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MP, MSP plead for community shop to be saved

More than 1000 people have joined the fight for survival of the Castlebay community shop, Bùth Bharraigh which faces demolition as part of a regeneration scheme created by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Local MSP Alasdair Allan said: “I have raised this issue with the council and very much hope a mutually agreeable solution can be found.  It is in the best interests of staff, customers and the many local producers who supply the shop that this enterprise continues to flourish.”
Local MP Angus B MacNeil said: “I have been contacted by Bùth Bharraigh who are concerned about plans to demolish the former Co-operative building from which they operate.
“As a result of the concerns raised, I have written to the Comhairle to ask them to work with the community to ensure the long term future of Bùth Bharraigh which is a very successful social enterprise.
“Bùth Bharraigh provides local employment and also supports island suppliers and is an asset to the Isle of Barra.  I have asked the Comhairle for details of the plans for the former co-operative building and have also asked that the concerns expressed are addressed.
“Bùth Bharraigh must have premises from which they can continue this successful venture.”
The Bùth Bharraigh premises were formerly those of the Scottish Co-op which were bought by CnES after the new Co-op store opened in Castlebay.  CnES has claimed Bùth Bharraigh knew the premises were going to be demolished from the start – however, emails from 2013 when Bùth Bharraigh set up the shop, show that there was discussion of five, ten and 20 year leases but no mention of demolition.
A Bùth Bharraigh statement says: “Initially, when we applied for the Old Co-op Building we had no idea that it was earmarked to be demolished.  CnES promised us a custom-built building for the shop and indeed even that we could have input into the design process. 
In January 2015, CnES confirmed that this was not in fact the case and we would have to apply for a unit [on the industrial estate] and the old co-op would be demolished. 
“We are aware of the demand for business units on the island, that there is a need for businesses to be located at the historic centre of Castlebay and that there is a need for activities and services for visitors to the island.  By staying in the Old Co-op building we will not create even more demand for business units, we are supporting the historic centre of Castlebay and providing services and activities for tourists. 
“We conducted a survey in Aug/Sep 2015 to ascertain, now that the building was being occupied and a hub of activity, whether public feeling had changed and whether we could now stay in this location. 
“We received 222 responses online and through the [local newspaper] Guth Bharraidh and 82% supported us remaining in the Old Co-op Building.  CnES and Castlebay Community Council (CCC) have been sent copies of the survey results but have not acted on it. 
“Since October 2015, Bùth Bharraigh Ltd believed we had been working with CnES to remove the Old Co-op Building from the demolition list so that we would have a secure future.  This would enable us to continue to develop and provide security for both our producers and employees.  As part of this process we were asked to obtain a letter of support from CCC and CnES were going to contact the Scottish Government Regeneration Department to see if the grant funding could be changed.  We invited members of CCC to the Bùth and also offered to make a presentation at the meeting.  However, we were not invited or made aware that the meeting was taking place. 
“It is extremely unfortunate that CCC choose to support a decision to demolish the Old Co-op without having all the necessary information to make an informed decision or carry out any consultation with the general public.  And also it seems that CnES did not contact the Scottish Government. 
“It is also unfortunate that CCC then decided to put an article on the front page of Guth Bharraidh without informing us or giving us any chance of reply.  We did ask CCC not to send the letter to CnES without first having an advertised meeting on the subject and a chance to get all the necessary information so that an informed decision could be reached.  However this request was ignored. 
“We have been left with no choice but to carry on and campaign for a secure future for Bùth Bharraigh.  There are too many people now relying on us: employees, local shoppers, producers, crofters and visitors. 
“Since our first survey has not been taken into consideration we are now undertaking a petition.  We have over 1000 supporters between the online and paper copies. 
“We are so appreciative of all the support and messages we have been receiving from local people and from people all over the world.  If you would like to sign then please do so online or in the Bùth.  We really do hope that a resolution can be reached soon. 

National petition to save local shop

A national petition has been launched on www.change.org to save a community shop in Castlebay from demolition.

Bùth Bharraigh is a local produce shop selling artisan goods from more than 80 suppliers from Barra and Vatersay, including meat, fish, vegetables, home-baking and crafts. 

Bùth Bharraigh Ltd, established in October 2013, is a sustainable community membership enterprise.  It was established to create opportunities for local people through providing a marketplace for local crofters and producers.  It also employs three full-time people plus 12 volunteers.  Last year it estimates that it brought in £88,000 for the local economy. 

Businesses have been created, supported and grown on the strength of the shop, so crofts are being developed and diversified.  This shop shortens the distance between producer and consumer and it meets the demand from visitors to the island. 

In their statement on www.change.org, the organisers say: “The shop is an all-inclusive organisation and we have producers from school-age to 80's.  It fosters enterprise and nurtures local talent, young and old.  This shop is really important for the future sustainability of the island.”

Yet the local council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are proposing to demolish the building which the shop leases without providing any suitable accommodation for the shop to relocate to. 

“Effectively the local authority are threatening the community business.  We would like to obtain the building by asset transfer.  Please show your support by signing and agreeing Bùth Bharraigh should be allowed to continue to trade in its present location,” says the plea on the petition site. 

In a statement on Friday February 26, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said: “With regard to the former Co-op building in Castlebay, Isle of Barra, the proposed demolition of the property was included in the Comhairle’s successful ‘South Uist and Barra Regeneration Programme’ bid to the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Capital Grant Fund in 2013. 

“This proposal reflected the wishes of the local community, as expressed by Castlebay Community Council following a survey conducted locally in 2012.  The proposal was also approved by the Comhairle in June 2014. 

“Bùth Bharraigh was made aware of the Comhairle’s intention to demolish building prior to the Comhairle facilitating its temporary occupancy of the building in late 2013 and this occupation was always going to be of a temporary nature. 

“Castlebay Community Council has recently reconsidered and reconfirmed their decision in writing to the Comhairle, stating: 'Following a Committee meeting held on the 8th February 2016, the majority of Community Councillors have agreed to support the decision made by the previous Community Council, that the old Co-op building be demolished as planned by the Comhairle.'"

The statement goes on: "The Comhairle has been supportive of Bùth Bharraigh since its inception; it remains supportive and will continue to support the organisation.  The Comhairle has a policy of advertising opportunities for the lease of business units publicly.  Bùth Bharraigh will be invited to apply, along with any other interested-parties, for the new business units when they become available for let.”

The shop organisers say they were not aware the premises were bound to be demolished when they took them over - instead, they felt they were being given a chance to demonstrate that there was something which could be done with the former retail unit.  Also they say there’s no guarantee they will get a new business unit, nor is there any provision for the interim period. 

It is understood that the Council has received a letter threatening legal action over their decision.

The demolition is part of the £900,000 South Uist and Barra Regeneration Programme made up of four inter-linked, regeneration projects dating back to September 2013.  It “provides funding for the development of 372 square metres of business units along with reclamation and environmental improvements to the former Co-op store site in Castlebay” says the Council.

A CnES report in June 2014 states: “There is a demonstrable increase in demand from new and existing businesses and social enterprises on the Island of Barra for purpose-built business units.  Following a recent public meeting in the area, five businesses have formally expressed an interest.  It is proposed to build two new business units to satisfy a wide range of local interests.  The new building would consist of two units of 184 square metres and 188 square metres with manufacturing, retail and office space. 

“The units would be built adjacent to existing units built by the Comhairle in Castlebay Industrial Estate as part of the ERDF-funded project.  The proposal includes the demolition of the former Co-op store with environmental improvements in Castlebay.”
(change.org petition)
(Bùth Bharraigh on Facebook)

New look, new displays for Eriskay shop

Visitors to Eriskay are finding a much expanded display of gifts and local products in the Eriskay Shop.

An extension completed last year allows for customers to browse through extensive displays while enjoying a sea view and they are also able to buy a coffee.  

And the post office section has been given a new look as well, with a unique rural feel.

And the exclusive Eriskay jumper is also available for order through the shop - with a handful of local people involved in knitting the unique design which is not available through any other outlet…anywhere!

Café with sea views now open

The  café at Kilbride in South Uist, set beside the road between Polochar and Ludag on the way to the causeway to Eriskay is now open four hours a day from midday, seven days a week.

This gives customers a chance to access free wifi while enjoying uninterrupted views across the Sound of Barra and enjoyed a varied menu of lunches, snacks and hot and cold drinks. The café is open 12-4pm every day at present.


Unexpected success for Harris gin as distillery starts work on first whisky

Question: What do the Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House, and Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona have in common?

Answer - they’ve all provided a photographic backdrop for the now ‘world-famous’ Isle of Harris Gin.

Since the Harris distillery opened its doors in September of last year, the frenetic pace of supplying a seemingly insatiable demand for this special gin hasn’t abated.

Indeed, Simon Erlanger, Managing Director of Harris Distillers Ltd, admits he is ‘amazed’ by the reaction.  “A week before we opened we had never even fired up the gin still.

“We had worked with Herriot Watt University for a year to establish a successful recipe and the stills were fired on the Friday before we opened.  I got a text at 6am on Saturday morning after the boys had been up all night making gin.

“We called the Nosing Panel together on Tuesday lunchtime and it was a huge moment of truth.  Thankfully they all loved it and it became hugely successful.”

Having anticipated sales of 2,500 bottles by the end of the year, Simon admits to being ‘blown away’ that final pre-Christmas sales are expected to report over 9,000 bottles sold.

It’s an even more impressive statistic considering that the gin is only available via the distillery itself.  You can either walk in and buy it, or have it posted out to where you live.

“We also send a handwritten note with the gin so people will feel somehow connected to Harris” said Simon.   “We stand apart because we only deal direct with our customers.”

For Simon Erlanger, the Isle of Harris Distillery represented a unique challenge after 25 years in the industry, having previously worked with the likes of Johnnie Walker, Glenmorangie, and Gordon’s.

“I had never before heard of a distillery being created with the prime objective of helping to regenerate the local economy, creating jobs directly and indirectly, acting as a catalyst for other enterprises and bringing more tourists to the island,” he said.

“This for me was a key point of difference. That’s why way back, before we had even got the money together, I wanted to create a set of values for the company that defined how we would operate as a business, how we would deal with people, how we would make products and how we would sell things.

“So we created a set of five values that we still live by and use them every day in deciding how to operate.   This number one value is ‘for and with the isle of Harris’ and our third value is ‘nurturing belonging’, connecting with the people of the island but also bringing Harris to people around the world.   These values, said Simon, are what make this distillery so special – it really is a ‘social distillery’.

“We are often brainstorming initiatives and ideas to see how we can involve the local community and its people,” he said.  “Last year we had Santa Claus visit us, and we held a storytelling evening round our peat fire.

“We have a partnership with the crofters who come to the distillery and take away the spent barley and spread it to land to feed cattle.  We are also working with local schools, who have done projects and even a pantomime on the distillery this year!

“We want people to know that they are welcome here and that this distillery is for them.  The vast majority of distilleries are owned by large conglomerates.

“We are also here to return a profit for our shareholders but we have this social element which is completely different to anything I have ever come across.”

The distillery will produce the equivalent of 300,000 standard 70cl bottles a year of a single malt, known as ‘The Hearach’.

As we spoke, the distilling team were in the process of commissioning the whisky-making process. “Our gin has been hugely successful, and we are obviously delighted, but we never forget that what we are in business for is to create a single malt whisky and create a superb distinctive product that the island will be proud of and will help us to stand out from the crowd,” he said.

“The team are commissioning the plant with two consultants, along with suppliers and engineers who are working flat out, day and night, commissioning every aspect of the process.  It will take several weeks of experimentation, but we laid down our first five casks just before Christmas.

“We’re now getting involved in the whole process - mashing and distilling.  It is an unknown quantity because firstly you have to get the equipment working mechanically, and the second part is what we call optimization.

“That’s where we need a spirit that has a flavour and a certain aroma, because that is what will create the essence of the end-character of the whisky.”

In many respects, said Simon, making whisky is a leap of faith, where the end result can never be accurately predicted.  To give ‘The Hearach’ the best fighting chance, the team have drafted in Gordon Steele, who previously ran the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh, to lend a hand.

“He is our ‘spirit guru’ and also acts as the chairman of our nosing panel, training them to use their sense of smell to know what to look for,” said Simon.  “What comes off the still is not called whisky, it is called ‘new-make spirit’.  It only becomes whisky after three years.

“We might want fruity notes, floral notes, even pear drop notes. The mature spirit may not taste of these things, but you want them there at the beginning as you know it is going to contribute to the end result.  Only then do you put it into a cask and wait.

“We believe that the water we collect from above the hill here is the softest water in use by any distillery in Scotland. That is unique. “

The staff – all locally recruited – have increased from the original ‘Tarbert Ten’ to a team of 14.  “We need to think of another name for them,” laughed Simon.

He added: “From the very first day the feedback has been amazing, and that is so rewarding. “It’s lovely to see the people of Harris adopt this distillery as their own, as that was always our vision."