Thriving rural communities? The Scottish Government need to think again…..

It’s almost 8 months since I took up the post of Chief Executive at the Scottish Crofting Federation and it’s certainly been eventful!

Let’s talk positives first…..

I was delighted to join the SCF to continue its work supporting and representing crofters and crofting.  At the time of writing, we have completed our first set of roadshows of the year and are about to start our second and my ambition is that we will be out and about to each crofting area at least a couple of times a year.  Face to face get togethers are such an important way to meet members and find out what’s on everyone’s minds, how policies are impacting in their area, what the key concerns are, how we can help and I enjoy these very much.  We have many plans for the future focused on improving the support we provide to crofters and the results of our recent membership survey will inform how we develop services and activities and we are very grateful to all who participated in this.

A key function over and above member support is our political activity and I arrived in my role at a crucial time for crofting with many legislative bills going through Parliament that will impact on crofters and crofting for years to come, including the Agriculture & Rural Communities Bill, Land Reform Bill, Good Food Nation Plan, National Biodiversity Strategy and the much awaited Crofting Bill itself.

The Scottish Government talks a lot about wanting to have thriving rural communities and a just transition for all as we move towards net zero but I have to say that what I have seen so far seems to often fly in the face of this aspiration.  It very much feels like they are doing all in their power to add more and more burdens to those communities by implementing policies that seem to be guided more by what works for large scale agriculture or urban settings and little real consideration of how they impact small scale agriculture and remote, rural communities, many of which are situated within crofting areas.

For many crofters, the potential impacts of the new Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill are causing a lot of uncertainty. Much is still unknown about what changes to the payments programme will mean in terms of placing more and increasingly complex admin requirements on crofters.   What we do know now is that in order to receive basic payments, a whole farm plan will be required from 2025 and some conditions, such as carbon audits, may need to be paid for and require consultants to conduct them which may not be available in sufficient numbers in all areas to keep up with demand.  Fears being expressed at our roadshows is that many crofters, particularly those working at the smaller scale, may decide it’s no longer viable to remain in the system.   The wider negative social and economic impacts of this on local communities is also a concern.  If folk stop keeping livestock, for instance, there are not only the environmental impacts of reduced land management but also the knock on effects to other local businesses, employment and ultimately, potentially population retention.  All of this would have the opposite effects on some of the desired outcomes of the Government’s key objectives.

Recently our focus turned to responding to the Good Food Nation Plan consultation.  I think it’s fair to say that we had high hopes for this plan, it could be a great opportunity for small scale producers to play an active role in strengthening food security within our country, but alas, we have been left sorely disappointed with what is currently in the plan.  We feel it lacks ambition, pays little attention to the needs of local food systems such as support for abattoirs and shows an ignorance in relation to prime Scottish produce such as beef and lamb.  A missed opportunity if nothing changes.

A final example of increasing burdens on rural communities came recently when the implementation of new building regulations which effectively mean that the installation of solid fuel burners, such as wood burners, is now banned in any new build or conversion.  The Scottish Government’s attempt at reassurance was to tell us that they might be allowed as an alternative emergency back up where there is a high risk of power cuts, but how and who determines that will fall to the local councils so feels like a bit of a lottery.

This new policy, whilst perhaps making sense in urban settings, is a further display that no consideration was given to the situation in rural parts of the Highlands and Islands where many rely on solid fuels such as wood and peat to provide reliable, cheap sources of heat and it isn’t so many years since the Government was promoting wood as a carbon neutral fuel source!  A point which we have very publicly made and will continue to do so.  

So, what can we do about it?  

Behind the scenes at SCF HQ, we are very busy lobbying politicians on behalf of crofters about the impact of these policies and in particular at the moment, changes we would like to see in the Agriculture & Rural Communities Bill.  This work has seen us meeting with many MSPs on a one to one basis and we will continue to do this as the Bill progresses through the next stage, presenting the case for a truly good deal for crofters in the new support system.  The views and concerns that have been shared at our local meetings so far have been relayed to MSPs during these conversations and are a powerful way of impressing upon them the potential realities of what they are considering.  

We have seen some success so far  and in the stage 1 debate on the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill held on Wednesday 27th March, SCF’s asks for better support for smaller businesses and for the redistribution of direct payments from larger towards smaller producers (also known as ‘frontloading’) featured prominently.  

There is still much to do, however, and our over-riding message to the government is that if they want to talk about thriving rural communities and a just transition for all, then they must start listening much more to those of us who live and work in remote rural communities, who are already looking after the land in a sympathetic way, who keep their communities alive and populated, who display true resilience every day and then let’s make it a truly just transition for them.

Clinical Lead, U&B Hospital

Sustainability, the environment, and our health

I am Dr Kate Dawson, one of the GPs at Benbecula Medical Practice. I have been working here since 1990, with three short breaks to complete some training and when I had my babies, who are now grown up. We are lucky to live in a beautiful and precious place, which is generally safe and kind. I love gardening, knitting, and observing our wildlife when I am out walking. 

Our islands, though, are very vulnerable to change. Global warming is bringing more changeable weather and rising sea levels will change our coastlines. It is getting more difficult to recruit staff, and travel links are not as good as they were a few years ago. 

In the face of this, I have been considering the sustainability of the healthcare system that I am part of and how we can make positive changes that will help our patients achieve better health and, at the same time, reduce our impact on resources. I dived in to think about this in more detail in the last year and found more than I thought possible. 

What does sustainability and the environment mean in terms of health care? Here are some of the ideas that may affect patients directly. Some items will not surprise you, others might. 

– Patient transport: This includes trying to use active transport such as walking and cycling, using electric bikes and electric cars. This can be hard when distances are long and our roads are narrow. However, this also includes trying to avoid travel to appointments when a phone call or video link would be as effective. 

–  Waste management: Unused medication should be returned to the surgery for safe disposal, so it does not cause environmental contamination. You can also help by only ordering what you need when ordering repeat prescriptions. Empty inhalers and insulin pens should be returned to the surgery. Incinerating empty inhalers causes less damage than the gas in the inhaler being left in the environment.

– Better prescribing: As an example, inhalers have a particularly detrimental effect on the environment. One MDI inhaler is as damaging as a drive to Inverness, whereas one breath-activated inhaler is equivalent of a drive between Griminish and Balivanich. Unnecessary and ineffective medication is a waste too. Don’t cut down on your inhalers, get advice about managing your asthma more effectively, use your preventer more, and ask to try a switch to breath activated inhalers.

– Better decisions: Better discussions about treatment and referral help patients and doctors make better decisions. If you are referred for a treatment that you don’t really want, or which may not benefit you much, then it is far better to discuss this before the travel, prescribing, tests and worry begin. It begins with talking frankly to your GP about the benefits, risks, and alternatives to the proposed treatment, and to ask what would happen if you did not seek treatment. Take someone with you if you need support with these discussions. 

– Good health is more than medicine: Our current medical model from the twentieth century has been about patients coming to the doctors, their ailments quickly assessed, and a treatment or procedure prescribed. With authoritarian health care, the patient can become a passive recipient of medical care, and every ailment is met with a treatment or a procedure. There may be another healthier, less wasteful, more sustainable way. 

Imagine this; you can improve your appearance, reduce your need for medication, your reliance on health care, improve your energy levels and joy in life, the benefits will last for years, and the cost is minimal. I am really excited with the possibilities. What is the secret? If everyone could do this, it would reduce reliance on health care resources and we would live to enjoy health into our retirement. I am talking about improving health by improving fitness. 

As an example, the most cost-effective treatments for Chronic Airways Disease (COPD) are physical activity, smoking cessation and flu immunisation. These three things are associated with better outcomes than any inhaler or medication.

I am using the word ‘fitness’ for a good reason, as it covers lots of concepts. It does not focus specifically on weight, or exercise, or smoking, or alcohol. It just focuses on being healthier. Where should you start? The beginning is to think about what you want to improve, to imagine what your goal is, what is driving you to consider making a change. Give yourself permission to write down or say aloud what you want to change, what could be better. Perhaps you want to be less short of breath, or your knees to hurt less, or to feel less lonely. Your goal will inspire you to keep trying. You could list all the things you might want to change and work out what you need to do for each thing. 

Don’t try to change everything all at once. It is better to focus on one easy thing at a time and make it about fitness and fun. This year, for example, I plan to go for a walk at least once a week. If I miss a week, I have given myself permission to try again the next week, and not to give up when I fail. Last year, we started using smaller plates to reduce our portion sizes without cutting out our favourite foods. You don’t need Lycra, or to run, or to go on an extreme diet, just find one thing that you can do, that you can enjoy, and make that into a habit that you can sustain. 

Who are your allies? Have you got a trusted friend to talk to? A professional such as a physiotherapist, counsellor, nurse, or doctor could listen and support you, if you asked for this; the most important thing is to find someone who can listen to you. They may help you work out what you might be able to do next, to identify one thing that you can do easily, and to support you too. 

Your one change may bring more benefits than you think. Going for a short walk will improve your fitness, and it will also raise your mood, reduce isolation and ease joint pain. Meeting up with someone else for an activity such as knitting or singing will improve your mental agility, and will also reduce isolation, low mood and loneliness. 

As you start to improve your health, you may inspire others. We could have a new normal, in which we support each other to take steps to improve our health through simple changes to our lifestyles, reducing our reliance on medication and leading more fulfilling and joyful lives. We can help the environment and the NHS stay sustainable by creating our own better health.

For ideas, why not listen to Michael Mosley’s podcast ‘just one thing’ on BBC sounds.

Libby Learmond

Service Manager – Penumbra Western Isles


What do you think of when people mention mental health or wellbeing? These phrases are thankfully more commonplace in our everyday language these days with many more public conversations taking place. It feels like there is less stigma in talking about how we are feeling. This has to be a good thing, hasn’t it? And it is to an extent … but I worry that this could have the unintended consequence of almost masking the immense impact on lives when someone experiences mental ill health… There is hope though. With care and support the impact can be minimised, and wellbeing restored. Recovery is possible.

My lived experience is of having a family member being very seriously ill and needing intensive medical and psychological support for over two years. She is well now and did get amazing care, but it changed the lives and perspective of our whole family. We were lucky, I had a very understanding and flexible employer. I also, to put it bluntly, had the money to take her to Stornoway on a weekly basis and to Inverness to receive treatment. A person’s access to the support they need should not be dependent on their ability to afford the transport costs or the time from work to get to the help they need.

During the pandemic, (I’ll get to the psychological impact of the pandemic in a moment), we were all taught about the value of preventative care. For a physical, potentially serious condition you can take precautions, washing your hands, keeping your distance, staying at home and taking lemsip or suchlike if you feel unwell. There was an emphasis on how to look after ourselves and knowing what we could do to get through the symptoms. The seriously ill got treatment, most of us had a grotty couple of weeks, others needed ongoing help or hospitalisation, some, sadly, died. We need to take the same proactive, recovery focused, approach to our mental health and for there to be the support services available to enable us to do so.

The statistics tell us that each year in Scotland, one in four people have a mental health issue. Some are medical conditions, some brought about by life experiences, others by a sudden shock or a change to a person’s way of life, stress, addiction, losing a job, relationship issues or bereavement. If a person can receive compassionate support through a crisis or to manage longer term anxiety their prognosis can be changed. They don’t need to be “medicalised” or dependent on the stretched statutory services. They can be supported through their own, person-focused recovery, here in Uist and Benbecula in their own timescales.

Now, I do need to make it clear that I am definitely not criticising any of the people out there providing much needed support. The medical folks, Community Psychiatric Nursing Service (CPNS), Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Social Workers and support staff do an amazing job in incredibly difficult conditions. At times I worry for the stress they are under and have nothing but respect for their commitment and how they work with as many people as they do. But they will tell you themselves that they are stretched beyond belief. We need another way of doing things to get the people the help when they need it and not to burn out the health of professionals that we have.

I can almost see you rolling your eyes and saying that’s all very well but where is the help and support going to come from? The Comhairle has no money, the NHS is understaffed, there are precious few Care Assessors in the Social Work department. All that is true. But what is also true is that Uist has a very strong and capable third sector, providing mental health support, befriending, substance use counselling and a range of services. As a community we could do more if third sector activities were coordinated with the Integrated Joint Board for Health and Social Care . This joint approach could prevent a crisis in someone’s life becoming a life- threatening emergency. The problem is that while there is minimal grant funding, it isn’t enough, nor coordinated or targeted effectively towards the mental wellbeing of our community. While I would never put a price on a person’s mental health, local early support is far cheaper than emergency intervention or a long stay in a mainland hospital with all the disruption to families and services that causes. A more holistic view needs to be taken towards where and how the money is spent.

In the apparent absence of mental health objectives, targets or intended outcomes from either the Comhairle or locality planning, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be confident that we know what our communities need in respect of mental health and wellbeing treatments or recovery.

 The last two years, during the pandemic we suffered a marked increase in social isolation and indeed anxieties around our own health and vulnerability. People were not able to or didn’t want to ask for help for what they considered minor or unimportant symptoms; we are seeing the consequences of this now. People are struggling when they deserve to be able to enjoy life. It is not too much to ask.

I am not asking for a magic wand or for hard-working professionals in the health and social care sector to try and do more. But I do believe with new and emerging national strategies on mental health and wellbeing, suicide prevention and selfharm, community partners have an opportunity to come together to plan a Western Isles response that meets the needs of our people. We know money is tight – it is for everyone – but if community partners work and plan together, I am confident they can address much of what is needed to make a real difference to the wellbeing of our community.


John Joe MacNeil

Ceannard, Ceòlas

How could there be a world without Gaelic?

A few weeks ago, on an unusually warm September evening, I headed to Stoneybridge beach for a walk.  It was a particularly stunning evening with the glow of the sun setting to the west, the sound of the crashing waves filling up the silence of the deserted beach and the whisper of the wind whistling through the marram grass.

As I journeyed across the edge of the water, I started to reminisce about childhood days.  The image of me walking the Tràigh Mhòr in Barra with my grandfather in search of cockles came into my head.  He would often pass on many stories and traditions as we walked the length of the beach.  He would every so often stop, search for cockles, grasp two together and after expertly opening them up, eat them straight from the shell.  An experience which I closed my eyes to with distain.  Nonetheless, a tradition and an important tradition of his generation.  

Traditions are central to a way of living and of understanding the land, the sea and the surrounding environment.  They give us a sense of belonging and connect us to our intergenerational heritage whilst providing us with continuity.  Traditions are not only of the past, but they are also of the present and the future, and for us, murmuring through all of these, is Gaelic. 

Gaelic is simply not just a beautiful language; it is a way of living, it is our cultural identity, it connects us to our environment and climate, it is the lens to the past and the key to the door for our sustainable future.  Gaelic encapsulates our very being and allows us to see the world with such magnificent vision.

I often spend a long time looking out on the horizon watching the sky as it changes – the colours, the moods and the shapes.  Distracted by the glistening sun setting to the west that evening, I started to move my thoughts to the negativity I hear about the language and our traditions – perhaps the changeable horizon is an interesting metaphor for us to visualise.  Of course, people are welcome to their opinions.  However, more often than not, the negativity surrounding the language is through fear and the lack of understanding of the history, the injustice, the political and economic narrative, the beauty and intricate meaning of each word and phrase not comprehendible in any other language, and the cultural significance of the language.  I could go on.  The apprehension by some not to allow others to view the world through a non-English lens, to me, is difficult to comprehend and is unacceptable.  

Positivity always outweighs the minority of negative views that exist.  Yet, positivity requires work and commitment from each and every one of us regardless of where we are on our language learning journey.      

Those of us with fluent Gaelic, whether from birth or whether learnt, must use our language. Let us not be afraid to use it at every opportunity and let us not be afraid to continue to learn more about our language and its culture.  I frequently think that our biggest fault is that we are too kind – a stunning trait in us islanders and Gaels.  Whilst it is important to be hospitable, we cannot always sacrifice our language and our culture.  We must always remember that English is the dominant language.  It is everywhere.  It will never be at risk of leaving our shores.  Let us also not be afraid to pass on our culture, our traditions and customs to help shape the future generations of Gaels.  We must be proud that we have been given such a gift.  I used to hear a cailleach in our village use the well-known saying – ‘there’s always tomorrow’.  Tomorrow is permanently on the horizon, but we must all act now and take our responsibilities seriously to allow for the next generation to experience what we take for granted.  How could there be a world without Gaelic?   

If you are on your learning journey, firstly, thank you.  You are a beacon of hope.  Keep going and the more you learn, the more you will experience the joy of the language and all it brings.  There is always support near at hand.  Take every opportunity to use what you have learnt to build your confidence in speaking the language.  Do not be shy and remember that we all make mistakes.  Fluent speakers – let us remember to be patient with those learning and help them along the road.    

If you have not started learning Gaelic, there is always today.  There are plenty of people and resources out there to support you on your journey.  You do not need to commit to fluency but perhaps try to take the first steps on your own voyage of discovery.       

We also must respect those who do not wish to learn the language.  There are many reasons for this.  We Gaels, new and old, should not have to ask for mutual respect, remembering that we need to flex our language and its intertwined culture to allow it to flourish and not just become a language of the history books.     

As the sun begins its final descent for the day into the calm still waters of the Atlantic and my footprints are washed away by the impeding waters, I look back across over to the far side of the beach.  I hope that somewhere among the sand that my imprints remain and that one day, in many years to come, someone will walk across these shores feeling the passion and pride that I feel to be a Gaelic speaker.  I hope that whilst the wind continues to whistle through the marram grass, the next generations hear our language, our culture and our traditions – a language written in the wind.    

‘Gur truagh a’ Ghàidhlig bhith na càs,

On dh’fhalbh na Gàidheil a bh’ againn;

A ghineil òig tha tighinn nan àit’,

O, togaibh àrd a bratach.’

The May edition of Am Pàipear is now available to view online!

This month we have all the details of our local vets’ fight to protect the St Kilda sheep, the latest updates on the Highly Protected Marine Areas policy, the Labour leader’s visit to the islands, as well as a rundown of the commerations held in Uist to mark the centenary of the SS Marloch’s departure.

We also break down the points of issue surrounding the ongoing ferry saga as the calls for action increase.

Plus the latest from our regular columnists: our Southern Isles Vet column addresses caring for newborn lambs, Mustapha Hocine gives his opinion on HPMAs in our Councillors’ Column and we have a fantastic Opinion piece by Sarah Maclean
of Outer Hebrides Tourism, discussing both the challenges and opportunities to address as we head into tourist season.

Click though to read all about it…

It’s never been more important to keep local journalism alive and well and we’d like to thank you all for your continued support of Uist’s community newspaper.

If there’s anything you’d like to contribute, then we would love to hear your feedback. Email us at:

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.