hopes rest on the new port’s success.
A distributor of Harris Tweed says: “More tourists not only means more inventory and sales, but also a halo effect where the whole of Harris & Lewis benefits. The cruise industry will provide more than a side hustle for the island. It’s a new safety net for businesses in the area.”
Can Stornoway cope?
However, others feel differently. Voices have cut through the ether to challenge all this progress.
Genuine concerns have emerged over the influx of visitors to Stornoway and the port city’s ability to cope. Questions have also been raised over infrastructure, the swamping of local businesses and damage to the environment.
After all, Stornoway boasts of the finest and emptiest beaches. How long could those untouched outriggers last before human influence corrupts?
According to claims from local businesses, if the proposed influx of people materialises, there’s an apparent danger the city could become swamped beyond capacity and inflict damage upon the local infrastructure.
However, MacLeod counters this view. “We have told local residents and business owners that there is nothing to be afraid of. Not all those predicted numbers will be coming in a single day.
“We have been successful with large P&O Cruises [ships] in the past and coped with big numbers before. It’s a chance to showcase the Gaelic heartland and visitors need to be able to experience the Hebridean charms on offer. Stornoway can cope. The opportunities are incredible.”
The Stornoway Port Authority has also carried out a detailed assessment of the project’s potential environmental impact.
Working alongside local authorities and tourism bodies, it has addressed areas where adjustments have been required to facilitate visitor numbers. That includes working with Envirocente to ensure minimal impact on the natural marine environment.
This sort of planning has been envisioned from the project’s conception. Delving into the Environmental Impact Assessment Report of 2020, although a number of significant landscape, visual and cumulative effects are predicted during the port’s operational life, these are relatively localised in extent.
New roads, cycle routes and pathways have been installed to channel visitors towards the area’s landmark attractions – Lews Castle, Museum Nan Eilean and the historic fishing harbour – preventing clutter on the roads.
Fresh bus routes will also be put into operation, helping to regulate the influx of visitors and prevent a mass stampede of culture-hungry crowds.
Stornoway’s new port has already been inundated with booking requests from the likes of Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Ambassador Cruise Line for 2024.
The opportunity to venture forth through Scotland’s Hebridean Portal has turned heads and found scores of holidaymakers throwing their money at cruise providers.
The first arrival at the new port will be 1 April 2024. That may be April Fool’s Day to most, but the date also rings in a new chapter for the Hebridean economy. The scene from the bracken-strewn viewpoint is going to look slightly different in the near future.