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

Abigail Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indoor arena roof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cllr Paul Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Navy personnel donated to local charity Tagsa Uibhist.

Abigail Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community views sought on the content of the new environment centre being developed in Lochmaddy.

Abigail Taylor

Community members are being asked what they would like to include within the environment centre being developed at the former Lochmaddy School.

Lochmaddy School was handed back to the community for re-development in March 2021.

North Uist Development Company has started the process of developing the new visitor and tourist information centre, which will encompass educational elements based around the unique environment of the Outer Hebrides.

Plans for the layout of the centre (see above) have been created with funding from the Islands Green Recovery Programme.

North Uist Development Company now wants the hear the views of community members about what should be included within the new environment centre in Lochmaddy.

Opinions can be forwarded through the currently ongoing community survey: www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/NUDC-DesignSurvey

To mark the launch the community survey, North Uist Development Company has launched a photography competition, with entrants in with a chance to have their images displayed in the permanent exhibition within the environment centre.

North Uist Development Company manager Dr Ameena Camps said: “Thanks to the support of the funders, the help of volunteers in the community on our sub-committee, exhibition designers and the project managers, we are ready for the community’s thoughts on what to include in the new environment centre.

“We are excited to be able to gather all your ideas through the survey and can’t wait to see your wonderful photographs for the photography competition. So get typing and dig out those cameras!”

Photographs (minimum resolution 1600 x 1200 pixels) should be submitted to nudc@isleofnorthuist.com before 11.59pm on Monday 31st May 2021.

Local foodbank saw number of individuals accessing service double in 2020.

Abigail Taylor

Statistics released from Uist and Barra Foodbank reveal the extent of hardship individuals and families across the islands are experiencing, with demand for the emergency service rising significantly in 2020.

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

Uist and Barra Foodbank manager, Janet Atkin, said the figures confirm there are more families than ever before in need of the service: “We are grateful that more people are reaching out for help as nobody should be going hungry if they cannot afford to buy food and we are here to help in any way we can.”

While news that so many local people need to access emergency food supplies might surprise some, the increase in demand, which continues into 2021, was no shock to the team at Uist and Barra Foodbank.

“In the socioeconomic update published earlier this year, it was noted that weekly pay in the Outer Hebrides has increased 8.5 percent since last year,” said Janet.

“Even though the pay has increased, we are still the eighth lowest paid council area in Scotland.

“Many of our clients find that their outgoings for the basics, like rent, electricity and heating are leaving them in deficit as their incomes are much lower than their expenses.

“We sadly expected to see an increase in usage, even before the pandemic, as we had noticed a trend of more people requiring emergency food.”

30 volunteers worked around the clock to ensure that the foodbank remained open through the pandemic, despite some having to shield. Meanwhile the introduction of a delivery service reduced contact with volunteers and clients and provided a lifeline to the community.

“We used to do a weekly food parcel before COVID-19 and then moved to a fortnightly parcel when we had a lot of support from volunteers,” explained Janet.

“But now we have found a monthly parcel works best for us and the clients. It takes the worry off the shoulders of the clients with extra support and they always know that if their supply runs out before the month is over we will restock and it means less trips in the van for delivery.”

Uist and Barra Foodbank was established in 2018 and since then, thanks to the kindness of people who have donated and offered their time, hundreds of individuals and families have received support from the service, which is based at East Camp in Balivanich.

However, in addition to the provision of food supplies, the foodbank acts as a point of contact and support for people going through a tough time, with the team at East Camp working closely with agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau.

“We do not just provide food. We listen to our clients and tailor the level of support to what the individual needs,” explained Janet. 

“With this approach and not expecting every client to be the same, we can signpost to the relevant agencies, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau. We will do everything we can to offer support and ease the burden on our clients.

We look at the longer term and see how we can make a difference to the lives of our clients. If there is support available we will try to access for our clients.

“We do not judge and look to respect all our clients,” continued Janet.

“We have stock at the foodbank and would much rather see it used to help someone who cannot afford food and is going hungry. We do not want people struggling to feed themselves and their families.”

Inevitably the much-needed continuation of the service depends on the dozens of people who make regular donation to Uist and Barra Foodbank.

“Since we opened in 2018 our community has been extremely generous and it has been overwhelming seeing how that continued and grew over the last year,” said Janet.

“We could not have achieved what we have this past year without our the help of our community. We are so grateful to everyone who has helped one way or another, between money, helping with deliveries or dropping off items. It has been absolutely amazing.”

Uist and Barra Foodbank operates from East Camp in Balivanich. Look out for more details on the ‘Uist and Barra Foodbank’ pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For more information on accessing the service, send an email to info@uistbarra.foodbank.org.uk or telephone the office and leave a message (01870603819).

John Love

From 2nd to 4th May 1963, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh paid a short, little-known visit to the Loch Druidibeg National Nature Reserve on South Uist.

Dr J Morton Boyd, Regional Officer for the Nature Conservancy, had arrived a few days earlier to make arrangements, along with Dr James Campbell from Perthshire, a keen ornithologist who knew the Outer Hebrides very well.

I have compiled this account from Morton’s File Note in NC files, and from Dr Campbell’s diary, extracts of which have kindly been made available to me by his son, and a very good friend of mine, Dr Lennox Campbell.

Loch Druidibeg National Nature Reserve was to be the focus of the visit and the Duke of Edinburgh, who was put up in Grogarry Lodge, was keen to see as much wildlife as possible. Although the intended royal visit had been kept strictly under wraps, when Morton visited the Reserve Warden Murdo MacRury to notify him, he was surprised to discover that the family had already heard all about it the day before – from the local grocery delivery van! Such is the ‘bush telegraph’ in the Outer Hebrides.

2nd May 1963 dawned wet and windy but improved so that, after only an hour’s delay, the Heron of the Queen’s Flight, piloted by the Duke himself, landed at Benbecula in late afternoon. The Duke was accompanied by his aide Admiral C D Bonham-Carter, a detective and a valet, with the well-known naturalist Aubrey Buxton arriving the next morning. The Royal party were greeted by a single pressman and several children, before being driven south, viewing a buzzard nest on the way, to have a relaxed and convivial dinner at Grogarry Lodge by 8pm.

Warden Murdo MacRury Duke and Admiral Bonham Carter being pushed off by Dr James Campbell, Loch Druidibeg, on 3rd May 1963. Photograph by Morton Boyd

Fortunately the weather had improved considerably the next day and after breakfast Murdo led them down the Skipport road where he surprised everyone by having a small dinghy ready to take the Duke and Aubrey Buxton across to one of the islands in Loch Druidibeg. In Morton’s photograph (above) Dr Campbell is pushing the boat out, which the Duke insisted on rowing, as Murdo sits rather nervously in the bows. Fortunately, the island was close to shore, and the loch nowhere more than four feet deep, so any accident was unlikely to be serious!

The Duke was shown two Greylag goose nests and the eggs in one were in the act of hatching – the parent geese flew around calling so the Duke got some good photographs. After a brief look at the eastern boundary of the reserve, the party paid a short visit to the MacRury’s neat little cottage which the warden’s wife, Dolly, had scrupulously scrubbed from top to bottom the day before. One room doubled as the reserve office where the Duke added his name to the book.

The Royal visitors then proceeded south to Loch Boisdale where a short boat journey took them to a Golden Eagle’s eyrie near the shore. With his big camera the Duke approached carefully and succeeded in getting shots of the bird on the nest before she flew. There was one chick in the nest and Bonham Carter fussed about the bird being kept off too long. But the Duke stayed behind – in vain – to get a shot of the bird coming back. On the journey back they inspected a heronry in the bushes along the north shore.

As the party scrambled along the cliff, they feared for the Duke in his unsuitable wellingtons so Dr Campbell grabbed his coat tails. On the way back to the pier they viewed peregrines, ravens, and a Black-throated Diver with the Duke firing off with his Hasselblad, and visited the machair at Loch Hallan with the intention of then enjoying some trout fishing.

But the Duke was keen to see North Uist so the party, in two cars, did the circular tour, and viewed Newton. Dr Campbell had been keen for the Nature Conservancy to take it on as a Nature Reserve but in the end they settled on Druidibeg. They enjoyed a late dinner and before retiring the Duke visited the kitchens to thank the staff.

After a day of glorious weather and a highly successful visit, their flight departed Benbecula without ceremony first thing next morning, again with the Duke at the controls, before the wind and rain set in again.

Duke of Edinburgh at the Boisdale eagle nest 1963. Photograph by Morton Boyd

Due to coronavirus restrictions being reduced to tier 3, the thrift shop, located beside the airport, has announced its reopening times.

Abigail Taylor

From 7th April 2021, the shop will be open every Wednesday and Friday 11am-3pm. Donations are accepted by the public, which are sorted and either put up for sale within the shop or packaged and sent to Blythswood Care to be recycled further.

Benbecula Thrift Shop is a charity shop maintained by volunteers from North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist.

Tara Paterson, who works for UCVO (Uist Council of Voluntary Organisations), which manages the Thrift Shop, said: “It’s been wonderful to get the shop open for the community and the volunteers. Our opening has been warmly received on social media by the public, which just shows how important it is to everyone to be back open.”

“It was much easier to get back open this time when compared to last year. We already have all of the required safety precautions taken care of so all we had to do this time was get the volunteers back on board, which wasn’t difficult.

“The donations room is choc-a-bloc and we’ve had customers messaging about when they can come back, it’s brilliant.”

There is a wide range of clothing and shoes for mens, ladies, children and babies alongside a wide variety of books and bric a brac available.

You must keep to a safe distance, make use of the hand sanitising stations and wear a mask when in the shop in order to stick to the COVID guidelines.

Grimsay Community Association is launching a new project, Bliadhna na Mòine – The Peat Year, with the support of Bord na Gaidhlig.

Abigail Taylor

Throughout 2021, a series of COVID-safe events will focus on peat and moorland, to bring together traditional, current, and new practices alongside an understanding of their produce, science and associated culture and language.

The project will explore questions such as: ‘What is peat?’ and ‘How do we use and manage our moors and peatland?’    

The Peat Year will bring together a broad range of perspectives through the calendar of events: from crofting practices to natural history and ecology, Gaelic terminology and cultural reminiscence to food, poetry, and song.

The programme begins on Saturday 1st May 2021 with a peat-cutting demonstration by experienced local crofters on Grimsay, where young and old are welcome to watch and try their hand at learning the traditional skills. A peat cutting competition will then follow on Saturday 8th May 2021.

There will be a set duration for cutting, with neatness, speed and consistency all taken into consideration in the judging. Competitors should prearrange a teammate to cut with (from within their own household or extended household network in order to comply with COVID restrictions), or the more experienced may wish test themselves and take part solo.

There will be prizes but come the autumn all competitors will be able to take the peat they cut home to warm them through the winter.

To ensure our events are COVID-safe and in case of bad weather, pre-booking is essential for all these events, so please get in touch with Grimsay Community Association on 01870 603359 / info@grimsay.org

On Friday 18th and Saturday 19th June 2021, a Crofting Practice Symposium will look at how our hill and common grazing land are used, including off-lying islands.

There will be talks, discussions and reminiscing with experienced crofters, with a plan to produce a Gaelic crofting terminology booklet. Turning of cut peats will be demonstrated and the day will conclude with a traditional ceilidh of relevant songs and poetry.

The Symposium may take place as a physical, hybrid or virtual event as circumstances dictate, so booking is essential: 01870 603359 email: info@grimsay.org

Further events throughout the year will include talks about the wildlife of the peat and moorlands, peat stacking, a workshop on peat-smoking food and a partnership event on falasgeir muirburn. You are encouraged to join our Peat Year mailing list so we can keep you up to date, just email GCA at: info@grimsay.org

These events are being planned to comply with all COVID restrictions and safety and hygiene practices that may be in place at that time. Some events will take place as online virtual events and there may be last minute changes to physical events if circumstances require.

Visitors to Lochmaddy Pier will soon be greeted by an eight-foot high dolphin sculpture, which has been commissioned by Comman Na Mara.

Abigail Taylor

Set up by the late Dr John MacLeod to educate children about their local coastline, the volunteer led Comann Na Mara helps promote local events and throughout the community, including the popular bi-annual St Kilda Yacht Race.

Comann Na Mara submitted an application to Western Isles Lottery for the cost of the commission and the total £3,700 was awarded. Funding was raised solely by supporters of the lottery throughout Uist.

Now a large concrete plinth (pictured, with Colin Rankin, chairman of Comann Na Mara, and Lorna Docherty, secretary of Comman Na Mara), currently located alongside CalMac’s office in Lochmaddy, is being prepared as the location for the siting of the steel dolphin.

A local competition was held to design a logo for Comman Na Mara and was won by a local schoolgirl, Millie Shepherd. The logo depicts a dolphin leaping out of the sea and will adorn the plinth alongside those of Western Isles Lottery and Calmac. Hebridean Graphics has been commissioned to manufacture the logos.

Colin Rankin, chair of Comman Na Mara, said: “This is a fantastic gesture from Western Isles Lottery and very much appreciated. The sculpture will become a talking point in the Western Isles and further afield and I’m sure it will help to further establish Comman Na Mara as an educational platform for children. Comman Na Mara would like to thank Western Isles Lottery and UCVO in helping CNM to achieve this.”

Janet Paterson of the Western Isles Lottery said: “This is an innovative project which we are delighted to be funding and one which will provide a quality, artistic landmark and tourist attraction to Lochmaddy Bay for many years to come. UCVO in Uist readily partnered with the Lottery Team at the outset of the successful Lottery project and manage the funding in this area on behalf of Western Isles Lottery.

We are forever grateful to UCVO Manager Sheena Stewart for continuing to work with all agencies and groups in the area to provide funds to fantastic causes and congratulate Comman Na Mara on their initiative.”

Some £40,510 has now been raised for projects in Uist in addition to tens of thousands of cash prizes having been distributed to local supporters.