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Port Ellen

The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen <em>Picture: Hamish Macdonell</em>

The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen Picture: Hamish Macdonell

No email, no texts, no mobile phone coverage, no heat, no electric light, no power – it was like being back in the 1970s during the three-day week.

The storm tore into Islay at 5:20am on Tuesday. By 5:30am we had lost our electricity supply and we didn’t get it back for another 53 hours.

For the first day, it was something of an adventure – especially for the children who had to take a candle or a torch everywhere they went, including the bathroom. As dawn broke on the second day, though, and we were still cold and sitting in the dark, the novelty had begun to wear off. By the third, when we would have given at least half our New Year whisky supplies just for a hot bath or a shower, the power cut had started to make us more than a little grumpy.

But at least we had water. Neighbours not that far away from us had to try to catch rainwater because there was no power to drive the electric pumps bringing their water up from their bore holes.

And at least we had an open fire. The local cottage hospital was reported to be full of elderly, vulnerable people who had been rescued shivering in cold, dark, unlit houses because they had absolutely no way of getting warm or producing any hot food.

We also got our electricity back during that third day (thanks very much to the power company engineers who worked hard to get all of us reconnected). There were parts of Islay where the electricity was still not back heading towards day four and others may not get it back even today.

Despite everything, though, the whole experience was both salutary and revealing, in many ways.

For a start, I learned some new skills which I never thought I would need: like trimming the wick on an oil lamp, fitting a mantle to a Tilly lamp in semi-darkness and changing the butane canister on a single ring gas ring with a torch clamped between my jaws.

We also learned to live by the natural rhythms of the day – which, on Islay in the winter, means that dawn doesn’t really break before 8:30am and, with the clouds low and heavy, there isn’t much light much before lunchtime and it goes again by 4:10pm.

There was simply no point trying to get up before the sun was up because it meant laying the fire in the dark, refuelling oil lamps and shivering in the dark.

We learned how much we rely on electricity and how far we have to adapt when we don’t have it. But it also taught us how much there is to enjoy without it – like how good an open fire, a few flickering candles and a bottle of Ardbeg can be after a day struggling to complete even the most basic of tasks.

The children got to find out what it’s like to make breakfast by toasting bread over an open fire and how to cope without television, computers and all other appliances they take for granted.

Our house lost a decent number of slates but we came out of it in a far better state than many. The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen’s main hall, which has withstood storms and gales for more than a century, had a large part of its roof ripped off by the winds.

On Tuesday morning, I drove down the main street in Port Ellen and it was as if the road had been paved with broken house slates which had rained down over the tarmac from all sides.

The storm was preceded by such a deluge of rain that the ground everywhere had been turned to mud. Apparently, this was one of the reasons so many trees were torn up and thrown about – because there was nothing firm for the roots to hold on to.

One of the most extraordinary aspects, though, was the speed with which the storm passed over the island. Islay is relatively flat and the weather doesn’t tend to linger very long. But the wind barrelled in at 5:20am and was gone by 6:30am.

Lying in bed, it sounded like the sea had risen up from the shore some half a mile away and was crashing against the house – then it was gone, leaving months of repair work and fixing in its wake.

We have our electricity back (and emails and the internet – which is both a blessing and a curse), and most others should get reconnected soon.

It was inconvenient, yes. It was uncomfortable, certainly. But it made us stop and think – and, looking back in the electricity-generated cosiness of a warm and well-lit house, that may be no bad thing.

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libdem01

The Caledonian Mercury has invited some of those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. Alison Hay is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Argyll and Bute.

    Monday 25 April
    Disaster! My campaign manager has strained a tendon doing DIY at the weekend and will have to rest his foot for a few days, My husband John has gallantly stepped into the breach and will help me with leaflet delivery over the next couple of days, so I’m back on the campaign trail after having a rest on Sunday afternoon.

    We’re on Lismore this afternoon with my husband driving. Mixed reactions, with ferries and roads the main issues.

    Tuesday 26 April
    Today it has been agreed that we meet at Cairndow Oyster Bar which is about 30 minutes from where I live. Argyll and Bute’s MP Alan Reid is joining John and me to deliver leaflets in Cairndow, Strachur, St Catherines, Tighnabruaich and Kames on the Cowal peninsula. Again, the weather is wonderful and I’m beginning to develop a tan. Campaigning is great in weather like this.

    This evening is the Dunoon hustings and I’m not looking forward to it. Mike Russell and the SNP are in difficult water! They promised the Dunoon residents two new boats in exchange for votes, in 2007. They have failed to deliver and the Dunoon/Gourock ferry service will become passenger-only from the end of June. Dunoon residents are not best pleased.

    Wednesday 27 April
    The time is 9am and I’m in Connel near Oban. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott is paying a visit to Connel post office to promote our support for rural post offices. The owner is Rosie Stevenson. She has diversified her post office into a grocer’s shop.

    She opens early to provide filled rolls, papers, etc to the workmen on their way to work. She is very happy with the progress she is making and is happy with the help she has had from Alan Reid.

    Also with us this morning is George Lyon MEP, the Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign manager. A happy time was spent talking to the press and drinking tea supplied by Rosie. We leave about 10am and head down towards Kennacraig to catch the 1pm ferry to the island of Islay. My campaign manager Tony is back, hobbling, assuring me he is better but I’m sceptical.

    We spend the afternoon on the island of Jura and drive 18 miles to Ardlussa over the worst roads I’ve been on yet. At Ardlussa a surprise awaited: visitors can use a small walkie-talkie to send their order to a house about 400 yards away and the lady will bring out your order of tea and you can sit on the beach to drink it. In this weather I can think of nothing nicer.

    Thursday 28 April
    Leafleting in Islay, particularly Port Ellen which we had not done during our previous visit. Then drove to Portnahaven and spoke to another postmaster who has a problem with planning. Back to Port Charlotte and visited the Museum of Islay Life and the local café.

    Then back to Bowmore for the evening’s hustings at the High School. Mr Russell does his usual and tries to blame the school closures on me; he doesn’t get away with it this time. His infamous email was quoted from and his interference as education minister with council business was commented on. He is behaving outrageously and keeps denying he said eight or nine schools “could be taken through with little difficulty”.

    Why the people of Argyll and Bute believe the SNP wouldn’t close schools if it didn’t happen to be election time is a mystery.

    Friday 29 April
    On the ferry back to Kennacraig, then leafleting in Tarbert. Tomorrow is a walkabout in Dunoon. Only four more working days to go to “E-Day”.

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

    The Machrie Hotel on Islay. <em>Picture: The Machrie Hotel</em>

    The Machrie Hotel on Islay. Picture: The Machrie Hotel

    No-one who has played the Machrie championship golf course on Islay is ever likely to forget it.

    This 71-par course is one of the most challenging but beautiful courses anywhere in the world which is why golfers everywhere will groan with disappointment at the news, just announced, that the Machrie Hotel and Golf Links has gone into administration.

    But, however bad the blow may be to golfers from around the world, the impact on the people of this Hebridean isle will be even greater.

    With 16 rooms in the main hotel and 15 chalets, the Machrie Hotel is the biggest hotel on the island. It also is the only venue with the draw of a golf course – routinely named as one of the best 100 in the world – a draw strong enough to attract visitors to stay and play.

    Fifteen of the 18 Machrie employees have been made redundant, just before Christmas, with the remaining three tasked with keeping the place and the course ticking over during the winter months with the hope that it may re-open sometime next year.

    The administrators, KPMG, say they are hopeful that a buyer will be found for the Machrie Hotel and Golf Links but experts admit that this is not the ideal time to be looking for a buyer with deep pockets, a love of golf and a fondness for Islay.

    The result is that the Machrie will be closed for the foreseeable future. The golf course is still being played – depending on the weather – and the Islay Golf Club will continue to function as normally, even though they will not now be able to adjourn to the bar afterwards for a restorative dram to make up for all the balls lost on the course.

    Former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, who was born on Islay and who still spends much of his time there, told the Times today that the failure of the Machrie Hotel was an “absolute tragedy”.

    Lord Robertson, who is an active member of the Machrie Golf Club, said he hoped someone would step in to save it because the complete closure of the resort would be a “significant blow” to the island economy.

    The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links was bought in 2004 by businessman Graham Ferguson Lacey with at least two other partners.

    At that time, Mr Ferguson Lacey had grand plans for the hotel. He wanted to expand the existing provision of 16 rooms in the hotel and 15 self-catering chalets and create a second golf course to attract the American market.

    It is understood that he tried to purchase land at two other places on Islay for a second championship course but those plans fell through as did other proposals to build a new, more modern hotel nearer the sea.

    Mr Ferguson Lacey still had plans to re-develop the existing hotel before the credit crunch arrived two years ago.

    But, according to sources close to the hotel, a combination of the global economic problems and problems with the water supply pushed the hotel to the edge.

    It is understood that depressed visitor numbers to the hotel, as well as a downturn in Mr Ferguson Lacey’s other investments, most notably in the Isle of Man, eventually led to the decision to place the hotel in the hands of the administrators.

    Lord Robertson said: “It’s an absolute tragedy that this has happened because the hotel and the golf course are vital to the economy of Islay.

    “Large numbers of tourists come across to the golf course and the hotel itself attracts quite a lot of people to the island and it gives employment to many people as well. I hope something can be done.”

    Lord Robertson added: “We have got to hope that somebody will see the potential of this idyllic golf course and hotel.”

    He described the course as “magnificent” and added: “It has had a lot of investment in it, the green-keeper is one of the best anywhere. No-one who plays it ever forgets it.”

    It is understood that although the hotel does very well during the summer and in particular during the first week in August when the annual golf competition for the Kildalton Cross trophy takes place, the hotel struggles to fill its rooms during other lean months of the year.

    No-one at the hotel was available for comment yesterday. Instead, hotel staff directed all calls to accountants KPMG in Glasgow.

    Blair Nimmo, joint administrator from KPMG Scotland, said: “Both the hotel and golf course have excellent reputations and are regarded as destination venues for visitors to Islay.

    “Despite this, Machrie Hotel and Golf Links has unfortunately, like many other companies in the tourism and hospitality sector, been impacted from tightening consumer spending and troubled economic conditions.”

    And he added: “Taking Islay’s prominence as a tourist hot spot into account with its high number of whisky distilleries and other attractions, we are optimistic a buyer will be found for this quite excellent facility.”

    <em>Picture: Bruce Cowan</em>

    Picture: Bruce Cowan

    Ministers are considering the effective part-privatisation of the state-owned company behind Scotland’s lifeline ferry services, it emerged today.

    They believe such a change to the parent company behind Caledonian MacBrayne could save the taxpayer between £800 million and £1 billion over the next 12 years.

    But it would also represent a radical departure for an SNP administration which has been averse to any form of privatisation up until now.

    Ministers have been persuaded to examine the proposal in response to the looming cuts to public spending, which will take place over the next few years.

    Caledonian MacBrayne runs ferry services to most of Scotland’s west-coast islands. It is wholly state owned and state run and it costs the taxpayer about £100 million a year in subsidies for running costs and another £60 million or so in annual capital costs for new boats and piers.

    It is this £60 million a year which ministers believe they can save.

    Their plan – revealed in the Times today – would see an end to the current state model.

    Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited – the part of ferry operation which owns all the ships and piers – would be turned into a new, private not-for-profit company.

    This new entity would be governed by members from island communities and it not be able to make a profit. But it would be a private, rather than a public, company and, as such, it would be able to borrow on the open market.

    CMAL needs between £800 million and £1 billion over the next 12 years to fund new ferries and piers. Under the current, state-owned model, this money has to come from the Scottish Government but, under the part-private scheme, it could be raised from the markets – saving the Scottish Government from having to make this investment.

    Ministers stressed today that they had no intention of privatising the day-to-day Caledonian MacBrayne ferry operation and this move to possibly part-privatise the holding company behind CalMac was only being considered because of the need to save money.

    But the revelation that such a radical change is being considered at all prompted calls from some of the Scottish Government’s critics for a more far-reaching change. Some said they wanted the whole ferry system put out to tender and others said that, if the government accepted this part-privatisation model for ferries, it should do the same for Scottish Water.

    However critics on the Left warned that fares and berthing charges could rise as a result. They said the money was only being borrowed by CMAL and it would have to be paid back. That could mean increased charges all round as the new, private, company tried to repay the loans.

    The proposal to part-privatise Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited has been included in the Scottish Government’s Ferries Review, which ministers have opened out to public consultation.

    The review warned that the status quo – with the company being funded entirely by the Scottish Government – is no longer an option because there is not enough money available to fund all the new boats and infrastructure that CalMac needs.

    Instead, ministers suggest a number of options, the most detailed and most likely of which is the proposal to turn CMAL into a not-for-profit private company.

    The review states: “If such a company had private sector status it would have the power to borrow commercially.”

    Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the former UK Labour Cabinet Minister, told the Times the Scottish Government was right to look at part-privatising CMAL but it was not being radical enough. He wants the entire CalMac operation examined to see if it can be done better and, if necessary, all the routes opened out to tender.

    Lord Robertson lives on Islay so knows what it is like to rely on local ferry services. He is also a non-executive director of Western Ferries, which runs a non-subsidised service between Gourock and Dunoon in competition to the subsidised CalMac operation.

    He said: “We have to be radical about how we provide for these island communities. There is no reason why, if the private sector can run a service, why it is not doing it. There is something almost scandalous about the fact that CalMac loses money on every route in Scotland. Some of these are very, very popular and some of these could be run very profitably by other companies.

    “It seems ludicrous to keep this monolithic, state-owned monopoly operating almost without limit.”

    Jackson Carlaw, for the Tories, said that the Scottish Government’s conversion to part-privatisation should open the door for other, similar, moves.

    He said: “Because of the financial pressures, the government is prepared to look at things they have never been prepared to look at before. If they are prepared to look at transferring CMAL to a not-for-profit operation then there is nothing to stop them looking at Scottish Water in the same way.”

    The Scottish Government has resisted calls for it to part-privatise, or mutualise, Scottish Water. But the model it is considering for CMAL is similar to one its critics want it to adopt for Scottish Water.

    A senior Scottish Government source stressed that the two operations were completely different and just because part-privatisation was being considered for one did not mean it would be considered for another.

    The source admitted the CMAL plan was under “serious consideration” but he added: “We will see wait to see what people say in response to the consultation before we make a decision.”

    However, critics warned that, if CMAL does become a private entity and borrows money from the markets, it will have to pay that money back and that could mean higher fares, greater berthing fees and increased costs for passengers all round.

    Ian Macintyre, the Scotland and Northern Ireland organiser for the RMT union, was adamant that the whole ferry operation should stay “publicly owned and publicly run and publicly accountable”.

    “Rather than borrowing money from the markets, wouldn’t it be better for CalMac to borrow from the part-nationalised banks which we own, like RBS and HBOS? That way we could keep investing in the fleet without using the markets,” he said.