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Island community estate suffers ‘significant hit’ due to pandemic

Darren Taylor from Storas Uibhist
Darren Taylor from Storas Uibhist

Scotland’s largest community landowner has taken a “significant hit” from coronavirus with income expected to be down £150,000 this year.

The pandemic has provided a major challenge for Stòras Uibhist and its chief executive Darren Taylor who this week marked his first anniversary in the post.

The organisation runs the 93,000 acre estate covering the islands of South Uist, Eriskay and the southern half of Benbecula.

During lockdown a number of projects were postponed, while income from the historic Askernish Golf Course, fishing and sporting activities were lost. The estate office had to close and many of the 14 full-time workers were furloughed.

The financial position means the planned re-opening of a community fund that supports local groups will be delayed until next year.

The pandemic has also affected the wider community with a recent cluster of nearly 50 cases in Uist.

Mr Taylor said: “The scary thing is that we are by no means exceptional.

“But it’s meant that we have had to be much more prudent on other activities, for instance the community fund we hoped to re-open this year will not be opening until sometime in 2021.”

He said his first year has been more challenging than he expected, but it has still been rewarding.

Mr Taylor added: “I love being in South Uist. I’ve felt very welcome and have enjoyed the experience of living and working here.

“I was interested in running a business with a different type of shareholder.  Instead of making money for individual shareholders we are making money for the community. It’s a business that functions quite differently from any I’ve worked for in the past.

“Covid has brought a whole series of challenges and difficulties, but that would have been the case whatever job I was doing and it’s the case for every business in the world.”

Mr Taylor, who was previously managing director at KLFM radio in Kings Lynn, is the fourth Stòras chief executive since 2016 following a period of unrest, and has overseen a re-organisation of the business.

The estate’s portfolio includes crofting, the 120-year-old golf course, Lochboisdale harbour, a wind farm and the 19th century sporting lodge at Grogarry. The lodge has remained closed since lockdown, while plans for the harbour and the golf course were delayed.

He said: “We will take quite a significant hit in terms of revenue this year, but it’s certainly been much worse for hoteliers and B&B operators because we have other sources of income that those guys don’t have.

“It would be really difficult for them to have another year of restrictions and reduced income.”

Mr Taylor said the recent coronavirus outbreak in Uist has been “alarming”.

He said: “Because we were thankfully free of cases at the start, it’s probably been more of a shock to people this time. I guess collectively we hoped we would be spared any infections, but people have responded tremendously well.

“What the outbreak has shown is how community-minded the islands are. It has shown us the best of the islands as well as exposing their fragility.”

‘Food hub’ island

A future project being planned by Stòras Uibhist is a food store to buy and sell local produce.

Early discussions are taking place with funding bodies for a building where local producers could sell directly to consumers.

Mr Taylor said: “This is at a very early stage. But the aim is to cut down on food miles and give producers direct access to market, which they don’t have at the moment, and, equally direct access for consumers.

“If you want to buy lobster caught off Uist, it’s a difficult thing to do at the moment as most of it is exported. We know there are a lot of people on the island producing food and a lot of people wanting to buy local food.

“We just need to figure out a way of bringing these two things together.”

Meanwhile, work has now started on installing tanks to allow vessels to buy fuel at Lochboisdale. The project was planned for June but was delayed by the pandemic and is now expected to be ready next month.

Site investigation work is also getting under way for the second phase of a project with Caledonian Maritime Assets for a new ferry pier, which was delayed from April.

The estate had to postpone investment to improve holes at Askernish Golf Club this spring.

Mr Taylor said: “We still want to look at training programmes at Askernish. We think it’s a great place for people learning to be greenkeepers and course managers. We want to expand on that, we just haven’t been able to do it this year.”

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