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.

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.