KEITH MACKENZIE talks to Robert Fraser, an island architect and chairman of the North Uist Development Company
The most recent census figures may have revealed a general rise in the population of Scotland’s islands, but the good news wasn’t echoed everywhere in the Hebrides.
In the Uists, the population is now at its lowest point in recorded history. And at the northern end of the archipelago the pattern over the past half century is one of steady decline. In 2011 the population of North Uist — including the smaller adjoining islands of Baleshare, Berneray and Grimsay — sat at just over 1,600, a figure which represents a fall of over 35 per cent since the 1950s.
But islands are still capable of regeneration. The examples of nearby Skye, Barra and Lewis — where populations have grown in recent years — should indicate that decline needn’t necessarily be terminal.
It’s this message which drives the work of initiatives like the North Uist Development Company, and the organisation’s chairman Robert Fraser.
Set up in 2010, the company — led by nine voluntary directors and a membership of 600 local residents — is examining ways to rejuvenate the area’s economy, to create jobs and to stem the outflow of young folk who leave as well-educated teenagers and tend never to return.
Robert, an architect who moved from Edinburgh to North Uist in 1992, says the company — supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise in funding the post of a full-time development worker — is focusing energies on three core projects.
Chief among them is a plan to erect two community wind turbines on a site in the island’s Clachan district. The two-turbine scheme has the backing of the local authority, but progress was blocked by objections from the Ministry of Defence who operate testing facilities on the Hebrides Range and remain one of the Southern Isles’ most significant employers.
Plans for the mini-wind farm now lie in the hands of Scottish ministers, with a decision expected later this summer.
Robert admits the wait has been frustrating, and costly, for the community.
“In 2012 we did our homework thoroughly, and at that point the MoD had no objection,” he said. “Unfortunately in the intervening period they changed their minds.
“The delay, over the 20-year life of the turbines, has cost about £1.3 million to the community. It’s huge.”
If the turbines get the go-ahead, Robert reckons the North Uist community should benefit to the tune of at least £200,000 every year for the next two decades. These are funds which will be distributed to local groups and projects, and potentially to help set up individual businesses.
A real enthusiast for renewable energy — having seen it harnessed in various ways in architecture — Robert believes wind turbines can stimulate further innovation.
“Large storage batteries could allow NUDC to supply cheap energy to businesses,” he suggests. “There’s potential for hydrogen production to store the turbine energy which could be used to power local transport and fishing boats. I would love to be able to see our ferry run on power produced by our turbines — it’s very feasible to do.”
THESE IDEAS point towards technology to shape the island’s future. But it’s the past which surrounds a second development company project.
A treasure trove of ancient artefacts discovered on a site at Udal charts over 5,000 years of island habitation. And yet — like 21st century wind turbines — within this prehistoric collection may lie climate change lessons for today.
“Within the Udal collection there are skeletons of bird species which now exist only in the Southern Ocean. At one time they were here on North Uist,” Robert said. “Climate change is not new, but what is new is that it’s accelerating. What the Udal collection might show is that man has adapted to climate change in the past, and will certainly have to do so in the future.”
The development company hope to relocate the Udal collection — currently housed in Glasgow — to a permanent home in Uist. The new centre would also, if feasible, act as an environmental and research base with the aim of attracting climate change and archaeological scientists and academics to study there.
That same theme of education as a means to stimulate economic growth shapes a third project.
The development company are supporting a local group to launch a community buy-out of the building which once housed Lochmaddy Hospital. The group want to convert the building into studio space and student accommodation for courses run by the University of the Highlands and Islands at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre.
“The hospital was abandoned several years ago and has gradually deteriorated,” Robert said. “But it could be transformational for Lochmaddy to have 70 students staying there, with the opportunities that creates.”
Another potential money-spinner is in the adventure sports market.
Having seen Tiree become a mecca for windsurfers, the company hope to make Uist a centre of kitesurfing. Coastal conditions are thought to be particularly attractive for enthusiasts of a burgeoning pursuit which is set to become an Olympic sport within the next decade.
BUT, with these individual projects all hinting at collective benefits, might the residents of North Uist not be tempted to go the whole hog and bring the land under community control?
It’s something which is currently subject to local scrutiny, but Robert is keen to stress that at this stage the development company are distancing themselves from the debate.
Nevertheless, from a personal point of view Robert is supportive of the idea being investigated.
He adds: “Looking to other communities it does appear they have attracted some public finance that others haven’t been able to attract.
“In South Uist they have their wind turbines up ahead of us. They are investing about £11 million into the regeneration project in Lochboisdale. There are clear benefits there.
“But the estate (the land is currently owned by Earl Granville) has been supportive of the development company,
“If the community opt for the buy-out in the future it would be good if the buy-out group, and the estate could work together on it.”
ROBERT FRASER’s first visit to the Southern Isles came on a sailing holiday, but 22 years ago he made the move to North Uist permanent. Since then he and wife Janice have raised three sons — Magnus, Calum and Alasdair — on the island.
Originally from Easter Ross, Robert had lived previously in Shetland and in the central belt, before taking up a job with Comhairle nan Eilean in 1992.
Six years ago he set up his own firm, Fraser Architecture, and aside from the work of the development company he plays an active part in a range of local interests.
A keen sailor and kayaker, several years ago Robert skippered ‘An Sulaire’ — a 33-foot replica of the traditional “sgoth” fishing vessels distinctive to Ness in Lewis — on voyages throughout the Hebrides.
On dry land he helps out at the North Uist Athletics Club, regularly accompanying young athletes on trips to the mainland along with dedicated coaches Mairi Levack and Norman “Curly” MacLeod.
He added: “It’s a great experience for kids here, and really important to get them off the island and to compete in an environment surrounded by top-level performers. It really inspires them.”
And what then of inspiring a younger generation to settle and live on the island which he has come to love?
Having seen the cost of a litre of domestic heating oil rise from 18 pence to 80 pence in the 12 years since building the family home, Robert sees fuel costs as one significant drawback for the local economy. So too are IT connections, though the rollout of improved broadband should go some way to improving that situation in the coming years.
“We have huge fuel costs, and high levels of fuel poverty in housing. But with all the energy we are surrounded with we shouldn’t be suffering that way,” he said.
“There isn’t any one person who can solve the area’s challenges. Every authority, be it HIE or the local council, has to make a contribution.
“But taking some control of our own future with the development company is the way to go.
“If there is interest, and wealth generation, people will want to stay here.
“The first thing I’d like to see happening would be to have the turbines up, and get income into the community. If we get our approval for the turbines I hope they will be up within the year, and within two years we could be looking at distributing money.
“And if we can get the other projects to come to fruition in the next five years it would be fantastic.”