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Work has started on the development of a local energy plan for Uist.

Abigail Taylor

North Uist Development Company, Community Energy Scotland and Coimhearsnachd Bharraigh agus Bhatarsaidh are leading a partnership to plan and design energy projects that will deliver a low carbon future for the islands.  

With an international focus on energy and climate change at this time, ahead of the COP26 conference this autumn, a local energy plan will set out the aspirations and priorities of the community for the future development of energy from Berneray to Eriskay. 

It is hoped that a community-led local energy plan will enable the islands to look at existing and future energy needs, in terms of power, heat and transport, and identify priorities for action.

Members of the community will be represented on a steering group and an advisory group, that will steer the development of the plan, with representation from sectors including transport, fisheries, the environment, education, and crofting.

Janet Foggie, Chief Executive Officer of Community Energy Scotland said: “Communities across Scotland are turning their attention to our need for a fair and equal transition to net zero. For the people who live in Uist, the local energy plan gives​ people an excellent opportunity to be part of the shaping for the future of the island.

Community Energy Scotland is proud to play it’s part in including everyone in the energy plan and in working to ensure that building a sustainable future for Uist is given the head start it needs.”

Similar plans are being developed, in both mainland and island settings, across Europe.

Rona MacKay from Community Energy Scotland talks about the development of a local energy plan for Uist in more detail this week on Am Podcast.

Listen here:

Ceòlas to host first live music events since onset of COVID-19

Iain Stephen Morrison

South Uist will next month host what is believed to be the first live music events in the Western Isles since the onset of COVID-19.

Ceòlas hopes to welcome people to two live events during the week of its summer school, which is set to run from 5th July 2021 to 9th July 2021.

Last year the annual summer school and all associated events were cancelled because of COVID-19.

However, with the gradual relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, more people can now gather together, with precautions in place, and live music events are restarting in other parts of the country, giving hope to Ceòlas.

Plans are therefore being finalised to allow live audiences to attend a piping recital, featuring more than 10 local pipers, and a concert with local band and multiple festival headliners, Beinn Lee.

Both the live events will happen during the week of the upcoming summer school, in between a series of online concerts, including a virtual iteration of the traditional, week-closing Cèilidh Mhòr.

“We are going to have a piping recital and a concert with Beinn Lee,” explained Mary Schmoller, Development Manager for Ceòlas.

“We have permissions in place but are still working on the final details, which we will announce as soon as possible. It could be the events will happen inside or outdoors.

“We cannot wait, after the difficult times of the past year and more, to welcome back audiences to our events.”

For the first time ever the annual Ceòlas summer school will run online, with classes offered in song, clarsach, step-dancing, piping, fiddle and Gaelic.

Tutors lined up to deliver virtual classes include Màiri MacInnes, Ailean Dòmhnallach, Fin Moore, Sophie Stephenson, Melody Cameron, Alasdair White, Troy MacGillivray, Ingrid Henderson and Eilidh Cormack.

Ceòlas hopes to run a series of outdoor events along with the two live music performances on South Uist.

Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidh has now completed the purchase of the former school on Eriskay

Abigail Taylor

Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidhwas founded in 2010 to collect, preserve and display artefacts, photographs and historic information connected to Eriskay.

Since its formation, the historical society has hosted numerous exhibitions and developed its collection, which is now a treasure trove on the island famed for its connection to the sunken cargo ship SS Politician.

Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidhhas now moved to create a permanent base for its activities, with the purchase of the former Eriskay School.

Committee members Morag MacKinnon, Marie MacMillan and Iain Ruairidh MacInnes explained the process to Am Pàipear.

“In 2013 the school closed and we decided it would be a worthwhile project to pursue the buying of the school as a base to develop Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidh on a more formal basis,” said Iain Ruairidh.

Scottish Land Fund support allowed the historical society to create a business plan with the help of an architect. Following a successful application to phase two of the Scottish Land Fund, the society was able to complete the sale of Eriskay School.

“It has been a long year because of the pandemic. It came right down to the wire with getting the funding and we know that whilst the country is in recovery it will be even more difficult to get more funding to continue the project from where we are now,” explained Morag.

It has taken the historical society eight years to finalise the purchase and plans for the future are still being drawn up.

“The school is in such bad condition, so basically we are going to take the buildings down to the original school building and school house. We are going to renovate and then construct additional buildings, for example a cafeteria area and offices with public toilets. It’s in the very early stages of planning,” said Iain Ruairidh.

Keeping the community at the heart of the project, Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidh are keen to continue collaborations with the local hall and shop, Co-chomunn Eirisgeidh. 

“Like all small communities you have to work together with the resources you have. We want to work with the hall, Am Politician, the shop, we have to work with the community.

“Locals and those who have moved away from the island have shown their support for the society as the school was the heart of the community before the hall was built. It’s nice to see something being made from it,” said Marie.

Fundraising underway to replace indoor arena roof at Uist Community Riding School

Abigail Taylor

Uist Community Riding School has launched a campaign to raise £25,000 to replace the roof of the indoor arena (pictured below) on the site at Balivanich. 

Staff and volunteers hope to raise the amount required and see a new roof in place before the end of 2021.

First set up in 1974 as an Army Saddle Club to provide riding and tuition for service personnel and their families, the riding school is now community owned and trades as a social enterprise as Uist Community Riding School.

Natasha Wilson (pictured above) is yard manager for Uist Community Riding School.

Speaking with Am Pàipear, she explained the urgency of the new roof: “We were given a quote to get the roof repaired, it has holes in it and several panels missing and the company advised it not likely to last another winter if we don’t get it fixed as soon as possible.

“Work to replace the roof can’t be done in the winter, as it wouldn’t be safe, so it needs to be completed before the worst of the weather comes in,” continued Natasha.

Indoor arena roof.

Uist Community Riding School created a ‘Go Fund Me’ page to raise part of the necessary £25,000 and to date this has brought in close to £500.

Riders use the arena for practice and tuition all year round and, without it, the school would not be able to function.

Natasha continued: “There are 23 horses here that need to be looked after all year round and in the winter we are limited to what we can do in order to make money.

“The indoor arena is the only space we can use during these months and they’re also the most expensive months to keep the horses as well. We make most of our income over the summer months and we do enough in the winter to keep us going.

“We really rely on the indoor arena in terms of the weather. Even in the summer the wind may affect outdoor lessons meaning we need to head inside.”

In addition to lessons, in the winter months the arena is used to house horses.

COVID-19 resulted in a further strain on the enterprise, due to three extended closures across the past year. However, bookings are looking healthy for this summer.

Working with about 15 volunteers, Natasha is trying to think of new ways to create an income for the school.

“I am currently doing a course about how to use horses for therapy so we are hoping that will create a good revenue stream. There are not a lot of facilities like that here on the islands for people struggling with addiction or mental health issues and it really helps us too, for example older horses can still be working even if they can’t be out on walks. It’s a really good way to move forward looking to the future.”

Natasha and her team meanwhile continue to look for new ways to raise money for the arena roof before the onset of winter 2021.

You can donate to the ‘Go Fund Me’ page here: Fundraiser by Uist Community Riding School : Help replace UCRS arena roof (gofundme.com)

Exhibition features highlights from research project Eòlas nan Naomh

Iain Stephen Morrison

Howmore Church, currently closed for refurbishment, will re-open this summer with a new exhibition about early Christianity on the islands, with details drawn from the research project, Eòlas nan Naomh.

Eòlas nan Naomh, which launched in 2018, set out to investigate the arrival of Christianity in the islands, with close attention to the broad range of early ecclesiastical sites, and was a collaboration between Ceòlas and the Celtic department at the University of Glasgow.

Liam Crouse, formerly an officer with Ceòlas and now a PhD student with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, compiled the exhibition, which was launched on 9th June 2021, the feast of St Columba.

Liam Crouse

2021 marks 1500 years since the birth of St Columba, or Colmcille, whose name is given to important sites, such as Teampall Chaluim Chille on Benbecula.

Folklore tells of followers of St Columba bringing Christianity to the islands, including Coinneach, Donnan and Brìde. Several places are named after these saints, with two in particular, Coinneach and Donnan, highlighted in the exhibition now based at Howmore Church.

Howmore Church

Ceòlas hosted a small event launch the exhibition at Howmore Church, which is built on a significant early Christian site on South Uist.

Church of Scotland congregation member, Seonaid Crabtree, welcomed those gathered for the launch, after which Liam Crouse talked through the history of the Eòlas nan Naomh project and some of the detail contained within the new exhibition at Howmore Church. Leona MacAulay, Allan Henderson and Pauline MacDonald performed music before a prayer and blessing from Father Michael MacDonald.

Leona MacAulay

Speaking with Am Pàipear, Liam said: “It is an exhibition based on the information that is now published on the Eòlas nan Naomh website, which examines what we understand about early Christianity across these islands.

“2021 is 1500 years since the birth of St Colmcille and this is being marked internationally, in Ireland and Scotland, and is the reason this exhibition is being launched on the feast of St Columba.

“Howmore Church is an important ecclesiastical site, with significant evidence of Christian belief dating from before the arrival of the Vikings. It is hoped that once the church re-opens it will feature a permanent exhibition on Christianity and until then this exhibition can remain in place to highlight what we know and furthermore learnt from Eòlas nan Naomh.”

Bòrd na Gàidhlig supported Eòlas nan Naomh through its Colmcille Fund, with research undertaken under the direction of the world-leading expert in Scottish hagiotoponyms, Professor Thomas Clancy of the University of Glasgow.

Father Michael

More information about Eòlas nan Naomh is available on the website: https://uistsaints.co.uk/early-christianity-in-uist/

Am Podcast is a Gaelic episode this week, featuring Liam Crouse in conversation about the exhibition with Am Pàipear editor Iain Stephen Morrison: https://ampaipear.com/podcasts

Cllr Paul Steele has been given the Kisimul Award during this years volunteers week.

Abigail Taylor

Volunteers’ Week is a UK wide campaign that takes place from 1st -7th June every year.

Working with the Western Isles volunteer centre on Uist, Am Pàipear spoke to Cllr Paul Steele about his award winning volunteering efforts throughout the pandemic.

Cllr Steele established Resilient Uist, with a group of volunteers, as a point of contact to help those who were stranded at home due to isolation. 

He explained: “Resilient Uist started last January, we were having a look at resilience planning as a whole for the islands and the community council had a chat about a local resilience plan with things like weather and ferry cancellations. Next thing, the rumours of COVID started and about lockdowns. It was a quick turn of events and we needed to think, should there be a lockdown, what do we do?”

A call on social media for volunteers found a significant number of people ready and willing to help with the project.

Delivering prescriptions and shopping were the main tasks set for the volunteers, to anyone who needed the service in the community. 

Steele said: “It was difficult because of how restricted things were at the beginning of the pandemic but we had so many volunteers and even more on standby who said they were able to help if needed but hadn’t given out their details officially.”

With help from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the team at Resilient Uist would receive shopping lists from isolating members of the community and the volunteers would do the rest.

Cllr Paul Steele

He continued: “We had to do something for those in the community who were unable to do these simple tasks.”

Community spirit was being felt across Uist throughout the pandemic as Cllr Steele explained: “The reaction was really positive. At the beginning of the pandemic we weren’t as busy as expected but that was because people were out helping their neighbours and keeping an eye on those in need. We were just a backup service but we were there for those who were really struggling.”

As well as prescriptions and shopping the ‘Ticks and Crosses’ initiative was introduced to encourage those who needed help to ask. Through this, window signs, with a green tick to indicate all is well on one side and a red cross to signify assistance is required on the other, were distributed to houses on Eriskay and South Uist. 

“It was more than just shopping though, it was a check in on neighbours and a chat at the door for people who weren’t able to see anyone else.”

Resilient Uist had over 3000 interactions with people in the community in relation to delivering prescriptions, providing a shopping service, supporting food bank deliveries, putting people in touch with other local agencies such as Caraidean Uibhist and also being the Comhairle’s main point of contact through their volunteer help desk.

On top of that the Ticks and Crosses scheme covered over 900 households in Eriskay, Lochboisdale, Bornish and Iochdar Community Council areas.

As well as Resilient Uist, Cllr Steele organised Christmas gift bags and a Santa’s sleigh for the children in the community.

He said: “We delivered gift bags to approximately 380 households, 650 adults and 100 children. We then provided 160 meals to the over 70s in the area and I can’t stress enough the generosity of our volunteers but also Double Mac at Burnside who provided those fish, chip and sausage suppers free of charge. The trifle, mousse and carrot cake desserts given to us by Croft and Cuan were great too, fantastic work from our community.

Then on the Monday we had our Santa’s Sleigh ride from Eriskay to Ormiclate which we live streamed on Facebook, it was fantastic and loved by children and adults alike.”

He expressed his gratitude towards the volunteers involved and every business who helped out along the way.

“We continue to help out and are thankful for all our volunteers, the effect their actions have had in our communities is immeasurable, and it was all done because it needed done and people wanted to help out. We don’t do it to get recognition but I think it’s really important that if there’s a way we can show our appreciation for our volunteers then we should do it so I want to say thank you to all of them and I’m glad I’m able to help out a little bit too.”

On the topic of volunteering, Cllr Steele said: “Volunteering encourages community bonding and it helps people with their day to day lives, especially during the pandemic. It has been quite an isolating time for a lot of people and it can already feel like an isolating place to live here. Lack of travel for example to see family can be detrimental.”

He continued: “With volunteering at least people know that their community is looking out for them, even if you do live away in the back and beyond. There will be people there to help. The other side of it is, during the pandemic, people felt helpless and didn’t know what they could do to help or what they were able to do to help, volunteering gave them that option to give back.”

There are so many opportunities to volunteer in your community, Steele concluded: “It’s really rewarding to volunteer here, there is plenty to get involved in. whether it be coaching kids in football or joining games committees or the hill race. The volunteers here are the heart of the community and a lot of the time it goes unnoticed.”

US Navy personnel donated to local charity Tagsa Uibhist.

Abigail Taylor

A group of allied forces personnel, both military and civilian, travelled to the Outer Hebrides to support the recent military missile defence exercise, Formidable Shield 21, that was held during the last two weeks of May 2021.

One member of the team made over 120 cloth masks using custom fabric that featured the seal of the exercise. US Navy Project Officer for this exercise, Lieutenant Commander Alisha Hamilton made the masks in the United States and supplied them to her team in the Western Isles.

Those who got a mask were asked to make a donation to a local charity. In the end over £240 in donations was collected as a result of her efforts.

On Thursday, 3rd June 2021, Tagsa Uibhist was chosen to be the beneficiary of the funds Lieutenant Commander Hamilton’s effort raised.

Tagsa Uibhist is a charitable organisation based on Benbecula. It is focused on providing support to people living with dementia, caregivers, and vulnerable people living in their own homes.

Lieutenant Commander Hamilton presented the funds donated in connection to the masks she furnished to Chris MacLullich (pictured above).

Chris said: “We were delighted to have a surprise visit from Lieutenant Commander Hamilton and her colleague Kevin Gillis, and even more so when they presented us with the Formidable Shield face masks that had been used to raise funds for Tagsa.

It was a very kind gesture and good to make the connection between the US Navy personnel who are being hosted here and the local community. Both let us know that Uist is a very special place for them and their colleagues and that they were delighted to make this contribution. We will use the funds for our work supporting people living with dementia.”

Local charities are planning future activities to support people with dementia and carers after COVID-19

Iain Stephen Morrison

Tagsa Uibhist and Caraidean Uibhist are embracing the gradual exit from coronavirus restrictions and are planning activities and developments to support people with dementia and their carers after the isolation of COVID-19.

“It is incredible to now have the prospect of re-starting group activities,” said Tagsa Uibhist chief executive Chris MacLullich.

“We are continually looking to provide stimulating environments and facilities for our clients and our first initiative is to upgrade our ‘sensory garden’ at Tagsa Uibhist, which, while we are in level one coronavirus restrictions, allows three of our clients to meet for companionship and to help with planting and taking care of the garden.

“We aim for the garden to be a safe and stimulating area that will encourage conversation, interaction and an interest in horticulture. Lockdown has been particularly difficult for elderly people and so we hope that participation in these activities will help to regain self confidence in being out and about, as well as building self-esteem.

“If funding permits we would like to re-open our dementia hub, but, instead of having this in Balivanich we would like to use our premises in Iochdar on South Uist. We know that there is a great need for more support for people living with dementia and we are proactively seeking funding for more visits, group activities, day trips and opportunities for stimulating social interaction.”

Caraidean Uibhist has secured funding from the Adapt & Thrive programme, part of which is to provide dementia services, with financial support also secured from the Crown Commission to arrange events, support unpaid carers and facilitate training with a view to becoming a ‘dementia friendly’ community.

“We will be working across the five islands to keep our activities local to our service users. Some of the community halls and churches have offered spaces free of charge, which is fantastic as it allows us to put on group activities. We will take the lead from our service users as to what sort of activities we arrange,” explained Caraidean Uibhist co-manager Tracy Walker.

“We have lots of plans and, fortunately, we have found some funding to overcome one of our biggest challenges, transport, from the Social Isolation and Loneliness Fund and Barchester Charitable Foundation. We also have a training schedule set up and hope to work with hospitality and retail businesses to become more dementia aware as soon as restrictions allow,” added Caraidean Uibhist co-manager Jo Sinclair.

Tagsa Uibhist is also planning a survey to understand at a local level the impact and needs arising from the experience of COVID-19.

“We know from research Alzheimer Scotland carried out at national level last year that the most common symptoms people living with dementia reported having increased since lockdown began were difficulty concentrating (48 percent), memory loss (47 percent) and agitation or restlessness (45 percent). This was particularly acute for those living alone, many of whom experienced distress and accelerated decline in their wellbeing,” explained Chris.

“We have been getting feedback from clients, their carers and our own carers that would indicate that lockdown has indeed been very tough on many people. We will be conducting a survey soon so that we can understand the needs better.”

Digital technology served to connect people during the months of lockdown and there is now discussion about its place in the world after COVID-19.

“Supporting our Cuimhne clients to use tablets in their homes was part of our strategy to keep people connected with their family and friends and to reduce isolation and loneliness. Tablets can also be valuable for cognitive stimulation as a means to look at photos and listen to music that stimulates memory and reminiscence.

This worked very well for some, and less so for others. The varying degree of success was related to the internet connection which is poor in some areas. Some services users were more used to digital technology and others had regular support from family, as well as the visits from Tagsa Uibhist. We can say that digital technology has enormous potential to reduce loneliness but good support and a good internet signal is vital.

Nothing can replace human contact but when this is not possible, we definitely see the benefits of helping people living with dementia to connect digitally,” added Chris.

Patient Participation Group to be re-formed for Benbecula Medical Practice

Iain Stephen Morrison

Patient participation groups work to provide patient perspectives on services, with members working alongside healthcare staff and GPs. Healthcare Improvement Scotland provides support to the more than 100 patient participation groups across Scotland.

Benbecula Medical Practice previously had an associated patient participation group and, although no longer active, the Facebook page for the forum provided a useful platform during COVID-19.

Recent efforts to relaunch the patient participation group started with two local women, Mary Galbraith and Diane McPherson, both patients at Benbecula Medical Practice.

“I first met Diane McPherson through the Western Isles Patient Panel and there we started to discuss relaunching the patient participation group for Benbecula Medical Practice,” explained Mary.

“During lockdown the patient participation group page on Facebook, which was still active even though the group was dormant, was a real lifeline as a point of contact and source of information. Dr Dawson was excellent at responding to points raised on the page and engaging with patients as the situation changed as concerned COVID-19.”

Mary is a former depute headteacher at Sgoil Lionacleit. She has suffered heart attacks caused by Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) and suffers from microvascular angina, both cardiovascular conditions that predominantly affect women.

Mary has worked to raise awareness of women’s heart health issues, sharing content on social media and being active in a variety of patient groups.

“Several of the consultants who have helped me over the years have emphasised the importance of ‘patient voice’ and that has led me to work on awareness raising in different contexts and, after considering what could be done at a more local level, supporting the reinstatement of the patient participation group for Benbecula Medical Practice.

“Patient voice is tremendously important, with the power to transform services, which is critical now with the remobilisation of services and changes that have come to pass since the onset of COVID-19.”

Diane McPherson added: “We are particularly interested in ensuring that the views of young people, young carers and others who are unable to access information digitally or are otherwise not normally represented on such groups can be heard.”

Initial meetings have taken place to discuss the reorganisation of the patient participation group for Benbecula Medical Practice. It is hoped, once re-established, that the forum can influence the development of local health services, advise the practice about service improvements, raise awareness of key public health messages and participate in the Locality Planning Group.

Dr Kate Dawson, GP partner at Benbecula Medical Practice, said: “During the early days of the pandemic, the practice put in place a number of changes to services, without consultation. The practice is now reviewing these changes, and the patient participation group will be a fantastic resource for this, and for any future projects.”

In order to find out more about the group or how to get involved, email benbecula.wi@nhs.scot or visit the Benbecula Medical Practice Patient Participation Group page on Facebook.

Alasdair Allan has put housing at the top of his priorities list for the new term of the Scottish Parliament

Abigail Taylor

Last month, Alasdair Allan (SNP) was elected for a fourth term to represent the Western Isles in the Scottish Parliament.

He identified housing as the critical issue for the islands moving forward, in a discussion about the next parliamentary term with Am Pàipear.

“I think locally, one of the biggest issues, specifically in Uist, is housing,” said Dr Allan.

“If there’s going to be a thriving community in the Western Isles in the future, there has to be places to live. Important as tourism is, important as other parts of the economy are, we have to give some serious thought to where people are going to live.”

Office for National Statistics figures revealed that the Western Isles recorded the biggest increase in average house price over the last five years across the UK.

Statistics published in the UK House Price Index (February 2021) reveal that the average price of a house in the Outer Hebrides in February 2016 was £87,494 and that figure had risen to £132,397 in February 2021, representing an increase of 51.32%.

“There has already been serious investment in the islands from the government in affordable rented housing, although I do have questions about how little has been built outside of the Stornoway area,” continued Dr Allan.

“We have to look at the issues that people in Uist are raising about whether people are going to be able to buy a house. There are holiday homes and second homes in every part of the islands and the question is, is it sustainable?”

Depopulation remains a challenge for the islands and housing can help with its reversal, insists the newly re-elected MSP.

“It’s a significant issue if we want to have schools full with children and lights on in the community. We need to think where we build houses and move away from the idea of only building affordable housing where there has been demonstrated demand. By definition, if there aren’t more socially affordable houses in an area, there will be no record of demand for houses that don’t exist. We have to think much more imaginatively about the future of this problem.”

COVID-19 recovery was underlined as a priority for the SNP throughout the election campaign and this must come first says Dr Allan.

“The conversation now is about what the first 100 days of this parliament will look like in terms of national priorities for childcare, housing and the SNP also stood on a manifesto of allowing the Scottish people to choose independence. But at the moment nationally and especially on the islands we are focusing on moving out of the pandemic.”

Foodbank use soared through the pandemic as the economic downturn was heavily felt in the Western Isles.

458 adults received support from Uist and Barra Foodbank in 2020, more than double the number, 221, recorded in 2019. In the same period the number of children receiving support increased more than 80 percent, rising from 80 in 2019 to 145 in 2020. 167 food parcels were issued from Uist and Barra Foodbank in 2019 and this number also went up more than 80 percent, to 308, in 2020.

“It’s particularly difficult in a place like the Western Isles where people are really reluctant to advertise the fact that they’re in need,” commented Dr Allan.

“It goes beyond COVID-19. I believe it goes back to changes in the benefits system, some of which happened due to the pandemic, of course, but the fact that small businesses and people are struggling to get on their feet is worrying.

“It will hopefully improve now that the economy is opening up and people can start to get back to normal but it will take time. It’ll be a while before we can overcome the real hardship issues that have been brought to light in this past year.

“I think all I can really offer is to push these issues in parliament again. It’s a big task to represent such different communities and the islands all have different needs. Part of the job is about recognising the different needs across the area, and explaining that to the government as well.”

Podcast – Alasdair Allan
3rd June 2021