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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 ferryimpact@storasuibhist.com.

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 .

21/05/2022

A song will be sung

The weather in Daliburgh didn’t quite live up to the name of ‘bright hill’ on Friday 13th May, when the team behind Cnoc Soilleir gathered to celebrate another important milestone in the project’s history: the formal handing over of the keys of its state the art community building

The rain did hold off however, as Board members past and present, along with contractors Neil MacInnes and David MacInnes, were piped into the building by Ceòlas Tutor Allan Henderson.

Sue Macfarlane, Principal of UHI Outer Hebrides, and Chair of the Cnoc Soilleir Board, was delighted to formally take ownership of the keys on behalf of the community: “Today is the culmination of our shared ambition and the collective efforts of everyone involved – not just UHI Outer Hebrides and Ceòlas, but the contractors, the funders and the local people who have supported us over the years. We have all put our hearts and souls into this project and I’m just delighted this breathtaking building is now the community’s to enjoy.” The formal handover will be followed by a community open day on June 13th, when everyone will be welcome to share in the celebrations with the Cnoc Soilleir team.

Ceòlas Chair and Cnoc Soilleir Board Director Mairi MacInnes, who was unfortunately unable to attend the event, encouraged people to come along to see the building for themselves when it opens to the public on June 13th: “A warm welcome awaits everyone who drops in on the open day and perhaps a song will be sung and a reel or two will be danced!”

Mairi continued: “Getting Cnoc Soilleir Phase 1 built during lockdown has been a tremendous achievement and this has been possible because we contracted a local construction company. Great credit is due to our staff , the design team and MacInnes Bros for rising to the unprecedented challenges of Covid.

“Ceòlas is excited about holding the July Summer School in CS – the first since 2019.”

Work at the Cnoc Soilleir site started in February 2020, and continued through lockdown despite the many difficulties that the pandemic presented. This current phase of the build has delivered world-class facilities to meet the needs of both the college’s educational programmes, and Ceòlas’ community-led activities. A bespoke recording studio, a library, an exhibition space, and a flexible communal space for gatherings of up to 60 people, will transform the experience of Ceòlas summer school tutors and students this July and the college students who study here in the years to come.

The work was delivered by local contractor MacInnes Brothers (MIB), represented on the day by Project Manager David MacInnes, and Contracts Manager Neil MacInnes. Neil told Am Pàipear: “We are delighted to be handing over the keys to this fantastic building. All of us who have worked on the project are immensely proud of what we have delivered, both in terms of the high standard of the build itself, and in terms of the jobs we have created and maintained as a result. Over the course of the build, we have employed 14 local tradesmen, with one joiner moving his family home to Uist as a result of this opportunity.”

“The project was a complex one, and it’s success evidences that local firms are not only well able to deliver the highest possible technical requirements but can also bring the local knowledge required to manage the challenges that working on a remote island can present.” Funds are already part-secured for the next phase of the project, which will extend the building to the west to include a performance hall, with acoustics suitable for performance and seating for audiences of up to 200 people, a small dance studio with sprung floor, and additional teaching spaces.

A new community home for Eriskay’s heritage

After seven long years of sustained community effort, a new phase of history is underway at the sight of the old Eriskay school.

The school was opened in the late 1800s, and served the community for 137 years, before finally ringing the last bell for home in 2013.

On a sunny May 4th morning, the old building was revealed in all its glory when ancillary structures dating from 1933 were demolished to make way for a new Heritage Centre that will not only provide a safe home for the island’s rich history, but offer a range of much needed community and visitor facilities.

An initial business plan to convert the former school into a heritage centre was produced in 2018 and led to a Scottish Land Fund award and the successful purchase of the school and schoolhouse in 2021.

The journey from initial proposals to completed plans has included several full scale community consultations, as Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidh (CEE) Project Worker Sandra MacInnes explains:. “We wanted to ensure that our plans reflected what the island wants and needs. Looking at the finished plans now, you can see just how much of a positive impact the centre will bring.”

She continued: “If it hadn’t been for CEE, the community would have lost this historic asset as the building would have been sold on the open market and possibly as a commercial development. This way, the community are involved shaping what happens.”

Committee member Marie MacMillan is looking ahead to the value the new building will bring: “In the old days, the house ceilidhs kept the community alive, kept it connected. The school afforded people the opportunity to meet and congregate both in an educational forum with various night classes on offer and also with social gatherings such as weddings and ceilidhs. Those old ways are sadly no longer with us and we need a new focal point to bring people together. Isolation is a real concern, especially after covid. This will allow us to meet with each other and keep our strong community connections.”

Chair Iain Ruaraidh MacInnes describes the long and difficult journey the CEE has made: “There were times when we felt we wouldn’t be able to keep going. Covid was very hard. There were a lot of obstacles to get past and everything was very new to us. The whole process has been a challenge, but it’s paid off. We have learned a huge amount and are better placed to tackle this next phase with confidence.”

The next stage of the project is to secure the capital costs to start the build. The Committee have finalised their business plan and are preparing for the next round of funding applications.

The demolition works and re-slating contract is being delivered by local man Paul A. MacInnes, who, along with the majority of the on-sight team and committee, was once a pupil of the school.

The new building has been designed by Lewis born architect Ruairidh Moir, from BARD ailteir, and has been shortlisted for the Future Building or Project category of the Scottish Design Awards.

The Committee has launched a fund-raising effort to help with the next phase of the project – anyone wishing to purchase a piece of Eriskay history can log on to the Committee’s crowdfunding page.

Staff old and new celebrate 20 years of service

Mel Groundsell

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the official opening of Taigh Cheann a’ Locha, (The Data Centre) in Lionacleit.

HIE relocated the organisation’s administrative and financial functions to the Outer Hebrides in 2002, which helped to disperse public sector jobs to more rural areas. HIE’s chief executive Stuart Black was at the Benbecula celebrations, along with Area Manager Joanna Peteranna , but the real guest of honour was Isabel Macdonald, who retired from the Data Centre in in 2008.

Mr Black said: “The success of the Taigh Cheann a’ Locha with its skilled workforce over the years, demonstrates that island communities are great places to locate public sector jobs. It’s an excellent example of how administrative functions can be relocated to more rural parts of the Highlands and Islands, helping to strengthen community resilience and boost population”.

“We are currently exploring ideas for creating more quality jobs across the Outer Hebrides including at our offices here in Benbecula. For example, with more of our staff working on a hybrid basis, there may well be scope to diversify the use of the space for use by other tenants.”Taigh Cheann a’ Locha was officially opened on 22 April 2002 by former First Minister Jack McConnell, when it employed 19 people to provide administrative and financial support to the entire organisation. 

Since then, it has been the workplace for around 60 people in high quality roles. Four of the original staff are still employed by HIE (3) and Skills Development Scotland (1). Four out of eight people in HIE’s current finance team came through the modern apprenticeship route and were all offered permanent contracts. Staff maternity leave over the years has also seen the arrival of 27 new babies into the community.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) There are two vacancies for HIE presently being advertised in the Outer Hebrides – head of enterprise support at Benbecula or Stornoway and senior development manager in Benbecula. Two more vacancies will be coming up soon between the finance and the area teams.

Local social enterprises highlighted in digital brochure developed by Social Enterprise Scotland and CoDeL

Abigail Taylor

Showcasing the history, diversity and future vision of social enterprises based between Berneray and Eriskay, the new digital brochure highlights the impact of a range of community enterprises on the islands and their populations.

Scattered across these islands are more than 50 social and community enterprises, spanning some 40 years service, ranging from internationally recognised centres of excellence to small community halls that provide essential local facilities.

Uist, alongside Lewis, was the earlier this year recognised with the first ‘Social Enterprises Place’ award in Scotland. 

Social Enterprise Places are areas where social enterprise activity is thriving, from neighbourhoods to villages, towns, islands and both urban and rural communities. 

Case studies highlighted in the brochure showcase the impact and work of social enterprise in our rural communities in Uist, as part of the Social Enterprise Places initiative.

Thomas Fisher, Director at CoDeL, said: “The brochure came about because Social Enterprise Scotland wanted to give out these ‘Place Awards’. I went to them and said that they don’t fully understand how existential social enterprises are on the islands and how much they contribute. Our island communities wouldn’t survive without them.”

“Almost the full team from Social Enterprise Scotland came across and I think they were blown away seeing all these enterprises and community organisations. So we put in an application with a steering group of 30 social enterprises and they just couldn’t turn it down.”

Back at the beginning of the year, an award ceremony was held online due to COVID-19 restrictions and an agreement was struck to organise the development of a digital brochure to showcase the enterprises on Uist.

“If we provided the content then they would provide the design and I think it reflects remarkably well on how strong and dynamic, and enterprising we are as island communities,” continued Thomas.

“We had been talking about this for years, to get mainland based organisations, public agencies and the Scottish Government to recognise what we are doing here but we didn’t have a product and I think this brochure really demonstrates exactly how much we are contributing.” 

Four priorities were outlined for the brochure, namely, young people, health and resilience, Gaelic culture and language and the climate emergency.

“I think the first thing is, we need to recognise what we are achieving here. Uist is an extraordinary community. The individuals, the leaders, even though they won’t call themselves that, the organisations the social enterprises, they are delivering because they believe that’s just what they do, it’s just a way of life. The brochure is there to celebrate what we do, recognise our entrepreneurial energy and our leadership.”

Praise has been forthcoming from the Scottish Government’s Scottish Rural Network. 

“The stats are certainly impressive but it’s not just the numbers. It is inspiring to read of resilient, resourceful and dynamic communities and a great example of just how much people can achieve together. The document highlights their amazing history, and key priorities for the future,” said a spokesperson for Scottish Rural Network.

You can access the brochure here.

Scaled back plan for the spaceport on North Uist

Iain Stephen Morrison

Spaceport 1 is now to be developed on a much smaller scale than outlined when plans were first revealed to the community in 2019.

Last night (17th November 2021) consultants presented the initial conclusions of an environmental impact assessment at an information session hosted online on Teams.

It was confirmed that the spaceport would, if planning permission is granted, be developed to focus entirely on suborbital launches using smaller vehicles, reducing the need for significant infrastructure on the proposed site at Scolpaig.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is developing Spaceport 1 in partnership with organisations including Hebrides Range operator QinetiQ.

Consultants working on the environmental impact assessment on behalf of the Spaceport 1 consortium, Laura Carse from Western Isles Marine and Environment and Sarah Murray from Aquatera, explained at the meeting last night that due to the reduced size of the development, there will be no serious adverse impact on the environment at Scolpaig.

Initial plans for Spaceport 1 featured multiple buildings, two launch pads and access tracks to the north of the site on Scolpaig Farm.

Since then the proposed development has been substantially reduced and is now focussed on providing a permanent venue for launching smaller suborbital launch vehicles. It will be the sole location in the UK with an exclusive focus on the niche suborbital market, while other sites are set to concentrate on the orbital market, such as Shetland and Sutherland.

It was stressed that plans presented last night represent a standalone, permanent project and not part of a phased development.

Existing infrastructure will be used as much as possible, with around 700m of track upgraded, improvements carried out on the culvert under the Loch Scolpaig causeway and one of the farm buildings redeveloped to act as a storage, workshop and communications centre. New infrastructure will comprise additional access tracks, a hardstanding area within the farmstead complex, a launchpad hardstanding area and a concreted launchpad with an integrated pollution control and containment system.

It is also proposed to create additional parking spaces on the site for public access.

“So the spaceport will essentially function as a licensed venue for individual launch operators to marshal their own operations. Each launch operator will have their own bespoke infrastructure and equipment to support their own launch event,” explained Sarah Murray.

Members of the public who attended the online information session last night were provided visualisations of the kind of infrastructure that could appear on site (see image above) for the largest class of vehicle that could be launched from Spaceport 1.

Local residents were advised that the sort on equipment and infrastructure that could be seen on site around launch dates might include support vehicles, welfare units, containerised fuelling systems and command or control systems

“Each launch event will be quite self contained and based around portable units,” added Laura Carse.

Infrastructure most likely to be visible in the landscape will be the temporary launch infrastructure, advised the consultants, including the launch vehicle, launch tower and container units.

Infrastructure could be visible for as little as one day or a couple of days at the most.

Up to ten launches a year will be undertaken at the spaceport by a range of operators, with launch vehicles of varying specifications.

Despite the reduction in the scale of the spaceport development, members of the community were advised last night that there was still an expectation that 25 direct positions of employment would be created on North Uist.

Consultants are working to finalise the environmental impact assessment report over the coming weeks and a planning application, with the report and accompanying technical information, will be submitted to the planning authority for consideration. Documents will be available to view on the online planning portal, which can be found on the website of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Local businesses move closer towards net zero with share of the Island Communities Fund

Iain Stephen Morrison

North Uist Distillery and MacLean’s Bakery are among 29 enterprises from 23 islands to have been awarded grants of up to £150,000 from the Island Communities Fund.

North Uist Distillery secured £49,000, while MacLean’s Bakery was awarded £110,000 to facilitate ‘green transport’ across the Outer Hebrides.

“We have an overarching vision to get the business to carbon neutral status, with a few initiatives underway to achieve this aim,” explained Jonny Ingledew, one of the owners of North Uist Distillery.

“With the funding secured we are going to purchase an electric van and install charge points, which will also be available to the public, at Nunton Steadings. We have also swapped our heaters for more efficient alternatives and are planning to install an air source pump to heat Nunton Steadings.

“Since we launched our packaging has been plastic free and we are set to start using bottles that are made up of 40 percent less glass in 2022. We donate our botanicals for use in compost and, once we start producing whisky using local grain, our plan is to offer draff to crofters, which is nice and circular. We also have our refillery so customers can refill their bottles for a lower cost.

“Coming from the islands and with a close connection to the natural environment, we can see the effects of global warming. It is right from a social and environmental standpoint that we approach our business in this manner.”

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

Abigail Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boards are available to hire every weekend in different locations.

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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