Organised and scheduled passenger and cargo shipping services to the North Isles of Orkney can be said to emanate from an event in 1864 when Captain George Robertson bought a small wooden steamer the Quarry Maid. He renamed her the Orcadia, and set sail from Liverpool to cater for the increasing trade between Orkney's capital Kirkwall and the Islands.
This increase in trade encouraged local businessmen in Orkney, along with Captain Robertson to purchase a larger vessel of the same name and so form the Orkney Steam Navigation Company in 1868. The Orcadia was in continuous service for 63 years.
Between 1892 and 1928, three further vessels supplemented and replaced vessels in the fleet until in 1928, the Earl Thorfinn and the Earl Sigurd joined the fleet.
In 1961, the replacement of the Earl Thorfinn proved vital but the construction costs were beyond the Orkney Steam Navigation Company, which went into voluntary liquidation. The company was replaced by the Orkney Islands Shipping Company, which by virtue of an agreement with the Secretary of State of Scotland, is committed to the continuance of services by air or seas or both.
In 1987, Orkney Islands Council assumed responsibility for the inter islands' ferry services, and in 1995 Orkney Islands Shipping Company changed its name to Orkney Ferries Ltd.
There are now 9 vessels in the fleet serving 13 islands destinations, carrying over 82,000 vehicles and undertaking around 320,000 passenger journeys annually.
Below are some key dates in the development of Orkney Ferries:
- August 1987 - m.v. Eynhallow arrives
- July 1989 - m.v. Shapinsay arrives
- August 1990 - m.v. Earl Thorfinn into service
- November 1990 - m.v. Earl Sigurd into service
- August 1991 - m.v. Varagen into service, and m.v. Thorsvoe arrives
- April 1994 - m.v. Hoy Head into service
- September 1995 - Opening of new offices in Shore Street, Orkney
- June 1996 - m.v. Graemsay into service