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BENBECULA – STORNOWAY FLIGHT CONCERNS


SIÂN SWINTON


Despite the increase in operating days for the new Benbecula to Stornoway flight, Uist residents
have not welcomed the change.


Hebridean Air is due to take over the Public Service Obligation (PSO) route from Loganair starting
on 12 April, a full two weeks after Loganair halted operations on the route. They are scheduled to
operate return flights on Monday, Tuesday and Friday in their eight seat Britten Norman Islander
aircraft at a cost of £99 per person each way.


Passenger demand vs seat availability


Concerns about passenger capacity and accessibility onto the aircraft have been raised by Uist
residents and community groups who rely on the service for medical treatment in Stornoway and
beyond.


Benbecula Medical Practice Patient Participation Group (PPG) has written to the Comhairle
detailing their concerns:

  • “1. The reduced number of seats available for patients travelling to appointments in Stornoway;
  • 2. The inability of consultants to hold clinics in Uist due both to the reduction in passenger capacity and the proposed scheduling of flights;
  • 3. The difficulties for passengers who have mobility issues to physically access the aircraft.”


The PPG note that the ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) clinic for April/May in Benbecula has already
been cancelled.


The ATR series aircraft used by Loganair had a seating capacity of up to five times more than the
plane now taking over the route.


Pam Roe, a Uist resident who has been making regular journeys to Stornoway for chemotherapy
treatment, told Am Pàipear about her worry of not being guaranteed a seat on the plane going
forward and how this would affect her ability to access treatment. She said:


“The Comhairle has told us that the average number of passengers on this route was six, but I
have made frequent trips for my treatment and there has never been fewer than eight passengers
and very often many more.”


When asked to provide passenger numbers for the route, the Comhairle supplied an average of 8
passengers per flight month to month for the time period March 2020 to April 2021. This period
encompasses the beginning of Covid restrictions when many treatments and operations were
cancelled and no one was travelling for leisure reasons.


A spokesperson for NHS Western Isles Board rejected the Comhairle’s passenger numbers claim:
“Any suggestion that the average passenger numbers for the service averaged no more than eight
is factually very inaccurate if you examine numbers between 2019 and 2024. It is correct that
there was a not surprising, pandemic related reduction in numbers in the 2020/21 period. Either
side of that, the numbers bear no resemblance.”


Patients unable to access the plane would face an hour long ferry journey from Berneray to
Leverburgh as well as a return car journey of up to 220 miles.


Reduced mobility access concerns


When asked about the accessibility onto the aircraft Hebridean Air said:
“The aircraft operated on these routes may impact on our ability to carry passengers with reduced
mobility. There is no mechanical aid available or suitable for assisting passengers to board/exit
this aircraft type. The door sill height is 60cm off the ground. We supply a small step-up to assist
those passengers that need it.


“We would suggest that persons of reduced mobility travel with a companion who can assist with
boarding or exiting if required. In order to ensure the safety of all passengers on board it is a
requirement of the Airline that all passengers must be able to board/exit the aircraft without the
need for staff support.”


The Comhairle has made clear that the contract for the service was awarded to the only compliant
bid. Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure said:

“We recognise this is not an ideal situation and we are doing everything in our power to find a
better solution. The fact is that our hands are tied by the limited budget we have at our disposal.
For the most part, this route operates as medical service, yet our Health Board make no
contribution to its cost.”


A spokesperson for NHS WI said:
“It is correct to say that the Health Board does not contribute to the grant CnES receives for the
service. The PSO route is solely a matter for, and the responsibility of, the Comhairle. Western
Isles NHS Board was not party to the assessment, preparation, tendering or awarding of this PSO
contract,
“The figures over the past five years, accepting a dip due to the pandemic in 2020/21, show a
consistent and high use of the flights. As a consequence, Western Isles NHS Board makes a huge
and significant financial contribution in terms of paying for the seats it books.”
Cllr Robertson went on to say: “Ministers have recognised our plight and have encouraged us to
work with our partners in Health. With that in mind, Hitrans recently hosted a joint meeting with
the regions NHS Boards to identify how we can collectively address some of the challenges
patients encounter. Chairs or Representatives from every relevant Health Board were there, but
the Western Isles Board was unable to send any representative at all. If we are to find a way
forward, then the Health Board needs to come to the table.”


Issues with the new proposed flights have been raised at Community Councils across Uist leading
Iochdar CC to organise a meeting with representatives of all the community councils in
attendance to address the concerns collectively.


Peter Bird, chair of Iochdar CC said: “It can’t be a public service if the public can’t use it.” Mr Bird
is keen to use the power of community councils to hold decision makers to account by inviting
them to attend a meeting where the public could, hopefully, receive replies to a lot of unanswered
questions.

Uist causeway remain in dangerous state

Heavy rain, storm force winds and coastal flood warnings issued through January brought renewed calls to make safe the low-lying causeways connecting two of Uist’s townships – in Baleshare, North Uist and in Snishival, South Uist.

In North Uist, a community pressure group is highlighting the risk to life presented by the Baleshare Causeway and pleading with Council officials to commit to upgrade works as soon as possible.

The 350 metre Baleshare causeway was built in 1962 but campaigners say the project was never completed. Crucially, they say, the culvert that was planned for the structure was never installed at the time, which has slowed the dispersal of flood water.

No repairs to the structure have been carried out since 2000, and the damage wreaked by the great storm of 2005 was never repaired.

Lynda Maclean of the Baleshare Causeway Campaign group told Am Pàipear: 

“The worry is that when the tide is high or when we experience the kind of weather we have seen in recent weeks, no one can get on or off Baleshare, at least not without danger to life.

“In bad weather,  those determined enough to risk the crossing face a very real chance of being washed away, a risk made greater still by the poor state of the surface of the road, with water covering the perilous holes and cracks that cover the length of the causeway. 

“There is the risk of someone being swept away whilst crossing, but we also need to factor in the indirect risk of someone needing urgent care facing delays when emergency services are unable to get across.

“In January, we had to rely on the Coastguard to get carers on and off; are we really saying this is a reasonable way for Baleshare residents to access services?”

“Do we need to wait for a major incident before those in power will act?”

“We need to push and keep pressure on those in the correct places to ensure the causeway gets major works, or best case scenario, a full replacement.” 

Hopes have been raised that Baleshare Causeway will benefit from the award of £20m from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund, announced in November last year, however Cllr Uisdean Robertson advised caution: 

“While it is positive news that the Comhairle is to benefit to the tune of £20m, we should be aware that the allocation is likely to come with a host of restrictions. We already know, for example, that it cannot be spent on existing projects. We are pressing the Scotland Office for more information but until we get this detail, we cannot say with any authenticity how the money will be spent.”

“Perhaps Scottish Government could fund a similar resilience fund such as the Local Bridge Maintenance Fund which would target causeways serving vulnerable communities.”

Dr Alasdair Allan MSP and Angus MacNeil MP were both vocal in their support of the Baleshare cause when Am Pàipear covered the issue almost a year ago; 11 months further on and with no progress to report, both politicians have again highlighted the urgency of making the structure safe.

In South Uist, the perilous state of the causeway at Snishival is also causing concern. Am Pàipear last covered the plight of residents faced with attempting to cross the broken and partially submerged road back in December 2022 and residents say there have been no improvements since.

In March last year, the findings of a Stòras Uibhist commissioned Inspections and Options report were shared with the Community Council.

The survey looked in detail at the existing structure and concluded it was ‘serviceable and in fair condition for current light traffic only. However, it is set too low when compared to high water levels in Loch Roag and cannot always provide a safe access to the houses on the east side of the loch.’ 

The survey report found that the central bridge was in poor condition, adding ‘it is doubtful if it is suitable for heavy traffic; particularly fire appliances.’

The surveyors proposed improvement works at an estimated cost of £274k, which would make safe the causeway and realign the central section slightly to the south.

A spokesperson for Bornish Community Council told us:

“The engineers report has formalised what we already knew; the causeway is unsafe and needs urgent attention. While it is good to have the details set down with such authority, we are now faced with the reality of progressing what will be a very costly  solution.”

Stòras Uibhist CEO Darren Taylor said he was supportive of the Snishival residents but said the community owned estate did not have the available funds to pay for the work:

“We remain committed to finding a solution for Snishival but the projected cost based on the report we commissioned is beyond the scope of the organisation at the moment. We are looking into the possibility of securing grant funding or alternative solutions. 

“We will be happy to meet again with the Bornish Community Council to review all options.”

The economics of buying and selling island stock

Uist crofters are still reeling from the news that Dingwall & Highland Marts Ltd (DHM) has withdrawn auctioneering services from Lochmaddy Mart. 

DHM Managing Director Grant MacPherson told Am Pàipear why the decision to cease operation at Lochmaddy had been made:

“Different factors have led us to this point, including a reduction in the numbers of stock presented for sale, which has led to a reduction in the number of buyers prepared to make the two day trip, and the difficulty of finding suitable auctioneers. Costs have been increasing as revenue has fallen and it is no longer sustainable for us to keep a presence in Uist. Ultimately we are a business and we simply can not afford to subsidise non-profitable parts of our operation.”

The crofters Am Pàipear spoke to said that the fall in stock numbers mirrored a downward trend in prices, an accusation Mr MacPherson refuted:

“There is no doubt that the stock on Uist is first class; the lamb sale at Lochmaddy last year returned some of our highest prices across our marts.  The stock is excellent but the numbers are just not there to allow us to cover our costs.”

Mr MacPherson confirmed the company’s commitment to stock sales in Stornoway and said that the business there was doing well. He pointed to the greater ease of travel, saying buyers could fly in and out the same day rather than risk three days away from their own farms.

The Lochmaddy mart is operated by North Uist and Benbecula Livestock (Marketing) Ltd (NUBLM), the shareholder organisation set up in 1985 to co-ordinate sales in Lochmaddy.

NUBLM Chair Donald Norman MacDonald, Clachan Farms, told Am Pàipear that the company’s Directors had been unanimous in their commitment to ensuring the safe future of the Mart:

“After all the hard work that has been done over the decades, it would be a huge loss to the islands and the economy. It would affect the smaller shareholders as the costs of transport to the mainland could make it unviable. 

“We have excellent stock in the islands and with numbers falling all over the country I think in the future there will be great demand for island stock. 

“We also have a good number of young crofters coming up and it is very important to support them by selling at the local mart which is also a fantastic meeting place for them.”

NUBLM say that alternative auctioneers have been approached, with Shareholders meeting on February 15th to decide the future direction of the Mart.

NUBLM Shareholder Neil MacPherson, Liniclate Township, has played a key role in supporting the Lochmaddy Mart over many years and says the news from DHM is not entirely unexpected:

“I was very saddened to hear the news from Dingwall & Highland Marts, but not greatly surprised. The number of crofters choosing to sell their stock at other venues has increased over the years and that has clearly made it more difficult for the auctioneers to cover their costs.”

“Where to sell stock is, of course, a question of personal choice, but I am afraid it has been a case of ‘use it or lose it’.”

“As to what happens next, we will have to await the outcome of our meeting in early February, when I hope we will have some alternative options to consider. It will then be for shareholders to decide how they want to proceed.”

Local crofter and NUBLM Shareholder Keith MacDonald, Trumisgarry was hopeful of a good outcome:

“Bha coinneamh aig stiuirichean Mart Loch nam Madadh air 10mh den Fhaoilleach agus iad aonaichte oidhirp a dheànamh Mart Loch nam Madadh a chumail fosgailte agus buidhean eile a tharraing a-steach airson sèilichean a chumail. Bha iad gu math dòchasach gun gabhadh seo a dheànamh as na mìosan ri thighinn ann an ùine son fèile uain a chumail mar as àbhaist deireadh an t-sàmhradh seo.” 

In South Uist, the Lochboisdale Mart has avoided the same fate as its North Uist cousin.

The picture in the South end of Uist appears to be very different, where United Auctions reports a roaring trade at Lochboisdale. Director and Chief Auctioneer Donald Young told Am Pàipear:

“The logistical requirements of an island sale certainly don’t make things easy – ferries, additional travel times and costs all have the potential to put buyers off. For us, Uist stock is worth that extra effort. We had eight mainland buyers bidding at Lochboisdale last month and the prices were very good. Our cattle sale in November saw prices easily keep par with mainland sales.”

Asked if United Auctions had any plans to extend their presence in Uist, Mr Young said: “We will always be delighted to sell Uist beasts through our marts. For us, the question of frequency is a question of need; we will always seek to meet demand.”

Mr Young concluded: ‘United Auctions is 100% committed to maintaining our service at Lochboisdale; be assured, we are here for the long run.”

The first NUBLM sale at Lochmaddy Mart saw 1,323 sheep and 383 cattle sold. By 

1988, the numbers had grown, with 5308 sheep and 579 cattle sold. The NUBLM records show how numbers have declined over the years

A well-deserved honour

January’s 2024 New Year Honours list included two well-respected and much-admired Western Isles names: Mrs Malina Macleod MBE, Lochportain, North Uist and Mr Norman A “Dokus” Macdonald OBE, Uig, Lewis.

Making the announcement last month, Iain Macaulay, Lord-Lieutenant for the Western Isles, said:  

”The honours system offers public recognition to people from all walks of life who have given exceptional service and made a difference in their community. I am therefore delighted that Mrs Malina Macleod MBE and Mr Norman A “Dokus” Macdonald OBE have been named in the 2024 New Year Honours list. They have both provided outstanding service, in their various roles, for a considerable length of time.” 

A former Matron of Lochmaddy Hospital for many years, Malina was the first Deputy Manager of the Uist and Barra Hospital in Benbecula when it opened in 2001, and went on to take the Manager’s role a few years later.

Since her retirement from the nursing profession, Mrs MacLeod has worked as a highly-valued and much sought after home-carer for local charity Tagsa Uibhist, where she has been described as ‘always going the extra mile’. Her patients and clients speak appreciatively of her devotion, skills and caring abilities.

In his statement of recognition, the Lord Lieutenant said: “Mrs Malina Macleod MBE has dedicated herself to a career in nursing and social care, spanning a period of over 60 years; her commitment and service to the North Uist community has been truly outstanding.”

Mrs MacLeod told Am Pàipear of her surprise at the news: “I’m shocked and still can’t believe it has happened!”

She continued:

“I was a medical nurse all my life.  I could never go into a surgical ward without feeling nauseous! 

“I don’t think I was a good manager but I was a team player and it became clear things were changing over quite a number of the early years. Bringing together two different cultures was very hard, but assuring that all would work out was the hardest and most difficult time in my whole career.  

“I will never forget the day the last patient left Lochmaddy Hospital. I went to my office and wept before someone came to take a photo as I locked the door.

“I missed the chat and good fun we had but it continued.  For me management was a hurdle and I was always happy to challenge, but it was always important to go back to what I knew well – caring for the most vulnerable.”

Retired Councillor and Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Norman MacDonald was awarded an OBE. He has a long record of public duty, both in his native Uig and across the Western Isles thorough his work with the Comhairle, and until very recently, served as a Watch Commander with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

Sarah Jane MacSween – Executive Head, Uist Primary Schools

Discover your inner kindness this Christmas – ‘tis the season to be jolly and kind!

As we approach Christmas, we start to hear the word ‘kindness’ and are reminded that this word is commonly used at this time of the year.

I recently heard that kindness was contagious. It got me thinking, whether this was true and more importantly, is there any evidence to back that statement? My immediate thoughts led me to events and celebrations that unsurprisingly, all occurred within school settings. A school environment is arguably the most likely place to see evidence of natural and unconscious kindness. The evidence can be found on corridor and classroom displays, children’s work and Achievement and Celebration Walls to name but a few. Kindness can also be observed through the caring and thoughtful interactions between adult and child and their interactions with each other. I then asked myself the question, is kindness something that can be learned and how and when does it get taught?

Kindness is more than random acts. Being a kind person is about having an awareness and a willingness to respond to the needs of others.

Children learn from the examples set by the adults that surround them. Some say that they begin to imitate others from the moment they are born. As their first educators, parents/carers have the duty to allow their children to experience kindness themselves first hand and so give them the best possible start in life. Of course schools play a significant role in moulding and creating our future generation. However, it is not just the work of the school; the whole community can shape and influence young learners. Family and friendship groups can also make a significant contribution to the attitudes that our children form.

One of the building blocks of kindness is to understand and respect the rights of others. Across the Uist primaries, we pride ourselves on the quality of our Teaching and Learning about rights. Our schools have achieved silver, gold and reaccredited gold Right Respecting Schools status. Teaching and learning about rights involves whole school community involvement, our curriculum, assemblies, interdisciplinary learning, focus days and weeks and the children’s creative and informative displays within the school.

The Uist primaries will continue their Rights Respecting Schools Award journeys as a means to keeping our young children at the centre of everything that we do. We are committed to putting children’s rights at the heart of our school life. We strive to create safe and inspiring places to learn, where children are respected and learn to respect others. By enabling children to have positive attitudes to themselves and others, we enable them to form relationships characterised by kindness.

The school curriculum aims to ensure that all children and young people in Scotland develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they will need to become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. Underlying these capacities is the capacity to be aware of the needs of others, in a way that treats them with dignity and respect.

Each year our children and our families participate in a number of ways in responding to the needs of others at Christmas. For example, families contribute generously to the Blythswood Shoebox Appeal and a Christmas Swap Shop gives families the chance to find pre-loved party gear or Christmas jumpers. Within our schools, efforts are made to reduce family expenses through the effective use of The Cost of The School Day Toolkit. Families are encouraged to sell unwanted toys/clothes etc. on the schools’ Facebook pages, where all proceeds go towards school funds. Children and their families also reach out to the needs of the wider community by supporting local and national charities, such as WICCI, MacMillan Cancer and Marie Curie.
Another important contribution was when a school and Parent Council purchased electric trikes in partnership with the local care home as part of the Cycling Without Age Scotland initiative.
Across our Uist primaries, themed assemblies and special days highlight local, national and international issues and concerns, ensuring that children are well informed about the needs of others.

A wide range of activities that demonstrate our children’s experiences of expressing kindness take place through the course of the year. These include The Poppy Scotland Appeal, harvest festivals, donations to the local foodbank, panto/concert matinee performances for senior citizens, The Big Scottish Breakfast, sharing of pre-loved school uniform items for exchange free of charge and many other important acts of kindness.

Our schools are very fortunate to have such a high level of generous support and kindness shown to us by our local communities and businesses. Through the kindness of many donors, we receive support for school projects and events such as involvement in Mod preparation, purchases of healthy break time snacks, participation in Remembrance Sunday and sharing in intergenerational activities.

When I reflect on this range of activities in families, schools and communities, I think I can say with confidence that kindness is indeed infectious and alive and well in the Western Isles.

Home grown Meals on Wheels service

Tagsa Uibhist and MacLeans Bakery launch new home-grown Meals on Wheels service in Uist.
Biadh Blasta Uibhist will supply and deliver over 500 nutritious meals to those being cared for at home this winter. The meals have been made with local Uist lamb, venison, salmon and vegetables and will be delivered using zero-emission vehicles.

Tagsa’s Local Food Development Manager, Alex MacKenzie said: ‘These delicious meals are all made using local Uist meat, fish, and vegetables. The Tagsa staff and volunteers have been working with local crofters, the North Uist Estate and with local salmon companies and have grown huge amounts of potatoes, carrots, onions, and rhubarb here at Tagsa and in the community. The meals are traditional, healthy, and nutritious and have been prepared, packaged and blast frozen by MacLeans Bakery, meeting all required food safety standards. We will start our deliveries in the week of the 20th of November, reaching a total of 23 Tagsa clients over eight weeks.”

Allan Maclean, Director of Maclean’s Bakery, said: ‘We were delighted to be asked to help our friends at Tagsa Uibhist with their project as we share a passion for local produce and community gardens. We are lucky in Uist that there are so many excellent food producers and we are strongly supportive of any project that highlights their good work. We wish them every success for the future.”

Tagsa’s CEO, Chris MacLullich added: ‘A recent study carried out by Tagsa shows that the cost of food in Uist is 28% higher than on the mainland and that the availability of fresh, nutritious food is limited due to erratic deliveries and the lack of large supermarkets. These factors combined mean that eating fresh, nutritious, and healthy food can be very difficult for many in Uist, particularly those who find it difficult to prepare fresh meals themselves. We are grateful to the Comhairle for a grant of £2,500, which goes some way to making this pilot project possible. Our hope is to do the same and scale up in the coming years.”

Biadh Blasta Uibhist will initially run for a period of eight weeks but the hope is to establish the service on a permanent basis.

Prestigious ‘charity MBE’ for local charity

In November, members of the SHARE/ Daliburgh Thrift Shop were thrilled to learn that they were recipients of one of the first prestigious King’s Awards for Voluntary Service (KAVS).
Equivalent to an MBE, KAVS is the highest Award given to local voluntary groups in the UK and champions the outstanding work of groups of volunteers working in their local community. SHARE was one of just 262 organisations across the UK to be honoured in this way.

Avril Campbell, Chairperson of SHARE said:

“We are delighted that the hard work and commitment of our loyal team of volunteers over many years has been recognised with this award. The thrift shop has carved out a unique and special place in the heart of the community and is truly something created and enjoyed by one and all.

“Indeed the entire community deserves this recognition. SHARE acknowledges that their success depends not only on the hard work of volunteers but also on the continuing support of their loyal customers and the generosity of people in the community who donate so many wonderful high quality goods for sale.”

The first seeds of the thrift shop were sown nearly a quarter of a century ago by the then Church of Scotland minister, Rev James Lawson, who had the vision to realise that the Church Hall could be used for the benefit of the whole community. After much discussion and canvassing of the views of members of the community, it was decided to develop the first thrift shop and tea room. By June 2005, the thrift shop was constituted as SHARE (Sharing, Helping, and Reaching Everyone) and charitable status was granted.

Funding for the renovation of the Hall was secured and on 15th March 2007, the thrift shop reopened and of course it seemed only right that Rev James Lawson returned to Daliburgh to dedicate the building. Since then, SHARE has gone from strength to strength.

SHARE currently has a team of 35 volunteers, a number of whom have been with the organisation since it started. The SHARE volunteers make for a happy team, says Avril:

“The hard work and friendliness of the whole team mean that all customers, both local and those visiting the islands, can be assured of a warm welcome. Indeed there are so many lovely comments to that effect.”

“Every Thursday and Saturday many people go along to the thrift shop from 11 am to 1 pm to enjoy a friendly chat over tea, coffee and home baking and to find bargains. We pride ourselves on offering great value for money especially in these tough times of hardship. Once running costs of the hall are deducted, all proceeds from sales and teas are donated to local charities and good causes.”


Since 2008, SHARE has donated an impressive £86,478 to over 75 organisations.

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.  

The future of art education in Uist 

Low student numbers cause concern for newly formed college

Siân Swinton

Newly formed college UHI North, West and Hebrides will be conducting a consultation on the future of their NC Art & Design course offered at Taigh Chearsabhagh.

The new college, formed from the merger of UHI North Highland, West Highland and Outer Hebrides, last month committed to a strong presence in Uist. However, at the beginning of September confusion around the delayed start of the NC Art & Design course caused concern for the future of arts education in North Uist.

The one-year portfolio course was due to start on Monday 28 August but on the afternoon of Friday 25 August, students and staff received a phone call and follow up email advising them of a concern regarding low student numbers and a delay to the start of the course. 

The email sent to students said: “We understand this news is disappointing and we can only apologise for the late communication. We will continue to look at all options and confirm by 8th September if this course will run. We can offer you an alternative course should NC Art & Design not run as planned.”

The alternative courses suggested by UHI did not include another art course and were all to be delivered as distance learning modules rather than face to face. 

The announcement came as a blow to students who were just days away from beginning their course;  one student had organised travel and accommodation in order to take the course and was left unsure about the future of their study.

Uist Arts Association picked up on the news and issued an email to all members detailing the importance and history of the course within the community and its strong link with Taigh Chearsabhagh.

The UAA said: “The presence of Taigh Chearsabhagh for the last 30 years and the co-location of the art courses delivered there has been a vital focus for shaping and developing a significant and thriving community of artists and people interested in the visual arts in North Uist.”

The email encouraged anyone with ties to the course to write to UHI and local politicians with their personal stories regarding the course and what it has allowed them to achieve.

Many former students responded with one saying: “The NC course was the best year of art tuition I have ever received.”

Students from the NC Art & Design course have gone on to study at Glasgow School of Art, Grays School of Art and Edinburgh College of Art among many others.

Theona Morrison, Uist resident and Director of Community Development Lens, wrote a letter to Derek Lewis, chairman of the new college, saying: “I presume the finances of UHI are under pressure, as with so many strands of life, however, what UHI seeks to save by withdrawing this course will have little impact on UHI’s bottom line but will have immeasurable impact on the Uist community.”

Since the local outcry, UHI pledged to run the course this year, however, it will only run for 18 weeks rather than the full academic year that it has been given previously. UHI has assured students that they will still receive the same qualification at the end of the course.

The college now plans to conduct a consultation on their future art offering at Taigh Chearsabhagh, saying:  “UHI is committed to working with its staff, students and partners to develop its art and design offer in Uist.”

An open meeting was held at Taigh Chearsabhagh on 19 September to discuss how the community can engage with UHI to protect the future of art education in Uist. 

Hannah Ritchie-Muir, UHI Vice Principal Academic, said: “We understand how important these courses are and how ingrained they are in the local community and culture of Uist.  At the same time, we must also review and reflect on the sustainability of these courses which have been facing low numbers over recent years.” 

New report highlights inequality for island shoppers

Tagsa Uibhist has published a new report calling for ‘immediate and progressive action by national and regional authorities to address the difficulties of food insecurity in Uist and Barra’.

The Our Right to Food Report sets out the findings of a study Tagsa carried out earlier this year in partnership with Nourish Scotland looking at the affordability and accessibility of basic fruit and vegetable items in Uist and Barra.

The research findings evidence that people living in the Southern Isles are disproportionately more disadvantaged in terms of affording and gaining access to basic fruit and vegetables.
Alex Mackenzie, Tagsa Uibhist’s Local Food Development Manager, explained how the study was carried out:

“Our Community Researchers set out to find a mixture of fruits and vegetables from an example weekly shopping list for a family of five. The list comprised of 17 basic fruit and vegetable items including fresh produce, frozen goods and pantry items, providing the basis for a ‘right to food’ metric in terms of the affordability of a healthy diet.

“Less than half of the shopping list items were easily accessible and furthermore the total basket cost was 28% more expensive than a Tesco Online shop.”

The Report shows that: “Rather than paying £1.10 for a 1kg bag of mixed vegetables (Tesco Online) Islanders were on average paying £2.87 and sometimes paying out £4.67 for frozen mixed vegetables. This same trend was found against other food items with pasta sauce equating to 233% more than a Tesco equivalent; paying £2.83 for a 500g jar of pasta sauce compared with £0.85 for a Tesco product.”

Alex says that the Uist findings were in stark contrast to other rural mainland communities and evidenced worrying trends on the dietary inequalities for island communities.

The Report provides interesting detail on how the Co-Op classifies its island shops by size and revenue – convenience store, supermarket or superstore. Of the four Co-Op shops within the survey area, two are classified as ‘convenience stores’ and as a result, shelf space is prioritised for branded, convenience food such as pizza and ice cream, with less space allocated to fresh, own-branded or value range produce.

“Larger retailers need to recognise that a convenience store classification which gives a heavier weighting to convenience foods and top branded goods is not serving our island communities well.
“All our Island shop staff are trying to ease the burden of the cost of living crisis but in some cases are restricted to centralised ordering and buying systems which don’t make any concessions for Island life.”

In terms of availability of faired better, with autonomy over their ordering requirements and the ability to stock local produce: “Co-op stores need agreement from headquarters to stock local produce and there would be a requirement for the local producer to be operating at a sufficient scale to provide their produce throughout all the Co-op Scottish stores which acts as a deterrent for small scale local producers.”

Our Right to Food follows the publication earlier this year of Tagsa’s Small is Beautiful Report, which set out the opportunities for growing Uist’s sustainable food options.This latest study continues that theme, saying:

“There is huge potential to increase the amount of local food available to the local community and provide horticultural training to encourage people to grow locally.”

The Report concludes with a clear call to action:

“There is a strong call by our community researchers for immediate and progressive action by national and regional authorities to address the difficulties of food insecurity in Uist and Barra. Food supply chains are broken, and our findings show that the health of islanders is compromised by limited access to adequate, nutritious, and affordable food, particularly during the winter months.”