Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Pairc buy-out

The latest twist in the tortuous proceedings of the Pairc buy-out has occurred. The Court of Session in Edinburgh has ruled that the community buy-out plans do NOT, as alleged by landowner Barry Lomas, infringe the landowner’s human rights. The next step in this seemingly endless wrangle will be a ruling by a sheriff at Stornoway Sheriff Court whether the ballot by the community in South Lochs on the proposed buy-out was flawed, or not. This is expected to happen in January.

The buy-out relates to unoccupied common land, away from the villages on the Pairc peninsula. In itself, this is not worth a lot, but a proposed windfarm could propel its value (currently unknown) into the millions of pounds.

A vote to investigate the possibility of mounting a community buy-out of the Pairc estate was taken in November 2004. A ballot in favour of mounting a hostile buy-out bid was taken in December 2009, making it the first instance of a hostile buy-out under the right-to-buy legislation, enacted in 2003.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Stòras Uibhist

In the 16 years that I have taken a more than passive interest in community land buy-outs, starting with the Isle of Eigg in 1996/7, I have never seen such a ludicrous situation as what has arisen in South Uist in recent times.

I refer to the article on Hebrides News for details.

The purpose of this blogpost is to question the use (and I have difficulty not prefixing “use” with the letters M, I and S) of the staggering amount of two hundred thousand pounds in legal fees to resolve a dispute between Stòras and a crofting tenant.
Rather than come to a private, amicable settlement, things had to go to court. That happens, also in Lewis, where I am based. Even close relatives take each other to court over land issues, and senior law practitioners get involved in those too. However, Stòras is a landowner, who had a dispute with one of its tenants.

Nonetheless, I question the use of this vast sum of money in legal fees, in spite of a local petition (which went round the estate in 2010) to drop the action.
This sordid episode marks a low point in the modern history of community buy-outs, in my opinion.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Second Clearances?

The Facebook page of the West Harris Trust highlighted an article in the Daily Telegraph of 27 November 2012, on the plight of crofters, threatened with a second clearance. Having read the article, I formulated the following reply.

Interesting debate, indeed. In my opinion, it boils down to what to do about the ’second home’ use of crofts, leaving them unused for much of the year. On balance, I would come out with the Crofters Commission, knowing the history of the crofting movement to a certain extent. The people who went to jail in the 1880s did so to ensure that they and their descendants could work the land, without fear of summary eviction. Particularly in Melness, not far from Strathnaver where hundreds were cruelly driven off their lands in the 1810s, having this right misused rankles.

I also posted this comment on the Wall of the The West Harris Trust, where I happen to know plenty of second home lie empty a lot of the year, I would call for a debate to determine which, of the 21st century uses of a croft, is appropriate. Is using only the improvement (house) appropriate or sufficient? People who own a croft, like the person in the Telegraph article, very likely do not realise the responsibilities they take on. It’s not just a house in a pretty area. It’s a way of life. 

What I think is a more serious abuse of the crofting system is feuing off of parcels of land from a croft. The Taynuilt incident (where someone splintered his croft into a dozen feus for house building) was a very bad case of misuse of croftland. In Lewis, where I am based, I have seen many such instances, which can turn a crofting township into a housing estate. Feuing off, in my humble opinion, should be banned.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Lewis War Memorial

Memorial garden, Lewis War Memorial
Twenty-three plaques
More than fiteen hundred names
Standing in a circle
Below a prominent tower

Looking out over the town
Over the Minch
which they all had to cross
but never to return

Looking out over the island
At the villages near and far
From where they flocked
Eagerly but with hidden trepidation

In a circle near the top
their names are remembered
Parish by parish
In each World War

On land, in France or Mesopotamia
Out at sea, in the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean
In the skies over Britain and Europe
or even further from home

But closest to home
Within view of the tower now
The two hundred who drowned
at Holm Point, as 1919 started

Twenty-three plaques
More than fifteen hundred names
Remembered by theirs
Remembered by us all

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


The islanders of Scalpay have today voted to take their island into community ownership, after owner Fred Taylor offered it to them free of charge. The community has also voted to do so under the umbrella of the (adjacent) North Harris Trust.

Community ownership has herewith been extended to another part of the Western Isles, large areas of which are now managed by community trusts. The largest, in terms of area, is Storas Uist, which encompasses swathes of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. Parts of Harris (West and North) are under community ownership, and moves are afoot to also take the Bays area into community ownership.

How the Scalpachs, who up to now did not really regard themselves as Hearachs, will work under NHT is as yet not clear.

The votes cast were: For 197, against 8, turnout 78.2%. For N Harris involvement 110, against 96.

Friday, 2 November 2012


On 1 November, SSE published a statement that the interconnector will be rather more expensive (at least £775m) and delayed by at least 12 months. I need not remind regular readers that the interconnector (a high-voltage subsea cable with attendant infrastructure in the Isle of Lewis) is crucial for the many proposed renewable energy projects in the island. Neither need I remind readers of my serious misgivings regards some of aforementioned renewable energy projects.

The local MSP has expressed his concern over this development, stating that the delay is likely to lead to a further spiralling of costs. Furthermore, the delay will also (naturally) delay the renewable energy projects. These are being hailed as essential for the economic development of these islands, something I somehow take the liberty to doubt. I am certainly not going to swallow the possible assertion that all those windfarms would serve to reverse the multi-million pound cuts that have been proposed by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
I am the last person to wish to stifle economic development in these islands, something that is badly needed. But windfarms are not the solution; the vast majority of profits do not end up locally, and they do not offer long-term employment.

Rather than having a single focus, perhaps different avenues for long-term employment and investment should be actively explored.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

An island funeral

I attended the funeral of an acquaintance, who died last Thursday of cancer.
The service was conducted at the Free Church (Continuing) in Sandwick. This split off from the main Free Church of Scotland a number of years ago. In common with the Free Church, no musical instruments were present in that place of worship, which was also totally unadorned. I was 20 minutes early, but the carpark was already full - and carparks at churches here tend to be very spacious. Virtually all the men were wearing black or dark long coats, particularly the elderly. Some of the ladies wore a hat. Once all the mourners were inside, the chief mourners (the relatives) filed in and the service commenced, at the exact time advertised. Those who know Stornoway will be familiar with the little death notices in the windows of certain shops. The notices intimate the time of the funeral, and the time of the service - in this case the service commenced half an hour before the funeral.
The service started with the singing of part of Psalm 98, where the tune was precented a capella by the precentor, with the congregation joining in, at their own pitch and at times their own tempo. One minister offered up prayers for the family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the deceased. A church elder then read from Isaiah 40 and Matthew 11, before Psalm 23 was sung in Gaelic. On that occasion, I hummed the tune, as the words are beyond me. Following a final prayer by another minister, the chief mourners filed out of the church with the rest of the congregation standing up, following on behind.
Once outside, a unique ritual began to unfold. The menfolk, myself included, filed up in two lines, standing next to each other. In between, the coffin stood on a bier, and men took turns to carry the bier a longer or shorter distance. The road was closed to traffic, and in this instance it was Sandwick Road, the main road linking Stornoway with the airport. There were about 200 people present, and the carrying of the coffin carried on to the junction with North Street, and up North Street. Once people had done their stint of carrying, they would stand aside and cast their gaze aside as well. Those who had not yet done a stint continued to follow the coffin, until they had their chance.
Once the procession had passed me, after I had done my bit of carrying, I left proceedings. A bus was ready to take the chief mourners to the cemetery at Gress for interment.

Three dozen their number

Long reach the arms of the sea
North from the channel off the isle of the mists
High rise the mountains
As they impotently block passage

Reach to the sky in vertiginous heights
Grey in the clouds, grey the rocks strewn
Brown in heather tumbling down
to a narrow green strip by the water

Three dozen their number, now only two
A ruinous house, the outline of walls
The poorest of ground, in strips parallel
Draining the bogland for crops

Fishing the waters to feed the mouths
Rearing some cattle for milk at the hearth
Three dozen their number, now only two
Where the others go to?

Look for them northward, on divided land
demonstrating the asymptote
the more you divide, the lesser you get
until you’re near nothing, in all possible respects

Another sea arm, do not breathe in
You won’t fit in your strip of land
You’ll be wider than that
Three dozen their number, now only two

Whilst thirty-four cram onto alien shores
And two come and go
Their land went to sheep
But even that was not enough

And the stag now roars his lust
Whilst being chased, shot and gutted - for fun
Three dozen townships teetering
on the edge of existence

on the edge of the sea
pushed to extinction for the greed of another
Napoleon’s defeat heralded their demise
Peace took their livelihood

An end to subsistence
An end to life, more than through war
What have we now, in the derelict corner?
A rich man’s playground

A rich man’s money press
Soon churning out power.
Three dozen their number
Now only two

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Not long after the Office of Fair Trading announced they would investigate the pricing of fuel in rural areas comes the breathtaking news that the islanders in the Uists are now practically without fuel supplies. The reason given in one media outlet is that the tanks at the Loch Carnan depot need to be repaired, and can therefore not be topped up by seatanker. Although some supplies are trickling through by roadtanker from Stornoway, there is now virtual rationing in the islands. Particularly people whose job it is to look after the elderly and infirm are now desperately looking around for fuel, which is not there.

Fuel wholesalers Scottish Fuels have faced repeated allegations of profiteering, by appearing to pocket the 5p / litre fuel derogation, introduced by the UK government earlier this year. On top of charging people in the Uist some of the highest prices in the United Kingdom (£1.55 a litre), comes a situation of no fuel at all.

As a gesture of good will, I’d suggest Scottish Fuels gives the Uisteachs a substantial cut in their fuel prices, if only for a day or a week. Will that happen? We live in hope.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Western Isles Museum

Western Isles Museum
Western Isles Museum

A factual announcement that the Western Isles Museum on Francis Street in Stornoway will close down from 1st October next until August 2014. The museum is then expected to reopen in new facilities in the restored Lews Castle. Further details on this link from Hebrides News.

I wish all those involved in setting up the new museum best of luck with this major undertaking, and I am looking forward to its opening in two years’ time.

Friday, 31 August 2012


Comhairle nan Eilean Siar [Western Isles Council] has seen the light and scrapped the community skips. Dotted all over the islands, the green skips are available for people to dump their waste into; whether it be defunct household appliances, metal, wood - it was always there. The scrapping of this service will backfire spectacularly, because the uplift from people’s homes costs £20 for up to 5 items. Knowing the economic hardship, suffered by many islanders, we can duly expect an increase in fly-tipping.

The excuse, for excuse it is, is that the skips are a hazard for children who may be injured when they play in the skips. That is something I find less than likely; the aperture for putting stuff into the skips stands 4 feet off the ground. The reason that refuse workers may get injured through handling the contents of the skips can only be met with scorn.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


My attention has been drawn, courtesy commenter Lady Gargar, to a stakeholder consultation (PDF) by SSE on the proposed high-voltage direct current connector between Stornoway and Beauly, for the benefit of renewable energy schemes in the Outer Hebrides. Reliable sources have indicated that construction of the sub-station at Gravir could commence in September, for the cable to become operational from an extended Arnish sub-station to Beauly by 2015.

The documentation, dated June 2012, refers to the schemes in the Western Isles. SSE did announce on 8 August 2012 that the scheme in Pairc will not now go ahead. I am wondering if this invalidates their stakeholder consultation; however, I doubt whether that will thwart the plans for the cable.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

SSE withdraws from Pairc windfarm

SSE have today announced that they are withdrawing from the proposed 26-turbine 94 MW windfarm at Pairc (South Lochs) in the Isle of Lewis for environmental reasons. This is major news, for several reasons.

It is good to hear that a major player in the renewable energy market, SSE, now recognises that environmental constraints are a good reasons for not siting a windfarm in sensitive areas. Colonies of golden eagles and other raptors were at increased risk of colliding with the turbine blades. It is to be hoped that this approach will be applied to other windfarm schemes across the Scottish Highlands.

Bearing this in mind, the question could be asked whether the Muaitheabhal and Pentland Road windfarms, which have been approved, should not now be reconsidered on their environmental (de)merits. Construction of both schemes is due to begin within the next 12 months.

The implications on a local level are equally major. The Pairc windfarm was one of the schemes that would contribute towards the renewable energy output to be generated in the island, to justify the construction of the interconnector (sub sea cable) to the Scottish mainland. At present, only the Muaitheabhal windfarm in Eishken and the Pentland Road scheme appear to be contributing - and I am not certain that the threshold is now going to be met.

The potential construction of a windfarm on the Pairc Estate has been one of the stumbling blocks for progressing the community buy-out in South Lochs. Had SSE proceeded with the windfarm, this would have caused the value of the land to skyrocket out of the reach of the Pairc Trust, who have striven for nearly a decade to take the estate into community ownership. This being no longer the case, the likelihood of a successful buy-out appears to have taken a substantial boost.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Nicolson Institute

The island’s secondary school has a new building, a prominent edifice along Sandwick Road next to the Council offices. The builders handed it over yesterday, 30 July, and pupils will be entering it on August 16th. Stornoway Historical Society have an exhibition on the history of the school was opened in Stornoway Town Hall, which is well worth a visit. Of the old buildings making up the ‘Nic’, only the Pentland Building and the Matheson Hall will be retained. The other premises are to be demolished before the end of the year.
Main entrance
Main entrance
Service entrance
Service entrance
Matheson Hall
Matheson Hall

Thursday, 12 July 2012


Since mid-May, the Western Isles have been suffering from an increasing shortage of water. Over those two months, only 2 inches of rain have fallen in the island; between May 19th and June 16th, only 2.4 mm (1/10th inch) fell. The results have, in parts, been devastating. Last month, a series of wildfires swept the southern section of the Castle Grounds, along the Creed River and out to the road to Harris, which has had to be closed one day as a result.

Water shortages are now prompting Scottish Water to call for people to reduce their water consumption, by putting devices in their toilet cisterns for instance. This all contrasts sharply with the floods from Edinburgh southward, caused by up to 4 inches of rain falling in a single day.

The forecast is for the dry conditions, with only a little rain from time to time, to continue.
The aftermath of the Castle Grounds fires, 16 June
The aftermath of the Castle Grounds fires, 16 June
Plume of smoke from Castle Grounds fire, 14 June
Plume of smoke from Castle Grounds fire, 14 June

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Big Minch Swim

A team of nine swimmers have taken it in turn to swim across the Minch in 34 hours. Starting at midday on Monday, the team set off from Ullapool and splashed ashore on the wee bit of beach between piers no 1 and 2 in the centre of Stornoway at 10pm yesterday, Tuesday. Keeping a steady pace of 1½ mph, and accompanied by support vessel Cuma (normally doing tourist trips out of Miavaig, Uig) and a canoeist, the team made good progress. They encountered seals, porpoises, dolphins, a giant whale and a killer whale en-route.

Upon arriving off Holm Point yesterday evening, the incoming ferry tooted the team and the local RNLI lifeboat came out to join them for the last leg of the journey. At 10pm, the swimmers finally reached dry land in the town centre, and were afforded a rousing welcome by the ferry’s horn, the sirens on the emergency vehicles and a crowd of several hundred on pier no 1 and South Beach Street.

The Big Minch Swim was performed to raise funds for the RNLI. Up to the moment of posting, the fundraising effort has collected nearly £9,000. Anyone wishing to contribute can continue to do so through this link.

The swimmers on South Beach at 10pm on June 26th

The team passing Arnish Lighthouse

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Revolving doors (continuing)

And with another twist in the turning doors of the schools closure muddle, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has decided to close Carloway and Seilebost primaries as well as the secondary section of Shawbost, but to keep open the secondary section of Lionel school in Ness. The closures are to take effect as of June 2013. If memory serves, the Scottish Government is still minded to lodge an appeal against the legal ruling that the Comhairle could close all four schools. I don’t think we’re any the wiser tonight, because we still do not know where we stand. Will those three schools actually close, or not?

Both the Scottish Government and the local council should hang their heads in shame over this disgraceful mess.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Revolving doors

Your blogger is experiencing some digital vertigo, with yet another revolving door in operation in these islands. The closure of the two primary schools in Seilebost (Harris) and Carloway (Lewis), as well as the junior secondary departments at Shawbost and Lionel (both in Lewis).

In 2010, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar decided to shut these four schools, but their decision was overturned by the Scottish Education Secretary. The Comhairle appealed in a court of law, and the closure was upheld very recently.

Now, the Scottish Education Secretary will appeal again, pleading that the judge erred in law.

Leaving the legal arguments to one side, all this to-ing and fro-ing leaves parents and children in a great deal of uncertainty. Will they be bussing to Stornoway (as in the case of the S1/S2 departments in Ness and the West Side), or move to schools in Tarbert (as in the case of Seilebost) or Shawbost (as for Carloway).

Another point is that the latest date for closure, without causing even more rumpus, is June 28th, a fortnight away (at time of posting). Schools that were closed at an earlier stage had the opportunity to collate their history and mount a community event. That will not be possible for the 4 schools currently under threat.
I’m not impressed.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

New boat

Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited has announced that a new ferry is to be commissioned for the run between Stornoway and Ullapool. The boat is to replace the MV Muirneag (which is to be scrapped in October 2013) and the MV Isle of Lewis. The new vessel can carry 700 passengers, 270 fewer than the current Isle of Lewis, 143 cars (20 more than the current boat) and / or 20 commercial vehicles.

This will be a single vessel for the route, although the old IoL will remain as a stand-by; the new boat will be running 24/7.

Whilst welcoming a new ferry on a route where the old vessels continue to be plagued by breakdowns, I feel that the reduction in passenger capacity is to be deplored. The IoL can be packed out (think of the Hebridean Celtic Festival, or the Mod).
Veteran island blogger Calumannabel has suggested we call the new ferry the Isle of Lewis Continuing.

In the cells

The Olympic Flame is spending the night in the cells at Stornoway Police Station tonight. I wonder whether the Flame is being suspected of any crime. Will it be released on bail, and has it been cautioned? I somehow don’t think so. Reports indicate that it is due to be carried around the streets of the town tomorrow morning at the heathenly hour of 6.32 am, before flying off to Inverness. One of the few places in this country that will see the Flame twice.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Schools to be closed

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have won a court battle against the Scottish Government to close four rural schools, two primaries (Seilebost and Carloway) and the secondary sections of the schools at Lionel (Ness) and Shawbost (West Side). Although the Council appears to be happy, I don’t think the folks in the affected areas are happy.

I know for a fact that particularly the people of Carloway and Seilebost (and environs) fought very hard to keep their wee schools open. A school is very much a focal point of the community, and particularly the Seilebost school was seen as a way to reverse the fortunes of the community of West Harris.They will now receive their education in Tarbert, 10 miles away.

Whilst acknowledging the financial constraints, and the costs involved in maintaining aging school buildings, I do question whether the economics of closing the schools tally with the demographics of losing a school. Aren’t we heading for further depopulation of rural Harris and Lewis, with more homes turning into self-catering houses, standing empty in winter?

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Revolving doors

It was announced that the orderbook for the Arnish Fabrication Yard is once more empty, people have been laid off and the big yellow crane, used for loading and unloading ships, has been taken away off the island. Over the whole of the period this blog has been in operation, the Fabrication Yard has been highlighted as the salvation of the island’s economy. Unfortunately, that has proven to be a red herring.

There are a couple of factors that stand in the way of long-term security for jobs at the yard. First of all, its geographical location. Anything made at Arnish has to be shipped away (unless it’s for use in Lewis or Harris). Officially, there are only 6 days in the working week; a comment on a previous posting has intimated that work is being done on a Sunday, but nobody talks about that.

The Eishken windfarm looks set to commence construction next year, 2013. Its owner, Mr Oppenheimer, has announced that it could be expanded further. When it comes to building the project, this has to be put out to tender. Any contract valued at more than a few hundred thousand pounds, has to be put to tender on an EU-wide basis. It is not possible to circumvent this requirement, I believe. So, assuming that work on this windfarm will be done by local companies is a wrong assumption.

Much like the schools project, now nearing completion in the islands, it looks likely that companies from outwith the Hebrides will be awarded the projects. The schools project too has had to be put out to tender, and the most suitable bidder was selected to do the work. It is regrettable that local companies lost out, but their bids will not have been good enough. Doing a financial sleight of hand in order to favour local contractors, would have fallen foul of EU regulations - and this country is still in the EU.

Finding a long-term solution to the economic problems of the Outer Hebrides remains a difficult task, and a quick and easy fix, such as windfarms, turns out not to be a true fix.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A tribute

From across the Minch and through the medium of Twitter, news has reached me of the death of Mary Beith at her home in Sutherland. Although I never met Mary in the flesh, I was in touch with her through Twitter, where she operated as @igrannie. Her last posting there was on 26 August last year, and I gather that her health started to deteriorate earlier through last year.

Mary is better known in the North West Highlands through her writings on the subject of Gaelic medicine in the West Highland Free Press and has also published books.
I would like to dedicate this post to Mary’s memory, and convey my condolences to her family and friends.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Eishken Windfarm

A new investor has come aboard for the Eishken Windfarm, meaning that construction can now start in 2013 and electricity production in 2016. I refer to the linked article for further information. Without rehashing my well-known position on the issue of on-shore windfarms, I will only ask one question.

This windfarm is dependent on the interconnector, the subsea electricity cable linking Lewis and Wester Ross, for exporting all that electricity to the mainland. Is there any certainty that the interconnector is going to be built? Because building a huge big windfarm with attendant infrastructure (pylons, cables, substations) - and then suddenly realising there is no way to get the power off to the consumers in the National Grid, sounds to me like monumental folly.
However, I am equally aware that this could also be a method for accellerating the interconnector through the planning process.

Apart from the interconnector, there is also the minor matter of a high-voltage powercable from Wester Ross to Beauly, for that National Grid link-up. Because that link is not built or certain to be built either.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On the rocks

Today, the captain of the Flinterspirit, which disputed passage with the island of North Uist last week, appeared in court. He was charged with offences against maritime regulations in connection with the incident. On Thursday, two days after the stranding, the master was found in charge of his vessel in Stornoway Harbour with a blood alcohol level of 121, the maximum legal level being 35. The captain was bailed to a hotel in Stornoway, part of his bail conditions being not to leave the island. He will return to court on Wednesday.

The stranding of the Flinterspirit led to a political row over the withdrawal of emergency tug cover from the Minch, which had occurred just 48 hours previous.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Ullapool and Stornoway have something in common today. They have ferry boats alongside their quays which are going nowhere.
The Isle of Lewis is stuck in Ullapool following a breakdown after this morning’s crossing. So, that’s a pretty sight for that village.
MV Isle of Lewis
In Stornoway, meanwhile, the Muirneag was once more stuck in port following bad weather in the Minch overnight.
MV Muirneag
MV Muirneag
The Muirneag is known in these parts as the Olympic Flame, as it ‘never goes out’. Bearing that in mind, I wonder how they are going to hawk that boat around the streets of Stornoway on June 11th as part of the torch relay for the London Olympics.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


This ship is the Dutch-registered MV Flinterspirit, which put in an unscheduled appearance at Stornoway today. The vessel had been en-route to Belfast when she decided to dispute passage with the island of North Uist, 70 miles southwest of Stornoway. The island won, and the boat was stuck fast on rocks at 10.45pm last night. Fortunately, the tide was rising and the boat was able to refloat herself in the early hours of today. She was ordered north to Stornoway to check her hull for cracks. As I type this, she is anchored a few miles southeast of the town, within sight of my position.

The stranding has provoked a furious row, as the provision of an emergency tug in the Minch had been terminated as of last Saturday - without so much as a word to the Western Isles Council. The emergency tug Anglian Sovereign, based at Kirkwall in Orkney (200 miles to the eastnortheast), came across, but her services were fortunately not required, as no damage or injuries were reported. The UK government has decided that the maritime industry should provide its own tugs. I suppose that the next proposal is for the burghers of Stornoway to band together to buy and run their own ambulances, and in the meantime, an emergency ambulance would be available from Kirkwall.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Beast of burden

A few months ago, the Citylink bus company ceased to provide a useful service for passengers, going on the Ullapool to Stornoway (and vice versa) ferry. At Inverness, you could pop your bags on a van, which would take your luggage onto the ferry, and once at Stornoway, the bags would be put into the ferry terminal and off you went. Same happened in Stornoway, you’d leave your bags at the Citylink desk and you’d be reunited with your luggage in Inverness.

Nowadays, everybody has to tote their bags on board. Officially, Calmac allows you 40 kg of luggage, although under Health & Safety regs, you can’t carry more than 25 kg in the one go in a place of work. People that have a lot of luggage sometimes take one lot on board, then pop back to collect the rest. And that has now been banned by Calmac.
I have two solutions in mind. Why doesn’t Calmac and Citylink talk to each other and hire a man with a van to take the bags to and fro, as before? OK, I hear what you say, integrated public transport, what’s that?? Second option, Calmac to invest in luggage trolleys which it will haul on and off board at either end. This image from one of the islands off mainland Europe.
Luggage trolleys
Luggage trolleys

Freedom of speech

In a previous post, I criticised the out-going convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar for his swipe against “scurrilous and cowardly” internet bloggers. I have, on an earlier occasion, been critical for the treatment meeted out to a member of the public by one of the islands’ councillors. This person has now apparently been subjected to a campaign of bullying and intimidation, most of it anonymously.

Whilst I did not agree with everything that this person had to say in the exchange with the councillor, I do not feel that speaking up against perceived wrong-doing merits this sort of treatment.

As I pointed out in the earlier post, I blog anonymous to afford myself a wider scope. At the end of the day, in a small community, you have to get on with each other. It may come to pass that you have to rely on the person you had a row with yesterday in order to survive. And vice versa. Telling the other anonymously to get off the island is, to quote Councillor Macdonald out of context, “scurrilous and cowardly”.

Freedom of speech, please.

Friday, 9 March 2012


The Convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Mr Alex Macdonald, has signalled his intention to retire at the forthcoming council elections in May. Mr Macdonald has a respectable track record as an ambassador for the isles, having served in various capacities since 1984, and as convener since 1999. Another three councillors will not seek re-election.
As an internet blogger, I was disappointed to read that in his opinion “scurrilous and cowardly” internet blogs “have no place in our community”.

The various internet blogs in our islands very much have a place in the community. Whether written under the author’s true name, or (as in the case of this blog) under a pseudonym. Everybody is entitled to voice their opinion, and particularly anonymous blogs constitute a valid conduit for expressing perhaps the more controversial of opinions. I am not too fussed If that is not to the liking of our local politicians. Some of them would find it more convenient if such opinions were not aired. In the past, that was not possible, other than writing to the Gazette under a nom-de-plume.

Expressing an opinion is one thing. Spreading malicious rumours and committing slander are different things altogether, and are phenomena that I do not approve of.

Monday, 5 March 2012

ADS off?

It has transpired that the Scottish Government is intending to slash parts of the Air Discount Scheme, ostensibly on account of demands from the European Union, but more likely to cut costs - of £2.7m per annum. Under ADS, islanders could purchase airtickets to a mainland hub at a discount of 40%. Bearing in mind that your average return from Stornoway to Glasgow costs about £160, ADS would take a useful £60 off. Our airfares are quite high at the best of times, and what with the cessation of reduced ferry fares for commercial vehicles, the economy of these islands is being adversely affected by misplaced cost cutting.
Perhaps money was better spent not building trams in Edinburgh, not holding an independence referendum and not withdrawing coastguard services, such as coastguard stations and emergency tugs.

Sunday, 26 February 2012


The Energy Minister in the Scottish Government visited Stornoway on Monday to attend a summit on renewable energy in the Scottish islands. He stated that the interconnector (between Grabhair and Dundonnell) was his personal top priority, and that having the interconnector in situ would help to alleviate fuel poverty. Excuse me? Are we going to get reduced rate for electricity? I don’t think so. And my position on the community benefits of renewable energy schemes is well known; beads and mirrors from the developers. I’m not saying that a million pounds is to be sniffed at, but it is derisory in comparison to the money that the developers are going to pocket from revenues from the electricity, as well as from subsidies from government. Windfarms may bring a little benefit to the islands, but many tourists come to the Hebrides for the wilderness aspect. Having industrial sites, like the one already present on the foothills of the Barvas Hills, or the one proposed for the electrical substation at Grabhair, will seriously detract from that. Tourism is the mainstay of the islands’ economy - it would be foolhardy to dice with that.

Friday, 24 February 2012


After the problems surrounding the ferry Isle of Lewis, which decided to dispute passage with the town of Birkenhead, the lifeline service between Stornoway and Ullapool has gone back to normal. Fellow blogger Tony has highlighted the issues surrounding the freight ferry Muirneag, which was out of action this week either because of bad weather (what bad weather?) or on account of its steering gear being faulty. The Muirneag carries our freight, varying from roofbeams to cans of catfood. However, she is an old lady of the seas, starting life in 1979 and plying various routes in northern Europe before coming to Stornoway in 2002. Muirneag will be scrapped in 2013.

The reason for the cancelled sailings are two-fold. First of all, her manoeuverability is poor, and the fact that she carries light loads means she is high out of the water, making her susceptible to high winds. The second reason goes back just over 6 years, to events on 11 November 2005. Muirneag ventured out to sea, hoping to beat the forecast storm. Unfortunately, the Met Office was late issuing its storm warning, meaning that she was forced to go with the force 12 winds and ended up 60 miles north of the Butt of Lewis, well on her way to the Faeroes. Since that hairy episode, Calmac have been justifiably cautious with her sailings. And I’d rather have Muirneag stuck in port than stuck on the bottom of the Minch.

Muirneag is named after this hill in the north of the island, 4 miles west of North Tolsta.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Fuel price row

On 31 January, a meeting was held at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar where Scottish Fuels sought to explain its position on fuel prices in the islands. The meeting was less than satisfactory, and a furious row erupted between one member of the public and an employee of Scottish Fuels, who also holds a council seat for An Rubha (Point). The row was so heated that it prompted the member of the public to write a letter to local news website Hebrides News, helpfully including a link to a video of the exchange. Having viewed the video myself, I found it a less than edifying spectacle from both sides, not helped by the insertion of the phrase from the councillor “I was born and brought up in the island”. The member of the public apparently was born and bred somewhere else. The councillor did apologise for any offense caused by his well-meant insertion of the phrase, and also stated that he always left the chamber when a conflict of interest could arise.

The councillor has now written a letter to Hebrides News himself, in which he proceeds to give a blow-by-blow rebuttal of the lady’s letter. That is what I call a huge big #fail.
In a situation like this, the best policy is to write to the person concerned by Royal Mail, copying it to Hebrides News, restating the apology made in the chamber for any offence caused. It would also have been advisable to restate what was said at the meeting, namely that the councillor always leaves the chamber when a conflict of interest is possible - i.e., when fuel prices are being discussed.

I am looking forward to seeing closure on this unhelpful row.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Iolaire Memorial

For the first time this year, the weather was so beautiful that I just had to venture out on a walk. The two miles to the Iolaire Memorial, near Holm Farm, presented itself as a doable proposition after lunch, and just before 3.30pm, I reached the little memorial on Holm Point. It was very bright and clear on the way, although the sun was low in the sky, making photography a little tricky at times.
For a few moments, I stopped and contemplated what had happened there, 93 years and 37 days before. On such a beautiful, calm day it is hard to imagine that more than two hundred perished within reach of the shore here. Outside the Hebrides, the story of the Iolaire is barely known. This is the story.
It is Hogmanay 1918, and the war has been over for seven weeks. Survivors from the Western Front and the war at sea are flocking home. As are hundreds of sailors from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Three trains pull into the harbourside station at Kyle of Lochalsh, and hundreds pour onto the platform and adjoining quayside to join a ferry home. The Skye men can take the short hop to Kyleakin, or join the steamer north to Portree. The sailors and soldiers from the Outer Hebrides have a longer journey ahead of them.
The mailsteamer for Stornoway, the Sheila is alongside at Kyle, but it very rapidly becomes clear that she has nowhere near enough space to accommodate the hundreds that want to go home to Lewis and Harris. So, a cable is sent to the naval base at Stornoway, and Rear Admiral Boyle sends HMY Iolaire to Kyle to relieve the congestion. Iolaire, the former private steamyacht Amalthea arrives in the early evening, bumping into the pier as she docks.
A disorganised scramble occurs, where the throng of men divides between the Sheila and the Iolaire. No record is kept as to who goes on board which vessel. Some start off by boarding the Iolaire, then switch to the Sheila. Others do the reverse swap. Finally, at half past seven, Iolaire casts off and heads north. The Sheila follows suit in short order.
The year 1918 is drawing to a close and Big Ben in London is about to start striking the midnight hour. Six hundred miles to the north, HMY Iolaire is ploughing her way north through the Minch, passing between Raasay, Rona and the Scottish mainland. The weather, which had been reasonable upon departure from Kyle, is turning increasingly windy. A heavy swell is beginning to rise in response to the strong southerly wind. The lighthouses, which serve as reference points for mariners in the Minch, blink their messages to Iolaire. Milaid, on the rocky cliffs near Kebock Head; Rona; Tiumpan Head on the eastern extremity of the Point Peninsula; and Arnish, near the entrance to Stornoway Harbour.

In dozens of houses in Lewis, glasses are charged to the New Year. The last year of war is ending.

Dry clothes are draped over beds, a stew is heating over the fire. In the blackhouses in Ness, and the town houses of Stornoway. A kettle is at the ready on the stove. A plate, cutlery and cups on the table. From Eoropie to Brenish, from Lemreway to North Tolsta, and between Manor Park and Newton, the same scene is repeated over and over. Only two hours to go, the boat won’t make Hogmanay. But it does not really matter, the boys will be home soon.
The clock strikes midnight. It is 1919.

Conditions in the Minch are now poor, and all on board Iolaire are glad that the journey is nearly over. The passengers, most of them familiar with the passage to Stornoway, are snoozing their way, lulled to slumber by the steady if roughish motion of the waves that Iolaire rides. The captain goes down below to rest, his second-in-command takes over on the bridge. A fishing boat is also on its way home to Stornoway, and is running a broadly parallel course to Iolaire.

The passengers can now see the lights of Stornoway ahead, as well as the familiar signal of the Arnish Lighthouse and its secondary beacon. All begin to stir and start to prepare for disembarkation, which is now only about a quarter of or half an hour away. But all is not well. The sound of waves striking shore becomes audible over the noise of wind and swell.
The next noise is a far greater one. Iolaire changes course abruptly, as the crew realise they have overshot the harbour entrance. But it is too late. At 1.55 am, the ship comes to a crashing halt on the rocks of the Beasts of Holm.

Iolaire was mortally damaged by her grounding, and would eventually slip from the rocks and sink into the depths beside the Beasts of Holm. Only her mast would be left showing above the waves.

Flares were let off, which were spotted by the fishing boat and the Sheila, which were running into Stornoway behind Iolaire. Conditions, however, were too severe for any direct help to be offered by any vessel, as they would place themselves into severe danger. One intrepid man managed to bring a hawser ashore, which was to become a literal lifeline for nearly four dozen souls. Others attempted to use the lifeboats, which were almost immediately swamped by the heavy swell, or smashed on the rocks nearby. For Iolaire only grounded about 50 yards from shore. Those who jumped into the sea drowned almost at once, or were smashed onto the rocks, left lifeless. A life-saving apparatus, a breeches’ buoy, which had been brought from Stornoway, came way too late to be useful.

Some of those that survived made their way to Stoneyfield Farm, about half a mile from the scene of Iolaire’s sinking, and their terrible news was relayed to Stornoway. The flares had been spotted from the town, but had been (mis)taken for celebratory rockets.

The houses waited. The stew over the fire, the teapot on the stove. The clothes on the bed, and the made up table. The families, friends and other islanders waited. Then news filtered through into, and from Stornoway. The Iolaire was lost. Several dozen had been saved. But so many more were not. A night of terrifying uncertainty drew on. Would he be among the saved?
It is early January, and daylight is still many hours away.

It is just after 9 o’clock, and the sun rises over the mountains of mainland Scotland. Its light sweeps west, and shows up a ship’s mast protruding from the sea, only a few dozen yards from the shore of Holm Point. The figure of a man can be made out, as he holds on for dear life. As he has done for nigh upon seven hours. Others had been with him, but their strength had given out, and had fallen into the sea below. The man is saved from his precarious position. He had been one of about three hundred on board Iolaire who had left Kyle the evening before, expecting to arrive in Stornoway at 2 am. Instead, two hundred would never return home, and some sixty would never be retrieved.

A gruesome sight presented itself on the shores, beaches and rocky outcrops of eastern Lewis, around the bay of Stornoway. East to Knock, north to Sandwick and Stornoway, south to Grimshader. One hundred and forty bobbed on the tide, lost in the Iolaire. Those that could be retrieved were taken to the naval base at the Battery in Stornoway, to be identified and collected by family.

Those who had not yet had news of the tragedy would soon receive it, as elders of the church went round, the bearers of the news of loss. A brother, a father. An uncle, a nephew. A son, a cousin. No village was spared. No family who was not directly or indirectly affected. The stories abound, but are not readily told.

It is 2012, and dawn has broken on a new year. Three years ago, several hundred gathered at the little memorial at Holm Point to remember. It was a beautiful mild winter’s day, with not a breath of wind. We looked south, across the Minch, where the jagged humps of the Shiants, the distant lines of Skye, and on a day of exceptional clarity, even the hills behind Kyle can be made out, 75 miles away. In this day and age, a short journey. In 1919, a journey that was never completed by two hundred and five souls.
Rest in peace.
A full listing of names can be found here

The exact cause for the foundering of HMY Iolaire has never been fully cleared up, and theories abound. There are accusations of a cover-up by the Royal Navy, drunkenness on the part of the crew, and speculation on the factors played by the weather. It is not the object of this blog to apportion blame, or determine the exact cause for the tragedy. This is a tribute to the two hundred and five who perished at the Beasts of Holm that New Year’s night in 1919.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Fuel prices

A meeting was held this evening at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar about the price for fuel in these islands. Last time I passed a petrol station (which I usually do on foot), diesel cost an eye-watering £1.55 a litre. American readers can convert that to more than $9 a (US) gallon.

The meeting was attended by Sam Chambers, boss at fuel wholesalers Scottish Fuels. He claimed that SF only made a few pennies on each litre of diesel at Stornoway. The action group for fair fuel prices say that nobody had come away any the wiser from the meeting, and that they were seeking to extend their action to Orkney and Shetland.

The grievance is that the fuel is transported round Scotland by a tanker that calls at Inverness, Scrabster and Stornoway; with prices at Stornoway some 15 pence higher than at Inverness.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Seven 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. This article on the BBC News website shows their faces.