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Scottish politics

Could our islands soon be linked by ‘James Bond lair’ tunnels like this?

Under-sea connections for Scotland's island communities are more than just a pipe dream. reports.
Andy Philip
Tunnels between Scottish islands is 'more than a pipe dream'.
Tunnels between Scottish islands is 'more than a pipe dream'.

This is the Faroe isles undersea roundabout inspiring a government dream to tunnel between Scottish islands.

A fact-finding mission returned last week from the North Atlantic territory which might lay the foundations for similar networks in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart, who led the trip, hopes Nordic expertise will lead to a transport revolution which protects remote communities.

“It’s not just some idea I’ve dreamed up, it has been seriously thought about,” he said.

Flicking through some pictures of the roundabout tunnel on his phone back in his Edinburgh office, Mr Stewart added: “It does look sort of like a James Bond lair.”

But he’s not the only one who hopes it goes beyond fiction.

Scotland minister Iain Stewart visits the undersea roundabout in the Faroe islands.

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael says fixed links for the isles “are more than just a pipe dream”.

He’s holding a series of events – known as “Tunnel Vision” – through summer to build political momentum and ensure islanders can shape the debate.

Where could the tunnels be dug?

Mr Stewart suggests two tunnels could link Unst, Yell and mainland Shetland.

There has long been debate on Shetland about fixed links, including a tunnel to Whalsay.

Mr Stewart said Orkney would want inter-island fixed links and potentially a link to Caithness.

How a tunnel might connect Orkney to mainland Scotland.

“That would be up to the locals,” he said.

“Whether Mull or Arran or islands like that would want them, that’s for them to decide.

“But linking islands within an archipelago sounds sensible.”

Graphic showing the potential route of tunnels for Shetland islands.

How much would it cost?

The Faroe islands government started their huge projects around 20 years ago.

The first tunnel linked the airport island to the mainland over a distance of about 5km in 2002.

It’s not going to be cheap. But you contrast that against building several new ferries.

– UK Government minister Iain Stewart

At a cost of around £20 million a kilometre, the network required massive investment.

The tunnel which splits at the roundabout cost the equivalent of about £100m.

“It’s not going to be cheap,” Mr Stewart admitted.

“But you contrast that against building several new ferries.”

The Faroe Islands lies north-west of Shetland.

Shetland Islands Council says about half the ferry fleet needs to be retired this decade.

Officials recently published their own plans for a more renewable future, including tunnels. The cost of replacing the Yell and Unst sea-link was put at around £40.4m.

How do they pay for it?

There are tunnel tolls in the Faroe isles but the price is less than the equivalent ferries, according to information shared with Mr Stewart.

The projects were financed by the governments of Denmark and the Faroe islands, local and global markets, and there is interest from pension funds for long term investment.

Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart was on a tunnel fact-finding mission to the Faroe Islands.

All the infrastructure is overseen by Landsverk, an institution under the local finance ministry.

A mix of funding could be worked out here too. The UK’s “levelling up” fund might offer a template to funding with the Scottish Government and local authorities.

What are the benefits?

The cost is high but the social and economic benefits were welcomed in the Faroe islands.

Landsverk chief executive Sigurd Lamhauge said he thinks Scotland could learn from their experience.

“The system of tunnels we have built in the Faroes has led to increased incomes, improved access to healthcare and education, better commuting times and resulted in more people staying on the islands,” he said.

“They have brought positive change to the Faroes and I would think something similar would have the potential to do the same to places like Orkney, Shetland and other Scottish islands.”

Graphic showing the tunnel’s impact on income in Faroe.

The airport island, Vagar, saw its average age drop dramatically relative to the rest of the country when the tunnel opened.

Relative income in Vagar had dropped to 85% of the national average before the tunnel. It then increased to about 93%.

Graphic showing the impact on relative age in Faroe.

Mr Stewart, who toured the infrastructure during his visit, said: “If these tunnels are built, you’re looking at many generations of sustainability.

“You shrink the footprint of healthcare or education in terms of public service.

“Environmentally it has got a benefit particularly if everybody electrifies their motor transport. Shipping is one of the most polluting forms of transport.”

Map of the Faroe islands tunnel network.

The Scottish Government said transport minister Jenny Gilruth would be “more than willing” to hear from the fact-finding trip.

A recent transport project review recommended looking at fixed links across the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra in the Western Isles, as well as a link between Mull and the mainland.

The Faroe islands in numbers:

  • There are 18 road tunnels across the islands and three under-sea tunnels.
  • With three bridges, it means six islands are connected to the main road network.
  • Two more tunnels are proposed including a huge 15-mile link at a date to be confirmed.
  • The islands have a population of 52,000 – more than double the number on Shetland.
  • The most recently completed tunnel, Eysturoyartunnlin, is the deepest at 187 metres.
  • Average toll prices for Faroese sub-sea tunnels have reduced from £17 in 2003 to £3 in 2020.