Tuesday, February 17, 2009



Last summer, I managed to get a lift on a boat to the Island of Scarp, a short distance offshore from the village of Hushinish in North Harris. Like many other Scottish islands, Scarp has a sad history of having had a reducing population for many years, leading to eventual abandonment. In 1881, there were 213 people living on the island, but by the 1940's, there were only 100 folk left. The Hydro Electric Board persistently refused to provide an electricity supply to Scarp and in 1966, the Church of Scotland decided not to replace the lay preacher. The school closed in 1967, followed by the post office two years later, which led to a complete cessation of mail deliveries to the island. The telephone cable was damaged in a storm and the General Post Office refused to repair it. Life became so intolerable for the few remaining islanders that they finally abandoned their homes in 1971 and left to live elsewhere. One book I have says that there were twelve people living on Scarp at the very end, whilst another says that only seven remained. There are two or three houses still used as holiday homes during the summer, but as far as I know, no one lives on Scarp all the year round now. The church in the photo was left with its pulpit and pews in place and there they remain to this day, slowly rotting away.
A very interesting and quite famous experiment took place on Scarp in 1934. A German Inventor, Dr Gerhard Zucker, decided to try his hand at launching rockets, containing the island mail, from Harris to Scarp. Regrettably, the venture failed when the rockets kept exploding in flight and the containers with the letters in them were scattered all over the land. I read somewhere that some of the stamped letters that survived occasionally turn up at auction. This whole episode was the subject of a decent film called 'The Rocket Post', made a few years ago, but which failed to get a general release. I saw it at the film club in Stornoway and it's well worth watching if you can find a DVD copy on the internet. By complete coincidence, I met a woman this afternoon who was an extra in the film.

Two much valued community facilities, probably unique to the Outer Hebrides, are in danger of being closed down for ever. In a number of villages on the islands, there are small residential care units, where elderly and infirm people who don't want to go into a home or leave their communities, can live independently, but with care staff on 24 hour cover available for when they need them. These care units also take people for short term respite stays, which helps users and their families when they need support, but enables them to remain in their own homes the rest of the time.

The second facility probably about to vanish are first and second year secondary education units attached to primary schools. Several of these schools provide education for children up to the age of about 14, so that they can be taught in their own communities before transferring to one of the bigger secondary schools, usually many miles away, in the third year. Most people agree that this benefits the children by helping them to develop confidence and cope better with the larger schools when they do transfer.
A permanent obsession with cost cutting and increased centralisation has led the local council to propose closing the care units and S1 and S2 secondary schools. It looks as if the care units will go soon, although the council is thinking of renting them back to residents as tenancies and offering home help support.

The Scottish Education Minister has refused to allow the closure of the schools for now, but it's almost certainly only a matter of time before they go.

The care units and schools are important to this community and help remote islands such as this to continue to survive. The money ought to follow facilities identified by residents as socially necessary. Instead, as in many other parts of the UK, the politicians here are constantly nibbling away at community resources to save money. This may well ultimately contribute to the demise of island communities like Lewis, which provide a wonderful quality of life and a generally safe and secure place to raise children without many of the problems found in heavily populated urban centres.

All well at the Chateau this week. Number one son and grandaughter arriving Thursday. I'm taking a few days off work to spend time with them.

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