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Stòras Uibhist is planning a big year for visitors in 2021

Abigail Taylor

Following the anticipated easing of coronavirus restrictions, Stòras Uibhist hopes to attract lots of visitors back to some of its critical assets, Askernish Golf Course and Grogarry Lodge.

Stòras Uibhist chief executive Darren Taylor told Am Pàipear a refurbishment of the lodge is set to take place before guests return for the upcoming season.

“Grogarry Lodge is more than 100 years old and buildings here on the island take a beating from the weather, so there has been some money in the budget set aside for some refurbishment. That’s part of an ongoing process, the lodge needs continued investment,” explained Mr Taylor.

Guests have already been booking into the lodge from May onwards although Mr Taylor believes the season will begin later in the year as restrictions are set to be lifted gradually.

Based around the sporting activities it promotes, the lodge has its busiest season in late summer, giving hope for a successful and busy period towards the end of 2021.

“The thing is with Grogarry Lodge, our best and busiest season is late August and September through to Christmas. They’re the biggest bookings with shooting and stalking parties, so I’m pretty positive that we will get a good season down there.”

Grogarry Lodge has been closed for almost a year, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left Stòras Uibhist without a significant income from visitors.

However, a recruitment process is underway to find gamekeepers to work with crofters and to guide guests when they’re allowed to return.

Mr Taylor explained that he hopes the recruitment will be within the islands but he is committed to finding the best possible person for the roles.

Recruitment is also ongoing for Askernish Golf Course, to find a Deputy Course Manager who will work towards improving the brand of the course.

Golf World magazine recently rated Askernish in the top 50 courses in Scotland, placing it in the top 10 percent of courses in the country.

“We’re keen to develop it as a real jewel in the Stòras Uibhist empire,” continued Mr Taylor.

“We want to attract more people over to play golf and we want to develop the Askernish brand. It’s one of the oldest courses in Scotland and has a tremendous history, so it’s important that we have the right staff and the right amount of staff to make sure that we are world class.”

Government guidelines suggest that the golf course will be among the first facilities to reopen as restrictions are relaxed.

“We’re hopeful with the government talking about outdoor sports being lifted that we can get back to that sooner rather than later and have a busy year at Askernish. One of the things about Askernish Golf Course is how much money it brings to the local economy as well as for Stòras Uibhist, so the sooner we can get people back to playing golf the happier we’ll be.”

New local Citizens Advice Bureau manager Lynda MacLean discusses her work and life at home on North Uist

Abigail Taylor

Having been born on the islands, growing up and now living in Claddach Baleshare, Lynda MacLean was recently been appointed Operations Manager for the Citizens Advice Bureau in the Western Isles.

Lynda, 31, has been serving the local community for more than five years working with CAB. Her work stretches across the Outer Hebrides and is the “job of a lifetime” says Lynda.

“I noticed that this job came up, took it on and was offered the position. It’s so rewarding to be helping so many people in the community.”

Like so many, Lynda’s day-to-day work life changed when the pandemic hit. New problems were emerging for people. With bigger hoops for her team to jump through in order to provide the guidance and advice the community needed, adaptation was key.

“No day is the same. You’ve no idea what’s going to come through the door in a day. Obviously things have changed now due to the pandemic, people can’t just come into the offices to get help or advice. But we’re there on the phones or email and even Zoom. We’re adapting and making it work.”

Lynda explained the importance of her role in the community: “We are a worthwhile service. People have come back and told us that we have helped their lives. I don’t know what some people would do without this service. So many people fall through the cracks and we’re there to prevent that as much as possible.”

What is important to Lynda is her job and community, her family and where she comes from. Her responsibilities lie with her son Angus, 7, stepping in as teacher as well as mum for most of this past year.

“Lockdown hasn’t hit us too badly,” reflected Lynda. “I’ve been able to spend it with Angus and we homeschool and work from home. It’s been a bit difficult but we got over it. He loves being at home with his Papa too, helping him outside and in the garden. It’s been a nice time. My husband, Tommy, and my mum are posties and they’ve not stopped working, so a lot didn’t have to change for us.”

Her home is situated just a stone’s throw away from where she grew up with her mum, Tina, and dad, Angus. Lynda and Tommy live in a new-build with character, similar to her grandparents’ cottage.

“I love living here and wouldn’t ever want to live anywhere else. I think it’s the best place to live, the remoteness and rural aspect of it is something I like a lot. Especially during lockdown, I couldn’t imagine having been stuck in a big city. The life for children here is second to none as they have freedom to be outside and learn.”

As someone who has decided to stay on the islands and raise a family with her husband, Lynda wants to encourage more young people to do the same.

“Young people should look more into life on the islands. I never expected to get this job at the CAB and never thought I’d reach this level. You just have to take a look and see what’s out there for you. Sometimes you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, and that’s okay.”

Times and attitudes towards work are changing, working from home and remote working has enabled people to enjoy where they are from: “I hope that the way things are now, it’ll give an opportunity to the islands. There will be more jobs available here and I hope that young people see the benefits of living where they’re from.”

Lochmaddy play park is set for a much needed refurbishment with the first steps taken to raise £95,000

Abigail Taylor

Local mums, Helen Stoddart and Selene Huntly, who both live close to the North Uist play park, have teamed up with Lochmaddy Hall committee to secure the necessary funds to improve the dilapidated playarea.

Consultation was arranged with primary school children, to ensure the right equipment will be bought.

“We gave them an A3 sheet and their head teacher encouraged them to draw their ideal play park and we got 58 drawings back. From those drawings we created a list of their most popular equipment of what we would get,” explained Helen.

Parents have also discussed ideas for a theme, to make sure the revamped play park will be a perfect fit in the local environment. As the village has links to fishing and an active harbour, a boat theme would not be a surprise to the organisers.

The existing park, which needs “completely ripped out and started again”, has been there for more than 20 years. Residents raised funds at the time it was established, although time and the weather have not been kind to the equipment.

Along with the park renovations, the team is interested in improving the football pitch beside the play park.

Recognising its importance to the area, Helen said: “We’re definitely keeping the pitch but it needs a bit of help as well. The kids really wanted to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere.”

In order to achieve the aim of creating a new park, the committee is busy securing funds for the project.

“We have some funding campaigns on the go, including the Aviva Community Fund, which has raised £1000, and North Uist Community Council has given money as well.”

It is estimated it will cost £95,000 to fully equip the park with the most popular ideas from the children as well as important details to encourage creativity and imagination in play.

“We want to give something that will be attractive to kids, where they can have their own communal space. It’s something that they don’t have here. They have outdoor space, but they don’t have a play space for creative play. We show how much we value young people by the spaces we provide for them and we don’t have any for our kids. We’re excited to create a space that kids will really enjoy, as well as a meeting space for parents to come together and talk.”

Helen believes that having a new park will not only be good for local children and families, but for visitors who will be in the area for the ferry and services in the town.

“It’ll create a centre for the area and may be useful for people visiting the hotels nearby, Taigh Chearsabhagh, or when waiting on the ferry. It will be something to be proud of in our area and having pride in your local area. We’ve heard comments of the park being an embarrassment and people would feel prouder of a nicer space.”

Having raised around £11,000 in just three months Helen and the team are optimistic about future funding and providing the children in the area somewhere safe to play.

Organising events is set to become much easier with the launch of new business The Wee Party Box

Abigail Taylor

Launching on Facebook, ‘The Wee Party Box’ stirred up a lot of interest in the first few weeks of February.

Having recently returned to her family roots from the Middle East, self-proclaimed “lover of event design” Donna Young decided to take the leap of faith into a new business.

“I have two little boys and we wanted to move back. When I was thinking about this I was thinking about what I would do when we got back and what I could bring to the islands as well. I’m really conscious of the community here and how we keep the economy going,” explained Donna.

That sense of community was elevated once the business page was up and running on social media, as her page has achieved more than 100 followers in just a short time.

“I’ve had such a good response so far. I have been using social media and it’s so powerful.

“I had the idea of creating a business to bring something different to the islands. Normally when people have events here on the islands like weddings or birthdays they would have to order things online or buy things that you wouldn’t ever use again. My idea was to invest in these things so that people could hire them out and people wouldn’t need to worry about what they would do with them after their event was over.”

Donna wants to provide a service that will be a sense of relief to planners, whether they’re brides, parents organising birthday parties, or baby showers.

“I wanted to create the ‘party box’ so that I could just drop it off at their door, during COVID-19, and they would have everything they need. Post-COVID-19 it would have more of a design element, I would come in and set it all up. It takes a bit of time and effort so me doing that for them would really help out.”

Her love for design originated from when she decided to plan and design every aspect of her own wedding seven years ago.

“I did it all myself and that’s where the creative element came from. Being able to do that for people here would be so good. I am sharing stories of what I’ve got online so I’m just starting the launch process and it’s harder just now under ‘Level 4’ restrictions, but we will get there.

“We will be able to have parties and events again, especially brides who have had to cancel their weddings, it gives hope. And to be able to give them something that they will be able to add into their day will be brilliant. It’s something that I feel I love.”

Donna and her family decided to move back to where she grew up after the intensity of lockdown in the Middle East.

“We were stuck inside a house in the middle of the desert with 40 degree heat outside,” recalled Donna.

“We couldn’t go outside for a walk or do anything with the kids, no school and everything was closed. Everything was taken away from us so we had no family or friends and we had to think about what to do. We missed our family and we needed to do something for the kids.”

Her boys, Lachie and Lyle, were the inspiration behind the title of the business.

“It was coming up to my youngest son’s first birthday and I was thinking about how I could make it extra special and something that we all enjoyed. From then though the pressure has been on as a mum! He knows when his birthdays are coming up and he wants to know what the plan is!

“They’re all themed, and being a working mum with two kids, it’s quite difficult to find the time to get everything made with the chosen theme. So my idea was to provide this to the parents or whoever needs it.”

Local support is also important to this mum turned businesswoman.

“My hope is to work with other small businesses as well. I think that’s so important. So with event design I can work with photographers, cake makers and florists, we can support each other here and people want to work together. That part of the community is so important to me as well.”

The pandemic has had a silver lining here for Donna and her family, who will continue to support local and invest in their community: “There are so many new businesses coming out of this which I think is brilliant. It’s the perfect time to support them and allow something a bit different to flourish here.”

NatureScot is promoting a more environmentally friendly alternative to muirburning after a spate of wildfires in February

Abigail Taylor

Muirburn, permitted between October and April under certain conditions set out in the ‘Muirburn Code’, is the practice of burning heather to encourage fresh growth for game and livestock.

Last month, over two days, fire crews were called to uncontrolled blazes on moorland on the east side of Benbecula, with fires also taking hold around Eaval on North Uist and across a section of Iochdar common grazing on South Uist. While the fires are not all known to have started as muirburn, their occurence has sparked discussion on the practice.

Johanne Ferguson, Operations Manager for NatureScot, explained some of the detrimental effects associated with muirburn: “The fires release huge amounts of carbon dioxide. We’re all extremely concerned about climate change at the minute and as for Uist, it’s experiencing firsthand the effects of climate change.”

Carbon is stored in peat and moss on the hills where the fires take hold. Once burnt, the land can take at least 15 years to regrow to where it needs to be to store carbon released in the air.

“Uncontrolled fires take over and end up burning the blanket bog areas,” continued Johanne. “These areas form the necessary moss to produce peat, so when these areas are cleared by the fires, there is no peat being formed to store the carbon that’s in the air.”

Cutting is being recommended by NatureScot as a way to protect the environment and the wildlife that may be living in the heather and growth that is being burnt. NatureScot staff are in discussion with Stòras Uibhist and common grazings committees and aim to identify areas crofters wish to manage with muirburn so as to promote the method of cutting.

“By cutting instead of burning, we can preserve the moss and peat in the ground, keeping the stored carbon where it should be. If you cut instead of burning, there is material to use again, for example, in composting,” continued Johanne.

Working together with the community, NatureScot staff hope to reduce the need for muirburn and protect the already pressured environment. Rare wildlife thrives in areas of heather, with eagles and other protected species known to nest in the habitat.

Johanne added that while some crofters will continue the practice of muirburn, she urges them to follow the guidance set out on the NatureScot website.

“If they have to burn then they must follow the rules. It is important to note that if people are burning close to nesting protected birds they are committing an offence as they will be disturbing a schedule one bird species.”

Scottish Fire and Rescue service also urged those who wished to continue to burn to follow the rules to prevent further fires getting out of control: “Strict parameters are set for landowners during muirburn period and these include considering factors such as the wind, any wildfire danger warnings that are issued, the nature of the material and having measures in place to prevent escalation. Failing to follow these can lead to rapid fire spread beyond the planned area.”

Work has started on the construction of fourteen new houses on Benbecula and South Uist

Iain Stephen Morrison

Fourteen new homes are now under construction, with ten to be built on Benbecula and a further four on South Uist.

Hebridean Housing Partnership said the development in Balivanich will include two one-bedroom houses, four two-bedroom properties and four houses with three bedrooms, while there will be two three-bedroom and two two-bedroom homes constructed at Howmore.

Calmax Construction Ltd is the contractor working on the Balivanich development, which is expected to be completed in early 2022, while MacInnes Bros Ltd is building the four new homes at Howmore, which are expected to be ready for tenants later in 2021.

Last year Hebridean Housing Partnership invited suggestions for names for the Balivanich development and settled on Johnstone Court, after the late Donald John Johnstone, a well known character from Benbecula.

Iain Macmillan, chairman of Hebridean Housing Partnership, commented: “Both the ten houses at Johnstone Court and four houses at Howmore, along with recent developments at Torlum and Garrynamonie, are part of the Hebridean Housing Partnership commitment to the delivery of the Strategic Housing Investment Plan, developed and agreed by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and delivered in partnership with Hebridean Housing Partnership and Scottish Government.

“We recognise that the provision of social housing is one way of providing the homes required to ensure the sustainability of the islands and are happy to work with local and national partners to deliver what is needed.”

Mr MacMillan added that a further eight homes, currently in the planning process, are to be built in Lochmaddy.

Confirmation that half the adults in the Western Isles have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination is most welcome, indeed, cause for some celebration. Combined with the fact that many of the oldest and most vulnerable in our communities, particularly those resident in care homes, have now also received their second dose, and encouraging data emerging on the effectiveness of the various vaccinations, we can all feel a sense of relief.

It is worth remembering the grave fears that marked this time last year, at the outset of the devastating so-called ‘first wave’ of the coronavirus. We watched and listened as the hammer blow fell hardest on the major centres of population on the mainland, pushing the NHS to the limit, and our own vulnerabilities were foremost in our minds. It has surely been worth enduring the restrictions on activities and contact, despite their own damaging effects, to reach this stage where our most susceptible friends and relatives have gained a significant level of protection.

While we should always be grateful for those who choose to work in healthcare, no matter what role, we are even more indebted to those who have worked so hard to protect us over the last twelve months from COVID-19. We thank those who staff our hospitals, providing care and treatment in the most taxing and frightening circumstances. But at this particular moment and over the months to come, we must also think of those who have worked to test, trace and now vaccinate our population. Many of these individuals are returned from retirement or have been seconded from other vital roles within the NHS and their achievements to date, keeping our islands relatively unscathed and seeing half the adult population well on the way to full vaccination in less than three months, is nothing short of remarkable.

Some reacted with disappointment when the Scottish Government recently announced its ‘roadmap’ out of the current lockdown. Most of Scotland has been in a ‘Level 4’ lockdown since Christmas with the Western Isles placed under the same designation at the end of January. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her statement to the Scottish Parliament on 23rd February 2021, where the ‘roadmap’ was outlined, said the ‘Level 4’ restrictions will remain until 26th April 2021. Understandably, given the challenges of the past year, not all were pleased that the much anticipated return to ‘normal life’ will not come sooner.

However, while the impacts of prolonged isolation, not to mention the negative economic consequences, are troublesome, it is critical that this exit from lockdown is indeed irreversible. It is not credible to consider a future scenario in which we return to this unhealthy existence. If a more cautious, incremental easing of restrictions will allow the vaccination programme to continue at its impressive pace, giving greater protection to a larger proportion of the population, then we must be patient in the hope this is the last time we will live under such rules.

It is clear the coronavirus has altered the world. Now it seems reasonable to imagine a future with no ‘stay at home’ order and considerably more freedom, some are starting to imagine society after COVID-19. In urban areas, with some element of home working expected to continue, it is thought redundant office units could become residential properties, traffic congestion could be significantly reduced with resultant benefits for the environment, and high streets will be reimagined to reflect changed demand for services.

Here on the islands, the situation will be somewhat different, but it is unquestionable that some change will be realised in the aftermath of COVID-19. It is not clear what progress is being made with the implementation of the local economic recovery strategy, far less what sort of implications, good and bad, will be realised in the Outer Hebrides. However, soon that future will be the present and we will all play a part in the rebuilding, whether helping those who have been in isolation return to more active lives, supporting local businesses or adapting to new ways of working. It will be daunting at first and no doubt there will be challenges and opportunities.

Healthcare workers have adapted, kept us safe and seen many of us vaccinated in impressive time. It is imperative the transition to the ‘new normal’ is also marked by adaptability and the economic recovery keeps up with the pace.

Boat formerly based at Benbecula Airport to be repurposed as safety vessel at Lochboisdale Harbour

Abigail Taylor

Lochboisdale Harbour has secured a new safety vessel from Benbecula Community Council, which was previously held at Benbecula Airport. Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) last year donated the boat to Benbecula Community Council.

Now the six and a half foot humber rib boat will serve as a safety boat along Lochboisdale Harbour and work with the coast guard in any accidents and emergencies in the vicinity.

Benbecula Airport manager Roddy Mackay said: “The craft was gifted to Benbecula Community Council, which was able to liaise with other island community groups to see who could benefit from an addition to their fleet.

“Lochboisdale Development Ltd expressed interest in the craft and subsequently purchased it from Benbecula Community Council. We are delighted the rib is staying locally and will be used by local people, while the funds from the sale will be used to benefit the community in other ways.”

Rona Mackay, chair of Benbecula Community Council, explained that the plans were put to the joint group, Uist Association of Community Councils, in order to decide the next steps.

“We asked if they were interested in making it a joint project as the airport doesn’t just serve Benbecula, it is used by people from across the islands. We put out information about the vessel and asked if anyone had any interest in the boat in the community.”

Benbecula Community Council and Lochboisdale Development Ltd agreed the price of £6,500 for the vessel, which was then approved by the association before a payment was made.

Donald Currie, Harbour Master at Lochboisdale, explained the use of the vessel: “It will be a safety boat in the harbour area. We are a harbour authority so we have to manage the inlet into the harbour and make sure the channel is clear for ferries and fishing boats to get through. The vessel can be used in order to make sure the channel is safe and clear at all times.”

A group of volunteers have already got together to prepare for the arrival of the boat at the harbour. They, alongside Donald, will train to work with the coastguard in the event of emergencies.

As harbour master, Donald was already receiving calls from the coastguard if there were incidents nearby, but now with the new arrival on the docks, he will be able to assist wherever possible.

“The coastguard would still send a lifeboat and then if we could assist in any way, we would take guidance from them and, if we had people available, we were able to help.

“Barra lifeboat is about an hour away from the harbour, plus the time to get the crew sorted on the boat. There have been incidents before where the lifeboat had been deployed but it was fishermen who got to the incident first. It’s an extra blanket of safety to have here, that we can send our vessel to help in these situations.”

This season is expected to be busier at Lochboisdale Harbour if restrictions from the pandemic are lifted. With more people in the area, there is a much higher chance of accidents in the water. The crew at the harbour is hopeful that some events will be able to take place and therefore are grateful that the vessel will be on site if needed.

Donald explained: “We would normally have to hire a safety crew for events like regattas but now we are able to provide this service ourselves with the volunteers here.”

He expressed his gratitude to HIAL and the fire service for maintaining the boat and allowing it to be placed into the hands of the community.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank HIAL for donating this vessel to the community council and allowing us to take it on. I would like to thank the fire service for looking after and maintaining the vessel as well. Benbecula Community Council and Cllr Iain MacNeil also, for all their support.”