Shifting narratives: what do we see in Uist?

If I look through a window and you look through it – for all the outlook is the same, we will see and remember different things from that view.

This month sees the launch of the Uist Beò website to showcase a dynamic and vibrant Uist, through the eyes of young Uibhistich – entirely an insiders’ view.

Do we really know what’s going on in our own community? Are we seeing different things?

For long the dominant perception has been that we are in terminal decline. If the projected future population trends for the Outer Hebrides prove true in Uist, we will be turning out the lights before 2050.

But even five years ago this did not feel right. Gathering a list of 469 young Uibhistich in their 20s and 30s, we discovered half were returners or new to Uist: not the exodus of young people our community always assumed (“to get on, you have to get off”).

Why were so many in the prime of their working lives making Uist their home? The very first returner we asked gave a simple answer: “my social life here is so much better than in Glasgow!”

The ‘night time’ economy is not just for cities. Regular sessions from Saturday nights at Creagorry to the fortnightly Accordion and Fiddle Club, as well as ceilidhs and fund-raising events, often with our many award-winning musicians. Are you dancing? Tuesday night Carinish, Saturday St. Peter’s, Sunday Stoneybridge, and that’s only for the adults!

Are you interested in art, crafts, archaeology, or sports (athletics, running, football, badminton, squash, golf, swimming indoors and outdoors, paddle-boarding, kickboxing, yoga, etc.)? Ceòlas, now at Cnoc Soilleir, has more than 100 joining their Gàidhlig classes.

Primary school children are spoilt for choice, especially in sports and music, Highland and Irish dancing. They could be at an activity every evening of the week, and at a fraction of the costs in a city, some even free.

So does the window you look through have an old frame, or is it newer? Of course older generations hold memories of much greater numbers, from schools to dances. But how about the last decade? Last year we had only 9 fewer primary school pupils in Uist than 10 years earlier, out of more than 300. In Barra the number of primary pupils last year was 19% higher than in 2010! And this is likely to continue. Cothrom Òg Gàidhlig nursery has 26 children signed up and a waiting list. All pupils entering Daliburgh School for the last two years are in Gàidhlig medium.

Sustaining the number of younger children for a decade is a remarkable success. In Grimsay, only one child started primary school a decade ago; today there are 15 children. No, it’s not what is was 40 years ago, but it is more than 10 years ago. Locheport, with only 3 children recently, now has 13, with 3 more expected soon.

It’s too early to say whether the decline has bottomed out. For historical reasons we have a high proportion of elderly people, so there will be more deaths than births. But for many returning or making Uist their new home, the view through the window is looking exciting and vibrant.

Take all the young businesses. North Uist Distillery, set up by two young returners, now employs 13 people, bringing life back to one of Uist’s most historic buildings. We have award winning young businesses, e.g. Coral Box and Studiovans, who recycle plastic from our shores to create modular units for vans. As the Uist Beò website will show, we have young people and families in crofting, culture and music; beauty, health and wellbeing; photography, art and architecture. We have numerous PhD students, and many who work online, e.g. in the medical sector or web-based design. And the islands have the highest density of community enterprises per head of population in all of Scotland.

In hospitality, the Politician, Croft & Cuan, Kildonan Cafe, the Bistro, Grimsay Cafe, Westford Inn, the Dunes Cabin, Lochmaddy Hotel, the Berneray shop and the Wee Cottage Kitchen have all recently been taken over or set up, often by young people with children, showing confidence in the local economy. Many young people have told us that they see so much opportunity here.

The narratives we tell ourselves as a community are really important. Nobody would say we don’t have our fair share of challenges, what with ferries and housing! Many include jobs also, although the greater challenge is filling the many vacant jobs we have at all times, providing plenty of opportunity for people if they can only find somewhere to live.

Whether we view our glass as half empty or as half full has real impact. Past ‘official’ narratives, of decline, a place to leave, or of a romanticised empty place to retire to, undermine our future. Who wants to be in a place where the lights are going out soon? We don’t need to look far from our islands to see other islands now abandoned.

Whether here or in other island communities, we always first ask people, why are you here, in spite of the many challenges you obviously face? Many of us could join the numerous Hebrideans in Glasgow and elsewhere, but we choose to live here. Why? It isn’t because of ferries, shopping malls, ice rinks or diverse global foods.

More important factors are influencing our life choices, factors that came to the fore during Covid: land, sea and croft; community and family; wellbeing and resilience, freedom and safety; Gàidhlig and vibrant culture; dynamic community groups and activities; small class sizes and dedicated teachers; being valued for who we are, a sense of equality; our strong sense of identity and belonging, of being there for each other; etc. etc.

Many of us have lived elsewhere, including when young people leaving school go to experience life elsewhere. So we can recognise how valuable all those factors are, how at home we can feel here, and how envious people elsewhere are of what we have, and share.

So let us all, from individuals and community groups to agencies and CnES, ditch managing decline, rationalising and centralising, and instead invest in our future, by building on these great foundations, including a more assertive community that no longer kowtows to distant powerholders or outdated narratives.

Managing Director of Kallin Shellfish Ltd – NAMARA Seafoods

The Scottish Government has begun a consultation on the introduction of new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in the waters surrounding our islands. The consultation closes on the 20th March and ‘stakeholders’ are invited to submit their views.

In these new HPMAs, no fishing will be allowed to take place and many other activities which could prove beneficial or even vital to our islands economy in the future will be forbidden. I will stick to the fishing perspective as that is what I know and hopefully others will pick up on other aspects.

We are indeed all stakeholders in the marine environment, but we do not all have an equal stake. Those who stand to lose their jobs and have their businesses destroyed have much more to lose.

The belief that closing our waters to fishing will support marine biodiversity is a mistaken one, as the closure of Broadbay in Lewis has proved. Prior to its closure, Broadbay was a prolific scallop fishing area with all the associated benefits to our economy. Thirty years after its closure, Scottish Government’s own scientists have evidenced that the scallops have all but disappeared, with the waters now over populated by predatory starfish.

It is an oversimplification and a lack of understanding of how nature works to suggest that stopping all fishing will give us pristine waters and an abundance of sea life in the water column and on the seabed.

Nobody knows the sea better than those of us who rely on it for our living.

Kallin Shellfish Ltd is a local family-owned company. Our staff of 25 are a mix of local and Eastern European workers. We have a higher rate of female to male staff and all staff are paid equally and well.

We were the first business to bring Eastern European staff to the islands. With a great deal of effort by themselves and ourselves they have integrated well into our community – no small feat when you consider the difficulties of language, travel and housing. The first ones who came are now in positions of greater responsibility and in some cases, we have the second generation in employment with us. These new workers have played a significant role in offsetting our declining population, helping maintain our school rolls and adding greatly to our community.

It is not Brexit that will cause these people to leave our islands but HPMAs, Marine Protected Areas and the plethora of closures that our governments sees fit to impose on our communities.

Although as a company we purchase and process all types of shellfish from our island fishermen, scallops is our bread and butter and it is largely what sustains us as a company. Losing access to waters that we have fished for generations will be the last straw for island processors. We have lost fishing grounds to fish farming and previously imposed MPAs. The Wester Ross and Firth of Lorne closures have displaced fishing effort into ever smaller areas that is likely to cause overfishing. This is now more widely known as Spatial squeeze and more of it is likely to happen in the future with the advent of marine windfarms.

Why are there so many closed areas and proposals to close large areas of sea in our vicinity? Could it be because we are seen as an easy target? Not enough people to make a hue and cry? A population cowed and submissive?

As a company, we have been fighting against these marine closures for all the 22 years of our existence. In that time we have invested heavily in our processing factory and in modern and safe fishing vessels. The constant attempts by the green lobby, now in cahoots with the Scottish Government, is devaluing our business and our fishing vessels. Is this the plan?

We are now required to carry on board a host of monitoring equipment, which relays information straight back to Government. Where we fish, what we fish, how we fish and what we do is already the subject of close scrutiny and in the latest regulatory move, we now are required to carry intrusive on-board cameras. All this equipment and the charges for our airtime transmitting data have to be paid for by the fishermen and we are not allowed to go to sea without it.

We believe that all the information gathered from all this data is being used to determine where our best fishing grounds are so as to stop us from accessing them. Such is the distrust which has built up. We were told that all this monitoring was for our own good as we could use the data to easily prove that we were not breaching closed area regulations, as we were often accused of doing.

Unfortunately, the moderate and sensible people within the government have been shunted aside and silenced in order to gain the support of the radical green lobby and secure a majority in Parliament.
We already have an accelerating population decline in the Southern Isles. The ongoing ferry fiasco and the ever increasing isolation which it has brought about is having a demoralising effect on people. We have already lost staff to mainland employment as a result of it and it is contributing to a reluctance in people to move to the islands.

Having HMPAs is not going to encourage anyone to settle here or start up businesses.

Being able to fish in the Sound of Barra is vital to us and that is why we have been fighting so hard to be able to fish there. It has the best and largest scallops in the UK, despite 50 years of scallop fishing – sustainable or what?! After COVID, it was the product that enabled us to get back going again. It is in great demand, as indeed is all shellfish from our islands. Is this all now to be sacrificed on the altar of going ‘above and beyond’ what the international agreements require of the Scottish Government?

Having a HMPA imposed on us is going to be the cause of business failure, unemployment and even more population decline.

Have things changed very much since our forefathers’ families were forced off the land by conflicting ideas from outside interests? This time it is not the land but our greatest asset, the marine environment. The ideology is the same from those in power: we know what is good for you! Island clearances all over again.

Cllr. Paul Steele – Leader, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar

This is my first New Year as Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and it was good to have some time over the festive period to reflect on what we’ve been kept busy with and to look forward to future opportunities and challenges.

I would like to thank my fellow Councillors for their support and contributions throughout the year as we try to do our best for our community.

I also thank all our Council officers who put in a power of work to provide services with ever decreasing resources and thanks too must go to our partner agencies as our joint working is the best way to improve the outcomes for us all.

But most of all, I want to thank our communities who in recent years and challenging times have shown their strength, resilience and compassion.

Reflecting on the last seven to eight months, I would say it’s been busy both within the Comhairle and regionally and nationally. Amongst my commitments, I chair the Regional Economic Partnership, attend Cosla, the Scottish and UK Islands Forum, as well as the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (CoHI).

We will be hosting the next CoHI in Uist which will be an exciting opportunity to meet Government Ministers and officials and encourage them to further invest in our Islands and to discuss initiatives such as the Uist Repopulation Zone.

I recently travelled to Orkney to sign the Island’s Growth Deal, an agreement with the Scottish and UK Governments to invest £100m across Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides with the aim of drawing a further £293m of investment to help secure 1300 new jobs.

The investment is split roughly three ways and will lead to green hydrogen opportunities being developed as well as support for the Spaceport project. Our St Kilda centres will also benefit from this funding, as will several other projects throughout the islands.

Funding for major projects isn’t easy to access so we’re rightly proud of the Islands Growth Deal but we weren’t successful in our bid to the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund, which would have helped us develop sections of the Spinal Route and supported our road infrastructure.

External funding for specific projects is good but the Comhairle’s Capital Investment program is not looking great (getting approximately £25m of the £127m we need) so we’re reliant on bidding for funds like the Levelling Up Fund, the Regeneration Capital Grant Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund to allow us to develop our infrastructure and we’ll be applying for them and others throughout the year but they have to be for specific projects, not just our day to day running costs.

The recent local government settlement is going to mean tough choices for us as we move towards setting Revenue and Capital Budgets.  A net increase of £700k in our revenue doesn’t go far enough to meet our predicted £7.2m deficit, so we need to use service savings and reserves to set a balanced budget.

That means putting more strain on the services we provide over the next year and a major concern is that we’re relying on the one-off use of reserves to get us through the year, with the situation looking even worse next year.

Our main income streams for revenue generation are from the Scottish Government and through Council Tax. Last term we had the largest percentage reduction in funding of any Local Authority in Scotland, this year we’ve had the second lowest increase, so it’s important that we look carefully at what we do with Council Tax within the whole revenue budget. Whilst this will be difficult, I and my Comhairle colleagues will do everything we can to protect vital services for our community as far as possible.

I was pleased just before Christmas that the Comhairle was able to launch its Cost of Living Crisis Fund and, not unexpectedly, we received considerable interest. Whilst we cannot meet all needs and aspirations, the Comhairle remains committed to protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. But we can only do so by working with our communities and it is gratifying to see the work that is being done to support individuals and families through these difficult times.

The year ahead will see the Scottish Government move forward with its plans for a National Care Service. The Comhairle welcomes aspects of a National Care Service but has significant questions, many of which are reflected across Local Government, particularly in rural and island Scotland, as to the consequences in terms of local democracy and accountability, and asking whether the same outcomes could be achieved through additional financial provision within the current structures or a version of these.

Public sector reform is back on the agenda and may provide a preferable way forward. A Single Islands Partnership consisting of the main public sector bodies has long been an aspiration of the Comhairle and we will be undertaking work to see how we can progress that. We already work closely with our partners, which has paved the way for major developments such as the soon to be opened Goathill care complex and the Barra and Vatersay hub. 

We face major challenges at a local, national and global level. Climate Change remains the biggest threat to our planet and may have particular consequences in coastal communities such as the Islands. So it was good to see the publication of climate change strategy plans by the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership. These clearly do not provide all the answers to what is a global issue but at least provide a framework for us to build on.

Related to climate change are the efforts to safeguard and develop our renewable energy resources. Towards the end of the year, we received the fantastic and long awaited news that an interconnector between Lewis and the mainland would go ahead, allowing the export of clean green electricity from the Islands as well as the replacement of the interconnector that serves Uist and Barra. Not only will this help in combating climate change but will allow the development of a major renewables industry in the islands, bringing major investment and employment opportunities. In turn this will help to reverse the threat of depopulation.

So, we are making progress during challenging times. The islands remain a great place to live and work with strong, vibrant communities, a unique environment, culture and heritage and an unsurpassed quality of life.

Going forward together

The first time I ever visited South Uist two things above all else struck me. The first was the stunning natural beauty that surrounds us wherever we look. I couldn’t wait to return on holiday after that first visit before being lucky enough to move here to work for Stòras Uibhist, but this feeling of sheer joyous wonder at the landscape and the wildlife has never left me. Like everyone, daily life is busy, and things get in the way, but I always make a little time each day to stop and appreciate just how lucky I am. Samuel Johnson said: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Absolute nonsense of course but replace ‘London’ with ‘Uist’ and perhaps he might have been on to something.

The second thing that struck me on that first visit was that the whole island I was visiting is owned by the community. It’s difficult to put into words just what an incredible thing I found that to be. The community, not any one individual, owns the very land that they live and work on. Even now, having lived here for three years, I still find this remarkable. To an Englishman whose idea of ‘community ownership’ is a council-managed park with a duck pond and kiddies’ playground, I was absolutely blown away by the fact. And I still am.

But what does community ownership actually mean? What benefits does it bring, and what responsibilities does it mean for those of us who live here? As Chairperson of Community Land Outer Hebrides, I have spent a lot of time this year talking to other community land-owning groups in Lewis and Harris. Over 75% of all land in the Outer Hebrides is now community-owned, which is an amazing figure. One of the things that we all have in common is a desire to help our communities, whether they are in Ness or Eriskay. There are a huge variety of projects underway, from community-led housing developments to cafes and from community dancing lessons to large-scale economic regeneration plans.

I’m not a politician but it is obvious that government funding is going to reduce over the next few years. Whether we like it or not, this will most likely mean less money for the Comhairle and less for organisations like Highlands & Islands Enterprise, who play such an important role in supporting business development. So that, in turn, means Stòras Uibhist is going to have an even greater role in supporting the community, helping to develop businesses, creating jobs, helping our community to find affordable homes and more.

The Articles of Association that govern Stòras set out the purpose of the company and are clear that the purpose of the buyout was not simply to own the land, but to use that ownership to bring benefit to the community. To quote directly:‘The company is established to benefit the community by the promotion, for the public benefit, of rural regeneration’.

There are three major projects that we are currently developing at Stòras. Firstly, there is a real shortage of affordable housing across the estate. This is one of the reasons for declining population numbers and means it can be difficult, if not impossible, for employers to recruit staff. We are working with our partners at Rural Housing Scotland to develop our Smart Clachan project. The first development location will be on community-owned land at Rubha Bhuailt. These houses will be available to buy on a shared-equity basis, allowing young people and families to own their own home. It’s been a slow and sometimes torturous process, but we will continue to push, persuade and cajole the relevant funders and decision makers until we get the houses built.

Secondly, we are working on a project to build a community food production facility (what’s come to be known as a Food Hub). We have an abundance of great produce across Uist, but it’s not always easy for local producers to get their produce to market and it’s not always easy for those of us living here to buy it. The facility we’re planning will create units for producers to rent and space and opportunity for food producers to sell their produce. It will help with food resilience, cut down on food miles and make it much easier to put Uist produce on our plates.

The third major project is a major strategic visioning plan for Lochboisdale. In partnership with the Comhairle and HIE we are currently working on ideas that will focus on creating jobs and a better environment for those living, working and visiting Lochboisdale. Community engagement has been at the heart of the project and our Engagement Officer has spoken to many groups, businesses and individuals to get their feedback and ideas. You will be able to see further details of the plans on Sunday 4th December as part of the Lochboisdale Christmas market.

It might be a cliché that Rome wasn’t built in day but it’s also true. Stòras Uibhist has already achieved so much. Since the buyout, our community has transformed the economic landscape of where we live. The Loch Carnan windfarm has helped secure the financial future of the organisation and the causeway and development of Gasaigh has created not only a thriving marina but has opened up deep water access and the potential for large scale development alongside the new ferry terminal. Many other projects, large and small, have been delivered. So far, so good, but we must keep this momentum going, keep pushing ever more ambitiously. Everyone within the organisation, staff and directors alike, is ambitious and motivated and determined to continue to drive things forward. The work is never done and never will be.

A community-owned company cannot function without the support of the community it represents. That means every one of us has a responsibility to ‘do our bit’. The great privilege of land ownership also brings responsibilities. In addition to our development plans, Stòras has an obligation to manage the estate and its assets to the best of our ability. The income from the turbines and the other parts of the business can only do so much and budgets can only be spent once. Our directors must decide how this is done and decide on the priorities for the organisation. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but that’s the great thing about community ownership…everyone has the opportunity to get involved and to have their say.

Next year there will be four vacancies to join the board of Stòras and while it might seem a long way in the future, I really hope that some of you reading this will think about putting yourselves forward and bringing your skills and knowledge to help what is an important organisation and a key part of life in this beautiful place I fell in love with.

Cllr Mustapha Hocine – Elected member for Uibhist a Tuath, VC Education, Sport and Children’s Services Committee

This winter we need to reflect on the cost-of-living crisis and its impact on children’s lifestyles, wellbeing and ultimately, their human rights.

The huge increase in energy prices, rampant inflation and the subsequent general increase in the price of the most basic commodities will undoubtedly have very negative consequences on families’ budgets and living standards this winter. Without some sort of additional and urgent intervention from the government to protect the most vulnerable families, this looming crisis will have a damaging effect on children.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) enshrines the basic and universal human rights every child should have; the cost-of-living crisis we are currently experiencing threatens to infringe on these rights. The Convention states that all children have the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to an education and the right to have a happy life. If urgent action is not taken to support these families during this crisis, we will see more families falling well below the poverty line and more children having their education, standard of living and social lives affected.

In the recently published Living Without a Lifeline Report, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) carried out a survey of 260 single parents. The survey revealed that 97.9% of participants felt the impact of rising costs, while 61.1% were finding it either extremely difficult to afford or could no longer afford electricity, and 43.7% said they were struggling to always buy adequate food for their families. A single parent commented:

“I just feel that I’m totally on my own financially. We can’t claim free school meals or any grants because I’m not on benefits. Outgoings are increasing, I am as frugal as I can be, my pay was frozen for 3 years and now I have a 2% cost of living increase; better than nothing! Feel forgotten about. I cut my own hair, I skip meals, I scrimp on heating etc so I can pay the mortgage etc. There is no support for us from anyone.”

The most shocking thing about this survey is that 78% of the participants were in work.

A child’s standard of living is heavily tied not only to their education but to their social development. A survey conducted by the teachers’ union NASUWT shows that teachers in Scotland are regularly seeing how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting their pupils. 65% of NASUWT members stated that a rising number of children and young people were coming to school hungry, while 58% stated that more pupils did not have the equipment they needed for their lessons and 55% said that more of their pupils’ families were unable to afford school uniforms. While the UNCRC states that every child has the right to an education, it is my opinion that every child should also have the right to get the most of out of their education. If a child is hungry, their concentration is affected. Without extra packages of support, this cost-of-living crisis could see children from the most vulnerable families falling behind in their education as a direct result of the decline of living standards.

Mike Corbett, NASUWT National Official Scotland, said:

“There can be little doubt that the cost-of-living crisis is harming pupils’ education, learning and development. It is outrageous that we should be seeing more and more families who are struggling or unable to feed, clothe or keep a roof over their children’s heads. The financial worry and anxiety that many parents are already experiencing is also being felt by children and is likely to have a negative impact on their education. It’s vital that schools and wider children’s services are funded to provide more by way of support, advice and counselling for children, parents and carers who are struggling. An immediate step forward would be for the Scottish Government to commit to the introduction of universal free school meals for all pupils.”

The anxiety experienced by parents during this cost-of-living crisis will also very likely have a negative impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Increased anxiety levels and poor mental health not only affect a child’s ability to concentrate in school but can also have a lasting effect on their social development.

Rising costs of food and energy are not the only financial headache families will face this winter. The difficulty in meeting the demands to pay for uniform, school trips, and the many other requirements that daily school life brings such as sponsored events, book fairs, Red Nose Day etc, can be an added anxiety for families who are already struggling. Children who are unable to participate in these social events are at risk of being socially excluded and bullied, which in turn could lead to low levels of self esteem and poor mental health. If children who are already struggling with anxiety are made to feel left out and different from their peers due to the not been able to afford a school trip for example, this could have devastating consequences.

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition has said that rising prices are replacing the Covid pandemic as the main cause of children and young people’s mental health problems, reporting that in the first three months of last year, 7,902 children and young people were referred to mental health services for treatment, compared to 9,672 this year – a 22.4% increase.

The current cost-of-living crisis affects almost everyone in Scotland. None more so than children already living in the grip of poverty. This is the time usually, when parents need to buy their children winter clothing and save for Christmas presents, however, the reality is that a lot of families will not be able to provide their children with many of the things they need.

A good and happy society is generally judged by the way it looks after its most vulnerable people, especially during difficult times. We have a collective responsibility to support and protect the children in our community from the long and lasting damage this crisis can inflict on them; we should do all we can to ensure they have a safe and happy childhood and help them develop and achieve their full potential, because the children are our future and the future of these Islands.

A guide to spaying and neutering cats and dogs

Spaying and neutering dogs and cats is the most common surgery we perform, and is something we discuss a lot with clients who have a new kitten or puppy.

There are many benefits to spaying and castrating and lots of scientific studies have found that neutered animals have a longer life expectancy than those who have not been neutered, with a recent study of American dogs finding that neutering increases a dog’s lifespan by around one and a half years!

As the owner of a now one and a half year old female labrador, this is a decision I recently had to make. I was considering having a litter from her, but after the horror of her first season, and the many pairs of old knickers I had to cut tail holes into to prevent getting blood all over my rented house (eek), I made the decision that there was no way I was going through that every six months for the next few years. But there were several other reasons I made this decision in the end for her too.

A lot of people, especially cat owners, will decide on the op to prevent unwanted straying and breeding. This is particularly important in cats that venture outside unsupervised and can get pregnant from a young age. Male cats that are uncastrated are much more likely to spray urine, roam and get into fights with other male cats (which can lead to some unwanted vets bills). Given the large population of stray cats in Uist, it’s great that so many cat owners do the responsible thing and neuter their cats.

In comparison, female dogs are much less likely to have a surprise pregnancy, but it certainly does happen! There are several other reasons why it is a good idea to have female dogs spayed. As a result of the unique way in which dogs’ heat cycles work, older dogs are prone to a condition called a pyometra, which is an infection of the uterus. This life threatening condition can require emergency surgery, which can be dangerous and is much more expensive than having your dog spayed when they are young and healthy. If you have an unspayed, older female dog, signs of this condition to watch out for are: unusual discharge from the vulva, increased drinking, vomiting and generally acting tired and unwell a couple of weeks after they have been in season. If you are worried about any of these signs, it is best to contact your vet.

Another advantage to having your female dog spayed is that it decreases the risks of mammary cancer later in life, although this benefit goes away after they have had two or more seasons, which is why we advise to have your dog spayed before her first season or three months after her first season.

Castrating male dogs reduces the risks of them roaming to find a mate and can reduce aggression against other male dogs as well as mounting behaviours. That being said, castration of male dogs should not be done to ‘fix’ behavioural problems, as there is little scientific evidence that it has a significant effect on most unwanted behaviours. Castration does reduce the likelihood of your dog experiencing prostate problems and developing certain types of cancers as they get older.

One of the main concerns people have with neutering is the idea that dogs will gain weight afterwards. There is some truth to this in male dogs, where it has been found that the changes in hormones after castration have an impact on their metabolism. This means that dogs need less calories per day after being castrated. If you are careful with your dog’s diet, cut back a bit after they have been castrated and ensure they are getting enough exercise, then there is no reason that they can’t continue to be a healthy weight after castration.

Having recently had my own dog spayed, I know it can be nerve-wracking. Thankfully, both for my dog – and my boss, who performed the surgery under the knowledge that if anything went wrong, his life would be forfeit – everything went smoothly, and a couple of days afterwards you wouldn’t know anything had happened to her.

All of the benefits of neutering aside, it is important to note that the procedure, especially spaying female dogs, is a major surgery and you should discuss with your vet before making your decision so that you fully understand the risks.

It is also important to plan for afterwards, as your pet will need to be on restricted exercise for around ten days until they can have their stitches removed.

If you have, or are going to, breed from your pet, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have them neutered later in life; this will remove the risk of a pyometra for female dogs and uncontrolled breeding in cats. It is also important to note that dogs and cats do not have a menopause like humans, so are able to become pregnant throughout their lives.

It is always a good idea to have your dog fully health checked before deciding to breed and, if you have a female dog or cat, talk with your vet about the risks and precautions to take during pregnancy and birth so that you are prepared.

All in all, there are many benefits to spaying and castrating your dogs and cats and it’s something to think carefully about when getting a new puppy or kitten. If you are ever unsure, or feel like you need more information to make this decision for your pet, it is always best to get in touch with your vet.

The Robin

The Robin we are told is associated with Christmas because in Victorian times, when Christmas cards first became popular, postmen wore red waistcoats and were nicknamed ‘Robins’. It is certainly the most commonly seen bird on our Christmas cards. Of course part of its popularity may well be that they can become quite tame and against a cold, grey, possibly white winter day, the Robin stands out as a bright splash of colour. Yet this cheerful looking bird, acting as emblem of peace and goodwill, can be very aggressive when protecting its territory.

Looking at the Scottish Wildlife Trust website I see that the Robin’s association with Christmas is strong: In one tale, it is said that when Mary was giving birth to baby Jesus in the stable, she noticed that the fire they had lit to stay warm and comfortable was in danger of going out. Suddenly, a small brown bird appeared and started flapping its wings in front of the fire, causing it to roar back to life. However, as the bird flew around tending to the fire, a stray ember made its way towards the bird, scorching its breast bright red. Seeing this, Mary declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s kind heart, which would pass on to its descendants to wear proudly forevermore.

The Robin has another claim to fame, as it was the first bird to have a book that’s entirely about itself. Written by David Lack, (The Life of the Robin H E & G Witherby 1943) he suggests its popularity is due to the fact that it sings almost all year round. At the end of summer when all else has stopped singing, male and female robins separate. Each then holds its own territory and sings in its defence. As spring arrives it is interesting to watch the change in behaviour as the male and female slowly learn to accept each other. The male bird will help to strengthen their bond by feeding her, which also provides extra resources for laying a good clutch of eggs.

Looking through my notebooks I see that Robins were rare in Uist forty years or so ago. I remember the Stonechat being thought of as kind of Robin substitute; the males having a fine orange red breast. At that time Stonechats were one of the few small birds that stayed with us throughout the winter. Robins were confined to places that had some trees and shrubbery. For me living in Daliburgh that meant searching for them near the Doctor’s gardens in Lochboisdale and Daliburgh along with parts of South Lochboisdale where gardens provided the required shelter.

How things have changed. Warmer, wetter winters and the important addition of more gardens with trees and shrubs, substantial forestry plantations and the now quite frequent provision of wild bird food have altered species numbers and distribution. Robins are now commonly seen in our gardens throughout the year along with other small birds such as Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

The Robin in the attached photo I call Spot Robin because of the pale patch above its left eye. It is heading into its sixth winter, which is about as long as a robin is expected to live. The Robin and the Stonechat both like to sit up on perches; a spade left out in the garden as in this Christmas card by the wildlife artist Peter Partington or a fence post like that in the Stonechat photo.

Bill Neill

Rev Dr Lindsay Schluter, parish minister for South Uist and Barra

Opinion is divided about one of the most popular children’s books ever published: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Its story follows the lives of a tree and a boy. In his childhood the boy enjoys climbing the tree’s trunk, swinging from her branches and eating her apples. As he grows older though, the boy visits the tree only when he wants something from her. On each occasion the tree gives him a part of herself – apples, branches, her trunk – which the boy is then able to make use of to enrich his life, and each time the tree is described as being happy to do so.

But when the boy returns one last time we discover that now all that is left of the tree is a mere stump. She has given all she had and is now unhappy because she is apparently no longer able to provide anything. Yet when the boy says that the only thing he is looking for is a place to rest, she becomes happy again, because, even though she is now only a stump, this she can still provide.

How should the relationship between the two characters be understood? Is the tree generously giving out of selfless love, or is the boy’s persistent taking from her in fact abusive behaviour? Not once does the boy thank the tree for her generosity or give anything back to her. There is also the issue of the tree being female. Are unhelpful gender roles being reinforced?

In some Christian circles the story has been used to reinforce a message of selfless giving. Surely, so the argument goes, we should dedicate ourselves to imitate the outpouring of love that God has shown to us in Christ. One of the great spiritual classics, Thomas à Kempis’ Imitatio Christi, encourages this very thing.

Giving and sharing lies at the heart of Christian ethics. It lies at the heart of the story of God in Christ which we celebrate at Christmas, yet from the very inception of the Church’s life there have been discussions about how giving and sharing should best be lived out, with different models being tried. In the Book of Acts we learn of a form of Christian communism in which everybody was expected to give everything they had to the community. Conversely,in Paul’s letters we find teaching about ongoing proportionate giving which would imply a steady personal income to support the flow of ongoing generosity.

Returning to the concept of our imitating Christ in our day-to-day living, we should remember two things. One is obvious: we are not Christ Jesus. Our earnest endeavour to lead lives that imitate his can only ever be approximations. And in that lies a challenge as well as reassurance.

The other is just as obvious, yet somehow many shy away from it. Jesus came to receive as well as to give. Whether it was receiving hospitality from close friends or distant strangers, whether letting himself be cared for through the touch of anointing oil or the financial support given by others – he set an example of how we are to learn to receive from others as much as to give to them. He demonstrates to us that he does not need to be the one in charge, the one who possesses the resources with which to provide for a needy other. Instead he becomes the one who lets go, to be at the passive receiving end of generosity which is a way of being and living which does not come easy to some of us.

In his own life Jesus demonstrates that giving and sharing should never leave anyone emotionally hollowed out or financially destitute. Giving to others, receiving from others are to be acts of freedom, not acts of obligation.

If giving is leading to stress, and even exhaustion, then it is no longer an imitation of the love of Christ. Giving to and receiving from others should be free acts of love, acts that enable both giver and receiver to become more, not less, their God-given selves.

At Christmas, God gave himself to us, doing so freely and generously. And we are invited to imitate such freedom. We are invited to choose freely to give and be generous, giving our all or only a part. We are free to choose not to be depleted. In short, we are free to enjoy our giving. We are free to enjoy being the receiver. If on the other hand we feel bound and restricted by either, then maybe a return to the story of Christmas could be a way of a deeper exploration on what it means to give and to receive. In that story the flow of giving and receiving is lived and demonstrated by many and varied characters. It may be that coming alongside them may assist us to come to our own place of greater freedom in the acts of giving and receiving.

Praying for a rich and fulfilling time of Advent and Christmas for each and everyone.

Rev Dr Lindsay Schluter, parish minister for South Uist and Barra

I wonder if anyone responded to the idea of a tunnel across to the mainland? I’m thinking that there wouldn’t be much support for that. As I write, I’m watching the south easterly wind driving the waves furiously towards my house. Imagine going underneath those waves! I don’t think that it would be very safe either to have our islands open to anyone at any time of the day or night. I think it would be better to support the ferry service, although it’s often broken or stranded due to bad weather; at least there are better ferries on the agenda.

On the radio the other day I heard that a number of frigates are going to get built on the Clyde for the Royal Navy. I think they said that it would be in two years time. Also Arnish in Stornoway is getting a contract to transfer food and equipment out to boats at sea to save the boats having to come into port. Of course I can’t understand anything about that kind of work but I do understand the importance of jobs in Scotland and especially in Stornoway.

I don’t know when Lyme disease started out here. When I was young, lots of deer were shot by crofters and they didn’t come into inbye land – I was 30 before I saw my first deer on this land. It wasn’t fear of humans that kept them out on the moor; they stayed there because they had enough green grass out there. The sheep and cows were summered out on the hill until October and the moors were burnt methodically; so with the sheep, lambs, cows, calves and the deer grazing there, the management of the moor was healthy.

I was born in 1940 and when the men got home on leave during the war, the deer were a Godsend. I think that I wrote before how my Uncle Hugh shot a deer when home during the war. I was too young to eat meat but the others did. I believe that the deer had been wounded before, which made its venison poisonous. The other children were all very sick and it was only the skill of old Doctor AJ MacLeod that saved them.

The sheep wouldn’t have so many ticks either in those days as the muirburning killed a lot of them. However burning was not done so methodically as time went on, so the heather had too much chance to grow. Then in 1961, reseeding became popular and the gearraidh areas became greener and the moor became rank through lack of grazing. The deer were attracted to the greener areas and as time went on they then came to the machair and into the gardens.

I think muirburn should be done in different areas ever year with plenty volunteers as this would be helpful. We have trees now so they would have to be very careful not to burn them. Of course I know that when we were children and we worked at peats, we came home with lots of ticks on our bodies but we were never sick. Maybe they are a different breed of tick now.

I believe that the number of deer should be very much reduced but a huge cull would be heartbreaking. I’d like to see hardy sheep grazing on the moors along with the deer but that could only happen if some crofters got Hebrideans and Blackface after muirburn got rid of the tall heather. Of course the government should finance that and those sheep would become “hefted” on the moors which means that they would settle in their areas and stay there. In the late 70s we burnt the ranch, as we called it, on Marrival and when the grass grew the following year we had lovely green grass and the cattle loved it and were able to summer there until 1997, when the fence stopped being stock proof.

On the 11th and 12th November the young ones were very busy in Vallay. This is the time all the cattle get their medicines and checked out before the winter. There’s a lot of planning especially when the days are so short and they are governed by the tide. On Friday 11th the tide was completely out at 4 p.m. so they took medicines over to Vallay and also the vehicles they would need to use the next day. They then gathered the cows and their calves and put them in the field around the old houses. Saturday was the big day; Carianne, Fraser, Alexander, John MacPhee (the Wee Man), Craig, Ryan, Alasdair Don and the scanner, another Ryan. Hector Shepherd took them over in a boat about 7 a.m. giving the team all the daylight hours to complete the job. The cows got scanned to tell us how many are pregnant and medicine for worms, pour on for lice and they also got mineral boluses. Boluses are so helpful; since we started giving them those we don’t get white scour in the calves. I think the day went very well. Two cows, Morag Skye and Sobhrach, with twins from springtime were brought back to Kyles to be looked after. It’s a big job as there are 139 cows. Carianne takes a note of all the eartags and pregnancy information; she is so often with them and knows each one’s name. She’s a real cowgirl!!

Our most exciting piece of news that day was that Big Boy’s son, Little Big Boy, had managed to impregnate all of the heifers that had been put with him! He had been privately sold but on inspection, before he was due to leave, it was seen that his long hair had been caught around the end of his most important tool, which meant that some of it had to be cut off. We couldn’t sell him but wanted to give him a chance to see if he would heal and perform. He was put with heifers and kept in Kyles. Well, he didn’t let us down and we look forward to seeing his calves next spring! Again, how exciting!!

We’re almost at the New Year and this is the last paper of 2022. I hope and pray that God will make 2023 a happier and peaceful year. We must be thankful for all the joy we’ve had whilst remembering those no longer with us.

My choice of readings are Matthew Chapter 1 and Psalm 118.

Seasons Greetings to you all!

Guest column by Rona MacKay & Kathleen MacDonald

It was recently announced that Ofgem had rejected plans to upgrade our subsea electricity cable linking us to Skye and the national grid.

I’ve worked for Community Energy Scotland in the Outer Hebrides for 16 years now and during that time the proposed interconnector between Lewis and Ullapool has regularly featured in the news, with barely a mention of the Uist subsea cable. So what has changed and why has it suddenly become important?

My colleague in Lewis, Kathleen MacDonald and I are grateful for the chance to explain the implications of this decision for Uist, as with all its unfamiliar acronyms, for example RIIO-ED2 (setting Revenues using Incentives to deliver Innovation and Outputs), it’s not a topic which is easy to engage in but it’s important we understand it and ensure the Uist community is represented in the final decision.

In December 2021 SSEN (Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks), who run our electricity networks in the North of Scotland, drafted a Business Plan setting out their proposals to replace the existing cable between South Uist (Lochcarnan) and Skye and to add an additional cable between North Uist and Skye. SSEN had engaged with the Comhairle, community generators and others and took account of our needs in their proposal. The plan was very welcome news for Uist and Barra as our current cable was installed 31 years ago and had an estimated lifespan of 20 years. Barra’s electricity supply is dependent on a cable connecting it to Uist so it is also dependent on the South Uist-Skye subsea cable.

In August this year Ofgem, the UK energy regulator who holds the purse strings for the projects in SSEN’s Business Plan, published its Draft Determinations in which it proposes to reject both the upgrade of the cable from South Uist to Skye, and the installation of the second cable from North Uist to Skye. All our larger turbines in Uist and Barra depend on the aging subsea cable from Lochcarnan to Skye to connect them to the national grid and allow them to generate and sell electricity. If the subsea cable to Skye fails, all the larger turbines are turned off until the cable is fixed. Ofgem’s decision is therefore deeply concerning for the Uist and Barra communities, and in particular for our community-owned wind turbines. Community Power Outer Hebrides (CPOH), a collective of the community generators in the Outer Hebrides including Stòras Uibhist and Barra & Vatersay Community Ltd, along with Uist Wind, wrote to Ofgem outlining their concerns about Ofgem’s proposal and the impact it could have on our communities.

In 2020 the Harris to Skye subsea cable that supplies Lewis and Harris failed and was down for a total of ten months. During this time four community generators claimed a combined £2million from their respective insurance companies and over and above that total was a shortfall/outright loss to the community generators of £1.3million. This had a drastic impact on communities with the charitable payments from the turbines out to the wider community being frozen.

Although the cable break to Harris was serious and had far reaching impacts, the Lewis community groups were able to rely on some insurance support to see them through the worst of the cable failure. Since this failure in 2020, no island-based generator has been able to source insurance cover for subsea cable failure, leaving the Uist and Barra generators without any cover should our Uist subsea cable break. The members of Community Power Outer Hebrides estimate that if the Uist cable were to fail now the loss to the projects on Uist and Barra would be in the region of £3million. Ofgem’s decision could cause job losses, project development delays and housing support delays amongst other issues.

Ofgem’s remit is to protect energy consumers, especially vulnerable people, by ensuring they are treated fairly and benefit from a cleaner, greener environment. Ofgem’s decision seems inconsistent with their remit as in the event of a cable failure it could leave Uist and Barra reliant on diesel generation for up to eighteen months while a replacement cable is installed. The cost to SSEN during the Skye-Harris cable break was estimated at £1m in diesel alone and Community Energy Scotland estimates that the use of diesel was releasing carbon dioxide emissions of 240 tonnes per day. Not only does Ofgem’s decision not make sense from an environmental position it is also the least effective solution from an economic perspective with the cost of diesel having increased dramatically, especially in more remote locations such as ours. Community groups in Uist and Barra are currently exploring decarbonisation projects, many of which are centered around Electric Vehicles, Heatpumps and other localised electricity dependent options. In order to progress these types of projects and support Government targets around a Just Transition we need comfort that the grid is resilient – comfort we currently do not have with the existing infrastructure well past its estimated lifespan.

The Third Sector is a significant employer in Uist and our community is heavily dependent on it to provide core services and facilities. With 57% of the Outer Hebrides estimated to be in fuel poverty and the number of householders seeking support and help increasing, we need to help our community groups to be more resilient to deal with the increasing demand for their services. Increasing energy costs for both buildings and transport are having a huge impact on the viability of the Third Sector and local businesses. We need Ofgem to back SSEN’s proposed subsea cable replacement from Skye to South Uist to give us the basic infrastructure we need to invest in sustainable energy projects locally and reduce energy costs locally.

In Uist and Barra we are having to fight to have equivalent access to a basic utility which people take for granted in towns and cities. Energy has been a key component to developing sustainable communities across Scotland, often supporting community land buyouts and other community development. Uist needs to have the basic infrastructure for a reliable electricity connection to be able to develop sustainable energy projects and future-proof our community.