Western Isles: peeking out from behind the curtains

At this stage in the pandemic, the islands continue to be quiet. There remains a surprising amount of traffic on our road – four miles from the main road and virtually the end of the spur which takes us to our north-west tip of South Uist – but these are largely our crofter neighbours going about their business on the land or the seas; tourists, in their camper vans and following sat navs across the dirt tracks of the range and via connecting roads that suddenly run out of tarmac before the end, are absent. Unlike on Skye, our bigger and busier neighbour, key workers are a little less likely here on Uist to be mistaken as a tourist for taking a photo, and consequently given abuse.

As I’ve written before, we continue to suffer the same lockdown as everyone else – and, indeed, in many ways worse than that since The Minch means we remain essentially cut-off: the airports have been closed and ferries remain open only for essential travel – and that’s, essentially, to allow food and key workers in (and the same out again). Some of our neighbours, with addresses on the mainland or elsewhere, haven’t been back here for months; while life for our neighbours with camp sites, caravans and B&Bs remains, just ahead of the longest day, an out of season quiet, empty limbo.

Nevertheless, the Scottish government has now started to ease the restrictions (here, by the way, is your regular reminder that Scotland is already an independent country), although people still need to remain around five miles from home for leisure or relaxation and, while shops have an end-of-June perspective on re-opening, this does not include ‘non-essential office, call-centre, culture, leisure and hospitality premises.’ Meanwhile, transport companies are starting to consider what opening up looks like: Loganair (‘we’re ready when you’re ready’) has started to offer some flights; the bus companies have a route map to move back to a regular timetable from being a virtually telephone booking service; and options are being considered for CalMac ferries.

While the message still quite clearly remains stay home, the tourist industry now has a perspective on re-opening, on 15 July, subject to a confirmation planned for 9 July (and is itself a reason for the travel planning now being done). This of course remains a thorny, potentially divisive subject. The tourist industry would like some level of re-opening before the season, and therefore 2020 as a whole, is lost completely; meanwhile, here on Uist and Benbecula (and Barra), we have still – as far as we know – had no cases of the virus: and long may it stay that way. It’s a quandary to which there is no compromise solution: tourism is clearly of major significance to the current shape of our local economy: across the highlands and islands, nearly one in three workers are currently furloughed – more than any other region in Scotland – and, while primary industry and the public sector accounts for much more employment in the western isles, tourism here has been heavily, if unfortunately edgily, promoted in recent years.

As an island (within an island group), we have several natural advantages which allow us to keep the virus at bay (if only that larger group had responded appropriately, and in an appropriately timely, less lazy, fashion, we might have been having this conversation months ago); and, at this point, the only ones bringing this thing in are, aside of the rumours surrounding the recent seventh case up on Lewis, likely to be tourists (here, this week’s New Zealand experience is salutary). While the rest of the Scotland and indeed the UK is contemplating a period of respite before a likely second wave that this respite itself is probably going to cause, we don’t want to be deploring the arrival of an initial wave. I don’t have a tourist business to run and I’m very sympathetic to those who do, but the potential costs (heavy here, for reasons explained before) surely outweigh the benefits, while an island group where there is a relatively high number of cases (it will travel rapidly here, should it arrive) may well quickly kill off next year’s business as well.

What’s also of some importance, to someone like me engaged with the idea of ‘to travel hopefully…‘ – that getting there is a fundamental, integral part of then being there – is the quality of the journey. Mandatory face masks on public transport, only passengers being  allowed in airport terminal buildings, ferries running at less than twenty per cent of capacity and airlines also with numbers restrictions, and both offering an experience of rows and series of taped-off seats and benches to ensure social distancing, amidst other invonveniences – clearly none of this offers an attractive travel opportunity. Travel has, in the past few years, and for a variety of reasons, represented an increasingly dispiriting, soulless experience and local transportation – getting to and from the western isles, and then around it in the leisurely way that is required – seems set to join the club. All necessary, of course – and I feel very much for the workers involved in that every day they go to work, who also need the confidence about exposure to the virus – but it offers an unattractive prospect.

As it is for B&B owners here too, one of whom told me only recently that her guests are regulars, having been coming for years, and who are always greeted with a hug. Not being able to do that under distancing rules leaves arrival and departure an awkward, unfriendly and unpleasant experience. Meanwhile, none of them either want to be the owner of a B&B whose guests were the ones bringing the virus in. On top of that, with ‘non-essential’ places – like museums, pubs and catering establishments – still shut, there’s little left for people coming here other than the outdoors. Nature is wonderful, and especially so here, but meeting people and enjoying their hospitality, and learning from them, is an essential part of the holiday experience and, if this is currently unavailable, the experience will be a partial, and incomplete, one and I wonder whether this, alongside the difficulties, increasing inconveniences and the cost of getting here, renders it also unworthwhile.

It might not be the end of travel, exactly; but travel is, it seems, likely to become for essential journeys only for the foreseeable future if for no other reason than the degraded quality of the experience. In that sense, the West Highland Free, in its editorial today (linked above), is right to wonder whether some ‘fresh thinking’ is required (and in the fairly short-term) about whether the region ‘should look beyond tourism and harness greater opportunities from the likes of agriculture, aquaculture, information technology and energy production’.

It is. Islanders tend to have several jobs, and for most – though far from all – tourism is not the only source of income, while tourism has come relatively late, but it is a healthy reminder that a diverse economy is a stronger one and that over-exposure to one or other sector will always leave people in a vulnerable position.

So, time to call sunset on this season, I think.

Talking of which, here’s one for you from last night, taken just before 11:

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And, as a bonus, here’s Ian’s fishing boat at twenty past ten last Friday night, resting up under a glorious pink-washed sky after a day’s hard work relieving the pressure on food deliveries in these times by bringing quality shellfish from the sea straight to our pots. Not only great work, but an important pointer to how things – the new normal – ought to be in the future.

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EDIT: 22 June – WeLoveStornoway.com yesterday carried an article voicing similar themes and reporting also that ‘quiet voices’ among islanders were coming to the conclusion that the islands should ‘stay closed ’til 2021′. This blog adds one more such voice.

2 thoughts on “Western Isles: peeking out from behind the curtains

  1. An interesting read and very thought-provoking. So many valid arguments on both sides and no right or wrong answers. I think the development of a vaccine has to be the way forward.


    1. Yes, a vaccine would be really helpful, though I’m not sure how close one is. In the meantime, we need a proper test, track and trace regime, and the resources available at local level to back it up. The lockdown has bought us the time to get exactly that in place – but that’s been wasted amidst much unjustified UK self-pride and chest-beating hubris. Shocking.


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