‘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.”

Lochboisdale pier development plans spark heated debate

At the Stòras AGM, the Lochboisdale pier development was an issue of hot debate, with members clashing with the board on matters relating to the ownership of the project, the scope of the development, the terms of the CMAL lease and the possible amendment of a Harbour Empowerment Order. 

In 2019, the SnBM board made the decision to progress the new pier with Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) as developer, agreeing the broad principles of a lease that would see CMAL build and own the structure and receive the income derived from it; in return, CMAL would pay an annual rent to the estate for the length of the lease.

At the meeting, the view was expressed that Stòras had undervalued the opportunity of the new pier by allowing CMAL to take ownership of the project.

CEO Darren Taylor said: “It has been, and remains, the position of the board that the best interests of the community are served by the new ferry terminal being built by CMAL. This also means ongoing repairs and liability will sit with them and not us.”

A Stòras member accused the board of selling the community short, asking: “why tie us to a 50 year lease?”

Chair Mary Schmoller replied: “Because that’s what they asked for. This is a £50m project and CMAL are not going to build it without a 50 year agreement.”

The question of income from the pier was also raised. One member cited the example of the publicly owned Lochmaddy Pier, which earned the Comhairle substantial income from pier duties. 

Darren Taylor confirmed current pier income for the Gasay marina was in the region of £100k per annum, with £50k coming from aquaculture and the rest from fishing and leisure activities.

After the meeting, Am Pàipear asked for clarification on this issue, and Mr Taylor confirmed:

“No lease has yet been finalised but when the Heads of Terms were agreed back in 2019, the lease was set at 50 years. Those negotiations were based on an expected start date of 2025 and given that the project is so late, I think it’s fair to say there could be room further discussion.” 

Mr Taylor added that the expected annual income from the lease would be in the region of £75k to £100k per annum, but confirmed this too was still open for negotiation and stressed all design, construction and maintenance would not sit with Stòras.

At the meeting, disappointment was expressed that the project had been limited to a ‘just a ferry port’, rather than the wider harbour development opportunities laid out at the time of the community buyout.

The board said the decision to progress the project in its current scope was a pragmatic approach to the urgent requirement for a new ferry port.

A member called from the floor saying Stòras didn’t understand the value of their asset. Another concern raised was the potential for CMAL to turn away cruise ships and other opportunities that could generate income for the estate.

Mr Taylor said the organisation had no intention of ‘giving away the golden goose in terms of cruise ships’ and later added that a CMAL ferry terminal would not preclude future port developments.

The ‘Lochboisdale and Gasay Port (Harbour Empowerment) Order is a legal document conferring statutory harbour authority status to Lochboisdale Development Ltd and setting out the powers and duties associated with the harbour’s operation.

The application for the Order was lodged at the end of 2014, and finally granted by Scottish Government ministers in March 2016. 

At the meeting, it was explained that necessary changes to the Order were being considered.

Scottish ministers confirm go-ahead for Scolpaig development

The Comhairle has welcomed a decision by Scottish Government not to call in the Spaceport 1 planning application for ministerial determination. 

Scottish Government confirmed its intention to wave through the development in a letter to the Comhairle dated July 24th, saying: “It is not Scottish Ministers’ intention to intervene in this application by either issuing a direction restricting the granting of planning permission or by calling in the application for their own determination. Accordingly, you, as determining authority, are hereby authorised to deal with the application in a manner you think fit.”

The Comhairle has confirmed that the decision taken by its Planning Applications Board to approve the application will now stand.

  A Comhairle spokesperson said: “This is another important step forward in the plan to establish Spaceport 1 – a suborbital, vertical launch facility at Scolpaig, North Uist.
“Following receipt of the formal decision notice, our focus will turn to discharging the planning conditions and delivering on the mitigations laid out in the Environmental Impact Assessment.
“Spaceport 1 will provide an opportunity for the economy of the Outer Hebrides to grow and diversify and will provide much needed local, professional jobs and training opportunities. Prospective launch companies are already looking at working with local businesses and establishing an on-island presence to support launches in future years.  Even at this early stage, it is acknowledged by the launch industry that Spaceport 1 – and the Outer Hebrides – has a critical role to play in the expansion of the Scottish and UK space sectors.” 

The campaign group Friends of Scolpaig has greeted the announcement with dismay, saying that the development has not been given time for full consideration.

A spokesperson for the Group told Am Pàipear:
“The Scottish Government Planning and Environmental Appeals Division was duty bound to fully consider and review the submission before concluding its decision. It is difficult to imagine that this requirement could have possibly been carried out in full in the 28 day period between the Comhairle’s submission and the deadline for their deliberation. The submission was made up of detailed plans, illustrations and diagrams and literally thousands of pages of technical reports and opinions, we feel no comfort that this exercise can have been executed with any proper scrutiny.”

The Group says that the Comhairle set out to bypass requirements for the longer period of public consultation required for larger developments by carefully structuring the site within a two hectare boundary:

“It was a cynical move that delivered a double blow for Uist; for not only did it effectively shut down any meaningful opportunity for the public to assess and comment on the dozens of complex reports the Comhairle submitted with its application, but worse, it forced the access road to the launch pad right through the farm steadings. If the site had moved beyond a two hectare ‘red line’ boundary, the road could have skirted the historic buildings entirely. As it is, the Comhairle has successfully avoided the longer statutory 12 week consultation period for larger developments and Spaceport 1 will be going ahead without any proper scrutiny of the project’s supporting evidence.”

  The Comhairle has yet to confirm a timeline for construction but said it is anticipated that the first launch from Spaceport 1 could be in late 2024 or early 2025.

Deputy FM announces £2m boost for Cnoc Soilleir

Monday 27th March was a big day in Scottish politics; the last in office for outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney, and the first for new FM Humza Yousaf.

From a Uist perspective, the news headlines didn’t come from Holyrood, but from a bright, sunny Daliburgh, where Mr Swinney used his last day in post to announce an additional £2m of funding to allow the construction of the 200 seat auditorium needed to complete the Cnoc Soilleir project.
Mr Swinney was at Cnoc Soilleir to Chair a meeting of the Convention of the Highlands & Islands, a forum he has led since its inception in 2007.

Leaders from the Local Authorities and strategic bodies forming the COHI cohort were in attendance, along with Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth, who was there to answer for the Government on the troubling issue of island ferry services.

Introducing the meeting, Mr Swinney set out his long association with the Cnoc Soilleir project:

“I first came to visit this site in 2017 when Màiri MacInnes, Chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, lured me to the edge of a field, where all I could see was some rough ground and some fencing. She told me of her vision for a centre that would be a focal point for the appreciation of Gaelic language, culture and craft and how the only thing standing between the development of this rough ground and that vision was Scottish Government funding. I’m pleased to say we were able to work with colleagues from HIE, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Scottish Government to get to the point of establishing this wonderful building.

“When I came to open this building last year, Màiri used the opportunity to explain the significance of this wall behind me; the significance of this wall being that she doesn’t want it to be there for much longer! Phase 2 of the project will see this wall make way for the new auditorium. I’m delighted that the Government is able today to announce a capital contribution of £2m to support this next phase of work.”

Summing up his introduction, Mr Swinney said: “I can’t think of a finer way to end my ministerial career than here on such a fine day in South Uist.”

Comhairle Leader Paul Steele said the Deputy First Minister had been the strongest possible supporter of the Convention since taking office in 2007 and had never missed a meeting in those years. Mr Steele thanked Mr Swinney for the purposeful and intelligent way he had chaired the meeting and for his wider commitment to the Highlands and Islands, presenting him with a gift to remember his experiences here in Uist.

Cllr Steele concluded by saying: “This is a time of deep financial uncertainty and we are dealing with financial challenges on a scale not known in the living memory of most members.”

The day’s agenda covered the importance of providing suitable and affordable housing, of halting population decline and of supporting the Gaelic language and culture.

The Government’s plans on Highly Protected Marine Areas were raised, with elected members sharing concerns at the impact proposed restrictions would have on local marine based businesses.

The continuing issues with our islands’ ferry service was also on the agenda, with Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth in attendance to hear the heartfelt contributions from delegates. It was recognised that the £580m investment Scottish Government had made in supporting the service with new ferries was welcome, but that the urgent and pressing requirement of an interim fix remained a priority.

Ms Gilruth said she had done everything she could to secure interim vessels to tide the service through, but that securing ‘additional tonnage’ that would work in a Scottish island context was not straightforward. In recent weeks the announcment of a £9m, nine-month charter of MV Alfred had offered some hope of service resilience over the summer.

Ms Gilruth was widely praised for her personal commitment to the issue, with a number of delegates agreeing that she has made more effort to meet with and hear from stakeholders than any of her predecessors.

Following the meeting, Màiri Maciness commented on the £2m of additional funding for Cnoc Soilleir, saying: “This announcement of £2m is gratefully received. It will open doors for us to negotiate with the other funders about the shortfall we now have. HIE and CNES are working closely with the Cnoc Soilleir team to progress applications. It’s a very positive message from Scottish Government that they recognise the value of Uist as a resource for Gaelic learning and development.”

Supplementary Environmental Information published

The long awaited Supplementary Environmental Information (SEI) to the Environmental Impact Report on the Spaceport 1 development was published on the Comhairle’s planning portal at the start of February, kicking off an additional four week period of public consultation.

The submission included more than 100 new documents, ranging from maps, illustrations and photographs to technical reports and surveys.

The Spaceport 1 development at Scolpaig Farm has had a mixed response from the community, with some welcoming the economic value of the project and others citing environmental and cultural heritage concerns.

The developers have set out the beneficial economic impacts associated with both the construction and operation of the site, saying by year three of operation, Spaceport 1 will be providing 23.26 Full-Time Equivalent jobs and generating turnover of £6.45 million.

Those raising objections included the Friends of Scolpaig Tower group, which has campaigned against the development. The Group says it is “fighting to protect this area of exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity from the inappropriate development of a commercial spaceport.”

The Group’s concerns include the impact on the single track road between Carinish and Scolpaig, which will be subject to clearway restrictions during launch periods and will not be upgraded as part of the development.

The location of the development has also proved controversial, as it is sited on Scolpaig Farm, a well-preserved 19th century agricultural holding, and close to Scolpaig Tower and the Iron Age Dun on which it was built.

As part of the SEI requirements, developers were asked to extend their survey work to include a structural assessment of the Tower.

Consultants Harley Haddow were commissioned to undertake the structural survey and the Report they returned makes up part of the SEI submissions.

The Report confirms that a site inspection was carried out in August 22, covering Scolpaig Tower, the Farm and its associated buildings. The surveyors were able to carry out a visual inspection of the outbuildings, ‘externally and internally where possible’, and made their inspection of the Farm itself from the perimeter only. Scolpaig Tower was subject to a ‘visual assessment from loch side only, given the compromised access arrangements, with subsequent photographic/video survey undertaken separately by Fraser Architecture.’

On the question of Scolpaig Tower, the surveyors state that: “Our view is that the tower is highly sensitive, either to wind loads or perhaps even vibration from running traffic or even, say, operatives setting up a scaffolding frame. It may be that the only way to ensure longevity of the tower whilst minimising risk to those operatives charged with the work is to take down the tower, by hand.”

In its response to the consultation last year, the North Uist Community Council summed up community feeling by saying:

“The Community Council recognises that there is divided opinion on the proposal and does not provide judgement in favour of or against the proposal. We do, however, provide the following comments:

“There is strong community desire for creation of sustainable employment to help stem population decline and provide quality employment opportunities. There is, however, some scepticism that the number of projected FTE jobs will materialise and that they will manifest as full-time roles in North Uist or elsewhere in the local area…… The lack of suitable and available housing is a significant problem for businesses trying to recruit staff in the locality. Similar challenges can be envisaged for any job opportunities that are created via the Spaceport…

“The EIA presents arguments of no detrimental environmental impact; there are some community concerns that some detrimental impact could result. There is some concern as to how the safety of activities will be assured, particularly given the experimental nature of some activities…

“There is some concern of the possible impact to fishing activity; although this may only be for a limited number of days a year when there could be contention in short good weather windows…

“We acknowledge there is a sizeable construction phase and would encourage that work is contracted wherever possible to local contractors. It is acknowledged that the lease of Scolpaig Farm for agricultural use is a positive outcome.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar acquired the full 687 acres that make up the farm in June 2019. The Farm and the Tower are scheduled monuments.

The Spaceport 1 development is being led by a consortium that includes Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, HIE, QinetiQ, Rhea Group and Commercial Space Technologies Ltd.

Development plans for the Spaceport were first submitted in the summer of 2019 but later withdrawn after more than 600 objections were raised. In November 2021, the developers showcased revised plans for a scaled down project, which generated 223 objections.

As Am Pàipear went to print at the end February, there were only four new responses from members of the public to this new consultation, one neutral and three against.

With the final submissions now returned, the Comhairle’s planning department will review the application proposal and the consultation comments from members of the public and specialist consultees before preparing its report and recommendation for consideration by the Planning Board of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in due course.

£393m investment to generate 1,300 jobs across three island groups

The long awaited Islands Growth Deal was finally and formally ratified by the UK and Scottish Governments and the three island Authorities of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles at a special ceremony in Orkney on January 20th.

Uist councillor and Comhairle Leader Paul Steele attended the ceremony, along with Lord Offord of Garvel, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland, Ivan McKee MSP, Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, Cllr James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council and Cllr Emma Macdonald, Leader of Shetland Islands Council.

The Islands Growth Deal delivers a joint UK and Scottish Government commitment of a £100 million investment in the future economic prosperity of the three island groups, and is set to generate an anticipated 1,300 jobs and a further £293 million in match funding over the next ten years.

Of the 16 projects and programmes detailed in the Deal, five are specific to the Western Isles, with a further number benefiting across the island groups.

Four Uist projects are expected to benefit from the investment, including the proposed South Uist Food Hub, a Creative Practice Hub at Taigh Chearsabhagh, the St Kilda Viewpoint visitor centre at Beinn Riabhach on North Uist and the Comhairle’s controversial Spaceport development at Scolpaig Farm.

Cllr Steele described the programme as ‘highly ambitious, but achievable’, and thanked the many community and council members who had supported the project from the start.

Cllr Steele said: “The signing of the Islands Growth Deal is both the culmination of a vision set out by the Islands Councils and the UK and Scottish Governments and the beginning of the implementation of that vision.”

It is a milestone towards achieving our aims of securing 1300 jobs and £393m of investment over 10 years through the Islands Deal, using the resources of our Islands and capitalising on our natural assets and most importantly, our people.”

Ivan McKee MSP, Scottish Government Business Minister said: “This Growth Deal will be a game-changing initiative for our islands – enabling sustainable economic growth and delivering new and internationally significant port infrastructure that will play an important role in achieving net zero targets.

“This £50 million Scottish Government investment will support the transition to renewable energy sources – including equipping the workforce with new skills – and trial emissions reduction initiatives on islands. It will drive innovation in key space, food and drink and creative industries sectors; help develop significant tourism and cultural attractions and expand education provision.

“We are determined that our islands should be attractive places to live and work and are able to maximise their contribution to Scotland’s sustainable economic transformation.”   

UK Government Minister for Scotland Malcolm Offord said: “This will not just boost local economies and create jobs, but also empower communities to get the most out of the many assets and attributes that make the islands such unique and special places to live.  

“This deal is packed with a broad range of high-impact projects, whether it’s leading the transition to net zero or developing ‘must-visit’ destinations such as the St Kilda trail.”

Community estate plans on show

Sealladh na Beinne Mòire (SnBM) held its Annual General Meeting in Talla an Iochdair on the evening of 24th November. Around 50 members of the community braved the foul weather to attend the event, with a full contingent of Directors on hand to support CEO Darren Taylor and his team.

Mr Taylor presented an Operational Review of the business, talking through the SnBM accounts and setting out key issues of interest. The audited accounts posted for 2021 showed income totalling £2,840,455 and expenditure of £1,825,493, leaving a pre-tax/depreciation profit of £1,014,962, and net profit of £20,080.

A more detailed overview showed an uplift in income for most areas of the business, with golf, fishing and a combined Grogarry Lodge/sporting function all returning modest profits and Lochboisdale Harbour returning a loss of £107k. South Uist Renewable Energy Ltd reported a sharp fall in income from £2,375,000 in 2020 to £1,993,000 this year as a result of a marked reduction in wind and over 30 days of maintenance-related downtime.

The results of the recent helicopter deer count were presented, confirming 216 stags, 684 hinds and 198 calves, making a total 1,198 beasts. Cull targets for 2022/23 were listed as 255 in all, with 143 culled to date. Members were also presented with cull targets for the next six years, which the Company suggest would bring the total deer herd down to just over 600 by 2028.

The target herd size listed is considerably higher than previously stated and after the meeting, Am Pàipear asked why the figure had changed. The SnBM position was confirmed as: “We had previously settled on an optimal  herd number of around 450 and our cull targets for the coming years are heading that way. We would like to see the positive impact of our new zero tolerance policy of shooting all beasts to the west of the main road and within village boundaries on the east side of the estate. It may well be that if the deer are staying out of the way and not causing any damage that we can maintain a herd of around 600 without negative impacts.”

SnBM reported over £500k of external grant income, supporting two temporary posts and progressing a range of other projects.

Updates were provided on key projects, including the Smart Clachan housing development planned for Lochboisdale, the development of a local food production hub at Grogarry Steadings, and a ‘Strategic Visioning’ study to set out draft plans for Lochboisdale’s regeneration.

Details of £35,000 worth of community donations through 18 separate allocations were also detailed.
All 14 questions submitted by members ahead of the AGM were answered on the night and SnBM has confirmed these will be available to view on the Stòras website.

Questions asked during the meeting covered a broad range of subjects, including deer stocking plans, flooding impacts and the allocation of costs across sporting, gamekeeping and Grogarry Lodge functions.

When asked to set out their long term vision for Uist, the Directors cited the requirement to resolve the core issues Uist faces, including housing and ferry provision. The need to free up unused land to allow young people to croft and build homes was a common theme, as was the requirement to work together.

John Daniel Peteranna encouraged the Board to raise their sights to bigger, more aspirational projects, for example by pursuing the possibility of innovative new energy solutions.

Father Michael MacDonald urged the Board to look again at the radical drainage plans set out in the original business case for the community buyout of the Estate.

Of all discussions on the floor, only one comment elicited applause from the assembled audience when Iain Stephen Morrison stated his disappointment that no coherent vision for Uist had been set out by the Board. Mr Morrison said: “I think I’ve been to every AGM this organisation has held. Back in the beginning, there would be queues stretching out of the door, but tonight the room is half empty.” He continued: “I urge you to open up and bring the people with you. If you don’t, the price will be failure.”

Chair Mary Schmoller responded by reminding all members that the next AGM will be held next summer and that four Director posts would be open for election.

St Kilda Viewpoint Project Update

The proposed St Kilda Viewpoint visitor centre at Beinn Riabhach on North Uist is now in its final pre-contract stages of development following an award of over £150,000 to community group Sealladh Hiort by HIE and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar earlier this year.
Detailed planning permission and a building warrant are now approved and the project design team, led by Fraser Architecture of Benbecula, have nearly completed the detailed construction drawings. The quantity surveyors Torrance LLP of Inverness are now preparing bills of quantities, and contract documents will be ready for the project to go out to tender later this year.
Exhibition designers, Mather & Co of Manchester, are now working on a detailed design for the interior displays through which visitors will learn more about St Kilda’s natural history and the historic links between Uist and the double UNESCO World Heritage archipelago, which lies less than 40 miles off North Uist’s north-west coast.
Located nearly half a mile from the public road up the slopes of Beinn Riabhach at an altitude of 250ft above sea level, the Centre has panoramic views out across the Atlantic ocean, and the main feature will be a 60ft long full height viewing window through which visitors can get the best possible views of Hiort, Boreray and the two Stacs on clear days.
The innovative building design, which has a mainly timber structure, is based on off-site pre-fabrication, thus minimising the amount of on-site construction time. It is also highly energy efficient to reduce carbon emissions and running costs to a minimum.
The timing of the final pre-contract tender process will be linked to a number of capital funding applications now submitted to both the Scottish and UK governments. The Sealladh Hiort project is also included in the Destination Development group of tourism infrastructure developments proposed for the Outer Hebrides within the Comhairle’s Islands Growth Deal 10 year funding package, which is now in its final stages of agreement.
Sealladh Hiort Chair Alasdair MacEachen said: “The Sealladh Hiort board was delighted to receive this award from HIE and the Comhairle to enable the Uist St Kilda project to complete all of the pre-contract stages of what will be Uist’s most important tourism investment for many years. Although the funding environment is challenging at present, we have received excellent support from officers in HIE and the Comhairle to ensure we have the best possible chance of success. And even if we are not successful this year, the project will be absolutely ready to take advantage of any future funding opportunities if and when they arise.”

A song will be sung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard work and a lot of nettle rash as the community gets to work

The Lochmaddy community gathered on a sunny Saturday to begin the work of transforming the village playpark.

Clearing a mountain of overgrown foliage the workers uncovered the play equipment and ground ready to be repaired and repainted, and ready for the installation of a new boat swing, a gentle nod to Lochmaddy’s port history.

Local parent Helen Stoddart has been working tirelessly on moving the planning for the new playpark to action, it’s a credit to her hard work that the children will this summer be able to play in the park safely.

Helen told Am Pàipear: “This is just phase one for Lochmaddy. There are plans drawn up for a larger development around the edge of the football pitch, which will have equipment suitable for toddlers to teens. For this to go ahead, Lochmaddy Hall Committee are putting out a call for more volunteers to help with the planning and funding applications to make this a reality. If you can spare a little time and enthusiasm to see a fantastic play facility come to Lochmaddy, please do get in touch to offer some help.”

The Committee was faced with more work than expected, as Helen explained: “A previous announcement on Facebook from RAF Boulmer that their contractor JRC services would make over the football pitch and playpark area did not not come to fruition, so unfortunately, it is back to the Lochmaddy Hall Committee to create this space for the community and visitors to enjoy.”

The funding for the gardening equipment and volunteers lunch was secured by North Uist & Benbecula Locality Partnership through the Community Shout Out Fund supported by CnES, NHS Western Isles, The Scottish Government and Scottish Rural Network.

The plans for the playpark are available to view in Lochmaddy Hall.

Helen can be contacted by email at