Uist in Bloom contest winner secures £500 towards repair of Taigh Sgìre Sholais

Iain Stephen Morrison

Lexy Pillans from Claddach Vallay, North Uist, has been voted winner of the first ever inter-island garden competition Uist in Bloom. 93 votes secured first place for Lexy, who entered on behalf of Taigh Sgìre Sholais. £500 in prize money has now been awarded to the community centre in Sollas from contest sponsor Western Isles Lifestyle Lottery.

Iain and Mary Margaret Craib, who have together created an impressive community garden space at Church Hill, Griminish, were tied in second place with Gretta Campbell, who has cultivated a beautiful garden in Aird, also on Benbecula.

North Uist and Benbecula Locality Planning Partnership organised the competition with gardeners across the islands invited to submit shots of their green spaces for a public vote conducted on Facebook. Each entrant was to nominate a community centre to receive £500, should their garden triumph in the vote, from Western Isles Lifestyle Lottery.

10 entries were received, representing nine local halls across South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist. Hundreds of votes were cast over a two-week period, with the highest number, 93, for Lexy Pillans and her colourful garden in Claddach Vallay.

Jemma MacVicar, development officer for the North Uist and Benbecula Locality Planning Partnership, presented an assortment of gardening equipment to Lexy (pictured above) and a £50 voucher for Maybury Gardens.

Joan MacDonald, representing the Taigh Sgìre Sholais committee, accepted the £500 prize from Western Isles Lifestyle Lottery. Earlier this year a fire caused significant damage at the Sollas centre and the Uist in Bloom prize will go towards repairing the much-missed Taigh Sgìre Sholais.

Iain and Mary Margaret Craib and Gretta Campbell were each awarded a £25 voucher for Maybury Gardens for finishing, with 60 votes, as runners-up for Uist in Bloom.

“We were delighted to have had so many entries submitted for the first Uist in Bloom competition, said development officer, Jemma MacVicar.

“In addition to the entries, the number of community centres backed, across the islands, was fantastic. I think the appreciation people have for the amount of work these gardeners have put into their outdoor spaces to make them so beautiful is reflected in the incredible number of votes cast for all the entries. I want to thank everyone who took the time to enter and each individual who voted.

“It was a pleasure to present prizes to the first and second placed entires and to give £500 to Taigh Sgìre Sholais on behalf of Western Isles Lifestyle Lottery. It was decided that the competition would support a local hall as these facilities, which are at the heart of our communities, have had little chance to fundraise during the pandemic. Taigh Sgìre Sholais has been even more impacted as a result of the fire that broke out in the centre earlier in 2021. I hope the prize will go some way towards restoring a popular community hub on North Uist.”

North Uist and Benbecula Locality Planning Partnership was established in 2018 as an offshoot of the wider Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership. Jemma MacVicar was appointed as development officer for the partnership earlier this year, with her role established to bring together statutory community planning agencies, voluntary organisations and individual members of the community to develop and progress an action plan, which will have a meaningful impact on the way of life for residents of North Uist and Benbecula.

Sealladh na Beinne Mòire offers chance to find out more about board member role ahead of election and AGM

Iain Stephen Morrison

Estate residents interested in standing to become board members for the community landowner are encouraged to contact chief executive Darren Taylor for an informal discussion about the work of Sealladh na Beinne Mòire. In addition, there will be an informal drop-in session for anyone interested in learning more about becoming a director from 5-7pm on 21st September 2021 at Oifis Stòras.

Sealladh na Beinne Mòire will host its annual general meeting on 18th November 2021 and before then the community landowner will hold an election for directors, with nominations set to open on 27th September 2021. Nominations forms can be requested from Oifis Stòras.

Sealladh na Beinne Mòire chair, Mary Schmoller, commented: “We are the largest community landowner in Scotland and offer practical support to crofters and members of the community as well as playing an important role in economic development.

“It is more important than ever that Stòras Uibhist takes a lead as we go forward, with our community having experienced a particularly difficult time during the pandemic.

“Directors set the strategic direction of the organisation and decide priority development activities. You will be expected to attend a monthly board meeting and to contribute with ideas and energy, working alongside fellow directors and our chief executive, Darren Taylor.”

Sealladh na Beinne Mòire members are advised that the board intends to amend the articles of association to remove references to the “rotation of directors”. Under the current rules, in certain circumstances directors can be compelled to stand down and seek re-election before the end of their term, such as, when one or more other board members stand down mid-term.

Members will be asked to vote at the annual general meeting on a resolution that would see article 46 of the articles of association amended so no board members are required to stand down before the end of their term on the board of Sealladh na Beinne Mòire.

Outdoor businesses take off as visitor sector rebounds transformed after COVID-19

Abigail Taylor

Following months of the ‘stay at home’ message and no mixing indoors, island entrepreneurs have taken the initiative, moving group activities outside and into the environment.

Holiday trends have changed from travelling abroad to exploring places closer to home that may in the past have been taken for granted.

Studio Vans, based on Airport Road in Balivanich, is bouncing off the staycation trend and encouraging people to take in their local environment in a different ‘five-star experience’.

Robert Hall founded the business to make innovative, ready-to-go fit-outs for campervan conversions.

“Originally we had plans to have rental vans here at the airport as it is a great location to get customers out and about, but following lockdown, that idea turned upside down. We changed direction a bit and amplified the design element of the business to what we are doing now, which is the fit-out part of the design, allowing people to get out and about in their own vans. We are happy to work with any vans, big or small,” explained Robert.

Serving locals and visitors alike, encouraging more people to “connect to their own environment” is part of the mission of Studio Vans.

“Once someone has made that connection with the environment then ideas to help and protect it start to form. I think until that happens, there is less of a willingness to change behaviour towards the climate crisis. It’s all about that initial connection,” continued Robert.

Shifts in how people view life have encouraged the team at Studio Vans to enable a comfortable means for people to experience the outdoors, said Robert.

“People are trying to achieve a better work-life balance and are looking at how they can get away in the most sustainable way. Being able to go away and have a comfortable holiday while staying local is now a real priority for a lot of people. We have a strong focus on the environmental side of the business. We are surfers and we see the changes here due to climate change.”

Having a plastic processing machine has enabled the Studio Vans team to take action on the immediate causes of the climate crisis.

Calum Ferguson, who works on production design, said: “It’s things like this that drive us to do better. It may be harder this way but ultimately the steps between the world and the economy, individual behaviour pre-pandemic and where we need to be in the future, it requires a change of behaviour. We are doing things differently here because we feel that obligation to do better for our own environment and for the future.”

“I think travelling within your own country is extremely important because, if you just look across Scotland, there are so many different cultures and ways of life to explore and if we can encourage people to do that in style and comfort then that’s great,” added Robert.

Similarly, the local environment encouraged Guy Stratton, originally from Lancashire but now living on North Uist, to open his outdoor business, Bike Uist.

Providing e-bikes for hire, Guy wants to “promote Uist outside of cars and campervans”.

“We have the great Hebridean Way here, it’s a beautiful place and from it came the idea to get some bikes to rent. Some of the tracks and roads here are quite difficult with the wind and hills so my thinking was to make it as easy as possible for people and to get e-bikes,” explained Guy.

Making use of the charity ‘Cycle of Good’, which takes old post office bikes, renovates them and put an electric motor on them, as well as donating a bike to Malawi with every sale, Guy bought five bikes to see how it goes.

“I deliver the bikes with helmets and high visibility jackets and they will go for about five or six hours. I then collect the bikes at the end of the day. My plan over the winter is to put together different routes and tours for people to take while out on the bikes so that they know how far they can go.”

Having an electric motor makes the activity more accessible as the bikes are “perfect for slow touring” and ideal for those who may not be “super fit” for cycling.

Norma MacLeod, an open water coach and lifeguard recently left her permanent nurse post to go full-time with her new business, Immerse Hebrides. She hosts regular outdoor swimming experiences, trips for locals and tourists, and offers swimming holidays and sea safety courses online.

Outdoor swimming has been very popular during lockdown and the trend has continued as restrictions have been lifted.

Immerse Hebrides was among the first group of businesses to be able to restart, due to being outdoors based, and since restrictions were lifted this has proved very successful.

“Uptake in outdoor swimming seems to be mostly females aged 35 and over but more recently I have noticed an increase in male participation. We mostly cater for adults but as our coach availability increases so will our kids sessions,” said Norma.

Immerse Hebrides, which is based in Stornoway, now has plans to expand to Uist.

“I think after the situation with COVID-19 it became clear people were avoiding other people and seeking quiet places, places to escape the fear of what COVID-19 could be and was. Green and blue spaces were proving their worth as other distractions were removed. Lack of holidays, shopping and socialising made us all turn to the outdoors. This has worked well for most outdoor businesses and could well make the nation healthier through an unprecedented situation.”

Making use of the elements and what Uist has to offer, Steven MacDonald from Baleshare began his business venture Paddle Hebrides.

“Growing up here we had the Uist Outdoor Centre, which sadly closed down, but it was brilliant to have and visitors and locals loved it. So when I came home I wanted to start something like it based on the water. Setting up something for myself, not having to rely on an outside source for a job, I believed I could really use my degree in sports coaching and go for it,” said Steven, who recently returned to North Uist.

Being passionate about outdoor pursuits after previously working on Loch Lomond offering kayaking, wakeboarding and other water sports, Steven has had requests from local people interested in getting out on the water as well as visitors enquiring to book.

“I have six boards currently but come next summer I want to at least double the number of boards and be able to take tours out to the neighbouring islands,” continued Steven.

Boards are available to hire every weekend in different locations.

“Lochmaddy is a great bay with rocks for climbing and a shipwreck to explore, the options are vast and every bay and beach is different with their own characteristics. Coldwater immersion is so good for your physical and mental health, so getting out and learning a new skill is just amazing and people really want to reap the benefits of what the islands have to offer.

“My biggest passion about the business is showing off Uist to visitors. I lived away for so long and was desperate to get back. It’s such an amazing place and while there is a lack of opportunities, it is improving and I want to be a part of it all. I have a brand and am ready and raring to go.”

Paddleboarding is a very accessible activity for all ages and safety procedures are in place to enable anyone to take part. Steven supplies a life vest, safety leash, paddle and board, with the potential of wetsuit hire in the future.

“I want this to become an opportunity for school leavers to get extra qualifications or apprenticeships and placements into college. If there are any young people keen to learn new skills, get in touch and come out and join in. I will help in any way I can to get them to the level of employment in adventure tourism,” concluded Steven.

Lochboisdale is the home of fresh and aromatic blends from the sole coffee roasters in the Outer Hebrides

Abigail Taylor

Skydancer is the only speciality coffee roasting company in the Outer Hebrides

Based close to the marina at Gasaigh in Lochboisdale, husband and wife team Mike and Sarah Faint create fresh unique blends which are sold directly to customers from their shop, online, and at numerous outlets across the Western Isles.

Skydancer offers bespoke blends for restaurants and accommodation providers, with a client base that includes Harris Distillery.

Mike and Sarah named the business after the iconic hen harrier, in particular, the spectacular courtship ritual the male birds performs, which renders it a ‘Skydancer. Hen harriers, while persecuted in other parts of the country, flourish in the environment of South Uist.

Sarah explained: “When we arrived on the island in 2019 we wanted to be sure not to displace another business and we had roasted coffee on a small scale in the past. So we took some time to look around and see what else was on offer and then everything started falling into place, starting with finding our unit, which is now the base for the business, here in Lochboisdale.”

Mike added: “We have an ideal environment here for roasting coffee, far enough away from residential properties. It took some time to get set up, between purchasing equipment, sourcing suppliers and preparing the unit.”

“We were distributing samples in the run-up to launch in November 2019, which went ahead, and then as we were preparing to host a formal opening, the pandemic started and we were forced to close down five months after we started in March 2020.”

Mike and Sarah continued to trade in difficult conditions throughout 2020.

“We got some assistance from agencies like Business Gateway and amazing support from our customers and the wider community,” reflected Sarah.

“Somehow we were able to make it through the worst of COVID-19.”

Particular emphasis was placed, during the pandemic, on sales of a special blend created to support a local good cause, dementia initiative Cuimhne. Proceeds from the sale of the blend allowed Sarah and Mike to purchase and present a special remote-controlled ‘dementia clock’ to Tagsa Uibhist, which states the date, time and whether AM or PM.

Skydancer is now marketing another blend to support two charitable endeavours, hen harrier protection and the Uist and Barra Foodbank.

Mike and Sarah are proud to reuse and repurpose as much packaging as possible, as one of the few coffee roasters that use biodegradable and compostable materials to package their array of blends created using beans sourced from across the world.

“South American blends are most popular because they work well black or with a little milk and sugar and that satisfies a wide range of palettes. But a lot of the time it comes down to the manner in which coffee is roasted. We do not use an espresso machine because they are traditionally used for a lower grade of bean, roasted quite dark to compensate for their flaws.”

“We use a hand-made pour-over machine to achieve a different taste. We like to ask customers how they intend to brew their coffee as that is as important as roasting in terms of finding the right flavour,” explained Sarah.

Skydancer has now branched into producing tea, alongside coffee, with the first blends made available for Lochboisdale Food and Drink Festival. Participation in the festival held on 5th September 2021 (read more) rounded off an unpredictable summer season in 2021.

“It has not been the summer we would have expected,” explained Mike.

“It has been difficult to predict what to expect in terms of customers, given how the pandemic has continued, so to some extent, this season has been about survival.”

“In the winter we are going to sit down and reflect on what has happened and decide how to move forward. I think we may do more around food and add more space for people to sit outside the premises because we know there is a demand.”

Mike is a professional photographer with his own company, An Solas Oir. Last summer he was shortlisted in the ‘Natural world and wildlife’ section at the international Sony World Photography Awards for his striking monochrome picture of a pony snapped at Loch Skipport.

Local businesses received a boost with crowds out in force for Lochboisdale Food and Drink Festival

Iain Stephen Morrison

Lochboisdale was transformed last weekend with scores in attendance a new event celebrating local food and drink hosted on 5th September 2021. Local businesses and Stòras Uibhist worked together to organise the first Lochboisdale Food and Drink Festival.

Numerous local producers set up stalls in marquees to take advantage of a much-needed opportunity to promote their businesses after the challenges of COVID-19.

Producers on-site included Croft and Cuan, Urachadh Uibhist, North Uist Distillery and Double Mac at Burnside, while Borrodale Hotel served cocktails to a backdrop of music from the team at Ceòlas. Tagsa Uibhist sold produce from its site in Balivanich and several crafters set out their wares for the passing trade at Lochboisdale.

Mary Schmoller, chair of Stòras Uibhist, said: “Stòras Uibhist is delighted at the turnout for the Lochboisdale Food and Drink Festival. Locals and visitors enjoyed the day and the feedback has been incredible. It was a fun event, the result of collaborative working with local businesses and organisations. We look forward to working with the community to put on future events.”

Kevin Morrison from Croft and Cuan commented: “Community support for this first event was amazing and more people came along than we ever imagined. It shows there is so much demand for this type of event in Lochboisdale so we hope it will be the first of many local produce events.”

Donnie Steele from Uist Gifts & Info said: “Huge thanks to all the visitors and members of the community for coming together and supporting the stallholders and businesses. It was unbelievably busy and far exceeded our aspirations for the day, with the communities of our five islands making for a positive event and a brilliant day.

“We are actively discussing a similar event in the very near future, possibly in conjunction with Lochboisdale Amenity Trust and the switching on of the lights at Christmas.

“Having events like this helps communities to be more connected, resilient and thrive. When you support local businesses, you are not only helping to support local entrepreneurs, you are bringing communities together and helping to make a valued contribution to the local economy.”

Commercial space launch conducted between a British company and a Scottish spaceport team at Benbecula Airport

Iain Stephen Morrison

26th August 2021 saw an historic UK first, with a commercial rocket launch conducted between British firm, Gravitilab, and Scottish spaceport team, Spaceport 1, in the Outer Hebrides.

Spaceport 1, set to be established on North Uist, collaborated with East Anglian company Gravitilab on the sub-orbital launch of a flight test vehicle called ADA, named after Ada Lovelace, the nineteenth century English mathematician considered the first computer programmer.

However, while ADA did launch at 1.30pm, the rocket did not reach the target height, falling short some 5000 feet in what was described a ‘safe fail’. It was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the launch what caused ADA to return to earth sooner than anticipated, but technicians were certain the fault was technical.

Launch of the vehicle at Benbecula Airport comes weeks after a new framework of government rules to regulate the space industry came into force and the UK set to be thrust into the global forefront of the growing space sector, meaning not only spaceport developments can be realised, but space launches can become a reality.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is developing Spaceport 1 at Scolpaig Farm on North Uist in partnership with organisations including Hebrides Range operator QinetiQ. Am Pàipear reported earlier this year that the Spaceport 1 consortium is in talks with ten potential customers about rocket launches from the proposed facility at Scolpaig.

Customers include universities and commercial companies who wish to launch small vehicles for scientific, research and development or test and evaluation purposes.

Mark Roberts, Programme Director for Spaceport 1, explained to Am Pàipear that for the team leading on the development for North Uist, the purpose of the exercise was to learn.

“In essence we had to take control of the area, make sure there was nobody that could be put in harm’s way, and manage communications with all stakeholders. So from the point of view of Spaceport 1, despite the fact the vehicle did a safe but failed launch, from our perspective, it was great. We have learnt a lot over the last couple of days, particularly around managing stakeholders.

“We made it more difficult for ourselves, because we had to fit in around airport operations which had priority, and that added to the complexity of what we had to deal with for this operation, and all of that is a really good foundation for us moving forward to other vehicles and, in due course, the location at Scolpaig.

“I am looking at a rather despondent launch team at the moment, but from a Spaceport 1 perspective, I am actually quite happy. I happened and it happened safely,” added Mr Roberts.

North Uist is described as an ideal location for the spaceport development as both sun synchronous and polar orbital launches are considered achievable from the proposed site and the existing capabilities and technology at Hebrides Range would benefit operations and reduce the capital cost of a potential spaceport at Scolpaig.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar submitted an application for planning permission for the first phase of works to be undertaken on the proposed site of the spaceport in the summer of 2019. It is anticipated that an amendment to the initial application will be submitted later in 2021.

Earlier this year Spaceport 1 was listed with the ‘Heads of Terms’ document signed to formalise the Islands Deal, a multimillion pound government investment in the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles.

You can cast your vote on North Uist and Benbecula Locality Planning Partnership’s Facebook page

Abigail Taylor

Uist in Bloom, hosted by North Uist and Benbecula Locality Planning Partnership allowed the community to submit images of their gardens and outdoor spaces to win votes online.

A donation of £500 will be made to the community hall of the winning location with the aim of the competition to encourage as many people as possible to get into their own gardens and community space.

Voting will take place on North Uist and Benbecula Locality Planning Partnership and Am Pàipear‘s Facebook page.

Community Development Officer Jemma MacVicar said: “We are delighted to have had so many entries to Uist in Bloom, to see nine of our local halls being supported by members of the community is absolutely fantastic.  All the entries look wonderful, with so much dedication going into each garden, it is anticipated to be a very close competition to crown the winner of Uist in Bloom 2021.”

“There are so many beautiful gardens in Uist and its nice to recognise the work that goes into these and in particular the community effort with communal spaces and roadside displays which are out for everyone to enjoy.”

There are ten entries representing nine halls across Uist.

Jemma continued: “We would like to encourage as many people to vote as possible, the £500 prize for the winning hall will be a big help especially after little or no income for many halls throughout lockdown.”

Funding for the project came from Western Isles Lifestyle Lottery.

Charities and groups will have the opportunity to raise funds for their chosen beneficiary

Abigail Taylor

A table-top fundraiser will be held on Saturday 21st August 2021 in Lochmaddy Hall between 11am and 2pm as an opportunity for local charities and causes to raise funds following the pandemic.

Hosts Stella Evans, Barbara Jameson and Sybil Roe are volunteer fundraisers for the RNLI, the North Uist ‘arm’ of the Leverburgh Lifeboat Station Fundraising Branch.

A variety of stalls selling local goods, baking with games and raffles will be in attendance featuring Hebridean Kitchen, RNLI, The Guild and SWI as well as an array of treats and crafts from other local businesses to enjoy.

Each table will be raising money for their own charity or cause of choice.

Visitors to the fundraiser are being asked to follow all COVID guidelines and to wear a mask unless otherwise exempt.

Uist Coastal Rowing Club launched its new skiff Eabhal

Iain Stephen Morrison and Abigail Taylor

Uist Coastal Rowing Club this morning (14th August 2021) launched its new skiff, Eabhal.

Dozens congregated to celebrate the launch of the new boat on North Uist.

Club member Robin Spratt welcomed the crowd to the launch and thanked everyone who supported fundraising activities and helped with the construction of Eabhal.

Rev Alen McCulloch and Father Michael Hutson blessed the skiff before she was eased into the water for the first time at Otternish.

Club chairman Nick Ingledew poured whisky over the bow of Eabhal as the crowd cheered in anticipation of seeing the new skiff take to sea across from Berneray.

Construction started in 2018 but was held back because of COVID-19.

Club Secretary Marwa MacDonald said: “We’re really excited about the launch of our new skiff Eabhal, it’s been a long time coming. We had been hampered with the pandemic and getting the skiff ready but now it’s finally ready and we are absolutely delighted and excited to be launching.”

Uist Coastal Rowing Club set out to raise £5000 to build a new skiff in 2018. However, the enthusiastic efforts of members, coupled with the generosity of community members, funders and local businesses, saw more than £9000 collected, close to double the initial target of £5000.

Events were run across the islands, including a successful fundraiser at Carinish Hall, which raised more than £1000, and another in Talla an Iochdair, which raised £760.

Club members were ‘hands-on’ in the effort to raise funds, with a sponsored ‘virtual row’ across the Minch. Seven members of the crew took turns on rowing machines in order to cover the 53-kilometre distance Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed on his escape from Benbecula – a useful exercise that raised another £400!

Local businesses also backed efforts to raise funds with raffle prizes and donations and Uist Coastal Rowing Club has also received £200 from the MacLennans Supermarket ‘Making a Difference Locally’ fund and £2000 from salmon producer Loch Duart.

Grants have also been received from the Uist and Barra Sports Council and the Baxter Foundation, with the sale of items donated to the club, including furniture and a boat engine, boosting the overall total to £9213.

Thankful for the support, Marwa said: “We’ve had fantastic support from across the community, not only locally but from further afield too. We’ve had clubs from other islands get in contact to wish us luck.”

“Even having a boat and crew from Lewis come down to the event has made it a real community rowing day which is what the St. Isles Skiffs is all about whether it be socially or competitively. It’s great to celebrate with friends locally and afar.”

Uist Coastal Rowing Club welcomes new members, with more information about the club and activities on Facebook.

Students to help build a sustainable future for islanders on South Uist

Abigail Taylor

Architects from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture are working with islanders from South Uist to map out a sustainable future for the island.  

This project aligns with the ambitions of the Island Growth deal announced in March 2021, which secured £100 million funding from the UK and Scottish Governments in March, to boost jobs, infrastructure, transport and tourism in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

Master’s students are working with the community, to explore the challenges of island life and to find, social, cultural and economic opportunities as part of a project founded on the themes of ‘Place, Craft and Community’.

Professor Karen Anderson, who is leading the project, said: “The Outer Hebrides has ambitions to develop community sustainability and we are working with islanders to help them achieve this.”

“One of the main findings of our study so far, has been the high level of self-sufficiency amongst islanders and their ability to endure a challenging landscape despite the increasing challenges of climate change, depopulation and access to services.”

“Our overall ambition is to produce high quality architectural designs that will add real value to island life. We want to embrace craft in the community’s development and build up resilience, creativity and culture. Key proposals that we are suggesting include a marine research and agricultural laboratory, new social housing models, community and tourism-orientated facilities, and an insect farm.”

In collaboration with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, NatureScot, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and community groups, the team is developing a series of research-informed design propositions that contribute to the future sustainability of the South Uist community in the context of significant and change.

Local Councillor Iain Archie MacNeil said: “It has been very interesting seeing this project develop over the last year. The students have come up with a wide range of proposals and have been very creative in their designs, whilst demonstrating a good awareness of the landscape and culture of South Uist.”

“I am particularly pleased to see that a number of students have focused on social housing projects, as housing is a key priority for the area. I look forward to seeing how these projects take shape in the coming year, and hope that in the future there might be opportunities for these innovative housing ideas to help shape the work of the Uist and Barra Housing Group.”

Work from the first phase of the project will be exhibited on the islands as well as in Aberdeen.