The increasingly bitter dispute between islanders over the proposed St Kilda Visitor Centre looks even less likely to be resolved amicably with members of the failed North Uist bid considering whether to press ahead with their own plans for a rival centre.
The need for some sort of exhibition space and visitor centre detailing St Kilda’s history has long been accepted. However, the location has never been agreed upon. This was meant to have been resolved by bringing in external help, Jura Consultations, who were commissioned to report on the best location for the project.
Three strong candidates were whittled down from an original eight. They were North Uist, from where you can see St Kilda; Leverburgh, Harris, which has a strong connection to the island and within whose Parish St Kilda is situated; and Mangurstadh in Uig in the West Coast of Lewis, another beautiful location with links to the islands, from where, as with Leverburgh, day-trips to the outlying archipelago depart.
Three good players, but only one winner and when Mangurstadh was revealed as the preferred option the two losers were beyond disappointment.
Archie Mackay, Production Editor of North Uist’s online newspaper, Am Paipear, blames the process of the consultation for the bad blood rather than the conclusion: “There isn’t one person in Harris or Uist who wouldn’t have shaken the hands of the winners,” he says, were it not for a belief that the process was “clearly manoeuvred in favour of the Uig bid”. This “manoeuvring” took the form of what Mackay claims was a “dramatic change in criteria” that the consultants used to asses the relative merits of the three bids.
It is this alleged changing of criteria – which North Uist blames for their failure to secure the preferred location – which has led to the possibility of a rival project.
Uisdean Robertson, a North Uist councillor and member of Sealladh Hiort, the group behind the Uist proposal, believes that the Uig recommendation reflects a degree of discrimination against the Uists which has “brought home to the people what we’re up against”. This in turn he says, has led to a “huge pressure locally to press ahead. I can’t move out of the house or pick up the phone without people mentioning it.”
Iain Buchanan, a Mangurstadh local who was involved with the Uig bid from the outset, is wearied by Sealladh Hiort’s decision to continue with their planned visitor centre, and by what he sees as the continual carping about criteria changing:
“There has been a lot of hassle and false accusations that it wasn’t a fair process but that’s a load of nonsense,” says Buchanan, who goes on to say that all the groups involved were clear from the outset that the criteria would be amended and added to as the process developed.
In Buchanan’s opinion, Uig won the bid because of its fantastic seascape which echoes the sense of remoteness of St Kilda itself. His view is that it would benefit the whole of the Outer Hebrides if everyone now got behind the one project and worked together.
But Uist Islanders are not just angry about the changing criteria, but have also questioned the financing of the whole process. The feasibility study cost close to £35,000, part funded by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Despite this outlay, the council have no plans to fund the visitor centre in Uig and admit that “it is open to any groups or others to come up with a project””
This rather raises the question: what was the point of the exercise, resulting as it has in ill-will, if the visitor centre location is still a free-for all?
Buchanan doesn’t believe the consultation was a waste of money, nor that anywhere other than Uig has the mandate to build the visitor’s centre. He is also confident that Uig alone is in a position to raise the necessary funding, as only they will secure the backing of all the agencies involved in the island.
“I don’t understand what they [Sealladh Hiort] are playing at. The proposal came down on our site in the end … people should accept that and get on with it … and wish us luck with what we want to do.”
For the time being, extending the hand of friendship seems unlikely. North Uist rings with the cries of “stitch-up”. Archie Mackay for one is certain that the story isn’t finished yet: “The visitor centre competition invigorated everyone to do something,” he says. “Everyone feels that injustice was done and now want to carry on and do the best they can.”
An optimist – and the islander is not noted for a “glass half-full” mentality – might hope that the end result would be a desired “trail” of St Kilda experiences across the islands. Realistically, the best that can be hoped for is that the in-fighting doesn’t sink the whole process.