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The truths they don't want you to read....

Friday, September 28, 2007

Lesley Riddoch in the Scotsman

Mon 24 Sep 2007

Sometimes the Outer Hebrides might as well be outer space


SCOTLAND'S island communities have faced epic struggles for survival over the last century. Have the authorities learned anything from that experience?

Not much if Caledonian MacBrayne's next six-year contract is anything to go by.

The people of South Uist and Barra were hoping for an improvement in what must be the worst ferry service in Scotland - but there'll be no change. According to the Scottish Government, any added expense (or crafty redeployment of boats that might disrupt other routes) cannot be justified because of the rules on tendering and the low local population base. The self-fulfilling nature of that remark is depressing. Is this government already managing the decline of remote communities, even as it talks a very good game about Road Equivalent Tariff?

Barra's near neighbour, Mingulay, was deserted almost 100 years ago, primarily because polite calls for better transport were ignored then.

According to author Ben Buxton: "The rising population led to overcrowding in the village and disease such as typhoid, measles and influenza. It was often impossible to get to Barra to summon the doctor or the priest. People and goods were landed on rocks but boats had to be hauled up onto the beach. This necessitated wading out to chest height in the water. For much of the winter launching boats was impossible. The larger boats had to be left at anchor in Castlebay. A visitor reported, 'It is no unusual occurrence for islanders to have to throw their bags of meal into the sea and drag them ashore by means of a rope. It is easier to reach America than to get there'."

In 1896, every man on the island signed a petition taken by their MP on behalf of a "sorely-distressed community" to the Secretary of State for Scotland. They appealed for a "boat slip with a boat hauling convenience". Five years later they got a small crane instead. In 1912, every person left.

Is it a wild exaggeration to suggest that, in a decade, Barra or parts of South Uist could be next?

Their ferry journeys are currently epic. A South Uist family travelling to Glasgow this winter will leave home at 6:30am to depart Lochboisdale at 7:30am and arrive at Glasgow Queen Street at 9:25pm. That's a whopping 15-hour journey which will include travelling to neighbouring Barra and sitting for four hours at Oban for a train which departs one minute after the bus at 6:16pm.

Indeed, two boats from Mull and the daily boat from Coll and Tiree also arrive in the same public-transport-free "black hole".

Why can't a bus or train run earlier?

First Scotrail says: "We are committed to encouraging and growing integrated travel." Scottish Citylink says: "The island demand for services dips after the summer."

Neither of these answers even attempts to tackle the precise question.

Abandon public transport and travel by car and the family's weeks away will cost around £330.40. Even subsidised flights (if available) will cost about the same. A 15-hour trip or a £300 trip. On islands where the average wage is not far from the minimum wage, which option do policy makers think crofters should choose? In truth, like their neighbours a century ago, "it is easier (and cheaper) to reach America than to get there".

This is all the more outrageous because it seems there was a viable alternative put forward by CalMac.

Currently, the combined Barra/South Uist service takes five hours to sail across to Oban. If it docked instead at Mallaig, the crossing time and costs could be halved, and therefore the number of daily trips to the islands could be doubled. All apparently for about half a million pounds. The obstacles?

Admittedly, the Mallaig road is a twisty nightmare for locals, but the final single-track section is being widened right now. The prospect of slashed fares through the SNP's pledge on Road Equivalent Tariff (basing ferry fares on the equivalent cost of motorway travel) may be a distraction for some.

And of course, this is a long standing complaint, politely delivered - which masks the urgency of the situation.

A programme of Hebridean school closures has not been greeted with Edinburgh-like fury - the number of children has plummeted and islanders can see young people are unwilling to stay and bring up families. Simple applications for one or two wind turbines have been subjected to the lengthy and expensive rigours of compliance that a 300 turbine wind farm would expect from SNH. Sheep are stuck on the islands because of the foot-and-mouth restrictions. Every attempt to move forward hits a tidal wall of red tape. The fight seems to have gone out of many Hebridean communities.

It is simplistic to suggest a better ferry service alone would reverse this decline. But it would show willing. It would suggest distant authorities in Stornoway, Port Glasgow and Holyrood are committed to bending the rules and burning the midnight oil to find an answer to the islanders' plight.

If islanders themselves can agree: Barra folk still want an Oban link, South Uist folk are desperate to switch to Mallaig.

I must say a two-hour flit from Mallaig sounds like a much better proposition than bobbing about for five hours from Oban in the full unsheltered glare of the stormy Atlantic. Apologies to Oban people who will miss the buzz and the old family ties of the Uist ferries (though the shorter journey time to Mallaig means a trip to Oban won't take much longer than it does at present). But it must be possible to devise a joint plan for a Mallaig-based pilot ferry.

On islands, getting away helps people stay. It's as simple as that.

Can the people of Barra and South Uist find common cause in the battle for their own survival?


Anonymous said...

over the last few years i dont know where Ms. Riddoch gets off on sticking her nose into our affairs.

But god bless her for championing our causes

Anonymous said...

no 'wild exsaggeration' there ang.
Loved the little maxim 'getting away helps people stay' a very concise way to put it!

Anonymous said...

The Citylink service from Oban this summer offered almost an hourly service which was great.

Anonymous said...

Buses from Oban to Glasgow this summer

Sometimes the ferry from the outer isles arrived at 1420 which allowed foot passengers the opportunity to watch the citylink bus travel along George Street on way out of town. Quite often the ferry after 1810 long long after!

But citylink don't just let you down at Oban. Go to Uig at 1335 and the citylink coach is waiting at the pierside and it waits there until the drivers break finishes at 1445.