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A. Alfred Banks, Born Kirkwall Born 13 May 1931 Died 26 January 2019

24th February 2019

Photograph of A. Alfred Banks, Born Kirkwall Born 13 May 1931 Died 26 January 2019

A Alfred Banks, born Kirkwall, Orkney 13 May 1931 died St. Margaret's Hope, Orkney, 26 January 2019.

Farmer and Scottish islands' short-sea shipping visionary whose son's company is naming brand-new vessel in his honour.

Andrew Alfred Banks, who was known throughout his life as 'Alfie', was the visionary behind Scotland's busiest and most commercially-successful 'mainland to island group' year-round passenger and freight ferry service.

In time for the 2019 tourist season, Scotland's most modern catamaran ROPAX ferry with the name Alfred proudly displayed on her bow and stern, will start her thrice-daily crossings of the Pentland Firth's busiest sea route from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope, the Orkney village linked by the main road over the World War II Churchill Causeways to Kirkwall, the islands' 'capital'.

Indeed Alfie's son Andrew Banks OBE was in the Far East supervising arrangements for 3,400 tonne Alfred's launching this month (Feb. 2019) when he was given the sad news of his father's passing at the age of 87 years.

He died at the family's 240-acre Smiddybanks farm-house at the edge of South Ronaldsay's ... and Orkney's ... largest village, where he had lived his entire adult life after leaving secondary school at the age of 14 without qualifications.

Alfie was one of a family of three to Andrew Banks (b. 1895) and his wife Mary; his two brothers Harry and Bill both became 'Extra Master' sea captains in Britain's Merchant Navy, whilst he stayed at home managing the farm that has been in the family's hands since the 19th Century.

Alfie and his widow Sally have a family of four. Oldest daughter Mrs May Finnegan is an architect in partnership with her husband in a prominent island practice; Alan is a manager in the international offshore oil & gas industry, Andrew runs the now multi-million pound-worth Pentland Ferries Ltd while younger daughter Anne looked after her father in his final few months.

A packed congregation of mainly islanders ... but including friends & relatives from all over the UK ... attended Alfie's funeral service taken by Church of Scotland's reader Ms Jo Jones at the parish's mid-17th C St. Peter's Kirk. Practicing Christian Alfie had been a parish Kirk Elder for almost five decades and he was interred in the kirk-yard, adjoining the Grade A listed building.

Alfie's farming career spanned an era of rapid change in Scottish agriculture and he gained much experience in engineering skills ... that were to serve him well throughout his working life ... as mechanisation proceeded rapidly apace.

Within a few years Alfie was confidently adapting 'best practice' from the farming press, much of it by using his own hands.

In the 1950s Smiddybanks was a major egg-producer, Alfie being an early Scottish adopter of 'battery hen' units, and then liquid slurry fertilising methods for cattle and fowl effluent, whist participating in such as agricultural shows and ploughing matches, and also being a stalwart in village's amateur football team.

Alfie was a community-minded man throughout his adult life in such as the local School Board, the local Pier Trust, the Community Council, where ... as Ms Jones stated in the eulogy ... he had the economic welfare of his native isle and the wider Orkney archipelago always at the forefront of his mind.

As Orkney farming became reliant on summer grass-fed beef cattle, Alfie and other island country-folk complained at the cost of buying-in winter-feed 'supplements' manufactured on the 'Mainland'... and decided to do something constructive about it.

He spotted an opportunity in the vacant buildings on the Pier at St Margaret's Hope, left behind when the Royal Navy closed its Great War and WWII major warship base at Scapa Flow.

Together with local blacksmith, the late Willie Mowatt, he fabricated grain 'bins' and other ancillary handling equipment there for 'importing' wheat and barley by sea-coasters for the milling and mixing process; and bought Orkney's first-ever articulated truck to deliver finished supplies direct to any island farmer who wanted fodder-food, and that proved to be most of them.

Mowatt was also a creel-fisher, but instead of consigning his shell-fish catches via the ferry at Stromness, he sailed his own and others' lobster weekly just six miles across the Pentland Firth to the tiny pier at John O'Groats from where he conveyed those to Wick train station, where the shell-fish was loaded on to the daily chilled fish-freight cars for the regular runs to London's Billingsgate Market.

That convinced Alfie that a ferry service to Caithness's Pentland Firth coast could be viable and he persuaded his brother Captain Bill to come 'home'. Bill purchased a redundant WWII air-sea rescue craft that he renamed Pentalina. In 1970 the Banks's re-opened the ancient ... and main historic ... 'short-sea route' to Orkney for passengers and light goods.

This was by using a temporary berthing extension that he and his blacksmith friend had fabricated from an old crane-jib and water-tanks and towed over to John O'Groats. Before the season was over, tourists were queuing in their dozens to sail. Pier-owners Caithness County Council agreed on a permanent concrete extension that became the first project in the Highlands & Islands to receive European grant-money, once Britain had joined the Common Market in 1973.

That was the same year at the major Piper oil-field was discovered in the North Sea and the decision was taken to bring its supplies ashore at the end of a 126 mile sub-sea pipeline to Flotta, Orkney, rather than to Sinclair's Bay, near Wick, that had also been in contention.

Vast quantities of building and fabrication materials were needed to construct the Flotta on-shore 'stabilisation & refining' facility and this led Alfie to establish Flotta Marine.

He used a coaster to ship supplies from as far away as the Humber estuary as well as laying on work-boats and small passenger vessels to take construction workers on the short trip across Scapa Flow to what was one of the UK's biggest construction sites of the 1970s.

The Banks family efforts under Alfie were always to ensure that islanders had a chance of gaining oil-age skills at Flotta, but in later life he often said that he regretted dropping the John O'Groats ferry link after two successful seasons to concentrate on the above.

He did not forget about it and his money played a prominent ... if behind the scenes ... role alongside Orkney bus and land-transport entrepreneur James 'Jim' Peace, who hired 'outside professionals' as ferry 'experts' to set up and run Orkney Ferries plc to try to establish a RO:RO service to Gills Bay, three miles West of John O'Groats, a less exposed Caithness location at the head of a large inlet.

The project did not get properly off the ground, costing Alfie a reputed several tens of thousands of pounds when the 'Business Expansion Scheme' company went into administration.

Salmon rearing was establishing itself as a major industry in the Highlands & Islands in the 1980s and, by 1994, Alfie decided to enter aquaculture. Then individual fish-farmers were still predominant ... and this was a time when the once-booming North Sea oil industry was struggling.

His locally-resident son Andrew was given charge of the day-to-date operations, but the family sold out in 2002 as consolidation, mostly with Norwegian money, became Scottish aquaculture's watchword.

In the late 1990s, Alfie turned his thoughts back to the short -sea crossing and as to how it could be successfully achieved.

The family were no strangers to ship-owning, so Pentland Ferries Ltd was formed with Alfie and Andrew's Edinburgh-born wife Susan on its board, but with Andrew himself as the managing director, as his father was then officially of pension age.

The company bought the redundant 70-metre Caledonian McBrayne ship Iona that the family renamed Pentalina B.

Young Andrew negotiated a long-lease with the local community-owned Gills Harbour for some land and foreshore; while doing a deal with the Crown Estate for renting the adjacent seabed.

All the while, Alfie was watching as works at Gills progressed with his son following him as a boiler-suit clad individual who purchased heavy machinery and other plant to undertake virtually all of the construction there. This included two recycled WWII floating dry-docks set on a levelled seabed and infilled with dredged rock. All the while, the family firm used a local workforce of four who have toiled there continuously since 1999, providing a major marshalling area, as well as all modern ferry-terminal facilities.

Alfie was well aware that the service ... that has never received a single penny of taxpayers money .... was proving popular with hauliers as well as car-passengers and gave his son every encouragement to invest heavily in a brand-new catamaran ship in 2007/8. The 2,480 tonne Pentalina is stated by transport experts to be the most efficient vessel in Scotland's ferry fleet.

But even Alfie was surprised when Scotland's Auditor General conducted an 2017 enquiry on ferries that showed clearly that, by 2016, their route was the busiest seaway for freight and passengers to and from Orkney. This is despite the Scottish Government paying over £8 million per annum to subsidise the alternative ... but longer and more exposed ... route from Scrabster to Stromness, that is otherwise loss-making.

Since former transport minister Keith Brown MSP's 2013 statement that the short-sea crossing was now an officially- recognised 'lifeline route', Alfie has been contented that his vision has ... as intended ... brought many benefits to South Ronaldsay and Orkney. This is partly in the form of 50 direct jobs, as well as vastly cheaper freight charges that impact of every islanders day-to-day lives, as well as servicing the island's staples: 'exports' of live-shellfish, farm and aquaculture foodstuffs and incoming supplies for supermarket shelves or the building trades.

So it is not just in the 85 metre Alfred ... whose name was announced last Autumn ... that Alfie will be remembered, but as the practical visionary of a service that some shipping experts state should serve as a marine signpost to Scotland's island-link ferries ... and one that, if adopted, they say could save the taxpayers' millions of pounds annually.

Alfie leaves eight grown-up grandchildren; all four of Andrew's family of three daughters and one son are directors of Pentland Ferries with all but Edinburgh University medical researcher Laura holding senior management roles in Pentland Ferries. There are several great-grandchildren to hopefully keep Alfie Banks's family firms' intact for a coming generations.

Bill Mowat

 

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