Local Post Offices share concerns

Siân Swinton 

Post Offices are still experiencing complications with their accounting software, say local Postmasters, and they’re not getting paid enough to put up with it.

The issues with the Post Office Horizon accounting software have been a hot topic recently, especially with the airing of the ITV series Mr Bates Vs The Post Office in January. 

Sadly, the scandal had a local effect in Uist, devastating the lives of Bill and Anne Quarm, who ran a Bed & Breakfast and a shop with a Post Office counter in North Uist.

The Quarms’ story has been one of Scotland’s highest profile Horizon cases, but at least four other Post Offices in Uist have also been affected, thankfully with less tragic consequences. Some are even still experiencing issues with the Horizon software, Am Pàipear has heard.

Bill Hogg and Donna Hogg of the Carnan and Balivanich Post Offices told us: 

“Unexplained discrepancies as shown in the TV drama have happened and continue to happen in Post Offices and we, like so many, have had personal experiences in our Post Offices. The public are unaware that Horizon still doesn’t work properly even to this day.”

Another local Postmaster spoke of small discrepancies in their system:

”With hindsight and new information these unexplained discrepancies make sense.”

Some Postmasters will be unable to prove these discrepancies as they paid the shortfall from their own pockets.

“I’d thought I must have messed up but was positive I hadn’t, so I paid it. My paperwork won’t show it as I put money in when balancing to correct what was showing on screen.”

Since the broadcasting of the ITV drama, approximately 100 more people have come forward to say they were affected by the software errors.

Another concern for local businesses operating Post Office counters is the low rate of pay, which has led some to question whether the risk of unreliable accounting software is worth it.

Donna Hogg says the money made from the counters “doesn’t even cover the electric to run the Horizon computer, never mind cover staff wages or for us to live off.”

The counters make between £1.25 and £1.97 per hour, according to Donna’s last tally. 

“We always knew having a Post Office would not make us millionaires and we took it on as it is a vital service to our communities and we’re proud to provide this service even when it’s financially not viable.”

The Horizon scandal has shocked the nation and, here in Uist, the severity of its impact has been keenly felt. Anne Quarm has recently spoken of her own experiences following the overturning of her husband Bill’s conviction. 

The Post Office accused Bill of embezzling tens of thousands of pounds and, under threat of imprisonment, he pleaded guilty to the charge. Bill was convicted and ordered to undertake 150 hours of unpaid work in 2010, and passed away only two years later.

Bill tragically died before his name could be cleared. The distress caused by the accusation and the subsequent loss of their business and family home impacted his health significantly, believes Anne.

The accounting software responsible for the scandal had issues that were known by the Post Office and by Fujitsu, the company that created it. 

In the time between 1999 and 2015 more than 900 Postmasters were prosecuted for theft and fraud when the software showed shortfalls in their accounting. These shortfalls were actually errors within the system rather than deliberate false accounting.

The Horizon IT Inquiry in London was ongoing as Am Pàipear went to print.

‘Challenging but interesting’ times ahead for tourism

The challenges and opportunities facing Uist’s tourism sector were explored in a day-long conference hosted by Outer Hebrides Tourism at the start of November.

All sectors were represented at the well-attended event in Cnoc Soilleir, with a national view provided by Scottish Tourism Alliance and Visit Scotland and plenty of local insight contributed by Outer Hebrides Tourism (OHT) and the local business operating here in Uist.

OHT CEO Sarah Maclean spoke of the Outer Hebrides as a globally recognised destination, highlighting the value of strong marketing. Ms Maclean referenced the success of OHT’s Made in the Hebrides promotion and its Eat, Drink, Hebrides initiative, which had fuelled visitor interest, and this year had earned the organisation a Scottish Food and Drink Excellence Award.

Presentations from Uist Unearthed, Stòras Uibhist and Ceòlas highlighted the work being done to promote Uist’s language, landscape and cultural history.

Lindsay Robertson, of Loch Skipport based Long Island Retreats, showcased the growth in agri-tourism, highlighting how marketable ‘Uist’ branded experiences and produce can be.

Agritourism in Scotland is currently worth around £60m, with the farm retail sector contributing an additional £110m to the economy. The Scottish Agri Tourism strategy seeks to grow that income to £250m by 2030 and the hope is that Uist can play a key role in this burgeoning sector.

If it was clear that tourism opportunity knocks for Uist, it was clearer still that numerous challenges lay ahead.

Ms MacLean said that, while visitor numbers had seen increases in 2021 and 2022, figures for this current season evidenced that occupancy rates were down on previous years.

Chief among the challenges was the devastation wreaked by the loss of the Lochboisdale ferry, which had left a good number of tourism operators out of pocket, and some out of business.

The new Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill was set out as both challenge and opportunity.

Proposed in May this year, the Bill will grant local authorities the right to introduce an additional charge when a visitor pays for overnight accommodation.

Both the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Outer Hebrides Tourism had given the Bill their support, highlighting that money raised by the sector could provide much needed support for local tourism infrastructure. The Comhairle supports the introduction of the Visitor Levy but has yet to confirm if and how it will be applied in the Western Isles.

The Levy is expected to add a 4% surcharge to booked accommodation and will be charged and administered by local providers.

The Scottish Parliament held a public consultation on proposals, reporting that the majority of those responding were against the Bill, saying the proposals were ‘viewed by many respondents as an unwanted policy being forced on a struggling sector.’

Amanda Leveson Gower echoed the Parliament’s findings, saying that the administrative burden would sit with already stretched local businesses and act as a disincentive for visitors:

“It’s difficult enough for guests as it is. Getting here is a risk and if guests are stranded on Skye they can end up paying £300 or more in emergency accommodation costs. When ferries are cancelled, and as a consequence, stays are cancelled at short notice, it will be accommodation providers who are faced with reimbursing the levy charges. Frankly, I am hugely disappointed that OHT and the Scottish Tourism Alliance are supporting the Bill.”

Further legislative burden is facing the sector as a result of the Short Term Lets licence, which requires all providers of tourism accommodation to register their business with their Local Authority. In September, the Comhairle reported that it had granted 236 licences, and was still processing 180 applications, with a further 65 pending.

The highlight of the day was the the inaugural Our Tourism Community Awards.

The new annual Awards recognise, congratulate and celebrate businesses that deliver amazing experiences for visitors in the Outer Hebrides, champion innovation in the face of challenging times and showcase best practice.

Anne MacLellan from Hougharry, North Uist won two top accolades; the Best Accommodation Business Award for Balranald Campsite and the Best Food and Drink Experience Award for the Dunes Cabin. The award for Best See and Do Experience was awarded to Vatersay-based Mingulay Boat Trips, with Best Green Sustainable Business Award going to Castlebay Marina.

Anne MacLellan was thrilled with the Awards, telling Am Pàipear: “We’re absolutely delighted… The campsite business was established in 2012 initially with only myself working there. The campsite and the dunes cabin have now grown to employ 11 members of staff during the season. These prestigious awards recognise the great job done by my amazing team who make the visitor experience a special one. We’re grateful to all our customers, friends and family who voted for us and support us throughout the year. Ceud Mile Taing.”

Summing up the event, OHT Development Manager Mairi Thomson said: “It was a fantastic day, with a full house of tourism and hospitality businesses, community organisations and stakeholders, a brilliant line-up of inspiring and interesting speakers, mouthwatering seafood by Lochmaddy Bay Prawns and a wee tipple of Downpour from North Uist Distillery to celebrate the winners of our inaugural awards.”


Loganair has introduced a Barra-only residents fare under a new four year contract to operate essential air services between Barra and Glasgow.

The change will affect those Uist residents and family visitors who previously made use of the much-reduced fares on the Barra route. While fares for Barra residents will be capped at £91, Uist travellers will see their fares rise by a minimum of £20 and in many circumstances, considerably more.

The Transport Scotland contract for the Barra – Glasgow service is subsidised under a Public Service Obligation which sets service level agreements and also allows for lower fares.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) has long-called for the same level of subsidy to be awarded to the Benbecula – Stornoway flight, which also operates under a Public Service Obligation but is not supported in the same way.

In July, CnES was forced to cut the Stornoway service to two days a week saying it did not have the funds to cover the £629k costs of the service. The Comhairle warned that the change would negatively affect NHS patients, who it said made up 90% of the route’s ticket sales.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP, Angus MacNeil says he has written to Loganair and the Scottish Government regarding the increased airfares:

“This has been rushed in without the necessary safeguards in place. Non-island residents will pay more and therefore could be charged up to £160 one way. This raises questions about wider family and friends visiting the island.

“There will be a chaotic period until they sort it out. I think there should be a hiatus in the pricing changing structure. Stability for islanders and visitors, particularly as we are at the beginning of winter, it is not the most difficult time to sort this out. Current prices should be maintained until the chaos is ironed out by both parties.”

Last month Loganair confirmed that the company was no longer for sale. A statement from current sole owners Stephen and Peter Bond said: “The suspension of the sale process allows the Company to complete the re-fleet programme and address the specific issues impacting the world-wide supply chain availability and costs. There has never been a time-bound reason for the sale of Loganair, and we remain committed to the Company until both the right time and custodian to acquire the Company is chosen”.

In October, Loganair was named Airline of the Year for 2023 by the European Regional Airline Association (ERA). The company, which employs more than 850 people across its network, was honoured in recognition of its “impressive performance” in returning to profitability following the pandemic whilst at the same time improving terms for its staff. Judges also highlighted its progressive ‘Green Skies’ environmental impact mitigation programme.

Sealladh na Beinne Moire AGM

New directors welcomed as Stòras sets out its stall

Siân Swinton

Sealladh na Beinne Moire held their AGM in Griminish on 14th September where the new members of the board of directors were introduced. Iain Stephen Morrison and Ronald MacKenzie join the re-elected directors Catriona Walker, Donnie Steele and Donald John Cameron, while Mary Schmoller and Norman MacAskill remain in place.

CEO Darren Taylor began the meeting with a rundown of the previous year’s activities covering topics such as deer management, crofting and local business development, before moving onto questions from the floor. A lively debate ensued, with plans for the new Lochboisdale pier (see right) and for seaweed harvesting (see p7) discussed at length. 

The operational review of the previous year showed great success for South Uist Renewable Energy alongside profits from Askernish Golf Course and from fishing on the estate. 

Lochboisdale Harbour and Grogarry Lodge both showed losses but Stòras pointed to the considerable investments made in a bid to encourage business growth. Stòras said it hoped that the money spent on the Lodge would allow them to increase room rates from the £80 to a more profitable £150 per night.

Deer numbers have been a hot debate this year so promises of action to bring the herd numbers down and the cull numbers up were welcomed.

The estate said it hoped the recent increase in cull numbers might allow the herd to reach the preferred size of 400 earlier than the initial target date of 2028. Mr Taylor reiterated the estate’s commitment to shoot any marauding beasts west of the road and to have venison on sale locally  and made available through the food bank.

Darren Taylor congratulated Askernish Golf Course on their placing on the Golf World magazines Top 100 courses: “Askernish Golf Course brings in more to the wider economy of the estate than anything else Stòras does and it’s not always appreciated enough.”

Stòras said they had worked on many projects focused on returning community assets to use. These include the waiting room at Ludag, the shed at Loch Carnan and the industrial site at Orasaigh, all of which have been grant funded and will soon be seeking interested parties.

The Lochboisdale Strategic Visioning plan was also discussed with a rundown of the work already achieved, such as painting the buildings, building the Marloch memorial and installing EV charging points. Stòras said the Smart Clachan project was still underway and awaiting planning approval.

The board was asked about the potential for the energy generated by the estate to be sold to the community at a reduced rate, with a request to have more energy produced locally. The board was also asked why so much of the income from renewables was held as reserves, rather than spent on community projects. The board referenced the unreliability of the interconnecter on which the renewables project relies, saying that reserves had to be maintained to ensure against lost earnings should that connection fail.

The idea of the estate owning its own flock of sheep was also raised and Mr Taylor said that the possibility had been discussed.

The board was also asked about the potential to have director meetings live streamed to the membership, as previously agreed. Board chair Mary Schmoller said it would be inappropriate to do as sensitive matters were discussed.

Finally, the board was asked why the road end was blocked at Loch Skipport. Mary Schmoller told the members that the road was dangerous and blocks had been placed to deter vehicles. Pressed on the issue, the Chair confirmed no formal review of the risks had been undertaken. A member in the hall claimed the blocks belonged to him and had been taken without permission.

At a meeting of the board the following day Mary Schmoller was re-elected as chair of SnBM.  

Uist ASCO Stòras deal

Local seaweed harvesters call for competition

Negotiations are underway to determine rights to commercial seaweed harvesting within the Stòras Uibhist estate.

The issue was raised at the recent SnBM AGM, when local harvester Brendan Johnston called for greater scrutiny over any deal agreed between the South Uist estate and Uist ASCO.

In a passionate plea to the board, Mr Johnston asked for reassurance that Stòras would not not allow Uist ASCO exclusive rights to commercial harvesting within the estate.

Mr Johnston is working with a number fellow harvesters to establish an independent commercial harvesting operation and told Am Pàipear that his business plans were at risk if an exclusive deal was agreed with ASCO.

“Seaweed is possibly the islands’ largest sustainable resource and we currently harvest nowhere near the maximum sustainable volume. 

“There is room on the islands for more than one seaweed business and competition is required. Local startups like ours will be scuppered if Stòras Uibhist doesn’t get a handle on what the seaweed is worth. 

“Uist ASCO are great for providing so much work for so many, but if they hold exclusive rights over the weed in the south, as they do under the 30 year deal they currently have in the north, they will dictate price and dominate our resources for many years to come and that will certainly be to our detriment.”

Asked for clarification on this issue, Stòras CEO Darren Taylor told Am Pàipear:

“The board has been in discussions with Uist ASCO and these discussions are on-going. Uist ASCO is an important local business and the board is keen to support their plans for investment and job creation. At the same time, it is important we respect the rights of seaweed cutters and do not prevent other individuals or businesses from taking advantage of the seaweed. 

“We have spoken both to Uist ASCO and to a number of local entrepreneurs who are keen to establish their own company. Having heard the case on both sides, I believe we can agree a compromise that will allow both parties to flourish. Seaweed is a valuable asset and we are keen to make sure we manage it for the benefit of all our members and the whole community. We believe there is enough seaweed available within the estate to allow Uist ASCO the tonnage they need to progress their business growth plans, and to ensure that adequate tonnage remains to allow new business to establish and grow their plans too.

“Whatever happens, Stòras is keen to stress that the rights of crofters to harvest seaweed for use on their crofts will not be affected.”

Mr Johnston is one of a number of harvesters who have approached Am Pàipear to share concerns about pay, saying Uist ASCO undervalues the role of hand harvesters: “By paying us half the value of what the same company is paying in Ireland, effectively, the traditional harvesters are paying for our own replacement. The Stornoway seaweed firm currently run six mechanical harvesters and have no traditional guys left.”

Jean-Pierre Brien, Uist ASCO Ltd’s Director Projects Europe said: “Uist ASCO has increased rates pay to harvesters in Uist by over 50% in the past five years and we also offer assistance with training and equipment. Harvesters can earn good money in their own time and work at their own pace. It is in our best interests to support the harvesters as best possible and we are proud of how we do this on an individual bases.

“Uist ASCO has made substantial investments and now provides employment to over 50 islanders. We know that the combination of relying on the work of hand harvesters, augmented by a mechanical harvester to fill in the gaps, will allow us to continue such investments. We are passionate about sustaining the traditions of hand harvesting in Uist, yet must also sustain our business with a stable intake of seaweed to the factory, which historically we haven’t seen.”

Across most of Scotland, commercial seaweed harvesting is carried out under license from the Crown Estate and with agreement from Nature Scot. In privately owned sections of Scotland’s foreshore, and here on our estates, no license is required nor is any consultation required with Nature Scot.

In North Uist, Uist ASCO has a long-standing sole- harvester arrangement with the estate.

Originally a North Uist owned and operated company, Uist ASCO was bought by Acadian Seaplants Limited (ASL) Nova Scotia in 2017. ASL is a global, bio-tech company and the largest independent manufacturer of marine plant products of its type in the world.

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.