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.

Chair of Transportation & Infrastructure

There has been much talk about the new PSO service between Benbecula and Stornoway. While I
recognise the concerns of my constituents, I feel duty bound to remind the community of the very
dire choices we have faced; a choice between this service, or no service.

Whilst this route is governed by a Public Service Obligation (PSO) it is not a statutory service and
does not come with a ring-fenced funding allocation.

Officers of the Comhairle were tasked this year amidst severe budget cuts to find savings and it
was with some relief that we agreed the £450k per annum that enabled us to tender for the new

Airtask, operating as Hebridean Air Services, submitted a suitable bid and were duly awarded the
contract. It should be noted that theirs was the only compliant bid we received.

This contract is for four years and is in line with the available budget. Although the aircraft to be
used is smaller than what was previously used on the route, the service timetable has increased
from two rotations (return flights) on Tuesdays and Thursdays to two rotations on Mondays,
Tuesdays, and Fridays.

Hebridean Air Services currently operate PSO services for Argyll and Bute Council and Shetland
Islands Council. The Airtask group also have significant experience of operating from Stornoway
for contract work with QinetiQ and Marine Scotland.

Although not part of the PSO contract, there is also the potential to offer direct flights between
Stornoway and Barra during the summer months to test demand.

As the community will know, the vast majority of passengers who travel this route are making the
journey for medical purposes. We have long called for the Health Board to recognise this fact and
contribute to the cost of what is for the most part, a medical service, yet we still have no financial
contribution from our colleagues in health, other than the purchase of tickets.

Following a recent meeting with the Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, Jim Fairlie MSP (Minister for
Agriculture and Connectivity) has written to CnES to advise that the Scottish Government are
exploring how they can facilitate closer and more cohesive working across public bodies in relation to transport for medical purposes They recognise the fact that transport and health need
to sit at the same tables to ensure the best possible outcome when it comes to patient travel.

Working with HITRANS (The Regional Transport Partnership for the Highlands and Islands) we
reached out to the partner NHS Boards to identify how we could collectively address some of the
challenges patients encounter to access health services in our region.

At the end of March we hosted a joint meeting with the regions NHS Boards to identify how we
can collectively address some of the challenges patients encounter. Chairs or representatives
from every relevant Heath Board were there, but the Western Isles Board was unable to send any
representative at all. If we are to find a way forward, then the Health Board needs to come to the

Fèis Tir A’ Mhurain Committee Member, South Uist


Gàidhlig is my language. It means home to me; it is a major part of my identity and my culture.
Speaking the language has always given me such pride, it is something I am and always will be
immensely proud of. Gàidhlig means a lot to me because it is something that my parents passed
onto me. I am lucky to have gained such a high level of fluency from my Granny through all the
years that I have spent with her listening to her talk, as well as hearing the language out in the
community so often.

It means such a great amount to me as it is not only the language of me and my family, but of my
ancestors before me, which leaves me with a very strong connection to the island, the people and
to the language itself. Gàidhlig is such a major part of our history and is something that is majorly
important to us as a community and as islanders.

Gàidhlig has always been an interest of mine between learning all the different phrases and
discovering old Gàidhlig words and their meanings. To me Gàidhlig is powerful. Personally, I find it
easier at times to express things in the Gàidhlig than I do in English. I find that poems, plays,
stories and songs are always extremely moving and capturing when portrayed through the
medium of Gàidhlig.

Gàidhlig has already given me so many incredible opportunities, from making films for Film G to
attending Fèis Tir A’ Mhurain. Through my entire primary years, the Fèis gave me the chance to
speak Gàidhlig more and use it through the arts, and has led me to be able to join the committee
and give other children that same opportunity that I had as a young child. One thing that I am sure
of is that it will bring many more amazing opportunities in all the years to come. Gàidhlig has
always been one of my passions and is what I am wanting to go to university for, as I would like
my career to be in Gàidhlig.

I would like to see Gàidhlig not only continue in Uist but to grow. In my opinion, to see the
language grow and in order to keep it alive we have to accept changes in the way we speak it and
we need to keep a strong Gàidhlig presence in the community.

Just like many other languages, the vocabulary and the grammar are being created. I think that it’s
important we move on with the times while also holding onto the importance of some of the
words and phrases passed through many generations.

I think we should aim to have more opportunities to use Gàidhlig in our employment and in
situations out of our homes.

I would personally like to see more and more young people using Gaelic, and using it as their daily
language with their friends as well as their families. I would like to see an increase in Gàidhlig on
social media and more opportunities to use the language in modern settings.

I think that it is important for the education sector to allow for more immersive learning in order to
ensure the richness of the language found in Uist is kept for many generations to come. We need
to ensure that we keep the language getting stronger and keeping it alive for many more years.
I think that we need to encourage more and more people to learn the language and I would like to
see more opportunities for support to be given to learners.

It is important to me that this island continues to use the language and that we stay away from the
mindset that Gàidhlig is dying, because when that mindset is accepted then that is when we will
lose the fluency and natural spoken language.

Our right to food

I love food – who doesn’t? It’s a joy to sit down to your favourite meal – better still, to enjoy a lovely meal with family or friends, with all the chat and banter that goes with it.

Food is more than just nourishment, it is what binds us. It’s part of our culture, feeds the soul and keeps us healthy and well. Food is critical to our everyday lives. It should be a basic right for everyone to access good nutritious and more importantly, affordable food. Not a privilege, a right!

In Scotland, we have the high-level ambition of becoming a Good Food Nation by 2025. But what does this mean? Enshrined into law is the Scottish Government’s commitment to making Scotland a nation where people from every walk of life can take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day. The Government has essentially adopted a human rights approach to tackling poverty and food insecurity, founded on the principles of dignity and respect, to ensure people have access to affordable, locally produced and nutritious food.

What’s not to like about this? Yet, for the Right to Food to be realised, food must be adequate, available and accessible to all.

Sadly, it is widely recognised that too many people in Scotland cannot afford the food that they need to keep them healthy and well. Furthermore, the Scottish diet has stayed fixed for years, making little progress towards meeting the Government’s dietary goals, with people living in the most deprived areas still more likely to experience diet related ill health.

We also know that in rural, remote and island communities, living costs are substantially higher, partly because of the greater distance to services and large shopping centres offering lower prices. In order to address the gap between the challenges we face and our shared vision of a Good Food Nation, we need to fully understand what the Right to Food looks like in our island setting and begin to ask how Government policies are helping to progressively realise our ambition.

In October last year, Tagsa Uibhist wanted to do just that when we started our journey to find out conclusively how affordable and accessible basic fruit and vegetable items were on the Western Isles. We recruited 24 Community Researchers from Berneray to Barra, representing eight Outer Hebridean Islands, setting them on the Anneka Rice style challenge of surveying all our local shops over a six-week period. Our Right to Food survey was a community endeavour to explore, compare and make sense of how the availability and price of foods differ, both across the islands and against mainland prices and supplies.

The research confirmed our concerns that an ‘island premium’ exists for people living in Uist and Barra, who need to pay close to 30% more for their basic fruit and veg items as compared to mainland prices. The 17 basic items on the researchers’ shopping lists delivered an average basket cost of £26.64 in Uist and Barra, compared with just £20.80 for a Tesco online shop. Furthermore, our community researchers found less than half of the items they were looking for on a list which constituted just the basic fruit and vegetable items required for a healthy diet – just the basics!

The research findings showed that people living in Uist and Barra are disproportionately more disadvantaged in terms of affording and gaining access to basic fruit and vegetable items. Our findings were also in stark contrast to other rural mainland communities and evidenced worrying trends on the dietary inequalities for island communities – communities which rely heavily on long food supply chains and are challenged by ferry problems, the rising cost of fuel, agricultural inputs, food and living costs.
There is now a strong call by our community researchers for immediate and progressive action by national and regional authorities to address these difficulties in a meaningful way. Action which promotes a truly dignified island food system; one where everyone is food secure, with access to adequate, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and without the need of emergency food aid. A system where the Right to Food is understood as a matter of justice rather than charity; a Good Food Nation in which every community’s health and well-being is paramount and no-one is left behind. Our island communities demand nothing less because, of course, a right to food is a right for all.
Tagsa Uibhist is also attempting to address these challenges by expanding our community garden services at East Camp in Balivanich to grow more staple produce and create a monthly local food market with other local producers. Watch this space: a Payday Food Market is coming soon and we have exciting plans to take our ‘one stop shop’ Neighbourfood service on the road where you can buy a range of great products from local producers and beyond. Plans are afoot to outfit one of our electric vans to include a refillery service too. Yes, you heard it here first!

We are also supporting growers and crofters wanting to establish community poly tunnels and aim to provide outreach support and vegetable starter kits for anyone keen to grow in their communities.
However, our biggest news is that we plan to launch our Biadh Blasta Uibhist project this Autumn; a meals on wheels service with a difference!

Tagsa Uibhist is aiming to deliver 600 wholesome ready-made meals to our most vulnerable elderly people living on their own in our community. It is our ambition to include as much local produce as possible, so that our clients get a nutritious meal with local ingredients and minimal wastage. We are working in collaboration with Tagsa’s Care department, Macleans Bakery and local producers to deliver this service in October.

We also hope to hold a local Food Festival in the Autumn to celebrate local produce and promote the sharing and cooking of food together in community spaces.

Biadh Blasta Uibhist is about local people working together for the community good and we would welcome any thoughts and ideas about this pilot project because if successful, we would like to expand the service across our community.

At Tagsa, we are passionate about keeping our community at the heart of local food development and helping to alleviate the challenges of food insecurity on our gorgeous islands.

Tourism challenges and opportunities

Born and raised in Lewis, I, like many others, grew up taking for granted just how extraordinary the Outer Hebrides are. I enjoyed the space, freedom and sense of community, but, as I cast envious glances at the wider world, I barely stopped to consider just how much my island home had to offer. As I’ve grown older and wiser and work has called me to promote – and often explain – the islands to many coming here for the first time, the full value and uniqueness of the place has become apparent.

The Gaelic language… Lewis & Harris are two separate islands but the same island… Sundays are different… the story of St Kilda… the plane in Barra really does land on the beach… yes, Bonnie Prince Charlie passed through… we own a majority of the islands ourselves… honesty boxes work fine in a community where you don’t have to always lock your door…

The points of reference that sometimes need to be highlighted or confirmed are many and varied, but all serve to confirm that this is a place unlike any other.

However, with a growing appreciation of the beauty, environment and culture of the islands has come a greater awareness of our remoteness and fragility. I’m familiar with the argument that peripherality is relative and are we remote if not at a distance from each other, our homes, and the ties that bind us locally? It is undeniable that in today’s global economy, mass matters and in terms of the centres of population that drive commerce, we are most certainly remote.

How often have we heard there are simply not enough people to sustain a school or justify a health-care service? We must pay more for our goods as the penalty for choosing to live at a distance from the dispatch centres. It’s unfortunate our ferry network is broken but we know there is always a risk on an island that the boat won’t go.

The current economic model of resource allocation and infrastructure planning unfortunately doesn’t work in favour of small island communities and, followed to its logical conclusion, the outcome is almost inevitable depopulation and economic failure.

I mentioned the intrigue the St Kilda story still ignites in those who hear it for the first time. As the UK’s only dual UNESCO World Heritage site, Hiort is recognised not only for its environmental significance but equally for its cultural importance, its history serving as a bellwether for dwindling island communities who could one day find the challenges of peripherality too much. As the 100th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda approaches, we are reminded that extinction is not always a spectacular mass event; sometimes it comes as the result of a selecting out of those whose environment becomes simply too harsh.

Our islands are remote, at least in economic terms, and we have significant challenges to overcome to achieve sustainability, but there is hope – for as islanders, we are responsive, resourceful, collaborative and innovative and I believe we finally have a collective appreciation of the value of our islands.

We are leaders in community asset management and renewable energy production, our crofters and fishermen benefit from generations of knowledge in working productively and sustainably, we recognise the dynamic between culture, heritage and tourism in a way others are just beginning to explore and critically, we no longer foster in our young people the notion that the bright leave and the dumb stay – instead teaching them that to learn and explore is essential, but home has everything to offer too.

Looking back to my childhood, I can recall curiosity and mild interest in the annual procession of ‘visitors’, usually only seen in the mid-summer months. The occasional back-packer or cyclist, extended family on a holiday back ‘home’, people with a work purpose or visiting friends. Yes, there were hotels and the occasional guesthouse, a couple of favourite cafes and small local post-office shops, but not much more for the passing traveller. Interpretation of heritage, history and environment was minimal, visitors were welcome but not particularly catered to. Harris Tweed was something to be worn, not crafted, there were no (official) distilleries or seafood menus and the landscape was the preserve of sheep and crofters, not photographers and walkers.

But as other industries became less viable, islanders awakened to the opportunities in tourism and over time, confidence grew: a few local artists opened up their studios, a greater choice of places to eat and stay emerged and a general renaissance of Gaelic culture through media and music helped to put the islands on the map. But of course the introduction of Road Equivalent Tariff in 2008 was the game-changer – a reminder to our politicians today of the importance of getting transport policy right in order to stimulate island prosperity.

In my lifetime we have seen the islands transform from a little-known outpost of the UK, suspended in nostalgia by some and slightly disparaged by others, to now being regularly touted as a must-see destination.

To my mind, the most important factor in this transformation has been islanders’ recognition of the Outer Hebrides as a place to be treasured and shared with those who truly appreciate it. Over time attitudes have shifted, businesses have invested and infrastructure has been created. We can be proud that tourism is now the largest element of the private sector here, supporting thousands of jobs and bringing millions into the economy, whilst in the main safeguarding community interests and cultural integrity.

But despite this growth and positivity, the shadow cast by the story of St Kilda looms. The Outer Hebrides, and Uist in particular, are facing acute challenges that will not be overcome quickly or easily; deep economic damage inflicted by the total inadequacy of ferry services risks exacerbating already alarming depopulation.

I would love to end this piece with an answer; a winning recommendation to move things forward in the right direction. In the absence of such insight, I will end by saying that although times are far from easy now and we feel powerless in the face of the ongoing ferry and cost-of-living crises, we must remember how far we have come and all that we have achieved. It is our people and communities that make the islands and our tourism sector what it is and we should be nothing but proud of the effort we have collectively put in over recent decades to build a successful industry that welcomes visitors from across the world and shares with them the beauty and cultural soul of the Outer Hebrides.

Community empowerment and the case for change.

When asked to contribute to this column, I panicked! I’m more comfortable with a microphone in a hall than I am with a keyboard and a blank page. I began by musing upon what drives and shapes me, the main strands are: my Community; my Christian faith and the Gaelic language.

I’ve spent most of my 70+ years in Uist. As I cast my mind back, I reflect on the enormous changes that I have seen. I marvel at the progress that has taken place in our Islands whilst I’m mindful of the challenges Uist faces to continue being an idyllic place to live, work and visit.

At twelve years of age, I left home to attend school in Daliburgh, which seemed like going to the other side of the planet. At 16, along with my peers, I travelled across the sea to continue further education in Fort William and later, onwards to Glasgow. As innocent, penniless teuchters, our teenage years on the mainland felt very far from the comfort of the croft and shores which we knew as home. It was a time where leaving wasn’t optional, but mandatory for education and training.

I returned to Uist in the mid 70’s, as the Glory Years were unfolding with exciting change taking place. Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar was established and ably led by two wise clergymen: Rev MacAulay of Stornoway and Fr Callum MacLellan of Benbecula Parish. They successfully reassured communities on either side of the Sound of Harris that by working together, their ambition of equal opportunity and prosperity could be achieved. This unity overturned centuries of history!

European funding flowed into our Islands bringing causeways, fish-farming, crofting improvements and social projects. Sgoil Lìonacleit was opened, job opportunities became available. Crofting and community life rubbed alongside good day jobs. I had the chance to build a home, raise a family, run a croft and live in a vibrant community. I worked as a teacher and generally, life was good.

The good times did not last and by the 90’s, policies of centralisation crept in, almost by stealth. The first painful realisation was the closure of Daliburgh Hospital, much against the will of the people. Hundreds travelled to Stornoway to protest and were met by only a closed door. Another example of unfulfilled ambition is, that today, little two-way road exists south of Grimsay. More recently we have seen our dental services, mental health services, support for children among other things become depleted or non-existent. Anecdotes from patients travelling across land and sea to hospital are concerning. Yet, we read of great opportunities and services available in Stornoway, I wonder what Mgr Callum and Rev MacAulay would say and do about that!

Our representatives try to fob us off by saying there are not enough funds available. Uist is entitled to services and it’s their duty to change the hearts and minds of those who control policies and resources. Somehow, it doesn’t feel like they’re reaching us at the moment; maybe new strategies are required.
Over time, I’ve been privileged to participate in community initiatives and I’m fully aware of the difference they make. Community work is demanding and hugely rewarding, people of all ages who are involved in a wide range of organisations do a remarkable job. Equally amazing are those who work for the organisations, with little job security and few progression pathways as these posts are generally project funded.

Last week the power of membership came to life in South Uist. Dissatisfied members of Stòras Uibhist presented a challenge to their Executive. Following due process, a group of members were granted an Extraordinary General Meeting – a skilful campaign was undertaken and a motion for a secret vote was prepared. Although the proposed motion was not carried, the campaign without doubt, made an impression locally and nationally – a wake-up call for Stòras Uibhist.

The voices of crofters were not as plentiful at the meeting as I was expecting. Crofter Iseabail MacDonald from Ormiclate powerfully articulated her case and showed the impact of deer on her life. How bizarre that 400+ votes were submitted without people hearing the carefully crafted arguments for and against the motion? Stòras members are great policymakers while sitting by the Rayburn but they need to make their views heard aloud!

Life isn’t easy for the Stòras Board. New ideas are risky, costly and take a long time to develop – sticking with the old feels safer. Often there may be no right or wrong answer to problems, but solutions can be negotiated. Members rightly should challenge constructively, praise as appropriate and in general be supportive to encourage trust across the whole organisation.

It’s past the middle of Lent, the season to abstain, repent and be more charitable. Uist people are brilliant at coming forward in unity to worship and give support to those who need it. For myself every Lent, I struggle with giving up chocs, Facebook and hot toddies and strive to stay awake to finish my prayers!

What of the Gaelic language? In my role as Chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig I often hear of Gaelic being described as an economic asset, of its tangible and intangible benefits and of cultural tourism. Sometimes I think “b’eòlach mo sheanair air cultural tourism!”

Gaelic and Uist are hugely important to each other nowadays. Across the world, we are held in high esteem as one of the special places where Gaelic is spoken in daily life. Gaelic needs learners, reluctant speakers and stalwarts. We’re all in it together and I encourage those of you who have lost your confidence in speaking it to give it a go – let it come out! Are families happy with the Gaelic offer in Sgoil Lionacleit and UHI Outer Hebrides? If not, it’s time to speak up! Your children only get one shot at education!

I have been closely involved with developing Cnoc Soilleir – the world-class new facility which is bringing much-needed jobs and ‘buzz’ to the South End. The sheer dedication, determination and leadership demonstrated by Ceòlas has resulted in transformational change. Already, the building is very busy with people gathering for a host of reasons. More is still to come!

Our community has a very high percentage of employment delivered by the third-sector or voluntary groups. Such precarious circumstances make our economy extremely fragile. Running
organisations, securing funding and recruitment is tough, but we manage it.

We are a stoic, resilient and innovative community and will thrive and progress if the necessary infrastructure and resources are directed to us. We must be prepared to speak up strongly and politely – NOW.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Uibhist A Tuath, Chair Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and HITRANS

Active Travel in the Western Isles

While the National Cycle Network route No.780 – The Hebridean Way – from Barra to the Butt of Lewis offers visitors a signed route to walk or cycle the length of the Western Isles, the long distances between settlements on the islands often mean that the private car is how most people choose to travel for many everyday journeys.

However, Census data also highlights that 23% of households in the Outer Hebrides do not have a car available at home (for those living in social housing this figure rises to as high as 49% (Census, 2011)) and a third of journeys to work within the Outer Hebrides being three miles or less.

These figures illustrate that there is both a lot of scope for more short everyday journeys to be made on foot or by cycle and that encouraging more people to use active travel more often is key to realising a variety of wider positive outcomes from the Scottish Government’s targets for net zero and a 20% reduction in car traffic, and can also bring benefits to the physical, mental, and social health of our people.

The Comhairle in partnership with HITRANS (Highlands and Islands Regional Transport Partnership) developed a five-year Outer Hebrides Active Travel Strategy in 2021. The Strategy sets out a number of objectives for increasing the number of journeys made by active travel, presenting a vision for high quality places where walking and cycling for everyday journeys to school, work, or shopping are easy, pleasant and safe.

It highlights that there are many small communities, such as Tarbert and Balivanich, where vehicles and through-roads are dominant, which would benefit from placemaking to make it easier and safer to choose to walk, wheel or cycle, with a particular focus on safe routes to schools and community hubs. The vision and objectives for active travel within communities across the Outer Hebrides is summarised as follows:

*Safe routes to school are established in settlements with schools so local children have the opportunity to safely walk or cycle to school.

*A holistic approach is taken in settlements with community hubs to ensure there is appropriate infrastructure to travel safely by foot or bicycle.

*A place-based approach to high quality infrastructure and a review of speed limits makes it easy and safe to choose walking and cycling for everyday journeys within communities.

*Safe active travel routes to access attractions and trip generators within or near settlements.

And between Communities the priorities are:

*Develop a coherent network of routes connecting communities within comfortable walking or cycling distance of each other.

*Improve safety of Hebridean Way cycle route to enhance tourism offer and connect dispersed settlements.

Since the Strategy was published progress has been made in a number of areas. A series of masterplans were initially developed for the main settlements: These identified a series of priority projects for improving infrastructure for active travel locally.

The plans have been used to support applications for funding to develop detailed designs and then the construction of various different projects. The Comhairle has recently applied for capital funding for 11 projects to be delivered in 2023/24: these include Lochboisdale Active Travel Links in partnership with Storas Uibhist, Balivanich Safe Route to School and the Barra Herring Walk, with Barra & Vatersay Community Trust. Projects valuing a total of £3.2m were submitted to Transport Scotland’s Active Travel Transformation Fund. The Council expects to find out if applications have been successful this Spring.

Again, working in partnership with HITRANS, the Comhairle has also been able to secure funding for a new post to support the development of Active Travel and Public Transport initiatives across the islands. The post is supported by the Scottish Government’s ‘Smarter Choices Smarter Places’ fund which is administered by Paths for All. It is hoped the new recruit will be in post in April and can begin work to support improvements to public transport information, delivery of the Active Travel Strategy, and promotion of the HItravel Liftshare platform for ride sharing.

It is hoped this work will encourage more people to walk or cycle for everyday functional trips such as going to work or school, or to the shops. This can be for all or part of the journey, for example walking or cycling to a bus stop. As for other forms of transport, having a strategy ensures that the many benefits of increasing physical activity levels, in the form of active travel, are framed, planned, funded, delivered, and measured in a structured way. Active travel is one of the most sustainable ways to build physical activity into our lives, combining exercise with getting from A to B. Walking and cycling as part of our everyday routine can contribute to the recommended levels of physical activity to promote physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Greater investment in and promotion of active travel is an effective way to meet climate change targets and contributes to reducing congestion and pollution.

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.