Terry Marsh
ma | phd | frgs | FSA (Scot)


This is a feature I wrote about the NorthLink Ferries that service Shetland and Orkney. It was first published in Scottish Islands Explorer magazine in 2019.

For someone who swims like a brick I spend a fair amount of time on boats of various shapes and sizes, mainly on multiple annual trips to Shetland and Orkney. This is where NorthLink Ferries enter the equation, notably in the shape of the MV Hjaltland and MV Hrossey that daily ply the waters between Aberdeen and the islands, and MV Hamnavoe, which tends to be used between Orkney (Stromness) and Scrabster.

To be honest I’ve yet to fully grasp why a chunk of metal weighing more than a thousand tons dead weight doesn’t just sink, but that’s mainly because when I was at school my mind was on Julie Hart rather than the Archimedes Principle – for the curious, the principle states that any object immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object. Be that as it may, these are astounding vessels, luxury afloat, and the nearest I’ll ever voluntarily come to a cruise ship. Within their bosom I have always felt warm, comfortable and welcome.

Replacing the former St Sunniva and St Ola operated by P&O Scottish Ferries, all three ships were built at a cost of £35 million each in 2002 at Aker Finnyards in Finland, which happily synchronises with my Finnish ancestry DNA.

The Hamnavoe (the old Norse name for Stromness) entered service in April 2003 and was designed to take account of the particular demands of the Pentland Firth. Both the Hjaltland (the old name for Shetland) and the Hrossey (the old name for Orkney) came into service on the same day, 1st October 2002, and have a slightly different design, intended to cope with the sometimes-lumpy conditions of the North Sea, especially when crossing the so-called ‘Fair Isle Gap’.

On board there is a choice of two- or four-berth en suite cabins (including several for less-abled passengers), restaurants, bars and lounges, as well as a small gift shop, a game zone, children’s play area and a cinema. At less cost, there are sleeping pods and reclining seats for those who don’t need a cabin. There are even kennels for four-legged travellers. In all there is capacity for 600 passengers and 140 cars, all served by crews of 33 (Hamnavoe, 30) under the management of a pool of nine captains.

In perfect conditions the boats cruise at 24 knots (19 knots in the case of the Hamnavoe); that equates with 27.5 mph (and 22 mph), which is plenty fast enough – I’ve been on much faster, much smaller, much more heart-pumping boats and it isn’t always a pleasant experience; give me any day the ladies of NorthLink Ferries who cover the 232.5 miles between Aberdeen and Lerwick at a much more sedate speed. For the technically minded, propulsion comes from two controllable-pitch propellers. There are two rudders, two 900 kW bow thrusters and Mitsubishi stabilisers.

Over the years I’ve developed a ‘technique’ for using these ferries, one that is based on a seemingly irrelevant factor, namely that as a rule we can’t get into our rental cottage until four in the afternoon. Since the ferry arrives in Lerwick around 7.30am, that’s a long time kicking our heels. But thoughtfulness on the part of someone sees to it that although you must debark your car, you can come back on board until 9.30am and have a relaxing breakfast and kill some of the time. At the Aberdeen start of the journey, we arrive around 5pm, which is when boarding starts, and can be enjoying a pleasant three-course meal in the Magnus Lounge (or the larger café if you prefer) with a bottle of wine by 6pm, all done and dusted before the boat glides from the quayside.

Then it’s into the berth, a bit of Coronation Street on the TV, reading until we clear the distant John o’ Groats, and then bed. In addition to the en suite facilities there are bedside lights and a shared bedside table together with bottled water in a tea and coffee area and hanging space for clothes. The bunks are comfortable, but, if there is a downside it’s that the cabins are not always the warmest, even when the thermostat is turned up. And, of course and unavoidably, you drift off to sleep to the unfamiliar sounds of a boat at sea…so, not entirely peaceful, and light sleepers may not find it restful.

But with so much going on, not only internally to the ships, but externally, too, it is reassuring to know that one place, the bridge, is a common platform that serves as a control and command station for the entire vessel. It is axiomatic that the fundamentals of commanding a ship include lookout and avoidance of collision, navigation and position fixing, monitoring sea and weather conditions and control of the ship’s speed and direction. So, the view from the bridge is quite unlike any other, physically affording around 250° vision or more.

But it isn’t only about forward vision, it’s about the management of a complex array of electronic equipment. I was theatrically disappointed not to find a huge steering wheel with some poor soul lashed to it; in fact, it took a while to find the wheel – it’s smaller than that in a Formula 1 racing car. The atmosphere is one of calmness and confidence, a kind of hush enhanced by dimmed lighting and an array of electronic displays; a bit of mood music would have gone down well to my mind, but the captain and his look-out were supremely relaxed and looking forward to an uneventful journey.

As the Hrossey slipped gently into the shelter from the south-westerly afforded by Sumburgh Head and the long southern limb of Shetland, a gannet flew upwards through the arc of a rainbow. The rising sun brought a burnished, deep-golden hue to the land, and reflected off croft windows. A fulmar skimmed the waves, and offshore from the island of Mousa a flotilla of female eider bobbed up and down with the swell. It had been a good night; a peaceful crossing.

NorthLink Ferries


For reservations and booking enquiries (UK): 0845 6000 449

For reservations and booking enquiries (International and UK mobile telephones): +44 (0)1856 885500