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£3 million funding “highlights critical role for Cnoc Soilleir” as the islands recover from COVID-19

Iain Stephen Morrison

Ceòlas chair Màiri MacInnes has welcomed a new financial commitment for £3 million from the Scottish Government for phase two of for Cnoc Soilleir and said it highlighted the critical role for the new centre as the islands recover from COVID-19.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney confirmed the investment on 24th March 2021, amid a succession of announcements made in the final hours in office for the current Scottish Government.

“We are talking with the Scottish Government and stakeholders all the time to identify opportunities to support Cnoc Soilleir. We are delighted to have secured this funding towards the second phase of development and believe it underlines how important Cnoc Soilleir will be as part of the local recovery from COVID-19,” explained Mrs MacInnes.

“We have reviewed and found that the design of Cnoc Soilleir, which is spacious with excellent ventilation, is very suitable for working post-coronavirus and that no changes are required to the design. In that sense, Cnoc Soilleir will be even more important as the islands seek to rebound from the impacts of COVID-19.”

Cnoc Soilleir will be a state-of-the-art institution for education, music, dance, culture and Gaelic and is being developed through a partnership between Lews Castle College and Ceòlas. Lews Castle College will deliver courses from the centre during the week in term time, while outwith core college hours Cnoc Soilleir will become the base for events and activities with Ceòlas.

Cnoc Soilleir will include classrooms and versatile teaching spaces for students with both Lews Castle College and Ceòlas. Plans for the centre also include a resource centre, recording studio and offices for both Lews Castle College and Ceòlas.

Cnoc Soilleir will be built to Passivhaus standards, with minimised running costs and CO2 emissions, and will improve access to formal and informal education and offer cultural engagement opportunities for both local residents and visitors to South Uist. It is envisaged the new centre will enable further growth in the Gaelic language economy in an area that is recognised as a key community for the revitalisation of the language in Scotland.

Local contractors, MacInnes Bros Ltd, started work on construction of the first phase of the new centre early in 2020. Phase one will see the construction of teaching and office spaces, while the second stage will comprise a bespoke auditorium and dance facilities. It is estimated the second phase will cost around £5 million to develop, with £3 million now secured from the Scottish Government.

“Phase one is on track and within budget, with completion expected before the end of 2021,” continued Mrs MacInnes.

“We have had designs finalised and planning permission in place for the second phase for some time, but we need to review now in light of increasing costs and interruption in the supply of materials as a result of COVID-19 and Brexit. However, if we can secure the remaining investment, our aspiration is to commence with construction of phase two as soon as the first stage is completed.

“Cnoc Soilleir will make South Uist an even more desirable place for people to live and work, in particular after the difficulties of COVID-19. Even with more opportunities for remote working, Cnoc Soilleir will further increase the appeal of a place where the Gaelic language is alive in the community,” concluded Mrs MacInnes.Cnoc Soilleir has received funding from numerous individual donors, Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

The Scottish Schools Pipes and Drums Trust (SSPDT) annual schools’ championship is being held this year as an online event and for the first time ever, this freestyle competition is open to primary schools.  

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Instrumental Music Service Piping teacher Esther MacDonald recently encouraged pupils at Balivanich Primary to form a small band and to submit an entry. 

As the timescale has been very short, and with Covid restrictions on singing, and the playing of wind instruments in schools, combined with all instrumental music tuition being delivered online since Christmas, it has been an extra challenge to get a performance together. 

Fiona MacInnes, Principal Teacher at Balivanich School said: “We would firstly like to thank Mrs Esther MacDonald (Piping teacher) for instilling her vision and encouraging self-belief in our pupils. During what has been a difficult time for many, our ABC Band have been motivated and encouraged to excel themselves in their chosen discipline. 

They have willingly rehearsed together during play and lunch times and have also convened through Teams in the evenings for some extra practices. This was made possible by the fact that all members of the band are part of the same school ‘bubble’.” 

A setlist of three songs has been recorded, The Dark Island, Kalabaken, and Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban. The performance is called “An t-Eilean Dorcha”

Fiona MacInnes said: “We feel that our ABC Band’s competition entry conveys the resilience, teamwork and perseverance which our pupils have shown throughout the past few weeks, whilst celebrating our unique cultural heritage. 

Judging will commence on Saturday 27th March at 7pm and we hope that our School Community – near and far – will support our band by taking part in the People’s Choice vote on Sunday 28th March.”

Pupils in the primary school have been described as having ‘a great buzz out of it all, it has certainly brightened up the school day a touch over the last few weeks.’ 

One band member said: “It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this – I have been playing the chanter for two and a half years but I have never joined with other instruments”

After a tough year of restrictions and being in and out of school, the band say they “Feel amazing to be in the band – it’s good to play music with my classmates and I’m excited about it all”

Balivanich School and Parent Council have been very supportive, and local businesses have assisted with the purchase of e-Chanters for tuition in Western Isles schools during Covid restrictions. 

MacInnes Bros. Builders assisted with the purchase of t-shirts for the new band and its members.

Balivanich Primary School wants to give special thanks to Culla Creations for the fabulous job they made of filming the entry.

The pupils in the band have benefitted from tuition provided by the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Instrumental Music Service through the Youth Music Initiative (YMI). 

This funding is awarded annually to local authorities across Scotland with one of the main aims being to allow all school pupils access to a year’s free music tuition before the end of primary school.

Shortlisted films will be broadcast on the Pipe Bands for Schools Facebook page, with the Sgoil Baile a’ Mhanaich ABC band performance scheduled for 7pm on Saturday 27th March. 

Voting for the people’s choice section takes place on Sunday 28th March between 12 noon and 5pm, again via the Pipe Bands for Schools Facebook page, with the full results being announced at 7pm the same day.

The band performance can be viewed here – https://www.facebook.com/Piping4Pupils

Balivanich Primary are the only school in the Western Isles entered this year.

Best of luck to all who participated.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has announced details of a free, public seminar series.

Abigail Taylor

The online events, which are part of the university partnership’s tenth birthday celebrations, will explore how key sectors can contribute to the region’s post-COVID recovery.

Named after the Gaelic word for ‘leading’, the ‘A’ stiùireadh’ series will feature a range of panellists and cover topics including education, health and the marine economy.

The series will begin on 31st March 2021 with a look back at the development of the university partnership and the impact it has had on the Highlands and Islands, Moray and Perthshire.

Speakers in the ‘communities and economy’ discussion will include the new University of the Highlands and Islands Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Todd Walker, and the former Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor James Fraser.

Other speakers involved in the program are Charlotte Wright, Chief Executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Florence Jansen, President of the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association and James Ellsmoor, an expert in island sustainability and the university’s alumnus of the year for 2020.

The seminar programme will run until the summer, starting on 31st March 2021 and finishing on 10th June 2021.

Topics in the discussion groups consist of ‘Leading the blue economy’ and ‘Leading rural health’ as well as others. 

The list of events and sign up sheets can be found at the universities website.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise is supporting the series and several staff members will be joining the panels. 

Chief Executive, Charlotte Wright said: “In achieving successful economic recovery, the University of the Highlands and Islands has a crucial role in responding to new economic opportunities, providing an education and research offer linked to different industries and strengthening the region’s workforce and communities.

Our strategic partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands network has grown stronger every year and we very much look forward to working with them to make these webinars a success for our region’s businesses.”

Speaking about the series, the university’s new Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Todd Walker, said: “The University of the Highlands and Islands partnership was created to have a transformational impact on the prospects of our region. We aim to attract and nurture talent in our region, helping to reverse population decline and build innovation and socio-economic prosperity.

“Along with colleagues in public, private and third sector organisations, we have a vital role to play in supporting our region’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our tenth birthday seminar series offers us an exciting opportunity to explore how our key sectors can work together to support the communities we serve.”

To find out more about and to sign up to the events, visit www.uhi.ac.uk/events.