Bitter strife over St Kilda visitor centre

Gleann Mor valley, St Kilda. <em>Picture: Ian Thomas</em>
Gleann Mor valley, St Kilda. Picture: Ian Thomas

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.

  • Michael Brand

    I may be a Dim English Incomer, but wouldn’t the logical place to site the “St.Kilda Visitor Centre” be at Village Bay, Hirta!?

    From there, such facilities as locals at the various points of departure to St.Kilda choose to provide is entirely up to ‘said locals.

    • Robin Johnston

      The reason why St.Kilda/Hirta itself doesn’t appear as an optional site for the visitor centre, is that other than military personnel (and the odd sheep scientist), St. Kilda is unoccupied.

      Also, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, any new development – such as a visitor centre – would certainly not be allowed.

      I guess the other consideration is that the trip to St. Kilda can be arduous (2-3 hours by fast boat from the Outer Hebrides). Many more people would be interested in learning about the archipelago from a visitor centre from the comfort of the more accesible islands of Lewis/Harris or the Uists.

      • Chris W

        I don’t think World Heritage Site status precludes any new development. Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns are World Heritage sites.

    • onebraal

      The places with the most connections to St Kilda are Loch Carnan and South Ford, from where all supplies and personnel were moved throughout the 1960’s. The is a pub on Benbecula, not far from South Ford, where Hammond Innes stayed before he wrote Atlantic Fury. It should be built in that vicinity.

  • Chris W

    So the St Kilda visitors centre won’t actually be built on St Kilda.

    Whoever decided to hire Jura Consultants must have had a sense of humour, given that they aren’t actually based on Jura.

  • spagan

    Uig in anyone impartial’s eyes would have been a poor 3rd choice – except for the fact that it would benefit from the economic development. However that’s true for all 3 possibilities.
    Nothing to do with New Labour Brian Wislon influence I hope???
    Given the very real historic and cultural connections, Leverburgh would have been the best location – but with a few well placed information posts elsewhere – in Uig and in Uist – with very powerful telescopes looking West.
    Slainte Mhor

  • Lianachan

    The only sensible location for a St. Kilda “visitor” or heritage centre is Leverburgh in Harris. St. Kilda is, administratively, part of Harris. Uig is by far the poorest of the three options, although the closest as the crow flies. I cannot understand why it was chosen.

  • I completely agree with the last sentence in this report. It is beyond a joke that this stupid in-fighting continues now that the decision has been taken, 2 months ago. If the Uisteachs insist on having their own centre, let’s also have one at Leverburgh, for goodness’ sakes.

  • donald anderson

    Sounds like a good site for the Scottish Office, after Rockall.

  • Simon Chadwick

    Well, yes, is there a reason why there can’t be more than one? If there is visitor demand. Perhaps these things should be allowed to emerge from the grass roots, rather than being imposed from outside by external consultancies with £35,000 budgets.

  • James Wilkie

    I agree with Lianachan. The Sound of Harris is the obvious route from the mainland to St. Kilda, bearing in mind that not all visitors will start from the Western Isles. Yachtspeople are not going to sail through the sound and then make a detour north to Uig to visit the exhibition before travelling on to St. Kilda. Leverburgh is absolutely the natural location for such a facility. I know all the places mentioned – I visited them quite recently, and I have spent weeks on Hirta itself. Uig, where I had a near-shipwreck years ago, has nothing like facilities for larger cruise vessels such as can use the Sound of Harris. It’s for the islanders to decide, but for my money it should be decided on the basis of what will be most attractive to the potential customers.

  • the telephone’s ringing

    Right, Scottish issues
    National rights and identity
    Our resources OURS

    Bet browns not turning down the heaters
    Bet he’s not wearing a woolen blanket like me and my husband
    Fuel poverty is disgusting in Scotland.

  • Uig is not a poor third choice. Those who think so have forgotten what this centre is for (and no, the “criteria” haven’t changed). St Kilda is a WHS for both its cultural and its natural history, and the centre was and is meant to celebrate and illuminate both of those. Uig has the nearest representation of the St Kilda topography, marine life, bird life, land use and sense of isolation, as well as a way of human life that’s comparable (Gaelic speaking, subsistence crofting, use of small islands, remoteness and exposure to the elements) – and a landscape of mountains, cliffs and sea, a view of the islands, and long-established provision of day and live-aboard trips to the St Kilda (and other islands), and is within an hour of Stornoway where most of the visitors come to, and 90 minutes of the vast majority of the resident population of the Western Isles.

    The decision was clearly made on the balance of strengths and weaknesses between all the contenders. It would have been a very poor job (and an unnecessary process) if the only criterion was what parish it was in (which won’t matter to the visitor at all) or the view or where the MOD was serviced from. No one area has a right to it and a visitor centre for a WHS has to focus on 1) the visitor and 2) the WHS.

    • Sorry Ms Egan but the criterion did change, clearly listed on there is nothing there that is in-factual and yet you and your friends orchestrate a media campaign to to label the people of Harris a vitriolic liars (despite both Uist & Harris publicly stating same opinion). Your own councillor has gone on record with the official get out of jail clause where he said it was listed in the original criterion that they could be subject to change, this is admission the criteria changed and a poor justification for the changes made after both Harris & Uist submitted their bids.

      If its all about the visitor then why was Economics dropped from the original criterion when its clear this was a major strength of the Leverburgh bid, a fact acknowledged by the Consultants when they stated unlike the other 2 sites Leverburgh could withstand a 10% drop in visitor numbers. Yet they contrived the lame justification that centre was of economic benefit to whole of Western Isles and didn’t need to be scored and therefore became one of the original criteria that was conveniently “Subject to change”. A strange decision for a consultancy firm who’s strength is lottery/enterprise funding bids. Show me a funding body that doesn’t consider Economic viability as a serious factor!

      Who owns the land in Uig? Not the Council so they’ll have to buy it
      Who owns the land in leverburgh? The Council
      Will a new road to the centre in Mangersta have to be built? Yes.
      Will a new road have to be built to Leverburgh? No?

      You appear to think like many in position of power that the whole of the Western Isles revolves around Stornoway, and that Mangersta is less than an hour away. I can assure you this is Spin, its over an hour away if you keep to the speed limit.

      Secondly you seem to be under this illusion that most visitors come to Stornoway, The Tourist information centre visitor numbers:
      Stornoway : 21,717
      Tarbert : 28,495

      Again ignored by what you describe as a balanced process!
      If the No.1 on your list is the Visitor then surely you must place the centre where most visitors are going to visit it?

      All the facts you mention above are completely generic to the whole of the western isles, unless of course all wildlife in Harris and Uist have migrated to Uig? Yet these facts have been scored as exclusive to Uig.

      Finally it does matter which Parish it is in. It shows your ignorance towards the people of Harris that you think this isn’t an issue, you and your conspirators have essentially raped Harris of its finest asset and I wonder if it matters to Norman Gillies? If parish isn’t important then I look forward Harris or Uist being the future home of the Lewis Chessmen, I think parish would become a serious issue if that were to ever happen, but of course that would never happen.

      If Uist wants to build its own centre then it will have 100% backing from all those who clearly see the injustice that has been done to them.

      • I won’t engage in a debate about this but I will correct some of your points. The land is owned by the Uig & Hamnaway estate which has confirmed its intention to donate it to the centre. The only road that needs built is an access road. Economic viability was obviously considered in depth and as all three locations were judged to be viable, it was not ranked in the final document as only aspects with a differential were listed.

        It is frankly wrong and unjustified to say that the community of Uig has “orchestrated a media campaign” to label anyone (never mind the “rape”). Our collective position has always been and continues to be that we understand the disappointment felt by the other areas and hope that eventually we will all be able to work together to our mutual benefit, but we are mystified and rather offended at the suggestion that Uig could only have secured the recommendation through some kind of dodgy deal.

  • Cailean Maclean

    Uig in Lewis was a surprising choice. Both North Uist and Harris have considerably stronger connections with St Kilda.
    I was also surprised by the caption on the article’s accompanying photograph. Is Gleann Mor valley in the same country as the Firth of Forth estuary and Loch Lomond lake?

  • Terry, your facts are wrong.

    The recommended site for the St Kilda Centre in Uig is under 1hr from Stornoway.

    The site will not be bought, it is in crofting tenure and the crofting landlord has agreed to give it over.That was made clear in the successful Uig bid.

    The road to Breanish passes by the site; when the St Kilda Centre in Uig is built, it will require a parking area.

    The greatest no of visitors to enter the Western Isles, come through Stornoway.

    The criteria did not change, the process developed
    Your comment would have far more value, if you had your facts right.

  • RobW

    From a non hebridean’s point of view (although I travelled to St Kilda twice last year), it would seem sensible to locate the VC somewhere where folk could then catch a boat out there. Uig or Leverburgh would fit the bill, although Leverburgh would presumably get more passing trade. On that basis N Uist would seem a strange choice, but I daresay a boat operator would latch on if it went that way.