NorthLink Ferries

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NorthLink Ferries
Founded2002 (NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries)
2006 (NorthLink Ferries)
2012 (Serco NorthLink Ferries)
HeadquartersStromness, Orkney, Scotland. Offices in Aberdeen & Lerwick
Area served
Pentland Firth, Orkney and Shetland
Key people
Stuart Garrett (Managing Director)

NorthLink Ferries (also referred to as Serco NorthLink Ferries[1]) is an operator of passenger and vehicle ferries, as well as ferry services, between mainland Scotland and the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. Since July 2012, it has been operated by international services company Serco.


NorthLink Ferries logo used from 2002-2013

NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries[edit]

The subsidised Northern Isles ferry services, previously run by P&O Scottish Ferries, were put out to tender in 1999. A joint venture between Caledonian MacBrayne and RBS Group, named NorthLink Orkney and Shetland Ferries, won the contract and began operation in October 2002.

A variety of factors, including competition from rival operator Pentland Ferries, the Norse Island Ferries group created by local hauliers concerned about NorthLink's proposed freight pricing, and higher-than-expected operation costs,[2] contributed to financial difficulties within the company. In response, the Scottish Executive Transport Group (now Transport Scotland) made additional subsidy payments of £0.6 million and agreed to restructure subsidy payment timing.[2]

In mid-2003 the company indicated that it would be unlikely to complete its contract due to the ongoing financial difficulties. NorthLink defaulted on its lease payments for the vessels in July and August 2003,[2] and in April 2004 the then Scottish Executive announced that the service would be re-tendered due to NorthLink's inability to fulfil the terms of its contract.

The company continued to operate under interim arrangements until April 2006 while a new contract was secured.

NorthLink Ferries Limited[edit]

On 19 July 2005, the Scottish Executive announced that three companies - V-Ships, Irish Continental Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne - had bid to provide ferry services to the Northern Isles. Irish Continental, however, withdrew its bid in October 2005, leaving two potential operators on the closing date of 1 December 2005. Both of the remaining bids complied with the contract requirements, but Caledonian MacBrayne's lower bid meant that it was awarded the contract.

Caledonian MacBrayne formed a company named NorthLink Ferries Limited, which adopted the branding and vessels of its predecessor, and began operating the Northern Isles ferry services on 6 July 2006.[3]

Serco NorthLink Ferries[edit]

The Northern Isles ferry service was re-tendered in 2011/12 as NorthLink Ferries Limited's contract came to an end.

Initially, the contract's two services (Aberdeen-Lerwick and Scrabster-Stromness) were to be de-bundled. Eligible bids for the services were received from Pentland Ferries (which expressed interest in the Scrabster-Stromness service only), Sea-Cargo A/S (which expressed interest in the Aberdeen-Lerwick service only), P&O Ferries, Shetland Line (1984) Limited (part of local haulage and freight company Streamline Shipping Group), Serco, and the incumbent NorthLink Ferries Limited.[4] The Scottish Government subsequently re-bundled the routes, when insufficient interest was shown in the separate routes.[citation needed]

On 4 May 2012, Transport Scotland announced that Serco was the preferred bidder.[5] This decision was legally challenged in the Court of Session by rival bidder Shetland Line (1984) Limited on the basis that the Scottish Government had allegedly not taken into account that they had scored higher than Serco for their proposed service - suspending the securement of the contract.[6] On 29 May 2012 however, the court overturned the suspension and Serco was confirmed as the new operator, ending Caledonian MacBrayne's 10 year involvement with Northern Isles ferry services.[7][8] The contract lasts for a period of six years and is worth £243m.[9]

Serco, using the vessels and branding of its predecessor, began operation of Northern Isles ferry services at 15:00 on 5 July 2012.[10] It stated that it planned to make no changes to fares or timetables for the remainder of 2012, and that it planned to "overhaul catering, seating and onboard entertainment" in future.[11]

MV Hrossey departing Aberdeen Harbour, Scotland. Current fleet branding in use since Spring 2013.

In Spring 2013[12] NorthLink rebranded and launched new on board services such as "sleep pod" reclining seats and a premium lounge.[13][14] The contract was due to end in 2018, but Serco received an 18-month extension.[15] Arguments have been put forward by the RMT union to bring the service into public ownership.[16] In February 2020, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, announced that NorthLink's contract would be re-awarded by the end of March.[17]


Map of ferry services in Scotland

NorthLink operates two passenger routes:


Currently the NorthLink fleet consists of:

Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland purchased all of the ferries used by Northlink during the 2018-19 financial year. They will be managed by Scottish Government corporation Caledonian Maritime Assets.[18]

Former fleet consists of:

Ferries on the Aberdeen route have onboard cinemas and occasional live entertainment.



  1. ^ "Serco Sets Sail". Serco Group plc. 5 July 2012. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  2. ^ a b c "Scottish Executive: The NorthLink ferry services contract" (pdf). Audit Scotland. December 2005. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  3. ^ Alan Rehfisch (2007). "Ferry Services in Scotland" (pdf). SPICe Briefing. Scottish Parliament Information Centre. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  4. ^ "Shortlist announced for Northern Isles Ferry Services contract". Transport Scotland. 28 November 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2012.
  5. ^ "New Ferry Contract set for Northern Isles". Transport Scotland. 4 May 2012. Retrieved 6 July 2012.
  6. ^ "Serco ferry contract on hold after legal challenge". The Orcadian. 14 May 2012. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  7. ^ "Serco confirmed as Northern Isles ferry operator". The Orcadian. 29 May 2012. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  8. ^ Shetland Line (1984) Limited v. Scottish Ministers [2012] CSOH 99 (29 May 2012), Court of Session (Scotland)
  9. ^ "Serco confirmed as Northern Isles ferry operator". BBC News. 29 May 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  10. ^ "Serco Sets Sail - NorthLink Ferries Service Handover Complete". NorthLink Ferries. 5 July 2012. Retrieved 6 July 2012.
  11. ^ "Our Plans". Serco Group plc. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  12. ^ "Serco NorthLink Ferries welcomes new look Hjaltland back to service – NorthLink Ferries". Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  13. ^ "NorthLink ferries to get £1 million makeover". The Shetland Times. 21 November 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  14. ^ "NorthLink Ferries Launches New On Board Services and Marketing Campaign – NorthLink Ferries". Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  15. ^ "Serco signs 18 month NorthLink Ferries contract extension". Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  16. ^ Munro, Alistair (7 March 2018). "Union calls for Northlink ferry services to be nationalised". The Press and Journal. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  17. ^ "Serco to get Northern Isles ferry contract by end of March". BBC. 6 February 2020. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  18. ^ "Northern Isles freight ferries". Transport Scotland. Scottish Government. 26 March 2019. Retrieved 28 March 2019.


  • Cowsill, Miles; Smith, Colin (2010). Passage to the Northern Isles: Ferry Services to Orkney and Shetland 1790-2010 (2nd rev. ed.). Ramsey, Isle of Man: Ferry Publications. ISBN 9781906608149.
  • Cowsill, Miles; Smith, Colin (2016). The Islands' Lifeline: NorthLink Ferries. Ramsey, Isle of Man: Ferry Publications. ISBN 9781906608972.

External links[edit]

Media related to NorthLink Ferries at Wikimedia Commons