Bank of Scotland claims 50% drop in business

The Bank of Scotland has confirmed it will be closing its Lochmaddy branch on February 26th, 2024.
In a statement issued to confirm its plans, Bank of Scotland said: “With more customers choosing to use digital ways to bank and manage their money, visits at this branch have fallen. As a result, we’ve made the difficult decision to close it.”

The bank says the decision follows ‘an in-depth’ review of operations that shows business at the branch has halved over the last four years.

The bank says the branch, which now only opens from 10am to 2.30 pm on a Tuesday and a Thursday, has seen a 64% drop in personal transactions since 2018. The number of people using the cash machine at the branch has fallen by more than 50% in the same time period. Bank of Scotland say the branch currently has only eight regular customers.

In support if its decision, the bank says Lochmaddy customers are already banking in other ways, citing that 71% of customers using Lochmaddy branch have also used other Bank of Scotland branches, Internet Banking or Telephone Banking and 33% have also used the Post Office.

Although the decision to close has already been taken, Bank of Scotland says it will now carry out a ‘Stage 2 Branch Review’, engaging the community to further understand the impact of closure.
Commenting on the announcement, MSP Alasdair Allan said:

“I am very concerned by the proposed closures of the Bank of Scotland’s branches in Tarbert and Lochmaddy. While many customers are now able to make use of digital and phone banking, there are many services which can only be carried out in-branch, and there can be technical issues with digital banking as well as lengthy and frustrating waits to speak with customer support teams over the phone. 
“After a taxpayer-funded bailout of £30 billion following 2008’s financial crash, surely the Bank of Scotland can do better than this for its customers, particularly a number of elderly or vulnerable users, for whom making the switch to online or over the phone banking could be extremely difficult.”

Cladach Chnoc a Lin resident Catherine Laing told Am Pàipear of her growing resignation at the loss of yet another service: “There was a time when I remembered each new service improvement with a sense of wellbeing. Services are being pared back time and again until we are left to survive on just the crumbs.

“Lochmaddy is a thriving place, with a port office, a busy shop, two hotels and an arts centre. With new houses bringing more people to the village, surely the decision merits a rethink.

“The service provision in Uist is appalling. We used to have daily flights; we used to have drains cleared every year to avoid flooding in winter. The verges are left untended and we cannot walk safely along our single track roads. So a bank closing its door is just another loss among many.”

Fears have also been raised that a pattern is repeating: “It’s the same situation we had with the post offices; first they start with reduced service hours, so customers find it harder to access the service and the powers that be then have the evidence they need to support a branch closure.”

Bank of Scotland listed two viable alternative branches for customers to consider; the first being Balivanich and the second being Portree, which is described as being 47.09 miles away, with the helpful advice that ‘Public transport to Portree requires a short walk to Lochmaddy Ferry Terminal, then a ferry to Uig Skye Ferry Terminal, along with a bus journey and short walk to the branch. Journey times are variable.’ Am Pàipear suggests readers may want to check that the Portree branch is open, the ferries are actually running and the weather is calm before heading out.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil has called for a change of heart:
“I have recently been contacted by constituents in North Uist who are concerned that the Lochmaddy branch is going to close. Customers living in Berneray, who do not have private transport, will have to make a 60-mile return trip by bus to access the bank in Benbecula.

 “The Bank of Scotland has listed the Portree branch along with the Benbecula and Stornoway branches, as an alternative for customers. It is crass to suggest that customers should take a ferry to access a bank.

 “I urge the Bank of Scotland to reconsider the decision to close the branches in Lochmaddy and Tarbert to ensure that my constituents continue to have access to the full range of banking services without the requirement to make lengthy travel journeys.”

Donald Cameron, Conservative MSP for Highlands and Islands, has also called for the branch to remain open.

The new kid on the block

Siân Swinton

South Uist Distillers is the new venture from the same mind behind Uist Sea Tours, David Steele.
On his boat, Karleen Belle, on a recent trip to Mingulay, David spoke about the opportunity to branch out and make something new which would, hopefully, create jobs on the island and provide an income outside of the season for being on the water. Thus South Uist Distillers was born.

With gin already being made on Uist and whisky well on the way, David sought out something that hadn’t been done yet – rum.

He spoke about how he had been advised to “soft launch” the product and create anticipation, but instead exploded onto social media with a full website and all products available immediately. The effect was a boom in sales and high levels of interest. The initial announcement posts on social media received a huge outpouring of local support and a few days later people were already sharing their favourite ways to drink the rum, whether neat or with a wide range of mixers.

There are currently three varieties available – a dark rum, a spiced rosehip rum and a scotch bonnet rum. All of these can be bought through the website and, excitingly, can be tried in all pubs across Uist with one pub selling out after just a few days! David recommends trying the scotch bonnet rum with some ginger beer or the spiced rosehip with apple juice.

It’s clear to see the care that has gone into creating the product and the company, both through the packaging and marketing design and by the way David talks about it.

“There’s a story on the bottle,” he said, indicating the aged, weather beaten-map that features on the label. “See if you can work it out!”

David took his pirate inspired thoughts to his designer and the result is a beautiful label and branding that really leans into their tagline: “Adventurous spirits”.

The rum is currently made in small batches on the mainland, with David overseeing every stage of development of the product and all aspects of the company, but it’s hoped that production will soon be brought on to the island and create a small number of jobs for locals once a location can be secured.
“It won’t be a big fancy building, but it will be enough!” he said.

South Uist Distillers have, so far, sent their product all over Scotland and England and have been approached to begin exporting. Unafraid of a bit of graft, David is keen to learn all he can about the industry to make sure he brings as much knowledge and heart to it as he does to Uist Sea Tours. He spoke about the importance of being hands on and learning by doing when you take on something new:
“I’m new to the industry so I just want to make sure I get everything right!” he said. Anyone who knows David and Uist Sea Tours can definitely be safe in the knowledge he’s putting in his all to create something special for South Uist.

It’s just the beginning for this new venture and there are sure to be some wonderful things to come from South Uist Distillers. To keep up with all of their news you can subscribe to their newsletter via their website.

Call for mezzanine deck

A new Report published by the Harris Development Company has detailed £8.5m losses as a result of reduced ferry capacity over the summer months.

Harris Development Company Chair Kenny Macleod said that CalMac’s continued insistence that the mezzanine deck could only be in service on a limited number of sailings had cost the community of the Western Isles dearly.

Mr Macleod set out the details of the losses in a letter to Transport Minister Gilruth on November 11th, and told Am Pàipear that he had yet to receive any reply other that a notification of receipt.

The Report used CalMac’s own figures to show that almost 10,000 fewer vehicles travelled on the Uig triangle route in the period June to September 2022, compared to the same period in 2019.

Mr Macleod said: “Even if we take a three-year pre-Covid average and compare that to the 2022 figures, it shows 9382 fewer vehicles carried (9204 for cars only). These are huge reductions and are causing alarm in our communities. Putting costs onto these makes even more frightening reading.”

Mr Macleod continued: “We used an average contribution to our economy by cars of £1500 (average accommodation cost of £750 and a similar amount spent on food, excursions, craft products, etc). If we allow for around 2000 of the lost traffic to be local vehicles, then the cost would be in the region of £11.55m (7,700 x 1500). If we assume that the cars aren’t going to self-caterings but are instead using other accommodation types and staying for an average of three nights (accommodation £300, food 150, spend 250 = 700) the figure would be £5.39M.”

“Taking an average figure as the reality would be a mix of both, then the loss to the communities of Harris and Uist is just short of £8.5m. That is more than 10 times the cost that CalMac said they would incur for maintaining the service at pre-Covid level.

The Uig triangle report follows an earlier economic impact study by the Lochboisdale Ferry Impact Group, which detailed local business losses of £648,000 over a period of 14 days in May when the Lochboisdale/Mallaig ferry was out of service. The Group delivering the report said the assessment showed that for each day of cancelled sailings, Uist suffers a loss equivalent to almost 2.5x a full year’s average salary on Uist (£46,285 a day).

A spokesperson for CalMac said: “We can’t always deploy the mezzanine decks due to the length of time it takes – it could be that if they were deployed, a sailing may be delayed or it might breach the strict rules governing hours of rest for crew.”

CalMac’s website has the following statement: “As demand increases across our services it has become increasingly difficult to continue to deploy mezzanine decks on an increasing number of sailings, whilst at the same time keeping to the published timetable.  We know that communities want us to provide as much capacity on vessels as possible, by deploying mezzanine decks on as many sailings as possible.  We have listened to their feedback and designed a timetable that allows us to deploy mezzanine decks on as many sailings as we can but allows enough time for the vessel to ensure they can operate to the published timetable.”

Food and drink award winners

The October issue of Am Pàipear featured two island businesses shortlisted for national awards. In this month’s paper we can follow up with the good news that both companies were able to bring home new awards for the ever-growing Uist Trophy Cabinet.

North Uist Distillery picked up the prestigious title of Scottish Distillery of the Year 2022 at the Scottish Gin Awards, and also scooped a second award for Excellence in Branding. This is the 19th Award for the Distillery, but founder Kate MacDonald described this particular win as a big highlight:

“The whole team are so thrilled to have won Scottish Gin Distillery of the Year. It has been a chance for us to pause, reflect and celebrate the successes of the last three years. A huge thanks to all of the team who have worked so hard to make it all happen; Everyone who has ever bought a bottle of Downpour Gin and the whole community who have backed us in the Hebrides and further afield. To everyone in the industry who has offered help and support along the way – we really appreciate it. It has been a real team and community effort to achieve this.”

At the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards, Salar Smokehouse picked up the award for Best Food: Foodservice for its Salar Flaky Smoked Salmon, winning through from a prestigious seven-strong shortlist. Young Charlie’s Bistro chef Cameron Rae narrowly missed out on the title of Young Ambasador of the Year, but his shortlisting in itself was a considerable achievement.

At the same awards, Bùth Bharraigh picked up the title of Independent Retailer of the Year.

Dedicated vessel for Lochmaddy-Uig run

Transport Scotland has announced the news many islanders have been longing to hear: two new ferries for the Skye triangle routes, allowing for a dedicated boat on both the Lochmaddy and the Tarbert runs.

Whether it was as a result of Audit Scotland’s damning report on ferry procurement, consistent and increasingly vocal pressure from the Uist community, the well-evidenced financial losses faced by local businesses or the continued pressure from our locally elected members is unclear, but Scottish Government does now, finally, appear to be listening.

The two new ferries are to be allocated £115m of additional funding over and above the £580m already allocated for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry network, and a contract for the new vessels is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

The new vessels will be based on the design of the two Islay ferries currently under construction in Turkey. The Islay ferries are 94.8m long and each carry up to 450 passengers, less than half the capacity of ‘Hull 802’, the previous vessel commission intended for the Lochmaddy route.

Minister for Transport Jenny Gilruth said: “Our intention is that these ferries would be deployed on the Skye triangle routes to Lochmaddy and Tarbert, delivering dedicated services to communities in the peak season rather than the shared vessel operation currently in place. This will create the opportunity for significantly increased capacity and resilience for the communities of the Western Isles.

“It will also allow consideration of all options to deploy Vessel 802 on an alternative route, including potentially alongside her sister ship, the MV Glen Sannox, to provide additional capacity to and from Arran in the peak season. All the options will be discussed with island communities at the appropriate time.”

Kevin Hobbs, Chief Executive at CMAL, said: “This is a highly welcome commitment from the Scottish Government, which allows us to increase the pace of vessel replacement plans in line with our ambitions. This additional investment will bring two new vessels to the fleet, meaning a total of six major vessels will be replaced by 2026. It also means communities in Harris and North Uist will benefit from a two vessel service, a move that will strengthen overall resilience.”

The hope will be that this new procurement process will avoid the disastrous mistakes of the ‘Hull 801/802’ contract, which have resulted in the vessel originally marked for the Skye triangle route, still languishing in Glasgow with a price tag more than two and a half times the original contract cost.

While the announcement of a dedicated ferry for the Lochmaddy to Uig route is welcome, concerns about service resilience over the next two years still remain and the situation is far from plain sailing.

Uig pier works, originally commissioned to accommodate a vessel that is now unlikely to grace its pier, will see the Lochmaddy – Skye sailings cancelled from the end of January to the end of March next year, and then again between October and December. With Uig closed, the 33 year old Lord of the Isles, which has suffered a number of technical failings in recent years, will be under greater pressure on a route that is prone to winter cancellations.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: “The Comhairle, and many other local and community groups have been calling for much needed additional capacity and resilience in the CalMac fleet so today’s announcement will be welcomed throughout the Islands.

“Our communities deserve better ferry services than we have been getting and this is a major step forward, one that I hope can be built on in the development of lifeline Island travel services.  We look forward to discussing with the Scottish Government, agencies and our communities further improvements that can be made to ferry services including timetabling.”

“We would take this opportunity to thank the Minister, Transport Scotland and CMAL for listening to the case we have made.”

More on the new ferries in Cllr Robertson’s column.

£1m festival boost for local economy

The team behind the hugely popular Eilean Dorcha Festival (EDF) has published the findings of an independent Visitor Survey and Economic Impact Report, showcasing the value of the three day event – not only in terms of the sheer fun it delivered, but the hard cash it injected into the local economy.

The Report, carried out by MKA Economics in Stirling details the facts and figures that evidence the impressive headline figure of a £1m boost to the local economy:

• EDF attracted 4999 festival goers – 29% more than the previous pre-Covid event

• 49% of festival goers were local (2,229 people) , with the remaining 51% (2,549 people) visiting from the Scottish mainland and beyond

• The total average spend per visitor during the festival weekend was estimated to be in the region of £384.37, a 22% uplift on 2019 figures – providing a total spend of £991,290

• 65% of visitors cited EDF as an important or very important reason for their trip

• The event was supported by around £70,000 of public funding, with every £1 of public support generating a further £14 of economic value

The Report also highlights the great feedback the event generated, with 53% of festival goers describing EDF as ‘Excellent’, and 33% (34% in 2019) saying it was ‘Very Good’, giving an 86% satisfaction rate overall.

The most frequent answers to the survey question: ‘What would have made your stay even more enjoyable?’ referenced ‘better weather’ and ‘more reliable ferrries’.

Festival organiser Roddy MacKay was delighted with the results, saying: “We could see during the weekend that the festival was a big success, but we have been blown away by the economic findings.

“The study demonstrates the power communities have when they pull together to organise an event that helps build a positive, ambitious future, and that was particularly relevant this year after a last-minute hitch when the tent suppliers pulled out.

Suddenly we had to rearrange the full event from indoor to outdoor at the last minute. A call went out for assistance, and the community came to the rescue in their droves. It meant a change of stage, sound, lighting, a new event safety plan, everything. It effectively meant a completely new event had to be drawn up in a week but, somehow, we managed to pull it off and people clearly enjoyed themselves.”

“We are very proud that, for just a £10 weekend ticket, children of primary school age can enjoy not just the music, but a variety of fun activities, while anyone under five years receives free admission. It lends to a great family-friendly atmosphere.”

“In addition to the overall family experience, it is important that EDF delivers a substantial economic benefit for local businesses,” he added, “but to achieve an economic boost of £1m for the area in our first festival post-Covid is something we are incredibly proud of and a return of 14:1 for every pound received in public funding is particularly pleasing.

“It is our ambition to keep building on our success, to enhance the festival experience even further, and to make Eilean Dorcha Festival an unmissable occasion as part of a must-visit destination.”

New Benbecula Distillery works underway

Construction has begun on a new distillery in Benbecula, adding a range of exciting spirits to the growing Hebridean drinks market.

Spearheaded by South Uist father and son duo Angus A MacMillan and Angus E MacMillan, Benbecula Distillery will pay homage to the island’s rich maritime heritage with historical and nautical themes throughout the building including a storytelling corner, a seafood bar and a lighthouse offering 360 degree views over Benbecula looking as far as Skye, Harris and The Monach Isles.

Construction and installation of equipment on the site in Gramsdale is to be completed by the end of this year with drinks production due to commence early 2023 and the doors of the distillery opening to the public in the spring. Local contractor MacInnes Bros Ltd has been awarded the contract for the build phase.

The new distillery is expected to offer gin and whisky from Benbecula, adding to an already thriving drinks market in Uist and across the Western Isles.

Benbecula Distillery says its ambition is to produce 500,000 bottles of whisky per year, which it hopes will create around 10 local jobs.

Angus A MacMillan said: “The idea was first born out of realising the opportunity here in the Outer Hebrides for not only a strong drinks market but for the local economic impact in creating good quality jobs which would add to the drive in repopulating the islands with much needed young families.”
Joanna Peteranna, Area Manager at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said “This project will bring much-needed high quality and secure jobs to Benbecula. The plans include green energy technology, which should future proof the business in terms of Scotland’s net zero targets.

“It will also add to the other distillery developments in the Outer Hebrides and will help establish a whisky trail through the islands, which will be attractive for visitors. This is a fantastic project that, comparing levels of population, would create the equivalent of 10,000 jobs in Glasgow. This will be a significant boost to the Outer Hebrides tourism experience.”

Ahead of opening the Benbecula Distillery, the MacMillan family are launching an independent blending and bottling company, MacMillan Spirits Co, which is due to launch this month with a mission statement to ‘Seek out good things to drink and then put them in bottles for you’.

The company’s first batch of drinks includes Machair Gin, made with locally sourced Wild Angelica root, Molucca Golden Rum and a Wheelhouse Single Malt Whisky, which is described as ‘layered and robust with a sweet smokiness and smooth finish’.

First meeting for new networking group

Thursday 22nd September witnessed the launch of a new networking group for the Western Isles.
The Western Isles – Women in Business group was set up by two local business women, Sharon MacRury of Island Dreams Uist and Lindsay Robertson of Long Island Retreats & Larder. From launching the event and Facebook group just over two weeks ago the group now has over 70 members from across the Western Isles and has surpassed all expectations.

The first meeting held at the Dark Island Hotel on Benbecula, was attended by a very diverse group of business women, from hoteliers to yoga instructors to photographers and confectioners. The group is open to both women in business and professional businesswomen across the Western Isles and the locations of meetings will change each month to allow as many women to access the network as possible.

The group were joined by Joanna Peteranna, Area Manager for the Outer Hebrides with Highlands and Islands Enterprise who said: “It was really fantastic to spend time discussing business with such a talented and enthusiastic group of women.  I look forward to future events and the development of the network throughout the Outer Hebrides to provide more opportunities for business women to come together to learn and create new business connections.”

Co-Founder Lindsay Robertson said: “Joanna set the tone of the event from the outset by saying ‘women network very differently’ and that’s exactly what we did. As the speed networking session commenced the volume of chat within the room grew, with everyone making new connections and developing ideas of how they could work together in the future. It was great to witness the energy within the room and the positivity from the first meeting about how we could develop the group going forwards.”

Future events will include a mix of both in person and virtual events to be accessible to as many as possible across the islands. Ideas for events include Inspirational Speakers, Gin Tastings, a Christmas Party, January Planning & Goal Setting, Summer BBQ, Lunch & Learn with topics such as Social Media, Video for Business, Gaelic for Business and Business Growth.

Women who are interested in joining the group can sign up to the facebook group “Western Isles – Women in Business” or contact Sharon MacRury ( or Lindsay Robertson ( to sign up to the mailing list and find out more about future events.

Local businesses call time on ferry failures

The issue of our failing ferries was brought to a head in May, when Uist was left without any lifeline service, with both The Lord of the Isles and The Hebrides out of action for emergency repairs.

The situation lasted for several days, leaving vulnerable supplies stranded in Uig, and throwing travel plans into chaos for tourists and locals alike.

The cost of that disruption was on the agenda for a new group established by local businesses, and facilitated by Storas Uibhist.

The Group held their first meeting on Thursday, 26 May, with representatives from tourism and food businesses, retail, aquaculture and shellfish. The group will now be reaching out to the wider business community with the aim of constituting a ‘formal, credible group that will speak with authority and with one voice’.

The Group is now preparing what they believe will be a set of reasonable and achievable demands, with practical solutions that can make things better in the ‘here and now’. These short term demands would include a set-in-stone contingency plan that could be relied upon to cover every service loss, an assurance that The Lord of The Isles is never taken off the Uist run to cover service losses elsewhere in the network, and a means of compensating businesses for financial losses incurred as a result of ferry failures.

All present at the meeting were clear that urgent action was required, as John Daniel Peteranna described: “This needs to be fixed now, our livelihoods depend upon it. If it’s not, the only option we face is to go back 200 years and start the highland clearances again.”

Christina and Kevin Morrison of Croft & Cuan have been instrumental in bringing the group together, driven by the knowledge that ‘data talks’. Christina explained: “We all get angry on facebook, it’s hard not to, but it doesn’t actually change anything. We know that we need the hard data to make Scottish Government and CalMac understand what the service disruptions mean to local businesses.”

Christina continued: “Our survey was just one small sample and included many small traders like ourselves. The full figure for the whole year and across the sectors will be shockingly high.”

The online survey asked whether ‘current reliability issues would lead to a reduction in services, a reduction in staffing or a closure of the business’ – 84 of the 130 responding confirmed that as ‘likely or very likely’.

Kevin describes how their own business has been hit: “When the summer timetable came out, we saw an opportunity. Our shop is right by the ferry and we knew that the passengers passing our door would generate good business. So we changed our opening hours and employed a new member of staff to meet the new demand, and it worked well for us. Those extra sales are now gone but the costs we have incurred to meet the opportunity are still with us. For us the loss has been keenly felt.”

These are big impacts for small businesses to carry; they have survived two years of lockdown only to face the highest inflation rate in 40 years. The continued threat to their livelihoods that the ferries pose is making the climb back to recovery steeper still.

Connie Pattillo, MOWI’s Area Manager, Uist & Barra explained that the impacts are not just felt in the the tourism and food sectors: “The disrupted ferry service has an impact on our farming activities; whether that be supply of important equipment or travel of contractors required to maintain our high standards of farming. We hope this group will clearly highlight the impact on the local economy and help to drive forward better connectivity and a reliable service to South Uist.”

Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee, has warned that short term solutions are not easy to find: “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and be aware, we are a good three years from better.”

Alasdair Allan MSP told Am Pàipear: “Local businesses and individuals in Uist have experienced disproportionate and increasing levels of severe and prolonged disruption to ferry services from Lochboisdale and Lochmaddy over recent years. For example, Calmac’s own performance data shows a near 100% reduction in passenger numbers between 2018/2019 and 2022 for Lochboisdale, with four out of the past twelve months having an almost complete cancellation of service for one reason or another. This unreliability undermines islander and visitor confidence in our islands’ ferry services, as well as the immediate inconvenience and loss of income for many. I have been in regular correspondence with a number of Uist businesses about the ongoing issues and will be meeting with a group of local business representatives when I am next in Uist in June.

“It is my understanding that CalMac is in the process of reviewing the results of a feasibility study into chartering the MV Pentalina. Furthermore, the addition of the MV Loch Frisa this summer should help begin to rebuild the network’s resilience. However, to improve matters longer term, Harris and North Uist must have their own dedicated vessels, and the new Mallaig- Lochboisdale ferry, due in 2025, must dramatically increase the service’s reliability as well as overall capacity.”

A new email address has been set up to capture more data and everyone who had experienced the impacts of ferry service failures, whether a business operator or a member of the public, is being encouraged to email

The Chair of the CNES Transport & Infrastructure Committee on the ferry situation

Uist is a special place that offers so much to those of us who live here. We afford a special welcome to visitors who come to experience our beautiful islands in increasing numbers each year. In return for fond memories of their time in Uist these visitors provide revenue and trade that sustains island businesses and helps them trade year-round. We locals are so grateful to have restaurants to visit, shops for our own supplies and a distillery for a bottle of Downpour Gin, but without the seasonal visitor we would have fewer services and less choice. The fond memories of holidays to Uist mean the same visitors will buy Salar Salmon on the shelves of their local supermarket or order online for a Hebridean candle. Our ability to work and therefore live in Uist is anchored in the welcome we provide to visitors.

The unreliability of our ferry services and the catalogue of poor decision making by those Scottish Government-owned central belt-based bodies – Calmac, CMAL and Transport Scotland – are undermining our islands’ economy, rendering the very viability of many tourism focussed businesses uncertain.

As I write today Uist is without any ferry service to the mainland with MV Hebrides and MV Lord of the Isles out of service for repair. This doomsday scenario is the inevitable culmination of decades of underinvestment, coupled with dreadful decision making when Government belatedly acted. When things seemed as bad as they could get, the same organisations have visited the double whammy of removing the Mezzanine deck on many Hebrides sailings this Summer followed by the unprecedented 6-month closure of Uig pier from October. It is difficult not to despair!

I am proud that I have been afforded the trust of my fellow elected Members in being appointed to the role of Chair of Transportation for a second term. While it would be fair to say the role brings challenges it is one, I enjoy greatly.

Strong representations from elected members, businesses and Community Councils have been ignored by Calmac who have ploughed on with their decision to reduce the use of the Mezzanine deck on MV Hebrides this summer. This costs us 18 car spaces on each affected journey with the cost to Uist and Harris economies put at some £3M – £5M. This cost has been passed on to us rather than Government meeting an increased crewing cost that Calmac had proposed to Government of £800,000. This cost is what Calmac say they need to employ additional crew to maintain the contracted timetable and full vessel capacity. Whether we accept Calmac are correct in this assertion is a different issue however Scottish Government chose to believe the Calmac argument for removing the Mezzanine deck and chose not to meet the crew cost instead passing on a huge economic cost to our community. This is the real test of the Government’s commitment to our islands and stands in stark contrast to the warm words set out in their Islands (Scotland) Act.

Government’s failure to walk their talk in the Islands Act is again shown in the way the closure of Uig Pier for six months has been agreed to under the port improvement project to ready that port for new vessel 802. This project is being led by Highland Council as the port authority, but it is funded by Scottish Government. No consideration of the impact this closure will have on our communities was made and no Island Community Impact Assessment has been undertaken to understand the impact on Uist or Harris. Instead, a pointless economic impact assessment that only considered the businesses in Uig was undertaken not the far more significant economic and social impact on the Western Isles. However late in the day we need to see a full Island Community Impact Assessment undertaken and this must establish the cost to business in the Western Isles. Once this is fully understood, Scottish Government must implement a Business Continuity Scheme, similar to that which supported businesses impacted by the building of the tram project in Edinburgh, to compensate each and every business which suffers financial loss as a result of the closure of Uig pier. Why should businesses in Edinburgh be afforded more protection than businesses in Uist? Calmac and Transport Scotland assert that such a scheme has never been used to support businesses affected by works on a ferry terminal before, but there has never been a 6-month long closure of a port to allow the harbour to be redeveloped before!

Never again can Transport Scotland and Calmac be allowed to force bad vessel replacement decisions on our communities as we have seen with their imposition of a single vessel – Loch Seaforth – on the Stornoway service when the clear stated will of the community was two ferries on the route, or their choice to continue a shared ferry for the Tarbert and Lochmaddy routes when the community had a clear preference for a dedicated ferry for each route. We are all too aware of the disastrous consequences of this latter choice, which now stands at a cost of at least £125M for the ferry, in addition to harbour costs in the order of £70M and the unprecedented closure of Uig from October. Had islanders’ voices been heard, the cost of a new ferry to operate alongside MV Hebrides would have been no more than £40Million leaving £155Million for new vessels to be provided on the routes to Lochboisdale and Castlebay, with enough left over to provide a couple of new ferries elsewhere!

Our ask on ferry services is simple. It is for a Western Isles Network made up of six large ferries with two deployed to serve Stornoway and a dedicated ferry on the routes from Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Castlebay, plus two smaller ferries to serve the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra. Dedicated ferries will provide greater capacity and frequency in normal times and resilience will improve with the ability to cover any breakdown or dry dock maintenance within this network. This will be a step forward from current practice, where cancelling the Lochboisdale service seems to be Calmac’s go to position as soon as there is a need to cover a breakdown in operations in other areas or when Covid stretches manning on other vessels. The operations and management of this network should be based within the Western Isles and there should be an increased focus on recruiting crew locally. Only with greater local control and accountability can we expect to see the services our people deserve. This is for a long- term fix, or jam tomorrow though. In the short term we need another vessel in the fleet now to cover breakdowns and add capacity when Uig is closed. The only obvious opportunity is a charter of MV Pentalina and Government must provide funding to allow Calmac to lease and crew this ferry until 802 is in service, whenever that might be!

Uist needs our lifeline to be resilient, reliable and adequate and this should not be too much to expect! I know those of us reading Am Pàipear know that the changes I describe need to happen but how can we persuade Scottish Government that the people of these islands will not stand for this any longer? We need everyone to be in accord on what needs to happen and I am looking to my fellow Councillors, Alasdair Allan our local MSP, the list MSPs and Angus Brendan MacNeil our MP to join with me in calling out Government’s inaction, and provide the collective will for the package of measures I have described to be implemented starting with the charter of MV Pentalina.

The port staff, locally based management team and crews do a fantastic job. The current situation is not of their making. Please, always treat them with courtesy and respect .