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November 23, 2021

Catch up with Uist

A perennial  frustration for those on the fringes of mainstream policy making, is that certain unshakeable assumptions seem to underpin all this activity which no one seems prepared to challenge. An example being the unspoken belief that rural and island communities need to ‘catch up’ in some way with their urban counterparts in order to meet the challenges that they face. Research released earlier this year by the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme (with substantial Scottish island input) argues the complete opposite and this publication suggests Uist might be a good place to begin this rural policy reappraisal.

Full brochure

Uist comprises 7 inhabited islands, stretching over 60 miles and linked by causeways in the southern part of the Outer Hebrides. We are a great place to live and work. We enjoy a stunning environment, close-knit communities still rooted in the land, and, as the heartland of Gaelic, a very strong cultural heritage and identity. 

Uist also faces significant challenges, such as geographic remoteness and the legacy of demographic decline, very high fuel poverty rates and increasing housing shortages, the impacts of isolation and the economic impacts of austerity and Brexit.

Set out in the Atlantic, we are also on the frontline of impacts from the climate emergency, including rising sea levels and changes in weather patterns. The low-lying western coast of South Uist is now one of the most vulnerable coastlines in the UK. 

At the same time, we are enterprising, resourceful and resilient island communities, determined to meet the needs of all and to find our own solutions. We have long demonstrated this by the many social and community enterprises that have grown over 40 years, by some of the highest volunteering rates in Scotland and by our rapid community response to Covid.

 We are hugely confident and ambitious. 

For example: 

  • We have developed many community solutions to delivering core services such as care and childcare, adult and further education, and supporting those with mental health or isolation challenges.
  • We are sustaining a cultural revival from young bands to a new £7m+ cultural centre, Cnoc Soilleir, and promote our culture and environment to a global audience.
  • The largest community owned estate in Scotland is in Uist, and has increased the value of its assets sevenfold in a decade, including a wind farm and new harbour.
  • Increasing numbers of younger people in their 20s and 30s are choosing to return, settle or stay in Uist as a vibrant and dynamic place that delivers wellbeing and quality of life. More than 10 percent run their own businesses. These young people are at the forefront of national campaigns on diverse issues such as housing, Gaelic, crofting and local air traffic control. 

 Local research (in 2012) estimated that there was almost one social and community enterprise for every 100 people, and more than one community organisation (whether enterprise or not) for every 45 people on the islands. Our 50+ social and community enterprises range from internationally recognised centres of excellence to small community halls that provide essential local facilities. 

For over 40 years our social and community enterprises have built extensive community wealth and assets, rooted in the lived experience, knowledge and skills of our communities. Without the growth of social and community enterprises over the past decades, Uist communities wouldn’t have survived; lights here would have long gone out. 

Local coops have played a vital role in sustaining retail, crofting and fishing. The award winning community paper Am Pàipear has been published since 1976. And our social and community enterprises now deliver numerous services, from essential services like land management, post offices and shops, home and childcare, to services delivering wellbeing and cultural identity. Social and community enterprises proved critical in sustaining our island communities during the Covid pandemic. 

Further research (in 2013) by social enterprise Cothrom identified 117 development projects, planned or in progress in Uist. Community organisations, especially social and community enterprises, led or were involved in 111 of these. In 2012 the Third Sector generated 12% of jobs outside the public sector, and most of these jobs were in social enterprises. In 2018, the same organisations generated 10% of all jobs for those in their 20s and 30s, supporting population revival. 

Social enterprises have created windfarms, new harbours/marinas, centres for training, recycling, culture, heritage, and community facilities worth tens of millions of pounds. Social enterprises like Ceòlas and Taigh Chearsabhagh are at the heart of the cultural revival. Stòras Uibhist and North Uist Development Company are key players investing in infrastructure. Social enterprises like Tagsa Uibhist have developed local horticulture in response to the climate crisis. And CoDeL shone a light on positive population trends in remote rural and island communities, and most recently on the resilience of peripheral communities in times of crises, changing national and international policy perspectives.

Through our social and community enterprises, our island communities deliver and influence well beyond what might be expected of such small communities. Collectively, our experience and skills, expertise and knowledge, are a remarkable resource for sustaining our own communities as well as helping communities elsewhere. A remarkable resource also for driving insight, research and policy-making for remote rural and island communities. We seek to engage in equal partnership with our local authority and public agencies, with national organisations and networks, to deliver the best for our island communities, our land and climate.