Friday, 27 March 2009

Buses busted

Today is 27 March 2009, and although the weather looks nowhere like summery, the summer timetable comes into force for the ferries as well as for the buses. And it's the buses I'm going to mention. Again.

Earlier this year, all bus routes in the Western Isles were put out to tender. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar's own bus company (Bus na Comhairle) retained the route to Tolsta and Back, quite a busy route - to assess best value, to quote Hebrides News. The route to Point has had to be retendered, and I do see Point buses going round so someone is putting in an effort not to inconvenience passengers. If anyone is trying to get round Stornoway, they face a puzzle. The old Town Circular has been abolished, as I reported a few weeks ago, and has now been incorporated into out-of-town routes like the ones to Point and Ranish. Try to work it out, good luck. The new timetables are out of print (already), so we're fiddling about with photocopies at the moment. If it is the case that some bus services were reduced because of dropping passenger numbers, this mess will only exacerbate the situation.

Talking of tendering exercises, it puts me in mind of a news item from earlier this week. An electrical contractor was declared bankrupt, resulting in the loss of 10 jobs in Stornoway. He went under because he lost out on a tender for a streetlighting contract back in 1996. The contract was awarded to the Comhairle's in-house Direct Services Organisation (DSO) because they had a lower price. That was made possible by not budgeting for staff and plant. The electrician took the Council to court, but was only awarded a quarter of the sum he had sued for and when appealing the sum found himself confronted with a counter-appeal by the Comhairle. The Inland Revenue meanwhile filed for bankruptcy. The lawsuit is continuing, provided the trustees for the contractor wish to persevere.

I have to say that there has been a lot of talk from the Comhairle in the last few years of boosting the economy and attracting employment to the islands. Bearing the above two stories in mind, that is beginning to sound awfully hollow.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Tweed Fund

This post comes with a sarcasm alert.

Les asked about my opinion on the £300,000 fund for the Harris Tweed industry, set up by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. I should be pleased about this. Why do I think though about closing doors after horses have bolted? The largest producer of Harris Tweed is out of action for a year, so the entire production of the cloth will fall to the mills at Shawbost and Carloway. Whether they have the capacity to meet all that demand, I do not know. Training up new weavers? Commendable, but a wee bit on the late side. If not too late. Many weavers have already packed up, following downturn after downturn in the last number of years.

I am also supposed to be pleased about the fact that weavers who no longer have any weaving to do can now claim unemployment benefit. Yes, that is very good, because beforehand they could not. But if the Harris Tweed industry in Lewis and Harris had been managed with an industry-wide strategy, rather than the self-destruct policy of mindless competition, seen in recent years, weavers would not be sitting idle now.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Where did spring go?

That was a horrible day today, strong winds, heavy showers, and a lot colder than last week. Perfect day for the Stornoway Trust elections. Can't seem to find when the result will be out, but it should be interesting. Focus appears to have been on Sunday sailings, borne out by the flood of comments on my post on that subject a little while ago.

The helicopter is back in the air, after its emergency refit over the weekend. BBC Radio Scotland reported this before 8 am on Monday, but Isles FM unfortunately had not yet awoken to that little update by 9 o'clock that same morning. Have to say that they could do with a wholesale revamp.

I like Isles FM in its own right, with the idiosyncracies of the presenters, the programs and the music and topics featured. However, nothing has chanced on there since I arrived in Lewis in November 2004, and the jingles and features are growing a wee bit tired. Star presenter Kenny-there-you-go has not made an appearance for a while, and the rest of the crew bravely soldier on. The new manager of the station has asked for feedback, for new ideas. For those outside the island: Isles FM 103.0 is our community radio station; it does NOT stream on the Net. Isles FM can only be received in Lewis, parts of Wester Ross and the far north of Skye. Efforts are ongoing to extend coverage south of the Clisham, with fundraising music CDs and the odd ceilidh. This dates back about 4 years, but nothing has actually happened. Extending coverage costed about 150,000 pounds in 2004/5.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Choppers grounded

Our Coastguard helicopter G-CGMU on 17 July 2007 outside the Coastguard Station in Stornoway.

The Sikorski S-92, together with its 3 brethren across northern Scotland, sits grounded until replacement gearbox mounting bolts are fitted. A week ago, another S-92 on service off Newfoundland, Canada, crashed into the sea with the loss of 17 lives after one of those bolts failed. New bolts are on their way north, but the choppers will remain grounded until they are fitted, which will be in the early part of next week. Helicopters from RAF Lossiemouth and HMS (corrected as per comment below) Gannet will provide emergency cover.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Observations on a sunny spring day

First day of springlike weather - officially, spring will commence on Saturday 21st. A couple of things caught my eye in recent days.

Firstly, it appears we won't be getting a Sunday ferry service for another three years. The noise of heels being dragged along the corridors of Calmac and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is deafening.

Secondly, the Arnish Fabrication Yard is set to reopen in April (seeing is believing), and if reports from this week are to be believed, the Yard will revert to its original purpose of servicing oil rigs. That's how it started out in the 1970s. The fabrication of renewable energy assets will discontinue.

I look back over the four years I have been in this island, and the first three echoed with the repeat drumbeat of Arnish being the salvation of the Lewis economy, by virtue of the fact that it would supply the hundreds of turbine towers for the windfarms in North Lewis (now disallowed by the Scottish government) Eishken and Pairc. Well, that is all out of the window. Sometimes, when my usual cynicism really gets the better of me, I compare candidates at elections to tomcats in March. Caterwhauling about everlasting fielty and what not, but when the evil deed is done, all those promises are nowhere to be found.

I have so far steered clear of the subject of Gaelic, as I do not speak the language. I can make out the odd word or two, and take in interest in the origins of local placenames. The Western Isles have a fairly large percentage of people who can read, write and/or speak the language. It is part of the area's cultural heritage. I do not agree with the steady stream of correspondents to a certain mainland paper who say Gaelic is dead and a waste of money. Having attended the National Mod here in Stornoway in 2005, and two editions of the local mod in subsequent years, I find the language and its attendant culture very much alive.

The discussion in recent weeks, particularly in the mainland press, has been about bilingual roadsigns - both in Gaelic and in English. Some people say that these could potentially confuse motorists. When I first visited these islands in the 1990s, I was greeted by Gaelic-only signs at the ferry terminal. Found it less than helpful. It is not clear to everybody that Gearraidh na h-Aibhne is the same as Garynahine, to quote but one example. Local people probably do not need roadsigns at all, but visitors (the mainstay of the local economy) do. I welcome the introduction of bilingual signs therefore.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Missing man

The remains of a man have been recovered from a freshwater loch at Gerinish, South Uist, at 10.45 this morning. It is thought to be that of Simon Macmillan, the Merchant Navy seaman who went missing in the early hours of Boxing Day 2008. Police are at the scene and conducting enquiries.

Source: Hebrides News.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Trump not at Lews Castle

Donald Trump is reported to have pulled out of a move to turn Lews Castle into a luxury hotel. The building is beginning to look more and more like a moneypit / white elephant as the years go by. Although an interpretative plaque has now been nailed across the entrance gates, the castle is inaccessible as it is structurally unsafe. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar had been looking for a partner to restore and develop the 19th century building, something that would run into a 7 if not 8 figure sum of money.

I am a little bemused at Donald Trump, who sees fit to rename an Aberdeenshire estate after his mother who hailed from Lewis. When Trump visited the island last year, he went out of his way to visit the village of Tong where his mother grew up. The cringefactor was high. Yet he cannot bear to part with money to do up an iconic building in the island of Lewis, where his mother grew up. The Aberdeenshire project, incidentally, will cost him 1 billion pounds.

Roll on the next Mr Moneybags.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Submission to ferry review

Dear Sirs,

I am emailing with reference to the Scottish Ferries Review Consultation, which is currently taking place across the Western Isles. I would like to submit comments on routes pertaining to the Outer Hebrides (from Barra to Lewis).

Stornoway to Ullapool

1) The RET pilot currently in operation on this route has brought about a welcome reduction in fares. One of my concerns is whether the reduced fares for commercial vehicles are passed on by haulage firms to retail outlets and ultimately us, the consumer. I am not under the impression that prices came tumbling down in Stornoway's shops in the wake of the commencement of RET, late in 2008. I would like to ask that this be investigated; if it is, I apologise.

2) Stornoway to Ullapool only has a ferry service on 6 days each week, with no service on Sundays, except when adverse weather conditions or technical problems with the vessel require a catch-up run on the Sabbath. Whilst recognising the religious sensitivities surrounding this issue, I feel that the inconsistencies surrounding public transport to and from the islands in the Western Isles are beginning to reach the level of ridicule, and should be ironed out. Why can North Uist, South Uist and Barra have a Sunday service to the mainland? Why is there a ferry service between Harris (geographically contiguous with Lewis) and Berneray (North Uist)? If Sabbath observance precludes the sailing of the vessel from Stornoway to Ullapool and back, why are planes flying in and out of the airport at Stornoway?

3) I am aware the current set-up on this route, with one passenger vessel (the MV Isle of Lewis) and one freight ferry (the MV Muirneag) is regarded as far from ideal. With the MV Isle of Lewis nearly 15 years old, and MV Muirneag 30 years old (under various names), the provision of a new vessel (or two vessels) on this route, with sufficient capacity to carry the freight requirements for Lewis and Harris, possibly with a faster journey, should be moved up the agenda.

South Uist / Barra
In recent times, a discussion has been on-going about relocating the mainland terminal for ferry services from these islands from Oban to Mallaig. Sailings from Lochboisdale (South Uist) to Mallaig only take 3½ hours, as opposed to the 6 hours a sailing to Oban takes. The difference with regards to Castlebay is slightly less. The long journey out of Lochboisdale frequently prompts South Uist residents to divert north to Lochmaddy to take the ferry to Uig (Skye) - which incidentally requires a 225 mile drive to Glasgow, on top of the 40 mile journey within the islands.

Opponents of this move argue that Oban is closer to major centres in Scotland (like Glasgow) than Mallaig, which is true. Mallaig to Glasgow is 149 miles, and takes more than 3 hours by car. Oban to Glasgow is 97 miles and takes an hour less to cover by road. The recently upgraded A830 road between Mallaig and Fort William (now double-track all the way) should decrease journey times though.

There should be an objective assessment whether the longer road-journey  is outweighed by the shorter ferry journey. Recent arguments surrounding this issue have been based less on facts than sentiments.

I trust my comments will make a small but constructive contribution towards the provision of a better ferry service in these islands.

Monday, 9 March 2009


Right. The horse has bolted. Mackenzie's Harris Tweed Mill is no longer operational. Lighthouse Caledonia has dismantled its plant at Marybank, and moved the machinery to Argyll. The Arnish Fabrication Yard may or may not reopen in the near future - read my post from 26 February on that particular industry. And now the Comhairle is suddenly and inexplicably finding itself confronted by this situation, appealing to the Scottish Government to help them out.

Great foresight. The Harris Tweed mill was in decline for a considerable period of time - I have made a conscious decision not to go into details on the Harris Tweed industry. The Marybank jobs were moved to the constituency of the very minister to whom the Comhairle is now appealing for assistance. I am flummoxed as to the reasoning behind all the promotion for the Clo Mor. We had a fashion show in An Lanntair over the weekend, for instance. What's the point, if we've lost the vast majority of processing capacity to one industrialist's failed foresight - and I'm being generous here.

I am also completely in the dark why the reopening of the Arnish Fabrication Yard has to take so much longer. I'm not privy to confidential negotiations, but one nasty niggle tells me that it may have to do with the 6 days a week working, whereas 7 could be possible. When Altissimo was in charge at the AFY, someone told me that people were working there 7/7, just keeping their heads down on a Sunday.

Having unleashed the torrent on the Sunday sailings issue in my last post, I think I can issue a call for 7 day working in Lewis for the sake of the economic situation. Because if we're not prepared to grasp that nettle, we're handsomely stabbing ourselves in the foot.

Sunday ferries - comments

I had the following email from IB Man at the Helm Les:

I have had a couple of emails from people asking why you have not approved their  comments on Sunday Sailings. It’s your blog so you can do as you wish and you might simply be away from the computer at the moment.

I don’t know if the comments are for or against but there may be an imbalance in that those comments that have appeared have done so simply because the commenter has previously been approved whereas others who are commenting for the first time need your approval before appearing.

I have been away from the Net for 24 hours, and have therefore been unable to moderate this flood of comments, for which I'm very grateful. Comments now all moderated, and more welcome.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sunday sailing

I was appalled to watch MV Isle of Lewis sailing into port a little earlier this afternoon. This is Sunday, the day of rest, the Sabbath. We can NOT have ferries sailing, even if they were cancelled the day before. The ferry should have stayed in Ullapool until Monday morning, irrespective of whether there is a backlog of traffic either side of the Minch. If we are not having a scheduled sailing on Sundays for reasons of religious sensitivities, then neither should we be having catch-up sailings. I don't care whether the ferry broke down due to the new fuel (great decision, that). After all, nobody trades on Sunday (apart from the pubs and some restaurants), there is no public transport to get out of town, nothing is open. And out of respect for those who sincerely feel that the seventh day is the day of rest, no ferry should sail. At all.

Oh, did I hear someone say the word plane? Did I hear someone say the words Sound of Harris ferry? Or ferry between Skye and North Uist, ferry from Oban to Uist / Barra? Right.

So why are people in the southern isles allowed a link to the mainland, and the people in Lewis not? Why can people not come home to visit relatives at home or in hospital over a weekend? Oh, they can if they have the money to pay the plane fare.

I am fed up with this hypocrisy. Give us a sailing (or two) on Sunday, and get on with it, Calmac.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Mill closed down

The former Kenneth Mackenzie's Harris Tweed mill in Stornoway has been mothballed, and all its staff laid off. Production has ceased until further notice, provisionally for a year, but possibly much longer. This morning, staff attended a meeting and were told of the closure as of Wednesday 4 March. For the first time in many decades, no Harris Tweed will be produced in Stornoway.

The closure results from policies, adopted by the mill's current owner Brian Haggas of Keighley in West Yorkshire. He only wishes to produce tweed for his line of men's jackets, and he has 70,000 jackets lying in storage which are very slow to sell. As the tweed is ringfenced for Mr Haggas's jackets and no other product, production has been halted.

Although there appears to be demand for tweed, it will most certainly not be met by the Stornoway mill. The mills in Shawbost and Carloway (geographically speaking: Gearrannan) are still producing. Small producers, e.g. in South Harris, are also still making tweed.

It should be born in mind that Harris Tweed is a trademark, which can only be applied to tweed for which the wool has been spun, milled and handwoven from yarn, all in the Outer Hebrides.