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16 October 2014

Arnish Lighthouse - April 2006


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Fank Day

Well, here we are. With the special transports for the Fank, as seen in Stornoway yesterday:


This was the ferry on which the 2400 females were transported from Ullapool overnight. At the busstation I did catch sight of a special bus service, dedicated to taking the ladies to the fank.



I am not sure whether my directions were quite correct, but I think Dell Fank might be here ....



The Arran jumpers sailed past at the crack of dawn, or was that the crack of doom? Anyway, I went out with my beads and welcoming leaflets, and the craic was great. The special bus service roared across the Barvas Moor, and it was a job well done, even if I say so myself. Over to Calumannabel for the rest of the reporting.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 00:16



Sunday ferries - 2

South Beach Street on Sunday afternoon at 5pm
Confirmation today that it is an operational decision for CalMac to put on Sunday ferries if that's what they want to do within their operational remit. They have to provide a lifeline service to the islands. To transport goods and people to and from the mainland, in cooperation with the local authorities.

At the end of the day however, CalMac do not require the consent from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to operate a ferry on Sunday. They consult with the Comhairle, and will take local sensitivities into consideration. However, I really want to stress the point that (a) it's CalMac's decision, and they can do what they want (b) there are already ferries running on Sundays elsewhere in the Western Isles area. Objectors, I'm very, very sorry, haven't got a leg to stand on if they should wish to take things to a court of law. There are glaring anomalies in the Comhairle's transport-on-Sunday policy.

Cromwell Street on Sunday at 5.30pm
I do wish to stress that the Stornoway Sunday is something that I would actually be very sorry to lose. It's one of the redeeming features of the place that rampant consumerism ceases for a day, that it's the gulls roaming the streets rather than cars and shoppers. I also respect religious principles, but it should not impede people's right to move about. There was talk of a Sunday ferry between Ullapool and Stornoway, which is (strictly speaking) not necessary. Once the Sunday sailings on the Sound of Harris start up, you can drive down to Leverburgh, cross to North Uist, drive the 10 miles to Lochmaddy and sail to Skye. Slightly roundabout and more expensive, but a small price to pay.

Out of my backyard? No comment......
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:56



Imports

This week, two endeavours are in the news to help birdlife in the Hebrides. One of them, in the Isle of Canna, is a wee bit outside my Lewis-based remit. However, as I already reported on it some time ago, I'll take the liberty of telling the positive outcome.

Manx Shearwater in flight (pic from RSPB website)
Back in October 2005, a campaign was started to rid Canna of its rats. These had come to the island 100 years ago on board ships. The rats have since gone forth and multiplied. The net result was a deleterious effect on breeding birds in the island. Manx Shearwaters, previously numbering 1500 breeding pairs, were down to just one or two. Because the rats would eat eggs and young. Manx Shearwaters nest down rabbit burrows. So, after the Canna mice had been evacuated to safety in Edinburgh (because they're unique), large amounts of ratpoison were shipped to the island at great peril to the boat. It had 4 grenades fired at it for all its bother (see my previous post Of Mice and Men). On Tuesday, it was reported that all the rats were thought to have been killed. The situation would continue to be monitored for at least a year, to make absolutely sure that none of the pests were left alive.

More controversial is the way Scottish Natural Heritage addresses the problem of another non-native of these islands, the hedgehog. Nobody likes rats, everybody likes the hedgehog. Same problem though. Hedgehogs eat eggs and young birds, and (as stated above) have been imported to the Uists. North Uist is home to the famous Balranald RSPB Reserve [RSPB = Royal Society for the Protection of Birds]. Many ground nesting birds come to the Uists, and are at risk from predation by hedgehogs. SNH has commenced its annual cull of the 5,000 hedgehogs in North Uist, with a less than glamourous expected successrate. In opposition, conservation groups have moved in to rescue the hedgehogs and take them to a new home on the Scottish mainland. Whether that is any good for the animals is a subject for debate. My line is that any animal species that is not native to the Hebrides, and is causing harm to other species should be gotten rid off.

I'll quote another example, the American mink. These occur in Harris and the Uists, and were introduced to the islands for breeding for the fur industry. When that collapsed in the 1970s, the mink disappeared into the wild, and have since been wreaking havoc on domestic farm animals (chickens) and fish farms (salmon). They can swim very well. A mink eradication programme has been successful in killing all the mink in Uist, at a cost of £2300 per animal. Now they need to be cleared from Harris. Because if they are not, they'll swim back to Uist across the Sound of Harris . I take the liberty of asking whether Lewis is also going to be cleared of mink - I saw one at Tobson (Great Bernera) last year.

In't it strange how selective people are? Going all gooey-eyed over some hedgehogs, but not batting an eye at mink or rats. The latter two are kept as domestic pets, but hedgehogs are not.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 16:43



Money, money, money

The harsh reality of life includes the on-going decomposition of any credibility of the Western Isles NHS Board. I have been reporting on the persistant and repugnant stench emanating from the Board's offices on South Beach Street, which was given another boost today when the latest twist came out into the open.

It would appear that the Finance Director for WIHB is moving to the island from North Wales. The WIHB does offer financial help towards the costs of relocation, which is no more than reasonable, as we're on the edge of the United Kingdom. The limit up to which this can be done taxfree is £8,000. Any amount in excess is liable for tax. The Board offered to meet that liability, which is not common practice. This means it will cost the Board a trifling £25,000 pounds to move the Finance Director to Lewis. I am aghast that the Director is not prepared to take the Board's financial fragility into consideration and take on the tax burden herself.

Leaving this staggering amount to one side, there is another slant to this. We are talking about the Finance Director, who is investigating financial mismanagement by the Chief Executive. At time of writing, the deficit stands at close on £3m. Notwithstanding this colossal deficit, the FD sees fit to put in a claim for £25k to relocate to Lewis.

Nasty question: who has authorised this tax relief? Who is in a position to do so? For legal reasons I am not prepared to speculate.

I have therefore added a fourth person to my list of people who could do worse than resign. It's the Finance Director of the Western Isles Health Board. My suggestion to this person is not to bother moving up. Oh, what a shame. Just now that the local Enterprise Company has shelled out £77,200 for the FD to build a new house and run a B&B. I think that sort of money would be better awarded to a local person to set up a B&B.

Leaving this minor matter to one side, the political mudslinging continues. Person number 5 who has moved himself on my quitlist is our MSP. Instead of standing up for his constituents, he stands up for a Health Minister who can't be bothered. It takes a list-MSP to ask the awkward questions, where the constituency MSP is feverishly applying the white-wash brush. Which will ultimately whitewash his political career.

I have previously pointed out that this whole situation is totally out of control. It is a damning indictment of the Scottish Executive, who is prepared to forfeit the health of our islands, for reasons that nobody can explain. It's not just about the £3m shortfall. It isn't just about grievance procedures. The fact that grievance procedures CANNOT be used for fear of harassment and intimidation from senior board members should be reason enough to intervene. Even the Western Isles Council isn't immune from such treatment. The resolution of this problem is really simple.

Four senior officers within the Board should be sacked by the Health Minister. The Board's Chairman, Chief Executive, Medical Director and Finance Director.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 14:55



Avian flu

Reports came through this afternoon that three birds found dead or unwell in Lewis and the Uists were being tested for avian flu. This comes in the wake of the confirmation that a dead swan found in Fife carried the H5N1 strain of the virus. The Outer Hebrides are an important landing spot for geese and other birds on their annual migratory routes, in April north to the Arctic for breeding.

The Director for Public Health in the Western Isles, Dr Sheila Scott, has issued advice, to which I would like to link. The webpage concerned shows FAQ's and a Letter from Dr Sheila Scott. This advice would apply anywhere in the Scottish islands or mainland.

If you find a dead swan, goose or duck; or three or more dead wild or garden birds in the same place, you should call the Defra helpline on 08459 335577. Do not touch any carcass. If at all possible, make a note of the exact location should you find a bird in the wild parts of the islands (OS grid reference).

There is no cause for alarm, and eggs and poultry can be eaten safely, if prepared properly. The risk of birdflu spreading to humans is extremely small, unless we are in very close contact with birds.

I'll use this blog to update further on this story, where the Hebrides are concerned.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 15:17



Towing the line

Following my post on Avian Flu some readers may wonder why I link to Health Board's press releases on this matter. My harsh criticism over the last few months is of style of management. I have never questioned the professional capability of the staff.

I have attended a Board meeting as an observer, as well as the two public meetings organised by two Councillors. It has therefore not come as a surprise that a non-executive Board member has been called to one side by the leading lights in this saga (the Chairman and the Chief Exec) to tow the line. This Board member had the courage to attend a hostile public meeting, and promised to relay concerns raised to the Board as a whole. When said member did this, the person in question was asked to stay behind after the following Board meeting and was read the riot act. In plain English: Tow The Line.

When attending a Board meeting, I could not help but notice that the Director of Public Health was asked by the Board's Chairman to "cut it short" in the middle of an important presentation with regards to the annual report of that department.

I think that says it all. My Quit List stands.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 19:28



Sunday ferries - 3

MV Loch Portain (courtesy Calmac), the Berneray to Leverburgh ferrySo, the first ferry ever to sail to Harris on Sunday has docked at Leverburgh this morning. Those opposed to it would have been in church, attending the local communions. Those in favour radiate an air of quiet satisfaction. Twenty passengers came off the ferry from Berneray, not a bad complement out of season at any rate. I wonder how many will be on this route later today, having crossed from Uig (Skye) to Lochmaddy first.

The latter crossing has been in place for 17 years, yet the most vitriolic critics of Sunday sailings (as seen through the letters page of the Stornoway Gazette) seem to reside in the Uists. It could be argued that Caledonian MacBrayne does not deserve star prize for sensitive handling of a delicate situation, it could have been done more elegantly. However, in previous posts on this subject, I have set out that it was inevitable that this was going to happen. The Skye ferry is one reason, Sunday flights from Stornoway Airport the other.

I join the more moderate critics in expressing a hope that the gentle Sunday way of life in these islands will not be destroyed. Judging by the situation in Skye (admittedly joined to mainland Scotland by a bridge), I am quietly hopeful that it will not.

I keep getting remarks from islanders (and expats on the mainland) who would welcome a Sunday ferry on the Ullapool to Stornoway route, to allow people to visit the island over the weekend. This is as yet being ruled out by Calmac. Another way this could be facilitated is by having cheaper airfares. It costs only £16 to fly from Glasgow to Dublin, yet more than £160 to fly to Stornoway from Glasgow - and that's the cheapest fare.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:50



Visiting Shipping



Since Friday evening, we have this rather large ship sheltering off Stornoway. On Saturday, conditions cleared up sufficiently to allow me to see it clearly through binoculars. The company name on its side read Big Lift.

Having googled the name, I managed to find an email address, and I sent an enquiry to the company's offices in Amsterdam. They replied this morning, and were surprisingly forthcoming with their information.

One of our vessel's (the 'Happy River') is presently anchored near Stornoway.
The Happy River has loaded so called modules in the port of Wilhelmshaven (Germany) with destination Fjardaal (Iceland). These modules are part of a aluminum factory, which is presently being built at Fjardaal.

Due to the present adverse weather conditions in the north Atlantic Ocean, the vessel is sheltering off the coast of Scotland, awaiting better weather.

Details of cargo:
5 modules on deck, upto 26 meters high. Maximum weight of one module abt 300 metric tonnes. The Happy River is equiped with two cranes, each SWL 400 metric tonnes (combinable 800 metric tonnes or 800.000 kgs) lifting capacity.

You get some strange visitors to this port.
(With thanks to the Big Lift Shipping Co, and its agent Marcel Pera)

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 12:36



Windfarms

A lot has been made of the projected windfarms in North Lewis, 234 turbines stretching from Ness to Bragar to Stornoway. What people tend to forget is the windfarm in Eishken.

This encompasses 133 turbines on the highest hills (Beinn Mhor there rises to 1,900 ft), with associated infrastructure. Roads, plants, pylons, you name it. For those unfamiliar with the island, Eishken is derilict. In a previous post, some time ago, I wrote about Eishken's 36 deserted villages. There is one settlement left, Eishken Lodge, surrounded by electronic fences, on Loch Shell. From this lodge, stalkers will venture forth into the estate to shoot deer. So nobody within Eishken will object. The only objections have come from those living on Loch Seaforth, in the tiny settlements from Ath Linne to Maraig, all of 50 people.

The estate owner has now proposed to reduce the number of turbines on the Muaitheabhal project (as it is officially called) to 57. It's still going to be a desecration of the mountains of Harris, only a hop and a step across the water. Late in 2004, he established the Muaitheabhal Trust, and any local resident that joined that Trust would be sharing in the profits. Any local resident that would NOT join would NOT share in the profits. Nice one.
In adjacent South Lochs, windturbines are proposed for the moorlands there. It will come as little surprise that the decision from the local community in November 2004 to mount a community buy-out went down like a lead balloon with the estate owner there, a different person from Eishken incidentally. It would mean that the current owner would lose out on a handsome profit to be made on windpower.

Windgenerators are indeed a tried and tested means of making money out of the winds. They are also shown to be detrimental to the environment. The local population of golden eagles stands to be slashed, quite literally, by the turbines. The moorlands will be churned up for the construction of the associated infrastructure, and forever scarred by the towers. Even if they are taken down after 25 years, the scars remain.

As I've queried before, why this obsession with wind turbines? Last weekend, another consignment of Pelamis [wavepower] units left for Portugal. I restate the question why they aren't being used here.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 11:31



Caledonian MacBrayne

Isle of Lewis passing Arnish and Sandwick on its way to Ullapool
This name is likely to generate varying reactions. I'll start my post with the following poem that did the rounds some time ago:

The Good Lord above made the Earth and all that it contains
Except the Western Isles, for they are all MacBrayne's

which pretty much sums up what the company have been getting up to recently. My posts on Sunday ferries have generated some interesting response, which have helped to put things into perspective.
Islanders in Harris have called a public meeting to protest against sailings on the Sabbath. They claim to have a 711 strong petition in opposition to Sunday ferries. Renish Point from Harris tells us how that was obtained, so the credibility is ever so slightly undermined. Nonetheless, I have to agree that CalMac does not really deserve star prize for sensitive handling of a delicate situation. Irrespective of the volume of the petition, I do believe that there is a proportion of islanders in Harris who are genuinely opposed to a breach of the Sabbath on religious grounds. Unfortunately, the tide of public opinion has shifted to such an extend that the opinion of the church in secular matters is less and less taken heed of. Some say that that CalMac moved pretty sharpish to institute the Sunday sailing following the announcement of its intentions as it anticipated some opposition. However, I would think that as the crews were already working on the boat on Sunday, there was little in the way to actually start sailing it.
CalMac have declined to be present at the public meeting as the chairman and its board have made its position clear, and the ferries are there to stay, sailing on a Sunday. There is no legal ground on which to successfully challenge the decision. CalMac have a duty to provide a lifeline service, and within the Western Isles area, are ALREADY doing so on Sunday. From Lochmaddy, all of 10 miles from Berneray, to Uig (Skye), effectively the Scottish mainland (since 1989). From Castlebay (Barra) to Oban.

This weekend, three people were injured on board the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry when the vessel was hit by a freak wave. It had been a bumpy crossing by all accounts, when the master changed course, 12 miles east of Stornoway. This calmed things down, but then the "Isle of Lewis" was hit by a large wave, catching passengers unawares. Three passengers sustained minor injuries, and an ambulance was waiting for them on arrival at Stornoway, on time incidentally, at 8pm. Today, there is criticism of the captain for sailing in such conditions. CalMac defend their master, saying that on the day there was a strong Northwesterly wind (force 6) with a moderate northerly swell. Conditions were rough, but acceptable for sailing. The company acknowledges that it is a difficult crossing, but that it has full confidence in its captains' decisions to set sail - or not as the case may be. This comes within 6 months of an incident where the Isle of Lewis' sistership, the cargo ferry Muirneag, was driven 60 miles off course in hurricane force winds. One man was injured and had to be airlifted off. CalMac backed the Muirneag's master, saying he made a decision based on the forecast available at the time. This projected the arrival of the storm for a later time than it actually did arrive.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:01



NHS Western Isles on Eorpa

BBC2's excellent Eorpa programme devoted a large portion of Thursday 13th's edition to the problems at NHS Western Isles.

Allegations have surfaced that patient care is suffering as a result of the current management of the NHS in the islands. The staff have declared that they have NO confidence in the management. Although they recognise that change is necessary, they also say that the way the current management is conducting this change makes it impossible for them to accept what is happening.
The £3m financial deficit could also not possibly be handled properly by the current men at the top.

One nurse spoke on the program, but face and voice had been rendered unrecognisable, for fear of retaliatory action. They feel that they could not voice their concerns within the organisation, so they went to the local council. The staff were proud of their hospital in the past, it afforded the best care.

Concerns uttered included the movement of patients in the middle of the night. Amongst these was an elderly patient, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, who woke up in a different room from the one she had gone to sleep in.
Medicines were not given on time, food was not handed out on time. People had to wait to go to the toilet, and had to wait to come off the toilet. Patients with infections were being nursed in the general ward, rather than in a sideroom.

The Board's medical director said all complaints would be looked into, but also that the hospital was carrying out more operations on site, rather than sending patients off to Inverness.

Those uttering grievances had to face the consequences; one whistleblower had already been sacked. There was concern in the community at large about the current problems. A representative from the Scottish Executive is due to come to Stornoway shortly to look into matters at first hand.

The nursing unions however have threatened a work-to-rule, and not do all the extra things that were done up to now. This could erode support for their cause in the community. However, things could not go on the way they are going now.
[end of summary]

I have to say that the severity of the situation was not sufficiently strongly borne out by the program, although I was actually happy to hear our MSP speaking out in terms of support for the staff. The statements from the NHS Board are only too familiar, but as long as the atmosphere of intimidation and harassment continues to exist, nothing will improve. The NHS nationally has thrived on the commitment of its staff to patient care. Unfortunately, the callous disregard of management to its staff has now led to a decline in levels of care.

I'll await the outcome of the talks that the Executive's representative will be having in the near future. The best outcome is probably the replacement of the trio at the top of the organisation. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 14:08



Good Friday



Graphic courtesy of DsDesigns@aol.com.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 12:37



Galson


Galson Estate Map
News came through that funding has been secured which would allow the residents on the Galson Estate (North Lewis) to buy the estate for themselves. A total of more than £600,000 has come through from the Scottish Land Fund, set up to help community buy-outs as well as from Highlands & Islands Enterprise. This was made possible as a result of a strong business plan being set up for Galson.

Although Galson is not for sale, it is possible for the community to mount a hostile take-over under legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament since devolution in 1999. The other estate in Lewis which is going through the same process is Pairc in South Lochs, the area between Loch Erisort and Loch Shell / Loch Seaforth.

Garyvard (South Lochs)
The take-over there is economically based on the establishment of a community windfarm on the adjacent Eishken estate. Owner Nick Oppenheimer has decided to reduce the number of turbines on the whole project in his estate from 133 to 53, for the reasons that I outlined in a post on Windfarms a few days ago. It does mean that the Pairc Estate stands to lose millions of pounds, and the viability of the buy-out plan would appear to be reduced.

I am not privy to the Galson Estate businessplan, but I would imagine that its fortunes are based on the other windfarm planned for Lewis, which involves 234 turbines from Ness to Stornoway. Both the Eishken and North Lewis windfarms are going through the Scottish Executive later on this spring, and in my opinion the buy-outs are to a large extent dependant on its success.

I have made my opposition to both windfarms clear, even bearing in mind the economic benefits that they are supposed to bring. My cynicism on these benefits has been borne out in previous posts.

The islanders of Lewis had a golden opportunity to manage their land for themselves in the 1920s. When Lord Leverhulme decided to sell up, he offered the people of the island the land as a gift. Apart from the parish of Stornoway, this was turned down. Now, 85 years later, the wheel has come full circle, in that the islanders are taking what was theirs for the accepting in the 1920s.

I am strongly in favour of community buy-outs, having supported the Eigg buy-out in 1996/1997. One of the reasons for my interest in the Western Isles is that I do NOT understand how a region can be held back by the malice, ineptitude and / or greed of just a few people who in some instances don't even live locally. The changes that have been effected in Eigg since 1997 are astonishing. In spite of my misgivings about windfarms, I hope the same will happen in Galson and Pairc. Alistair MacIntosh calls it empowerment of the people. I call it common sense.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 14:44



Grinneas nan Eilean



The beauty of the isles. That's the title of an exhibition which was opened in An Lanntair yesterday afternoon. The exhibition consists of works of art by local artists. Anyone can submit to the exhibition, and can also put the works for sale. It is not restricted to paintings, but includes other forms of art as well, such as photography and sculpture.

Grinneas was the foundation stone on which An Lanntair (The Lantern) was founded, more than 20 years ago. In the 1980s there was no exhibition space in the Western Isles, and any arts exhibitions were limited to a 2 week stint in the Town Hall. After a long battle, An Lanntair opened its doors to the public last October, in a new building after years in the old Town Hall.

This year's exhibition was opened by the present and a former chairman of An Lanntair, followed by a bite to eat and music by the Woodlands Band. The exhibition is free and open for viewing from 10 a.m. till 5 pm in An Lanntair in Stornoway until May 27th.

Another exhibition space which came to my attention 18 months ago is in Tigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy (North Uist), a few hundred yards from the ferry terminal. I understand that this has expanded over the last 12 months. In other words, the arts in the Western Isles have taken a shot in the arm in recent times.

A novel initiative is being launched in the coming week on the An Lanntair website. A Creative Directory is to be established, in which anyone who engages in any creative activity (music, writing, crafts, photography, graphic design, films etc.) can submit their details for free.


Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 16:29



Galson - addendum

Forgot to mention in my post entitled Galson that the Galson Trust is as yet just over £42,000 short of the sum needed for the buy-out. Anyone with connections in the area (see map at the top of the original post) is encouraged to get in touch, if they are willing to help.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 23:30



Gaelic

Gaelic is an old language, still widely spoken in the Western Isles. The culture of the place is intimately interwoven with the language, which has undergone a major revival in recent times.

Following the ill-fated rising under Prince Charles Edward in 1745, which ended in the defeat at Culloden, the victorious party went out of its way to crush the culture of the vanquished foe. Until very recently, no Gaelic was taught in schools and its use suppressed. Nonetheless, I have met quite a few people who did not speak a word of English when they enrolled at primary school. These days, the role of the languages in their lives is reversed: they speak only English and Gaelic has receded into the background.

At the opening of last year's Royal National Mod in Stornoway, the event was highlighted as a major boost to Gaelic culture and the language. The Inverness MSP, who opened the Mod, warned people to take advantage of the openings currently being given to the language. It has recently been recognised as an official language of Scotland, a position laid down in law.

Many visitors to the islands wish to learn the language. I have to admit that I haven't done so. I read a few chapters in a 1970s textbook, and found myself floundering in the grammar. Important as it is (with the grammar and 2% of the vocabulary you can make yourself understood), it can be offputting. There are excellent courses available through the UHI Millennium Institute. UHI stands for University of the Highlands and Islands, but a formal University status has as yet not been awarded. The Isle of Skye hosts the famous Sabhal Mor [Big Barn] College at Ostaig, 5 miles north of the Armadale ferry. You don't need to go there to learn Gaelic; you could even do it on-line.

Residents of the Highlands and Islands are able to attend courses at the various campuses of UHI; Lews Castle College in Stornoway is one of them.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:57



Grinneas nan Eilean - 2

A few more pictures from the exhibition, at popular request.
How about some evidence from Orkney and Shetland?


Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 18:23



Windfarms - revisited


I was pleased to read on BBC Online that the two windfarms for Lewis (Ness to Stornoway and Eishken) are due to be debated again by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. There has been a storm following the Comhairle's decision in June 2005 to approve the two proposals. At least three councillors have been called to account by their respective community councils (Ness, Airidhantuim and Laxdale) over their decision to vote in favour. Several ballots in the areas mentioned revealed a large percentage (varying between 50 and 90%) opposed to the windfarm proposals as they stand.

Eishken landowner Nick Oppenheimer has already slashed the number of turbines he wants on his estate from 133 to 53. In approving the North Lewis scheme, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar reduced the number of turbines up there from 234 to 209. It is going to be very interesting to see what is going to happen in the Comhairle's debating chamber. I would also like to know whether new expert advice from various bodies like SNH and RSPB will have an influence on the eventual decision.

I suggest a secret ballot be taken of all residents of the islands of Lewis and Harris to gauge their support or opposition to the proposals as they stand to date.

Whilst being in favour of using renewable energy, I hold the opinion that the colossal schemes which are being planned for the Highlands and Islands have too severe an environmental impact. I'm not just talking about the views, but also about influence on birdlife and (in the case of Lewis) the layer of peat.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:22



Coastal safety


I keep an eye on the website of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The Coastguard station here in Stornoway is the coordinating centre for much of their activity in the West of Scotland. They can call on lifeboats, helicopters and other sea- and aircraft to come to the aid of any that require it. Stornoway Coastguard doesn't just cover the Minches, it also deals with any incidents out in the Atlantic. In recent weeks, a fishing boat started to take on water more than 200 miles west of Lewis. A helicopter was sent out to drop off a pump. It only had 25 minutes to do so, as it was operating at the limits of its capacity.

In the period that I've been in Lewis, there have been a number of cases of men being swept overboard from their vessels, out in the Atlantic. This is almost invariably fatal, unless the casualty is retrieved from the water immediately. More often than not, the fisherman do not wear buoyancy aids, as they are in the way. The water in the North Atlantic is only between 9 and 14 degrees C, which means you can only survive for at best 45 minutes in such cold conditions. A full search and rescue effort will be launched, using any nearby vessels, helicopter and RAF Nimrod reconnaisance planes. I have not heard that such efforts were successful in a man overboard situation - I hope I'm wrong.

It isn't just out at sea that the Coastguard looks after people. When walking near the sea, particularly in rough weather, there are risks. Cliffs may crumble, something that is particularly the case in Lewis. Last summer, a French visitor went missing from the Youth Hostel at Gearrannan - he was thought to have gone for a stroll. When you walk east, along the coast from the Blackhouse Village, for a short distance you skirt the edges of the cliff, pictured below.
Cliff edge near Gearrannan

When the Coastguard mounted a rescue effort the next morning, the Frenchman's body was found at the bottom of a 100 ft high cliff. It is assumed that he slipped on muddy ground at the clifftop. It is advisable to stay at least 3 metres / 10 feet away from any edges, or at least take great care. When venturing out into a tidal area, you should consult a tidal table - for the islands, these are printed in the Stornoway Gazette. Tidal predictions are available on-line, for many ports around the UK coastline.

IN ANY EMERGENCY around the coast DIAL 999 and ask for COASTGUARD.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 15:42



Queen's Birthday

Her Brittanic Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II is 80 years of age today.
Thrice hip, hip, hurray.

Hebridean PrincessAs per protocol, the official celebration will not take place until the middle of June. Rumour has it, not denied by palace sources, that the Queen has chartered the Hebridean Princess for a cruise round these islands. She might even call into Stornoway on the way.

The Western Isles are a favourite haunt of the royals. The Prince of Wales is said to have had a spot of bother in one of the local bars at the tender age of 14 when he asked for and was served a cherry brandy. The press cuttings from that time still adorn the walls of the relevant hostelry. Prince Charles is also known to frequent the island of Berneray, just north of North Uist. By all accounts, his late wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, did not share his fondness of matters Scottish.

The Royal Yacht Brittannia was taken out of service a number of years ago, and is presently moored at Leith Docks, Edinburgh. The Hebridean Princess, a regular visitor to Stornoway on its summer cruises, is said to be a cosey replacement. Local stories again tell of the Royal Yacht going up Loch Brollum (Eishken) and anchoring there, for the royal party to go ashore for a picnic. As she was there, a crewman who hailed from Lewis would be transferred to Stornoway at Her Majesty's expense for a spot of home leave.

I don't have a picture of it, but out in Laxdale there is a well, set into a wall along the main road, which was inaugurated by King Edward VI in 1902. Although the structure was ready by June of that year, the monarch was not able to come to Laxdale until September.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:03



Progress

There are two subjects that I have found to get the keyboards rattling: Sundays and Windmills. Just distilling the general drift of reactions on Windmills.

I have found generally that nobody is really in favour of having hundreds of wind turbines scattered across the Lewis moors. This position reflects feelings not just in the island but also beyond. The groundswell of public opinion in Northern Scotland as a whole appears to have moved local councils as well as Holyrood [Scottish Executive] policy away from large scale on-shore projects.

I am interested to hear comments like these, which keep coming back:

What do the islands contribute?
Why should the taxpayer bail them out?

In days gone by, the Outer Hebrides were great contributors of cannon fodder. Look at the Roll of Honour in Stornoway Library, look round the island's war memorials. More than a thousand laid down their lives in the First World War alone, for King and country.

There used to be a huge fishing fleet in Stornoway and other island ports. Not any more. The days of the Stornoway herring reaching plates in St Petersburg by request are long, long gone. There is hardly any herring left to fish for. Some would argue that foreign fleets have taken over, and are still trawling the seas empty. Very contentious statement, I know.

There used to be a Harris Tweed industry in the islands, which fell victim to shortsightedness and greed. The large scale weaving at the crofts has ceased, and the clickety-click of the Hattersley loom in West Side villages has faded into memory. Only the Blackhouse Museum at Gearrannan has one. The operator has few kind words about those that caused the demise of the industry.

So what have we got these days? Fish farming. Used to be good as well, but the closure of the processing plant at Scalpay is a bad omen for the industry. It could be argued that the Norwegian salmon producers are moving to take over the industry and taking it away from the islands. If only to remove an expensive link in their transport chain.

So, the local council thought it had found a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, at the base of a windturbine. The Pairc Trust had a similar visions, of millions being generated by windpower for their disadvantaged area. I far from begrudge South Lochs its progress, I have stayed in the area for several months and have seen the state it is in. One of the comments regarding the Pairc buy-out spoke volumes. Nonetheless, those on Lewis whose opinion has been sought resoundingly said no to having the island turned into a windfarm, thankyou.

The history of the Western Isles is punctuated by emigration. One of my favourite Gaelic songs is Oran do Chaluim Sgaire. It is the song of a man who leaves the island in 1851, never to return. I may be wrong, but believe the loch at near the Bernera road-end carries his name. Many of the places that were once populated are now lying derelict. With a bit more commitment from those in power, this would not have been necessary.

In conclusion, the islands have got plenty to offer for the rest of the country. This is a disadvantaged area, if only because it's 40 miles from the mainland, and there will always be that stretch of sea to cross. The weather here can be pretty wild (as it is at time of writing, Saturday morning) as well. But with a healthy dose of good will and support, not just sacks of money, this could a prosperous area with a good future.

Erm, anybody in Holyrood reading this?
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 16:33



Financial deficits

NHS Western Isles have admitted that their financial worries are not exactly helped by the deal given to a Barra GP: £300,000 per year. That is one tenth of the Health Board's current deficit.

The reason for this golden deal is that the doctor in question has to work alone, i.e. is on-call practically 24/7. Retention of professionals is a recognised problem within these islands. Hospital doctors training to be a consultant go through a number of hospitals in order to build up professional competence and experience. In some circles, a posting in Stornoway or Benbecula is regarded as a dead-end post, and not conducive to your career.

Getting consultants to come here on a permanent basis is equally difficult, for same reasons. Whilst the recruitment procedure takes its course, locums (temporary staff) are taken on to fill the gap. Late 2005, the cost of this was quoted as up to £11,000 per week. The Health Board has insisted that this only occurred during 4 weeks.

However, solving the recruitment and retention problems by paying professionals astronomical sums actually solves nothing. It is bad management, as it exacerbates the existing funding crisis. How the Health Minister can go on record to defend such practices remains beyond me.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 18:53



Crofting reform

Crofting is a subject that I have so far gingerly avoided, as I am not well versed in it. However, I would like to use this blog to publicise the Crofting Reform &c Bill which is currently going through the Committee stage of the Scottish Parliament. The Environment and Rural Development Committee is currently seeking opinions from those involved in crofting on the Reform Bill.
The text of the Bill is available for viewing (all 70 pages of it) on the Scottish Parliament website.

Today, the Committee came to Stornoway and held a session in which representatives of crofters, housing organisations, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Lewis Wind Power, Stornoway Trust, Pairc Trust and other interested parties answered questions from the MSPs on the Committee.

They were clustered together in 4 panels - crofters, (prospective) landowners, housing and developers. Members of the public present at the meeting were also given the opportunity to address the Committee.

Anyone who has views on this issue, is invited to submit them to the Committee either in person at their next public meetings at Inverness and Oban, or by writing (by 8 May 2006) to:

Committee Clerks
The Environment and Rural Development Committee
Room T1.01
The Scottish Parliament
Holyrood
Edinburgh EH99 1SP
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 19:49



Oil Depots

Remember that huge fire at the Buncefield Oil Depot back in December? At the time, I launched the question whether it was such a good idea to have the oil depot in Stornoway in the town centre. An off-the-record reply from a local councillor back in December stated that they had no intention of shifting the tankpark.

Just to show you the situation at Stornoway. The tanks are within the yellow circle; I have pointed out the school (Nicolson Institute) and the ferry terminal for reference.



Nonetheless, it was recommended today that all such tanks be relocated out of built-up areas in the wake of the Buncefield fire. They were lucky that there were no casualties 4 months ago. Here in Stornoway, there shouldn't really be a problem. The tanks could easily be relocated 4 miles down the road to Arnish Point. There is no problem getting the tanker to berth there, as Glumag Harbour is very deep.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 22:34



Eishken windfarm

As I reported over the last few weeks, the proposed windfarm for Eishken has been reduced in size from 133 to 53 turbines. Landowner Nick Oppenheimer said he had done so following expressions of concern over the environmental impact of the scheme.

Objections can be raised until May 12th. In order to inform local residents about the process, three meetings will be organised in Lewis. The Muaitheabhal Trust kicks off on May 4th. This is the body which has a share in the Eishken windfarm. Because of the reduction in the size of the project, its share and its projected income stands to be reduced.
The landlord has his own meeting the next day.
Lochs councillor Annie MacDonald and an expert on the planning process will hold a walk-in meeting on May 10th. Exact details on time and place of each meeting will be made available locally.

Readers should bear in mind that the project came within a cat's whisker of being rejected by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar back in June 2005. Although the Muaitheabhal Trust is the community representative, the legal wranglings over windfarms in this district of Lewis mean that the community doesn't stand to gain from it as much as might be anticipated.

In my post Windfarms Revisited of April 19th, I alluded to a reconsideration of the North Lewis windfarm as well, which appears to have disappeared into the mists. Bearing in mind the hostility shown towards a representative of Lewis Windpower (aims to build the windfarm in North Lewis) at a Scottish Parliamentary Committee meeting yesterday, the building of said windfarm is by no means a foregone conclusion.

The Comhairle has submitted the planning application for the North Lewis scheme to the Scottish Executive. Anyone with comments can submit them through this page.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 14:42



Crofting reform - 2

A tentative foray into the thorny issue of crofting reform.

The current situation eats at the very root of the institution of crofting. Back in 1886, legislation was put into place to safeguard security of tenure for crofters. Following an uprising in Skye, where the people of Braes turned on police officers and the estate factor, the Napier Commission concluded that great injustice was being inflicted on the crofters of Skye and elsewhere in Scotland. Up to the mid 1880s, tenants could be evicted at the whim of a landlord, and no consideration was being given to economic and / or financial hardship.

Crofters are principally tenants on an estate, but with unlimited tenure. A croft is an agricultural unit, but not by definition with a house on it. If a bareland croft is purchased or rented, the crofter can build a house on it (an "improvement"), and a grant of about £22,000 is available towards the cost. These days, the cost of building a house from scratch approaches the £80,000 mark.

A croft is not by definition to be USED for agriculture, although it is commonly associated with sheep- and cattle farming. Quite often, the ground is so poor that the crofter is unable to make a full-time living out of it, and/or the area is too small. The average Lewis croft measure about 5 acres. I have seen crofts where the width can be measured in feet, but the length is sometimes as much as a mile.

On the Stornoway Trust estate, crofters pay an annual rent of about £18. No, I haven't missed off any zeroes. The land is available for purchase for 15 times the annual rent. The cost of buying a croft is connected with the improvements on it. What some do is to decroft part of the croft and build a house on that section of land. As I indicated above, people can do with their crofts what they like. They can sell it, and that's where the problems arise at the moment.

Land prices in the Western Isles have started to catch up with the rest of the UK. One of the complaints aired at the Environment and Rural Development Committee Meeting (ERDC) yesterday was that this placed crofts beyond the reach of young starters. Some owners leave the croft unused, neglected, or use it inappropriately. Recently, a crofter in Taynuilt (Argyll) built a string of houses on his land, which was infamously approved by the courts.

The Crofters Commission is supposed to be the regulatory body, but one of the most strident complaints in the ERDC meeting at Stornoway was that it does not regulate strongly enough. A Bill is currently in front of the Scottish Parliament which is supposed to address some of the issues that have surfaced following the introduction of the Land Reform Act 2003.

The general fear is, echoed by quite a few speakers at yesterday's meeting, was that crofting as we know it is under threat. Not only is the land sliding beyond the financial reach of those for whom it was intended, but with that the culture and language (Gaelic) associated with it.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:42



Arnish Lighthouse


The Arnish Lighthouse stands at the entrance to Stornoway Harbour, and looks out over to Stornoway, about 2 miles to the north and Lower Sandwick, directly across the channel. The light was automated in the 1970s or thereabouts, after which the keeper's cottage was converted into a private residence. You can reach it from the entrance gates to the Arnish Fabrication Yard, which lies 5 miles south of Stornoway. The access road starts on the Lochs Road (A859), a few miles west of the town. The road offers very nice views across the harbour, to Point and (on clear days) to the mainland mountains.

The Arnish Light also witnessed the tragedy of the Iolaire's sinking in 1919. Every islander will know he is home as soon as he passes the lighthouse.
Every islander's heart bleeds when the demure building slowly recedes behind the ferry on the way to the mainland. It has witnessed the mass emigrations on ships like the Metagama in 1923. It has seen Mod competitors come and go, latterly in October 2005.

Arnish Light looks out over the Minch, and watches over the fishermen, risking life and limb in pursuit of fish and other seacreatures. In December 2004, one of their number perished on rocks only 100 yards from the Lighthouse.
The Arnish Light winks at the crofters of Lower Sandwick, and is a familiar nocturnal companion for those in Stornoway who live on the waterfront. It looks out over the town, the sea and the island. Although in an isolated position, it is every bit a part of island life as Stornoway itself.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 21:23



Energy

Today's news on the renewable energy front is the reduction by Lewis Windpower (the company that wants to build the North Lewis Windfarm) in the number of windturbines for its project from 234 to 190. New technology has come on the market which makes the turbines more efficient. When I was in the Council Chambers on Monday, I saw the maps which showed the intended location of the towers. I know the Lewis moors quite well, and was shocked. My picture on the "Windfarms Revisited" post should have given an idea of the size of the things. I was equally dumbstruck by the assertion of the LWP representative, being quizzed by MSPs, that the "footprint" of the turbines on the ground will only be small. Rarely heard such a misrepresentation of the facts. A network of access roads is required to the towers for purposes of maintenance over their 25 year lifespan. That won't have an environmental impact, will it? A huge amount of peat will have to be dug out for each turbine, and that won't disturb the balance of the peat will it?

The Factor for the Stornoway Trust expressed hope that the reduction in the numbers of turbines would make the project more attractive for a larger number of people. Methinks not. Less unacceptable, perhaps.

It's not just the environmental impact that places me in the opposition camp to the Lewis Windfarm. On the policy side of things, I feel that too much of an emphasis has been placed on wind energy. Tidal and wavepower should have a far larger place in the total energy picture. The Prime Minister's idea that nuclear energy should have a new place in the provision of energy to the UK is ludicrous. The issue of waste disposal has not been properly addressed; today, official policy was announced that nuclear waste would be dumped in a hole in the ground. Two of those holes could be located in the islands of Fuday and Sandray, to the north and south of Barra respectively. Not acceptable.

We'll have to await the Scottish Executive's decision on the Lewis Windfarms.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 21:42



Tidal

This week, we're having a new moon. The combined forces of sun and moon therefore bring about a spring tide. A level of 5 metres is pretty high, but as the weather is quiet at the moment, today's high tides passed off without incident. The low tides were the lowest I have seen so far in Stornoway (not been observing for all that long), but they did help to reveal a small piece of the town's history.



This unsalubrious image shows the Inner Harbour. My interest focuses on the set of stepping stones which sit in the middle of the flow of water, towards the bottom of the picture. This water is actually NOT salty, it's the outflow of the Willowglen Burn. Until the policies of the Castle Grounds were established in the 19th century, residents from Lochs and Harris would arrive in Stornoway by crossing the Inner Harbour via these stepping stones.

The low tides also bring a dangerous temptation at the outflow of the Newton Basin, on the eastern side of Stornoway. From the picture below, you might assume that it's possible to cross to Goat Island, in the distance.


Picture below shows a close-up, taken a month ago, of what might have appeared to have been a safe passage from Newton Street to Goat Island.


This afternoon, the situation was similar and two youngsters were seen riding across the sand towards the crossing. Their bikes sank into the quicksand of the outflow, and they could only just make it back safely with bikes and all, without being stuck in the quicksand.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:41



Summer preparations

In the light of the current problems (hopefully soon resolved) with pictures, I put this post in good hope and spirit.

This evening, I went for a walk to Goat Island. This is the island in Stornoway Harbour, linked to the town via a causeway from the Coastguard Station. It is an industrial area, without being on the plans as such. It contains a fish processing factory and a unit that houses live crustaceans (crabs and the like). Every now and again, a lorry comes to take the creatures away to the restaurants elsewhere.

Goat Island also houses a boatyard, on which vessels up to 850 tons can be hauled up the slipway for maintenance. Those that follow my other blogs will be aware that one boat has been there for nearly 2 months. Local info has it that the Cuma, is awaiting a new propellor. The Cuma operates out of Miavaig (Uig, West Lewis), offering week long cruises to St Kilda, the Flannan Isles, Monach Isles and North Rona and Sulasgeir.

Another boat I found there was the Sgoth , a traditional sailing boat which used to operate out of Ness. She was being readied for summer outings.


Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 23:36





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