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The Hebridean Rock Dove

Most of us see a pigeon every day without really noticing it. Since the dawn of human civilization, these birds have followed us around the world.

We first domesticated them to eat, but they soon proved their worth as messengers and sources of entertainment. The crazy feathers of fancy pigeons at exhibitions and shows helped inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the other hand, being so popular has had some unplanned outcomes. All over the world, for the past few hundred years, some of these domestic pigeons have been escaping their cozy lives in captivity and becoming wild. Uniquely adapted to living alongside us, these ‘feral pigeons’ bred and now number in their millions, and can be found in almost every city and town in the world. Feral pigeons are often condemned as pests, making a mess of pretty streets and statues in famous squares all over the world. More positively, for many people, they’re one of very few connections to nature amidst the urban sprawl.

Whilst this global takeover was happening, the original wild pigeon, more technically called the Rock Dove, was doing what it’s always done, nesting in caves and cliffs, and foraging for seeds in meadows. Rock Doves are much shier than feral pigeons and are only found in places like the Outer Hebrides which are far away from their relatives’ urban strongholds. Unlike feral pigeons, who can have black, grey, rusty brown or white plumage, all Rock Doves look identical, with a blue-grey colour, a white patch on their back, and black bars on their wings. Unfortunately for them, their feral cousin has done so well that it has begun to infiltrate the Rock Doves’ habitat. Rather than simply outcompeting their rarer relatives, feral pigeons begin to interbreed with them. Eventually, particularly when feral pigeons outnumber them, Rock Dove populations are replaced with populations of hybrids and feral pigeons.

Whilst Rock Doves used to be found across the entire Mediterranean and Western European coast, they now hang on only in small relict populations. The Outer Hebrides, with its unique agricultural traditions and machair meadows, holds one such population. The rocky coasts of the east and the open lands of the west provide an excellent refuge for Rock Doves. Recent studies of their DNA have proven that they are, for now, essentially free of any contact with domestic or feral pigeons. Of the locations which were included in the study, nowhere else in the UK or Ireland had such a status.

The wild Rock Doves of the Outer Hebrides are one of the least understood birds in the UK. They have usually fallen beneath notice of scientists and birdwatchers, meaning that even basic aspects of their behaviour are not recorded. As long as the Outer Hebrides, and particularly their strongholds in Uist, remain free of colonies of feral and free-flying domestic pigeons, the Rock Dove will survive. So next time you see a pigeon fly by, take a moment to remember this is one of the very few places left in Europe where it’s hasn’t originated from escaped captive birds, but is the original, truly wild, version.

Will Smith

Thoughts from Canon Michael A Hutson

I should begin by introducing myself. I am Michael Hutson, Parish Priest of St Mary’s, Benbecula. I was once the Music Teacher on North Uist. I was also Parish Priest in Barra for nearly 5 years, 14 years ago. I’ve spent time during my 28 happy years of priesthood in places as diverse and rewarding as Barlinnie Prison, the USA, Mallaig, Dunoon, Lochgilphead, Oban and Bute. I’m very happy to be back in the Hebrides. Since this is the November issue, here’s my November reflection.

November really begins on the 31st October, Halloween! That’s the evening (or e’en) before the day of All Saints, or All Hallows. (Hallow means holy. We use that word in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name”). So, Halloween means the “Night Before All Saints”. The idea of beginning a celebration on the night before the big day is common: think of Christmas Eve, or the Jewish Sabbath beginning not on Saturday morning, but at Friday sunset. So, our (very commercialized and americanized) Halloween antics are connected to the tradition of honouring every saint who ever lived and died.

When I was a wee boy, and I’m so old that this reminiscence predates “trick or treat”, we disguised ourselves and went round the neighbourhood performing a party piece. We hoped for the reward of toffee apples, sweeties, and – especially – tablet. (No wonder I have diabetes now!) Great fun, great Scottish tradition.

Next day we went to church. Halloween night was about guising, but 1st November was about honouring the saints in Heaven, all the famous ones for sure, but also those whose names are not known to us. Far from being about ghosts and ghouls, this festival is rooted in the ancient Christian appreciation of the goodness, the greatness, the example and inspiration of those who have gone before us in faith: saints. Throughout the year, we celebrate the feast days of the official saints of the church. Think St Patrick’s Day (17th March) or St Columba (9th June) or, this month, St Margaret of Scotland (16th), St Andrew (30th). But on 1st November, it’s all the Saints who get honoured. For the truth is that there are lots of saints who never got the full whammy of Vatican investigation and declaration of sainthood, but are saints none the less.

I invite you to think about what sainthood is. Most Christians hope and believe that those people who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, who lived a good life, with love and decency and mercy in their lives, have gone straight back to God. They “go marching in,” ready to meet their maker, who had always loved them and wanted them to be with him. Maybe they were the great heroes we know about who are depicted with haloes in stained glass windows etc., or maybe they were the unsung heroes living the quiet life of family and friendship, work and gentle service to others. The people whose goodness maybe went unrecognised, except they were recognised as saints by God.

It’s not rocket science: God made us to be good and to be with him. We just need to play our part in that plan, remembering that – even when we mess-up – his mercy is bigger than any sin we can commit.

The Book of Revelation calls them “the multitude that no-one could ever count”. Christians believe in the universal call to holiness. God’s promise of Heaven, our eternal reward, happiness for ever, eternal rest, the happy hunting ground in the sky, the beatific vision… call it what you like. It’s for us. “There are many rooms in my Father’s house….” There’s even room for you and me.

A great quote, from Oscar Wilde, reminds me that God intends sainthood for us all: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future”. No matter who we are, what we’ve done, what others say about us, the God of love and mercy is waiting to welcome us home.

I once asked a Primary School class on the feast of All Saints: what do you have to do to be a saint? One hand shot up: Die, Father!”

A final reflection for November. For many Christians throughout the world this is a special month for remembering everyone who has died. On 2nd November (All Souls Day), what used to be called “Hallow-tide” is completed. On All Souls and throughout this month, we visit graveyards, tend graves, offer special prayers, and remember our own mortality. Catholics in Scotland often list their deceased friends, family (and others) and place those names at the altar in church.

Taking the trouble to do this means that they are remembered in the context of Christian hope. What a beautiful way to give expression to our grief and our hope! Church of Scotland Minister/hymn lyricist Rev. John Bell once wrote in a hymn about death and eternal life: “Heaven is close and God is good.”

This year, I encourage families to sit down together to make their November Lists. Don’t just leave it to mum! Telly off, tech off, everyone involved! The very act of remembering together, sharing memories and writing down those names will be a beautiful prayer in itself, a lovely family experience and perhaps also a therapy.

I conclude my Reflection by offering a sincere thankyou to those who help us when death comes to our door. I am sure I can say this on behalf of the whole community. Those who deal with the death of our loved ones at home or in hospital: nurses, domestics, doctors: thank you! Our undertakers, registrars, gravediggers, florists, caterers, organists, ministers, and priests: thank you! You will be included in the prayers at St Mary’s, Benbecula this November.

Canon Michael A Hutson, Parish Priest, St Mary’s, Benbecula.

Abigail Taylor

Having moved to the islands at the beginning of the year it did not take long for me to realise that on the ground, women run this place. Between them all, running businesses, working as managers and acting as leaders, the women that live here are determined and hard working.

I have produced articles that profiled young women who were juggling a family, a croft and a full-time job. I met others through conversation about the organisations they run or events they were involved in running.

It was therefore a shock to find out that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is the only council without female representation in Scotland. I had met so many women who would, in my opinion, be perfect for the job.

So many people who have met with me during my time here have spoken highly of the Hebridean businesswoman. I struggled to see how the headline that described ‘Scotland’s only all-male council’ came to be.

I set out, at the beginning of this process to understand the reasons for make-up of our council, to explore the thought processes of the women here in order to uncover what was stopping them from becoming decision-makers in their own community.

I want to thank the dozens of women who came forward and spoke to me over the past few weeks, for being so open and honest over how they feel about the current council and sharing what they think the future holds.

I asked what the most important matters were for the interviewees and time and time again the same issues came up – childcare, transport, education, healthcare and equal access to services across the islands were popular topics. I should note, all things that can be changed with strong voices in the council.

It is not that women are not engaged – they are listening and watching, understanding what is being done and the decisions that are being made. However, they do believe that there are barriers from it being themselves making the decisions that matter so much.

Many women spoke of travel and distance issues, childcare and how they feel Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has no drive to recruit women representatives.

In the aftermath of the 2017 election, the council promised that more would be done to encourage women to run for election, but it seems that to date, some seven months before the next election, this has not materialised.

Most agreed that traditional views on family life would be a reason not to run for election as time and commitment issues would be difficult to navigate. All agreed that as women make up half the population and use services in the community, they need a seat at the table.

In a notable exchange, a previous candidate spoke to me about sexism in questions pitched to her, asking how she could balance her children and being a councillor, something she bet a male candidate would not be asked.

Being a woman in a typically male dominated world is not the easiest thing to do, but someone has to break the mould that was created here in 2017. It is important to note that this has not always been the case and there have been many brilliant female councillors. But the current setting cannot become the norm. It is important for a government to reflect its electorate and that is not to say that the current councillors are not doing a good job. But it does mean that in order to have a wide range of opinions, a diverse setting is required.

In order to be a good representative you must bring perspective and different life experiences to the job and that does not stop at gender. It is clear there is a gap in the age range of our councillors and in order for that to change, reform is needed to create an incentive for the younger generation to step up to the mark.

I recently attended an event hosted by Women in Journalism. I sat in a room with some of the best journalists in the nation who have broken through the ceiling and made a name for themselves despite their gender. It is inspirational to have such role models.

Look at what the women in our community are saying. Read their thoughts and opinions and, more importantly, their advice to someone thinking about taking the leap and putting themselves forward in the upcoming election in 2022.

Talk to your representatives, your family and your friends. In order to see real change that matters, we must encourage those who put their head above the parapet and make sure that they are given the support that they need to succeed.

Later this year Am Pàipear will have been in print for 45 years. If there is one issue that has dominated the headlines consistently since 1976 it is transportation. Look through the archive of this newspaper and, across all the decades, there are questions, concerns and, even at times, celebrations over matters of transportation.

Campaigns for new ferry routes, fears over proposed cuts to air services and the realisation of new fixed links between islands are some of the notable examples in this area that have united and sometimes divided our communities. However, where travel across islands and back and forth to to the mainland is concerned, in each instance the issues drive much debate. 

It is no surprise, given our location, as we are so beholden to reliable transport connections. In fact it is difficult to think of a single aspect of our lives that does not in some way depend upon the consistent functioning of air services and the ferries network, with ample capacity. It is a dependency that is very real to us all as islanders and, most likely, scarcely imaginable for most of our neighbours on the mainland. 

However, to understand our reliance on planes and, in particular, ferries, is to be increasingly aware of the multiplying associated difficulties. Looking through more recent editions of Am Pàipear provides ample illustration, with stories of an ageing and ever more troublesome CalMac fleet, lack of capacity on the ferries network in the summer, and the ongoing debacle of air traffic control services and the seeming intransigence of HIAL. 

Reading all of the above, there would seem to be an unanswerable case for a tunnel to the mainland from Benbecula. It would at least remove all problems concerning service reliability and capacity…no more booking weeks in advance and endless observation of the weather forecast for fear of a cancelled sailing! 

It is not difficult to imagine numerous further benefits. Tourism could increase tenfold with almost unlimited opportunities for new and established local businesses. Goods of all sorts should become cheaper, decreasing the cost of living, with freight able to be transported more frequently at reduced expense. Crofters and fisherman could access markets more readily with improved choice and flexibility.

Business and public authorities would save small fortunes in travel and accommodation budgets, with it possible to make day trips to destinations such as Inverness and even Glasgow. 

Some have spoken about the potential of inter-island and cross-Minch tunnels for some time, although, it is probably fair to say, such notions have tended to be dismissed as fanciful. Even despite the relatively close examples available for comparison, indeed on a far greater scale than proposed here, in Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Now the concept of a tunnel connecting Benbecula to Skye has been included in a list of potential future transport investments for the Scottish Government, it is very much real and merits serious thought and discussion. 

If such a tunnel were created, it would bring about the most profound change in the history of our islands. Indeed there would is a question as to whether or not these could still be considered islands. But aside from that broader, perhaps immaterial question, some thought must be given to the potential downside of a mainland tunnel.

Substantial increases in footfall, possibly all year round, could impact on the natural environment and, as mass tourism has in other parts of the world, lead to a dilution of our culture. Unrestricted access to the islands could make land and property even more attractive, leading to a rise in prices, further squeezing out young people. Easy access to a wider market could diminish, indeed perhaps render redundant, many local enterprises ranging from retail outlets to auction marts. 

Such considerations should now be addressed. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar must adopt a policy position on the tunnel proposal, based on whether or not it is a feasible and desirable strategic objective for the Outer Hebrides. Now we are in the midst of an election for the Scottish Parliament, we should know the views of our candidates for MSP. 

In order to inform our representatives and decision makers, we as islanders must consider our own opinions and in order to reach a view we must be informed. It is time for a serious conversation and an appraisal of the available options.

If we are to remain dependent on ferries, in the main, we must see a long-term plan for investment that assures improvement in service delivery. But then, perhaps we are all done with any degree of uncertainty and would rather a fixed link with all its advantages and disadvantages. It is time to start digging and some light at the end of the tunnel.

Confirmation that half the adults in the Western Isles have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination is most welcome, indeed, cause for some celebration. Combined with the fact that many of the oldest and most vulnerable in our communities, particularly those resident in care homes, have now also received their second dose, and encouraging data emerging on the effectiveness of the various vaccinations, we can all feel a sense of relief.

It is worth remembering the grave fears that marked this time last year, at the outset of the devastating so-called ‘first wave’ of the coronavirus. We watched and listened as the hammer blow fell hardest on the major centres of population on the mainland, pushing the NHS to the limit, and our own vulnerabilities were foremost in our minds. It has surely been worth enduring the restrictions on activities and contact, despite their own damaging effects, to reach this stage where our most susceptible friends and relatives have gained a significant level of protection.

While we should always be grateful for those who choose to work in healthcare, no matter what role, we are even more indebted to those who have worked so hard to protect us over the last twelve months from COVID-19. We thank those who staff our hospitals, providing care and treatment in the most taxing and frightening circumstances. But at this particular moment and over the months to come, we must also think of those who have worked to test, trace and now vaccinate our population. Many of these individuals are returned from retirement or have been seconded from other vital roles within the NHS and their achievements to date, keeping our islands relatively unscathed and seeing half the adult population well on the way to full vaccination in less than three months, is nothing short of remarkable.

Some reacted with disappointment when the Scottish Government recently announced its ‘roadmap’ out of the current lockdown. Most of Scotland has been in a ‘Level 4’ lockdown since Christmas with the Western Isles placed under the same designation at the end of January. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her statement to the Scottish Parliament on 23rd February 2021, where the ‘roadmap’ was outlined, said the ‘Level 4’ restrictions will remain until 26th April 2021. Understandably, given the challenges of the past year, not all were pleased that the much anticipated return to ‘normal life’ will not come sooner.

However, while the impacts of prolonged isolation, not to mention the negative economic consequences, are troublesome, it is critical that this exit from lockdown is indeed irreversible. It is not credible to consider a future scenario in which we return to this unhealthy existence. If a more cautious, incremental easing of restrictions will allow the vaccination programme to continue at its impressive pace, giving greater protection to a larger proportion of the population, then we must be patient in the hope this is the last time we will live under such rules.

It is clear the coronavirus has altered the world. Now it seems reasonable to imagine a future with no ‘stay at home’ order and considerably more freedom, some are starting to imagine society after COVID-19. In urban areas, with some element of home working expected to continue, it is thought redundant office units could become residential properties, traffic congestion could be significantly reduced with resultant benefits for the environment, and high streets will be reimagined to reflect changed demand for services.

Here on the islands, the situation will be somewhat different, but it is unquestionable that some change will be realised in the aftermath of COVID-19. It is not clear what progress is being made with the implementation of the local economic recovery strategy, far less what sort of implications, good and bad, will be realised in the Outer Hebrides. However, soon that future will be the present and we will all play a part in the rebuilding, whether helping those who have been in isolation return to more active lives, supporting local businesses or adapting to new ways of working. It will be daunting at first and no doubt there will be challenges and opportunities.

Healthcare workers have adapted, kept us safe and seen many of us vaccinated in impressive time. It is imperative the transition to the ‘new normal’ is also marked by adaptability and the economic recovery keeps up with the pace.