Friday, 29 January 2010

A history of the world and the Iolaire

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="The bell and plate from the Iolaire in Museum nan Eilean"]The bell and plate from the Iolaire in Museum nan Eilean[/caption]

I was very pleased indeed to note that the BBC has included the bell and plate from HMY Iolaire in its feature "A History of the World - 100 objects". This is a large project, in which several objects from periods of the last 10,000 years feature to tell the history of the world.

As I have often mentioned on this blog over the past four years, the admiralty ship "Iolaire" had been sent to Kyle of Lochalsh in the last days of 1918 to take sailors and other servicemen home to the Isle of Lewis. The ship foundered on the rocks of the Beasts of Holm, only a few dozen yards from shore. More than 200 perished, only 75 survived. It is one of the key moments in this island's 20th century history, and in fact of maritime history in that century. As the page on the BBC website rightly points out, the losses from the sinking of the Iolaire were second only to the Titanic as far as British registered vessels were concerned, and second only to the number lost off the Norge. This Scandinavian emigrant ship ran aground at Rockall in 1904, with the loss of about 700.

The sinking of the Iolaire is too little known, and I wholeheartedly endorse the inclusion of this event in this particular project. Read its page on the BBC webpage here.

The image at the top of this post is my own.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Annual overhaul

The MV Isle of Lewis, which plies the route between Stornoway and Ullapool, went into Garvel Drydock at Greenock today for its annual overhaul. MV Clansman is currently covering the route, but it should be noted that this vessel takes longer to sail from Stornoway to Ullapool and vice versa. Calmac has NOT advised any changes in its timetable, but be prepared for slightly later departure and arrival times through the day. I do not know when the MV Isle of Lewis will return on the route, but two weeks from now is a safe assumption.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="MV Clansman at Stornoway, 30 January 2007"]MV Clansman at Stornoway, 30 January 2007[/caption]

Monday, 18 January 2010


A few months ago, I found myself on Bosta Beach, when a group of locals gathered to discuss the installation of a Time and Tide Bell. This device rings in ever changing tones as the tide ebbs and flows around it. Twelve of the bells are to be installed around the coastline of the UK, and sculptor Marcus Vergette is intending to place one on the beach at Bosta.

It is an idea that sits uneasy with many people, and I rank myself among those. Although the sound of the bell is not loud, I do not feel that it would be fitting to place it in the location of Bosta, a secluded beach on the northern end of Great Bernera. Some might find it an intrusion to see an object that is patently not part of the natural scenery, or general environment that one expects to find there.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Bosta Beach"][/caption]

Friday, 15 January 2010

Eishken Windfarm - community benefit?

Hebrides News has published an article, outlining the benefits to be bestowed on the community of South Lochs through the construction of the Muaitheabhal Project, better known as the Eishken Windfarm. These benefits will leave South Lochs out of pocket to the tune of £6.9m. Let me explain.

Initial expenditure
Four turbine sites in the windfarm: £0
Four turbine towers: £18.5m
Contribution to Western Isles Council development fund: £11.5m

Total initial expenditure: £30m

1% of income of main windfarm: £8.75m
Revenue of own turbines: £21.6m

I should clarify that it is unclear whether the above two figures are per annum or over the lifetime of the project

Total income: £30.35m

Contribution to Western Isles Council Development Fund: £7.2m (1/3 of revenue, as above)

Net income for Muaitheabhal Community Trust

Apart from the figures quoted above, The Western Isles Community Development fund will receive £4.4m from the main windfarm over the lifetime of the project, which means £26m in total.

It should be noted that the £18m required to construct the turbines will have to be coughed up by the villagers of South Lochs, whose number stands at a few hundred. Eishken estate owner Nicholas Oppenheimer has set up a loan structure for the South Lochs folks to borrow the money.

I will go so far as to call this "community benefit" a screw-up of monumental proportions. Naturally, if I have misread the article, or if there are clarifications which need to be added to the figures quoted in the article, then I'd be more than pleased to modify this post accordingly.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Eishken Windfarm approved

The Scottish Government has granted approval for 33 windturbines to be constructed for the Muaitheabhal project. Each turbine will stand 450 feet tall, and their combined output (118 megawatts) is reported sufficient to power 55,000 homes. That is several times the number of homes in the Western Isles.

Objections from the John Muir Trust on account of visual impact of the machines have been sidestepped by reducing the number of turbines from 39 to 33. Reactions on BBC Radio Scotland Highlands and Islands this afternoon varied widely. The Scottish Energy Minister stated that this first major windfarm in the Western Isles would grant the islands their place in the renewable energy sector. Others asserted that the decision made a mockery of the recent Local Public Inquiry.

I have made my position on this issue patently clear, as being opposed. This is founded on the visual impact in combination with the effects on wildlife. It also strikes me that the Scottish Government is prejudiced, bearing in mind that one of its advisors on renewable energy is actually a high-ranking official within one of the power companies that will develop this scheme.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has hailed this announcement as a major boost for the Western Isles. In my perspective, they have fallen for the beads and mirrors flashed in front of them by the developers of the Muaitheabhal project. Yes, there will be a few million pounds a year for the Comhairle. But the major winners are the developers and the Eishken landowner.

Anyone who thinks that this will eradicate the islands' economic woes at a stroke is seriously at variance with reality. Job benefits will only last for the duration of the construction of the windfarm, and I wonder how many islanders will be getting a job out of it. Maintaining the windfarm only requires a handful of people.The islands' economy could arguably suffer through the windfarm, as it might deter visitors. They come here for an unspoilt wilderness, not to see an industrial estate.

I wonder what the European Union will think of this project, which will have adverse effects on wildlife; on a species of bird that are protected, and any threat to their habitat posed by such a scheme should by default lead to it being turned down. Not so, it would seem.

Once more, big money has spoken. It did so with the Beauly - Denny powerline upgrade, and has done so here. This is not for the benefit of the Western Isles. The Eishken Windfarm is a development to the islands' detriment.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Five years ago today

11 January 2005 is one of those days that everybody who was in the Outer Hebrides at the time will not forget. A deep Atlantic depression moved past our islands, bringing with it winds of force 12 on the Beaufort scale, with gusts in excess of 130 mph. At the time, I was staying in Kershader, 12 miles south of Stornoway as the crow flies - more like 22 miles by road. At 6.22pm, the power went off, not to go back on again for 48 hours. The wind was already howling around the building. Blue flashing lights penetrated the darkness from across Loch Erisort - police cars were stopping traffic on the Stornoway to Tarbert road after a lorry driver reported a sheep flying past his windscreen. The driver of the South Lochs bus that night was mightily relieved to make it home in one piece, he told me later. Trees were downed, roofs taken off, vehicles crushed under trees - and hundreds of them toppled in the Castle Grounds in Stornoway. High tides lapped at the doors of people on Cromwell Street and Bayhead in the town. Boats were torn off their moorings and smashed into the ferry terminal. Slates became like missiles, and pedestrians blown off their feet. Some who sought refuge were denied entry; others were taken inside.

The next morning dawned breezy and bright. Everybody heaved a sigh of relief. That was a bad one, but it's only damage. By 9.20 am however, reports start to emerge from the Southern Isles. Five people are missing in South Uist, after they fled their home the previous evening at around 7pm. Rising tides had started to approach their home, and pebbles were hurled against walls and windows. They enter two cars and drive from their home at Eochdar towards the causeway, linking South Uist and Benbecula. A fatal decision. That road parallels the stretch of sea that separates the two islands. The southeasterly storm, combined with a springtide from the northwest pushed the waters of Loch Bi up; but on account of the floodtide they could not drain into the sea. The loch flooded a small causeway, sweeping the cars into the water. By morning, the five missing people are found dead. They include a mother and father with two young children and a grandfather.

A notice in the Stornoway Gazette of last week commemorated their loss. This entry is in their memory too.

Icy conditions

An expedition to Sandwick Cemetery foundered yesterday on the incredible ice-rink that is the footpath between Lower Sandwick and the Battery, Stornoway. Pavements in that area of the town look like this:

and I have great fun making my way from the turning point at the bottom of Miller Road to the start of the footpath to Sandwick. Once there, I found the length of the path to be like below:

and conditions within the cemetery no better. I did not come bearing skates, so I had to turn back and wait for the Atlantic to whirl some mild weather our way. I think that won't be very long, bearing in mind that a cargoship with 4,300 tons of roadsalt docked at Stornoway this morning.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


Your blogger has returned to station after an uneventful and positively boring journey by plane. Heavy snow showers were forecast for the London airports, and even worse for Edinburgh. Didn't see a single flake of falling snow until the good ole serviceplane inched its way down to Stornoway in the middle of a snow shower last night.

Driving from the airport into town showed a strange demarcation. Apart from icy pavements, nothing appeared to be amiss at Branahuie, but snow appeared in the road verges at Sandwick, and snow encroached onto the roadways in Stornoway proper. The Tesco carpark showed this pathetic and unused pile of grit sitting demurely by the main doors, whilst the carpark and its walkways were a veritable icerink. Well done, Tesco. And they have run out of salt. I'm not looking forward to an egg without salt, thank you.

Power-line upgrade

The Scottish Parliament was told this afternoon that the Scottish Government has approved the proposed upgrade to the Beauly to Denny powerline. It means that pylon towers of more than 200 feet will be marching across the iconic Highland landscape to carry all the power to the Scottish Central Belt and beyond, which is to be generated by renewable energy schemes across the Highlands and Islands. When this is to become a reality is as yet not known, and it certainly won't happen in the next few years.

This issue is a double-edged sword. I deliberately used the words "renewable energy schemes", to make clear it would not just be for windfarms, but also for wave- and tidal energy projects. I have previously expressed my opposition to the upgrade, and maintain that stance. From my perspective, the economic mainstay of one part of the country is sacrificed for the greater good - and you can take that "good" with a large pinch of salt.

Electricity is something we all need in increasing amounts, but how that energy comes to the consumer "darn sarf" is still debatable. A sub-sea cable round the coast was mentioned on Radio Scotland this morning, for instance.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Gritting - II

I was shocked to learn this morning that a young man of 24 died in a collision on the A859, Stornoway to Tarbert road, at the turn-off for Arnish Point. Five other people were taken to hospital with injuries, one of them was seriously hurt. My sympathies go out to friends and family of the deceased. A report on this incident will be submitted to the Procurator Fiscal. Because of this, and on account of the on-going investigation into the cause of the collision, I cannot stress strongly enough that it is wholly inappropriate for me or anyone else to speculate.

Road conditions in Lewis at the moment appear to be atrocious (I'm off island at present), and I was severely critical of the council in yesterday's post. I think we want to bear in mind though, that the lack of gritting in the island is not wholly to blame on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. It is not customary for me to stand up for our council, but on this occasion I am turning my fire on a higher authority: the Scottish Government. One of the sources of income of any council in Scotland (or indeed the UK) is the council tax. The Scottish Government has not allowed councils in Scotland to raise council tax bills since the current administration came to power in 2007. The result is that council budgets have grown tighter and tighter, and cuts are having to be made.

Cutting back on gritting is a bad choice and I maintain my criticism of the Comhairle for that. However, the council tax freeze appears to have been a populist move on the part of the Scottish Government and I'm sure everybody will have relished in the non-elevation of their council tax bills since '07. I wonder if that joy will continue, now that we're all slithering along roads and pavements, either on foot or in vehicles - because the council no longer has the funds to do the gritting.


Following the news in the islands from a distance, I can only conclude that the council's new gritting policy should be scrapped. It is a disgrace that roads in the island remain more akin to an ice-rink than of the Queen's Highway. I am reading stories from South Lochs, where a lorry bound for Lemreway is stuck 4 miles away at Gravir, vehicles won't venture past Garyvard and even the bus won't go there.

It is the council's responsibility to keep roads in Lewis passable to all motorists, and the recent reductions in gritting hours is lunacy. I hope that as soon as more grit comes in (apparently, they're running out) these false economies will be reversed. I will take the liberty to remind readers that the Comhairle's failure to keep roads passable has cost lives in the past. Do we need to have another fatality to get things moving in the Sandwick Road area of Stornoway?

One other aspect, which has me gritting my teeth from afar, is the fact that pavements are a hazard to pedestrians as well. It has come to my attention that some of the pavements in the Newton area of Stornoway were gritted by a private citizen.

C'mon guys, get real. Grit those roads and do it now.