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‘We have to find a new way to operate’: How a North Uist social enterprise is facing the depopulation crisis

People eat and chat in a busy cafe.
Claddach Kirkibost in busier times.

The story of Claddach Kirkibost is an insight into how businesses in the Western Isles are struggling – and surviving.

Once an abandoned school building, the Claddach Kirkibost Centre opened its doors in 2000 with the aim of bringing more jobs to North Uist.

Opened by community trust Ùrachadh Uibhist, the building has been home to community resources ranging from childcare to a hairdresser’s.

And, for years, one of its main draws has been a café that’s open year-round.

But, this year, the café couldn’t find enough staff to open, even just for the busy summer season.

“It’s such a beautiful café,” said Ùrachadh Uibhist’s Ada Campbell. “And the view is wonderful, looking over the sea to Kirkibost Island.”

“But we just couldn’t offer it this year. It’s very sad.”

‘The population is in decline’

How, over a generation, did Claddach Kirkibost go from filling a gap to struggling to stay open?

For Ms Campbell, the answer lies in depopulation.

“The population is in decline,” she said, echoing the latest figures.

With a particularly low percentage of young people, it means that when people retire, it creates gaps that are hard to fill.

Add in a lack of housing for those who do want to move to the islands, and local communities are fighting a losing battle.

And, Ms Campbell says, while the Scottish Government is aware of the problem, their ‘town centre first’ policy for new builds isn’t working for Uist.

‘Absolutely no use’

It means the Government is favouring new builds in Stornoway. Ms Campbell says that’s “absolutely no use to the other outlying islands”.

“The sort of strategy that comes out from the Scottish Government doesn’t account for island living.”

Claddach Kirkibost isn’t the only local business that has had to close over what should be the Hebrides’ busiest season.

Ms Campbell has heard discouraging stories from across the community, with other shops and cafes having “great difficulty finding staff”.

‘Our objective was always creating jobs’

It’s an issue that can be seen throughout the Highlands, with reduced opening hours turning high streets into ‘part-time towns’.

But it hits home especially hard for Claddach Kirkibost.

“Our objective was always creating jobs,” said Ms Campbell, who described the situation as “frustrating”.

And, although change might be coming, it’s coming slowly.

New families are moving to the islands, Ms Campbell says, and she noted the building of five new houses in Lochmaddy.

“The foundations are in, but it’ll be a while till they’re ready.”

‘A new way to operate’

In the meantime, the team at Claddach Kirkibost are having to drastically rethink the future of the social enterprise.

“We have to try and find a new way to operate,” says Ms Campbell.

One model they are working towards will still have “the shop in the centre, but we’re going to market it as a food shop and gift shop [rather than a café].”

Claddach Kirkibost makes a range of sweet treats under the name The Hebridean Kitchen.

A selection of the food served at Claddach Kirkibost.

They want to be able to “allow people to come into the centre, use the wi-fi, use the toilets.”

“They can buy a take-away cup of coffee or tea,” she says, and can “sit down and look at the shelves and maybe buy some of our products”.

That way, even without service staff, Claddach Kirkibost can still be a meeting place.

“Another thing we will consider is allowing someone to run the café themselves in our building.”

However they do it, Claddach Kirkibost’s team are determined to keep the spirit of the enterprise alive.

‘Combatting social isolation’

The café “helped people to interact and meet other folks” during the Hebrides’ long winters, Ms Campbell says.

So, even if they can’t be fully open, Claddach Kirkibost is “going to try to raise money for charitable purposes of helping combat social isloation.”

They will try “to offer something, even if it’s only on a part-time basis.”

Even being open “one day a week”, she says, will go a long way towards getting “people to be able to meet up and chat and socialise.”

“Obviously, we’ll continue to try to find some workers,” Ms Campbell added. No matter what happens, the community in North Uist isn’t giving up.

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