Scotland’s three islands authorities have been working very closely together over a number of years with their most recent successful collaboration being ‘Our Islands Our Future’. This led to the Islands Act and soon an Islands Plan. The three islands authorities share many similarities but are also quite distinct in their own ways.
The Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides – Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – has a population of just under 27,000 with Stornoway its capital having about 6,800 people and if you take in the area round about (Greater Stornoway ) that ups it to 8,000.
In both Orkney and Shetland the draw of the capitals, Kirkwall and Lerwick, has seen a great movement of people, settling in the main towns. In the Outer Hebrides, with its larger population than both Orkney and Shetland , this is not quite the case.
It is something you notice when you visit Stornoway which still retains the charm of a ‘small’ town but with the excellent facilities of the islands’ capital.
Gaelic is the language of the Outer Hebrides and it is very much alive – not just in place names but in the everyday speech of the people. They have managed to retain their language where both Orkney and Shetland ceased speaking Norn a very long time ago. Indeed many Orcadian and Shetlandic words are being lost.
The political landscape of the Outer Hebrides is also quite different to its northern cousins. The UK Parliamentary constituency is Na h-Eileanan an Iar. From 1918 – 1935 it was Liberal – very like Orkney and Shetland (which is one constituency) but from then on it has moved between SNP and Labour. It is currently represented by the SNP at both UK and Scottish Parliamentary level by Angus MacNeill MP and Alasdair Allan MSP.
Recently Stornoway even had a march through its town for Independence something which it would be difficult to see happening in the Northern Isles.
The Norse influence is about though with some shared place names with Orkney and Shetland and Viking imagery used in public art.
Lews Castle, set in extensive grounds, has attached to it the purpose built Museum Nan Eilean. On display are some of the magnificent Lewis chessmen and artefacts from the Neolithic through to modern times. A separate room holds a sensitive exhibition on the Iolaire disaster.
There is also a very poignant memorial to the men who were lost on the Iolaire on the shore front. As the tide comes in it disappears under the incoming water.
The grounds of Lews Castle are being renovated or rejuvenated, if you like, and these contain an abundance of bird life.
It is a very popular place for people, visitors and locals, to walk in.
It was also very noticeable how popular cycling was in and around Stornoway with families. Providing safe places to cycle clearly works in encouraging an active lifestyle for all ages.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame