Cath Macdonald: We must find a way to bolster the Western Isles

The beach at Seilbost looking towards Luskentyre, Isle of Harris. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The beach at Seilbost looking towards Luskentyre, Isle of Harris. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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It was a beautiful morning with the hills of Wester Ross outlined against a red dawn sky, as the CalMac ferry MV Hebrides sailed past on its way to Skye.

It had left the Outer Isles port at 7.30am, a welcome sight, as the day before it had sat at the island pier unable to move due to weather disruption.

The Lewis and Harris end of the Western Isles has been fortunate this winter in not having had much ferry timetable disruption, but the Southern Isles have had frequent cancellations of the Oban to Castlebay and Lochboisdale ferries.

Frustration has been felt by Barra businesses and questions have been asked as to why the ferry did not sail when the weather seemed calm at Barra and fishing boats were at sea. CalMac blamed the heavy sea swell.

These are lifeline services. The islands are dependant on them for essential supplies and also for getting products away such as fish and shellfish. And they bring tourists – in increasing numbers every year.

Tourism is a vital part of our islands’ economy. With the days lengthening and the season turning to spring, businesses are now preparing for the busy tourist months. Bookings are pouring in, there are more and more visitors as each year goes by.

They come from all parts of the world. They love our islands,the scenery,the wildlife, the culture, the people.

Years ago people moaned about slow- driving caravans and tourists holding back drivers, but that attitude has completely changed – as can be seen from the number of campsites which have opened in the past few years and the diverse range of self- catering accommodation.

On one hand, things are looking up. However there is a range of issues that must be addressed.

The last census showed a fall in our Western Isles population. While visitors pour in, we need to find a way to stop our young people leaving. That means creating more employment opportunities for them. The Outer Hebrides Youth Employment Activity Plan guides young people to local services which can help them and offer employability support – could we do more?

We need Renewable Energy and the interconnector to the mainland which was planned some years ago.

We also need more housing and to encourage young people into crofting. It was shocking to find recently that so many applications for Croft House grants had been refused for what appeared to be trivial reasons.

We need Highlands and Islands Enterprise to encourage the setting up of more businesses. And like other areas we have the problem of bed blocking in our main hospital. We have much to be thankful for as we live in a safe and beautiful environment with lively active communities, excellent schools and people who choose to come and live in the Isles.

However we must continue to strive for more employment opportunities and for the islands to be supported so our people can stay here and the islands remain more than simply a lovely place to visit.

Cath Macdonald is a retired lecturer and staff tutor in bilingual education. She lives in the Western Isles.

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