£393m investment to generate 1,300 jobs across three island groups

The long awaited Islands Growth Deal was finally and formally ratified by the UK and Scottish Governments and the three island Authorities of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles at a special ceremony in Orkney on January 20th.

Uist councillor and Comhairle Leader Paul Steele attended the ceremony, along with Lord Offord of Garvel, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland, Ivan McKee MSP, Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, Cllr James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council and Cllr Emma Macdonald, Leader of Shetland Islands Council.

The Islands Growth Deal delivers a joint UK and Scottish Government commitment of a £100 million investment in the future economic prosperity of the three island groups, and is set to generate an anticipated 1,300 jobs and a further £293 million in match funding over the next ten years.

Of the 16 projects and programmes detailed in the Deal, five are specific to the Western Isles, with a further number benefiting across the island groups.

Four Uist projects are expected to benefit from the investment, including the proposed South Uist Food Hub, a Creative Practice Hub at Taigh Chearsabhagh, the St Kilda Viewpoint visitor centre at Beinn Riabhach on North Uist and the Comhairle’s controversial Spaceport development at Scolpaig Farm.

Cllr Steele described the programme as ‘highly ambitious, but achievable’, and thanked the many community and council members who had supported the project from the start.

Cllr Steele said: “The signing of the Islands Growth Deal is both the culmination of a vision set out by the Islands Councils and the UK and Scottish Governments and the beginning of the implementation of that vision.”

It is a milestone towards achieving our aims of securing 1300 jobs and £393m of investment over 10 years through the Islands Deal, using the resources of our Islands and capitalising on our natural assets and most importantly, our people.”

Ivan McKee MSP, Scottish Government Business Minister said: “This Growth Deal will be a game-changing initiative for our islands – enabling sustainable economic growth and delivering new and internationally significant port infrastructure that will play an important role in achieving net zero targets.

“This £50 million Scottish Government investment will support the transition to renewable energy sources – including equipping the workforce with new skills – and trial emissions reduction initiatives on islands. It will drive innovation in key space, food and drink and creative industries sectors; help develop significant tourism and cultural attractions and expand education provision.

“We are determined that our islands should be attractive places to live and work and are able to maximise their contribution to Scotland’s sustainable economic transformation.”   

UK Government Minister for Scotland Malcolm Offord said: “This will not just boost local economies and create jobs, but also empower communities to get the most out of the many assets and attributes that make the islands such unique and special places to live.  

“This deal is packed with a broad range of high-impact projects, whether it’s leading the transition to net zero or developing ‘must-visit’ destinations such as the St Kilda trail.”

Dedicated vessel for Lochmaddy-Uig run

Transport Scotland has announced the news many islanders have been longing to hear: two new ferries for the Skye triangle routes, allowing for a dedicated boat on both the Lochmaddy and the Tarbert runs.

Whether it was as a result of Audit Scotland’s damning report on ferry procurement, consistent and increasingly vocal pressure from the Uist community, the well-evidenced financial losses faced by local businesses or the continued pressure from our locally elected members is unclear, but Scottish Government does now, finally, appear to be listening.

The two new ferries are to be allocated £115m of additional funding over and above the £580m already allocated for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry network, and a contract for the new vessels is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

The new vessels will be based on the design of the two Islay ferries currently under construction in Turkey. The Islay ferries are 94.8m long and each carry up to 450 passengers, less than half the capacity of ‘Hull 802’, the previous vessel commission intended for the Lochmaddy route.

Minister for Transport Jenny Gilruth said: “Our intention is that these ferries would be deployed on the Skye triangle routes to Lochmaddy and Tarbert, delivering dedicated services to communities in the peak season rather than the shared vessel operation currently in place. This will create the opportunity for significantly increased capacity and resilience for the communities of the Western Isles.

“It will also allow consideration of all options to deploy Vessel 802 on an alternative route, including potentially alongside her sister ship, the MV Glen Sannox, to provide additional capacity to and from Arran in the peak season. All the options will be discussed with island communities at the appropriate time.”

Kevin Hobbs, Chief Executive at CMAL, said: “This is a highly welcome commitment from the Scottish Government, which allows us to increase the pace of vessel replacement plans in line with our ambitions. This additional investment will bring two new vessels to the fleet, meaning a total of six major vessels will be replaced by 2026. It also means communities in Harris and North Uist will benefit from a two vessel service, a move that will strengthen overall resilience.”

The hope will be that this new procurement process will avoid the disastrous mistakes of the ‘Hull 801/802’ contract, which have resulted in the vessel originally marked for the Skye triangle route, still languishing in Glasgow with a price tag more than two and a half times the original contract cost.

While the announcement of a dedicated ferry for the Lochmaddy to Uig route is welcome, concerns about service resilience over the next two years still remain and the situation is far from plain sailing.

Uig pier works, originally commissioned to accommodate a vessel that is now unlikely to grace its pier, will see the Lochmaddy – Skye sailings cancelled from the end of January to the end of March next year, and then again between October and December. With Uig closed, the 33 year old Lord of the Isles, which has suffered a number of technical failings in recent years, will be under greater pressure on a route that is prone to winter cancellations.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: “The Comhairle, and many other local and community groups have been calling for much needed additional capacity and resilience in the CalMac fleet so today’s announcement will be welcomed throughout the Islands.

“Our communities deserve better ferry services than we have been getting and this is a major step forward, one that I hope can be built on in the development of lifeline Island travel services.  We look forward to discussing with the Scottish Government, agencies and our communities further improvements that can be made to ferry services including timetabling.”

“We would take this opportunity to thank the Minister, Transport Scotland and CMAL for listening to the case we have made.”

More on the new ferries in Cllr Robertson’s column.

Concerns raised by Accounts Commission

Audit Scotland has expressed serious concerns about how Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNES) is delivering on its commitment to provide best value for the people of the Western Isles.

The verdict was delivered in the Accounts Commission’s Best Value Assurance Report, the latest in a series of similar assessments running between 2006 and 2014.

The Auditors described the enormous challenges the Comhairle faces, but expressed disappointment that the positive momentum and improvements reported in 2014 had not been maintained.

The Report recognised the enormity of the task ahead, stating: “The Comhairle faces complex challenges: the largest real terms funding decrease of Scottish local authorities; depopulation; poor housing availability; and the most severe fuel poverty in Scotland. This places significant pressures on recruiting staff, particularly in critical areas such as social care.’

The Report highlighted a failure of senior leadership, saying: “Given the significant financial challenges ahead for the Comhairle, we are therefore seriously concerned that we need to again underline the crucial need for elected members to fulfil their leadership responsibilities in providing clear coherent strategic priorities and direction and thus deliver planned savings and improvements.’ The Auditors went on to detail the requirement for suitable support, adding: “We also emphasise the need for members to be supported in their responsibilities by effective training and development, including on their equalities obligations.”

Audit Scotland commended the Comhairle as a strong advocate for the Western Isles, highlighting positive partnership working and good community relations, as well as sound performance in education, local economic support and its apprenticeship programme.

The Comhairle has said it welcomes the newly published report, accepts its recommendations and will be implementing an Action Plan.

A spokesperson for CNES said: “The Comhairle is pleased that there is acknowledgement of the many successful initiatives underway and our good practice in areas such as community engagement, supporting the local economy and, importantly, being a strong advocate for the Islands. Our good collaboration  with our partners to bring improvements to the Islands is fundamental to how we work and we welcome its recognition by Audit Scotland.

“The Comhairle knows well and fully accepts the challenges that it continues to face, particularly in the light of the financial situation facing local government.  The need to increase the pace of change and develop our policies and strategies for achieving improvement are heavily influenced by the challenges of finance, workforce and leadership capacity.  The risks associated with depopulation remains a concern for the Comhairle and we will continue to work with our partners to address these through all our strategic work.”

The Comhairle’s Leader Cllr Paul Steele said; “The Comhairle is committed to transparency and accountability in all we do and welcomes this report as an important contribution to that commitment. The report identifies many of the key strengths of the Comhairle and describes some of the challenges we face. We agree with Audit Scotland on the importance of clear and strategic policy, long term financial planning and the Comhairle calls on the Scottish Government, once again, to implement a multi-year settlement which will allow for greater security for Councils to plan and deliver improvements and change. We have campaigned vigorously against the cuts which all local authorities but particularly the Comhairle, have had to endure in recent years. No-one recognises more than the Comhairle the challenges of depopulation, providing social care and tackling fuel poverty. We note the findings of the Accounts Commission and remain committed to working for our communities in a challenging financial climate exacerbated by COVID and Brexit.”

William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “The Comhairle must urgently develop a prioritised action plan to address the serious issues it faces. It already has some of the elements it needs to make fundamental changes; it has an ambitious vision for the future and works well with communities and other partners. But without clear strategic direction and leadership from its councillors, supported effectively by officers, as well as crucial effective financial and capital planning, it remains uncertain whether the Comhairle can achieve the improvements it needs to make.”

The detailed audit work for the Report was undertaken before the local elections in May.

The full report is available to view on the Audit Scotland website.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Uibhist A Tuath

At last, we have some good news on ferry services to Uist!

After being the community most affected by the debacle of the Ferguson Marine ferry contract scandal it is hard to find the words for the relief and delight at the news that Government has stepped up to the mark and recognised that the original decision – which was made in the central belt with no regard to people in Uist and Harris – to continue a shared vessel operation on our routes across the Little Minch to Uig was plain wrong. 

I do not criticise Government for seeking to secure valuable manufacturing jobs in Scotland or restoring pride in commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde.  This was a laudable ambition.  However, this should not have been the main motivation driving the specification of lifeline ferries to island communities. 

Had we been asked, the clear and unequivocal opinion of people in Uist and Harris was that what represented innovation in 1964 when the Triangle service was introduced was long past its use-by-date in 2014.  Comhairle nan Eilean and our partners such as HITRANS had presented a report in 2010 making clear the view that what was needed on the Little Minch was a dedicated vessel on each route.  We were clear that the MV Hebrides was an excellent servant to our communities, but she needed a sister ship to operate alongside her. What a shame our efforts were ignored.

I wanted to take the opportunity in this column to record my particular thanks to our current Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth MSP for listening to what islanders are telling her.  The decision announced in Parliament by Ms Gilruth on 19th October that two new ferries built to the design of the two new Islay ferries would be ordered this year for deployment to the Little Minch means that we can be optimistic for the future of our mainland connectivity.  Three daily return crossings will offer our seafood industry the opportunity to achieve same day connections for shipment to the south of England and the Continent, maximising the export value of our island produce while at the same time guaranteeing a daily middle of the day departure. Our service sector can look forward to tapping a day trip and short stay market from the many visitors who currently come to Skye but don’t make it to the Western Isles.

Another person I believe deserves much credit for recognising the opportunity offered by freeing the Little Minch of the constraint of a single vessel is Kevin Hobbs, Chief Executive of CMAL.  CMAL as an organisation has been the subject of criticism for the Ferguson contract award but this predated Kevin’s appointment.  I find Kevin is easy to reach, happy to engage – often forthright in his opinions. He is the first person that I think truly understood the opportunity missed by his colleagues and Transport Scotland when they ploughed ahead with the order for 802 rather than seek views from islanders.

I finished my last piece to Am Pàipear by saying “Things can only get better – surely!” I had no reason to think that would be the case so soon.  We will still have major issues as ferry reliability is clearly going to be a problem for the time being but at least there is a happy end in sight.

The Comhairle have recently met with Transport Scotland Aviation Division, Loganair Chief Executive Jonathan Hinkles and HIAL at separate meetings to discuss the future of air services to the Western Isles. High on the agenda was the impending sale of Loganair and the PSO contract between Benbecula and Stornoway, which is due to for renewal in April 2023. The Comhairle currently subsidise the five-rotation service by a sum of £600k. This has to be set in the context of increasing costs and a Comhairle Core Budget that has seen a reduction of Scottish Government funding over the last several years. Transport Scotland subsidise a few PSOs including the Barra service but maintain that they cannot support an internal service within a Local Authority Area. They also face having to look closely at their own budget to identify savings.

The discussion with Loganair in relation to the Benbecula/Stornoway service was positive and we outlined the pressure on Comhairle budgets and the need to look at ways that this service could be maintained. The service is particularly essential for the people who have to travel to the Western Isles Hospital for appointments. Currently NHS Eilean Siar refuse to contribute to the costs of running the service, which is disappointing.

In relation to the impending sale of Loganair, which has caused a lot of concern locally, the following points were made by their Chief Executive Jonathan Hinkles:
• Loganair has been serving the Western Isles since 1964 and over that time, the airline has undergone five changes of ownership – Logan Construction Company, the Royal Bank of Scotland, British Midland, Scott Grier and latterly the Bonds.   Throughout all of that, services to the islands have continued, ranging from delivering daily newspapers (its first venture to Stornoway in 1964) to being sole operator of the air service at Barra continually since taking over the route from British Airways on 1 September 1974. 
• Loganair’s recently-announced return to profit after the pandemic is very helpful ahead of any change of ownership – using the straightforward maxim that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  If the airline was heavily loss-making, it’s inevitable that any new owner would be seeking to make major changes to stem those losses – which could well have ramifications for island lifeline flights.  That isn’t the case as is apparent from Loganair’s performance through the pandemic.

• Equally, the airline needs to make a profit to survive and re-invest.   Setting aside the Barra
and the Stornoway-Benbecula routes which are operated as PSO subsidised air services, all of its other Western Isle’s routes – Glasgow to Benbecula and Stornoway, Inverness and Edinburgh to Stornoway – receive no direct public subsidy.    Loganair operates these at its own risk, so if it carries no passengers, it receives no income.   Of course, the Air Discount Scheme is in place to subsidise fares for non-business trips for island residents, but this is no guarantee of income for Loganair.  

• And where fuel prices have shot up, the Scottish Government pays the additional bill for Calmac’s ferries, but Loganair has to recover this through its own means.   It also has to invest in its fleet – again, unlike Calmac, there’s no cheque from the Scottish Government to cover new equipment (which many might see as a good thing) and Loganair’s profits are being reinvested into its fleet renewal.   The Saab 340 aircraft – the oldest of which G-LGNI is 33 years old, so right up there alongside a Calmac ferry – are being replaced over the next 12 months with next-generation ATR turboprops.    The Spiorad de Beinn na Faghla (which is now 32) will be making its last flight for Loganair before year-end.   
This replacement programme for equipment used on lifeline air services is being achieved without public subsidy, with minimal fuss (certainly compared to a similar programme on ferries!) and will future-proof the island air services for at least a decade and probably more.   Dedicated freighter variants of the new ATR aircraft are already in service delivering the Western Isles’ mail on six days a week into Stornoway and Benbecula, from where the mail is then taken on the inter-isles ferry to Barra too.

• The airline has assured that its fleet renewal programme will continue apace and will not be affected by any impending change of ownership.   Its policy of employing staff within the Highlands and Islands – where it supports over 180 full-time jobs – is also set to continue.

• Current shareholders have supported the airline through thick and thin, including the pandemic when they made additional investment into Loganair and strengthened its balance sheet. 

Youth Parliament update

Samantha Jordon MYSP was elected to the Scottish Youth Parliament last year and took up her new role in March 22. Until this summer, she was a Lance Corporal in the Army Cadet Force, but will be leaving this month to take up a Retail and Catering Apprenticeship with CalMac.
Samantha turns 18 in September and lives in Benbecula.
How life as an MYSP been?
My first six months in office have been amazing! Between getting to meet my fellow MSYPs and the staff, being given amazing opportunities and starting to work on various projects, I’ve loved every bit of it.
I’ve been really inspired to make changes and now that I’ve been in SYP for a good amount of time, I’ve really gotten the feel for how to do that. It makes me so happy to know that I have the support system that will help me make the changes that will help young people.
What has been the highlight?
There’s been so many! If had to pick one thing, it would be the summer sitting which happened at the start of July in Cumbernauld. I finally got to meet so many of my friends that I’ve made since being elected. I got to be part of a debate around members motions and to learn more about our board members. I got to have a session with MSYPs from our Region, Highlands and Islands. And I just had the best time. I was so sad to leave.
How does it all work?
So the way that the Youth Parliamentary System works is that there are MSYPs from every local authority, though some may not have an MSYP if no young person stood for the position. We have a board that is made up of a Chair, a Vice Chair and six trustees. We have ten subject committees, and each committee has a Convener and Deputy Convener.
Are you on any committees? And interest groups?
I am a member of the Equalities and Human Right committee, which means so much to me because I have always been a fighter for equality, since I can remember. I am also a member of Creative Communications Team (CCT) and the Youth Ethics Advisory Panel (YEAP). But I am constantly applying for every opportunity that I can – I want to get as involved in as many things as possible!!
What issues will you be working on?
I’m currently in the process of putting forward a members motion for SYP78 on getting air fare that is actually affordable for young people between the Scottish Isles and the Mainland. This is such a big problem for young people at the moment, especially for Islanders.
It is ridiculous how expensive it is to fly to the mainland! Living on an island, it can be so isolating for people, especially young people who end up missing out on so much due to our location. This is a topic I am extremely passionate about.
What have you learned?
I have learned so much since becoming an MSYP. I’ve learned just how many things still need changed for young people. I’ve learned how important it is to make sure your social media posts are accessible, by using alt text or closed captions – it means that everyone can properly see your content, which is so important. And I look forward to learning so much more that can help me, not only in my role but also in everyday life.
What has surprised you the most about yourself?
I think I’m the most surprised about how outgoing I’ve become. Since joining SYP I’ve noticed I can now go and speak to people without getting too anxious, which I think is such an amazing skill to have earned. I started my journey with really bad social anxiety, but as I’m answering this I’ve come to realise that thanks to SYP my social anxiety isn’t as bad. It still affects me but it’s gotten so much better.
How have you kept in touch with your constituents?
I like to post on my social medias (Sam4syp) to make sure that young people can see what I’m up to and so that they can give me suggestions and ask me any questions. I also consult my constituents by using google forms, which I post the links to on my social medias.
What would you say to other young people reading this?
Even if you think it’s not cool, or not your problem, please work with us. If we post a consultation, fill it out, it takes less than 5 minutes. We do our role to make a difference for you, so help us, because I don’t think you realise how much your opinion matters.

Paul Steele takes the Comhairle’s hottest seat

On Tuesday, 17th May, Councillor Paul Steele was elected as Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the first elected member from the southern isles to hold the post since Father Calum Maclellan led the early Council in the 1970s.

Cllr Steele described the appointment as ‘a huge honour for me, and for Uist’.

The responsibility of Leader will sit alongside Cllr Steele’s other role as elected member for Uibhist a Deas, Èirisgeigh agus Beinn na Faoghla, and the balancing act required to meet both the needs of his own ward constituents and the wider Western Isles remit will not be easy.

Cllr Steele said: “I am very aware that taking the role of Leader will stretch my capacity and put additional strain on family life. Pre- Covid it was not unusual for me to be away from home for 40 plus nights a year on council business. I’m under no illusion that the Leader role will be any less demanding but having talked it through with my wife and family, I’m confident that the balance can be struck.”

“It helps that the Comhairle is my only work, I have no other job to take my attention. I want to assure the people of Uist that they, and the projects I am involved with, will continue to be at the front of my mind.”

Other Uist Councillors in key roles include Uisdean Robertson, who was re- elected as Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Cllr Robertson’s considerable experience will be much called on as the Comhairle battles the ongoing issue of ferry failures. Cllr Susan Thomson will take the role of Deputy Chair to Uisdean, with Cllr Mustapha Hocine taking Deputy Chair of the Sustainable Development Committee.

Ronan MacPhee, 18, from Benbecula is running for election to the Scottish Youth Parliament

Young people all over Scotland can influence decision-making through the Scottish Youth Parliament. Members, elected to represent constituencies, run regular campaigns, which have recently focussed on themes such as mental health and climate change, and are involved in consultations with numerous organisations including the Scottish Government.

Ronan, who is running to represent the Western Isles, said: “I want to see a change in our community and to help young people express their views. I would like to help young people who use British Sign Language or Makaton to speak up and share their opinions. I remember when I was younger I felt scared to speak up and I hope that I can be a voice for anyone who feels that way.”

Ronan has based his campaign on coastal erosion and the environment, equality and human rights and justice.

As he currently volunteers for seven different organisations across Uist, Ronan is taking his experiences from that into his campaign.

“My biggest concern for the environment has been coastal erosion on our islands. I have been campaigning on the issue since S2 in high school. I joined the climate action group for the Western Isles and my main focus is to create awareness for this issue, not just here where we live but on the mainland so that they know what we are facing here.”

He added: “I volunteer on a climate change group for the Western Isles, a COP26 co-design group, Uist local energy plan, I run holiday clubs, help in the foodbank and the befriending service as well as working in the Tagsa community gardens.”

Ronan helps out as a relief worker at local primary and nursery schools while also being the host of a new food initiative, Neighbour Food.

He concluded: “We have to make them, the Scottish Government, hear us. We can’t make the changes but we can show them that we have a voice and we need them to help us.”

Voting for the election is now live until February 28th 2022, and you can vote via the Young Scot website if you are aged 14-25.

Samantha Jordan is the new member of the Scottish Youth Parliament representing the Western Isles

Abigail Taylor

Young people all over Scotland can influence decision-making through the Scottish Youth Parliament. Members, elected to represent constituencies, run regular campaigns, which have recently focussed on themes such as mental health and climate change, and are involved in consultations with numerous organisations including the Scottish Government.

Samantha Jordan, a senior student at Sgoil Lionacleit, has been elected to represent the Western Isles. She will take up her position in March and represent the islands until 2024.

“It covers a lot of bases such as education, employment and the environment,” said Samantha of her new role as MSYP.

“Each member has their own constituency to consult young people and be the voice for them, no matter how big or small the issue.

“I focused my campaign on the environment and climate change, because this area is so heavily impacted. I am in a lot of climate change groups and hope this role will help me raise awareness for the issue and let people know that just because we are young, does not mean we don’t have to worry.

“I want people to know that I am here to listen to whatever their concerns are and I am happy to bring that with me throughout my term in the Scottish Youth Parliament.”

Samantha got the idea to run for election from former MSYP chair, Josh Kennedy, last year when she attended the state opening of the Scottish Parliament.

“I am part of a co-climate design group for climate change and there was an opportunity to go to the opening of the Scottish Parliament,” explained Samantha.

“I was lucky enough to go and met the former chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, Josh, and deputy chair, Liam, who both spoke so highly of the experience. I got home, started researching, put my name forward and from there it has all taken off. I have always wanted to make a difference and this is a way to do that.

“We get the opportunity to join committees on the issues we feel passionate about in order to represent our constituencies. We even get the chance to take them to the Scottish Parliament. I am so excited to get to parliament and see it in action!”

Five candidates have put themselves forward to represent Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

ALLAN Alasdair James – Scottish National Party (SNP)

BERKENHEGER Gavin – The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party

FRASER Shaun Alexander – Scottish Labour Party


MITCHISON Neil – Scottish Liberal Democrats

The poll will be held on Thursday 6th May 2021 between 7am and 10pm.

Electors in the Western Isles who plan to vote by post in the Scottish Parliament Election on Thursday 6 May 2021 are encouraged to register as soon as possible by filling in the postal application form and sending it to the Electoral Registration Officer.

Abigail Taylor

Malcolm Burr, Returning Officer, said: “Everyone is entitled to vote by post. You can apply for a postal vote for one election, for a set time or for this and all future Elections.

To apply for a postal vote you should contact the Electoral Registration Officer on 01851 706262 or you can download a Postal Vote Application Form. For the Scottish Parliament Election, there is a deadline to apply for a postal or postal proxy vote: 5.00pm on Tuesday 6th April 2021.”

Voting by post means that any ballot papers you require will be sent to your chosen address around 5-14 days before the election. Your postal pack must be returned by the close of poll, 10pm on Thursday 6th May 2021.

Mr Burr said: “Your postal pack will contain ballot papers, instruction on how to complete your Ballot Paper(s) and a Postal Voting Statement which requires your signature and date of birth (unless you have applied for and been granted a signature waver). The completed Postal Voting Statement must be returned with your ballot paper(s) for your vote to be valid.”

Postal packs can also be returned to any Polling Station within the constituency.

The deadline to register to vote is Monday 19th April 2021.