Hebridean isle revolts against mobile phones

The tiny island of Coll is split over plans to introduce mobile phone coverage, with fears that the tranquil Hebridean outpost would be ruined by the introduction of new technology.

The plans would see 50ft phone mast installed on the remote Hebridean outpost of Coll. Picture: Contributed

A planning application has been lodged to construct a 50ft phone mast with two dishes on the island, which is located west of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.

Development Coll, the local community trust behind the project, claims introducing 21st-century technology would assist not only the 200 islanders who have no mobile coverage, but also the emergency services, including the local GP.

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The pilot scheme would see the taxpayer stump up the cost of constructing the mast, believed to be about several thousands pounds, with the trust meeting the running costs of up to £2,000 a year.

John Fraser, of Development Coll, believes the mast could soon pay for itself, with other organisations paying “rent” for its future use. The company is in discussions with NHS Highland, Scottish and Southern Energy and the coastguard. Other telecommunications firms may also sign up to rent the mast, which will initially benefit Vodaphone and BT users.

But some locals have voiced concern about mobile phone coverage detracting from the

island’s “remoteness”.

Pat Graham, secretary of Coll Community Council, said: “This has really split the island. Many don’t want it. We are a very natural, environmental island and are concerned about anything that spoils that. We now have one or two wind turbines, which are an eyesore, and we are talking about radio masts. My understanding is that this mast will need feeder masts to operate.”

She added: “We have managed without mobile phones up until now. Tourists, because they’re so used to having mobile phones, they come here and expect mobile service, which is a shame because Coll is something different. You come to unwind.”

She claimed that Development Coll was not a community trust, but a private enterprise out to make money.

The island, with a population of around 200, is known for its wildlife, basking sharks and recently secured stargazing “dark skies” status. But residents have never had mobile phone reception outside a few isolated spots.

Mairi Hedderwick, creator of the Katie Morag children’s books, once lived on Coll and the fictional island of Struay is based on her experiences there. It is also home to former Scottish rugby captain Rob Wainwright.

Mr Fraser said: “The vast majority of islanders want this, and if someone doesn’t want to use their mobile, they can just switch it off. The Scottish Government will meet the construction costs, while Vodaphone and BT will provide the communications technology. Once that is in place, Development Coll will take on the management and running of the mast.

“If this pilot proves successful, it could be rolled out to the likes of Canna and Rum.”

He added: “The ongoing costs could be met by outside organisations, including public bodies who require mobile phone coverage in the area. This includes NHS Highland. The doctor on the island is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She cannot move from her house without putting calls through to the next place she is going to visit.

“Theoretically, the mast will pay for itself. There are people operating private enterprises who will welcome this as it is essential in this day and age of communication.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson, who would not disclose the exact costs of constructing the mast, said: “This is one of a number of projects the government has developed.”

The planning application for the mast will be considered by Argyll and Bute Council later in the spring.