Tribute by Brian Wilson

Norman Macarthur – or Brot, as he was almost universally known – was a man of sharp intellect, robust opinions and fierce loyalties to the causes he supported and the culture from which he came.

He created a successful business in Stornoway Shipping Services and, having witnessed the rise and fall of big industries on Lewis, had an acute awareness that without work, there are few options for people to remain. Nowhere offered more obvious evidence of that process than his native Carloway and one of his last stands was against closure of its primary school.

We first met when he was manager of the Labour Exchange in Portree in the very early days of the West Highland Free Press. A visit to his office was a regular part of my routine, for information, entertainment and debate, the more acerbic the better, on politics and football, two areas on which we diverged sharply.

A few decades later, once a measure of self-preservation on his part had stopped the offices of Stornoway Shipping Services resembling the Black Hole of Calcutta, I sat down with him long enough to write a profile of my old Rangers supporting, Scottish Nationalist friend. The first obvious question was about how the nickname was acquired.

He explained: “When I was about five years of age, a few of us boys used to play football about 100 yards from our house. My mother shouted to come home for my dinner. Being a respectful child, I went home and ate. When I came back, they asked me what I had. This was all in Gaelic and I always answered ‘brot’ and I have been Brot ever since”.

The attachment to Rangers had similarly early origins. “When the wee boys started at Carloway Public School, the big boys allocated them a club to support. I was given Rangers. The first thing you had to do was go home and learn the team off by heart from the Daily Express. My first Rangers team was “Brown, Young and Shaw, McColl, Woodburn and Cox…”. He never recovered!

His even greater footballing devotion was towards Carloway for which, by all accounts, he had been a player of considerable ability.  He was a member of the Nicolson Institute team which won the Lewis League twice in the mid-50s and in the summer, he played for Carloway. To the end, he was the club’s most dedicated supporter and contributed extensively to the writing of its history.

Football apart, however, there was not a lot to keep him in 1950s Carloway. His father was a stonemason who built houses in Carloway, Shawbost and Breasclete.  He spent his £50 demob money on a loom and combined building with weaving dependent on the ebbs and flows of the local economy. Brot’s mother, from Point, was the Queen’s Nurse in Carloway but had to give up her job when she married in 1936.

When Brot applied early for National Service, the Seaforths were full up so he was attached – improbably - to the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars and sent to Northern Ireland. “In my time there,” he recalled, “the IRA were blowing up customs posts though you didn’t hear much about it on this side of the water. Our camp was just outside the town of Omagh. On Friday and Saturday nights, probably after they had a dram or two, the local IRA guys would do a bit of firing at the camp.

“This particular night, I was the duty clerk and my typewriter was against a window. I decided to go for a Naafi break. When I came back, it seemed a bit draughty”. During his few minutes break, a bullet had come straight through the window and “if I hadn’t gone for the Naafi break, the dent in a locker would have been a dent in my head”.  Back in England to complete his National Service, he was advised to apply for the Civil Service.

He went for an interview in Savile Row and by the time he got back to Lewis a letter had arrived offering him a job in the Stornoway Labour Exchange. It was the start of 13 years in the Civil Service before eventually “getting fed up with the red tape”, which Brot continued to hold responsible for many of society’s ills, both local and national.

The last three years were spent in Portree, which he loved. Brot divided his time among the Labour Exchange, which he presided over with some style, Ewen Morrison’s guesthouse, where he stayed during the week, and the Portree Hotel where he revelled in Gaelic company – “Iain Stewart the tailor, Donald John the Welfare, Donald the Hall, the poet at Skeabost, Angus Fletcher, the Skipper…”.

Brot found Skye “totally different to Lewis. They still only had two kinds – those who drank to excess and those who didn’t drink at all. Unfortunately, I was one of the former category”.

He even got caught up in controversy when the Portree Labour Exchange was accused of forcing the Skye unemployed to leave the island to work in the newly-developing oil industry in Easter Ross. Inevitably, his own account of the episode was much more entertaining.

One day he got a call from the recruitment officer for Brown and Root who were establishing the oil platform yard at Nigg. He wanted to know how many men Brot had on his books and said he would be over the next day, which indeed he was.

“Sure enough, this besuited guy appears carrying a case. I checked him into the Portree Hotel and then we went across to the Caley. He took his case with him and ordered up a round for everyone in the bar. The case was full of banknotes. Word soon got around that there was a guy in the Caley with a suitcase of money, buying drink. The place was mobbed.

“The next day, I called in everyone on the register. At that time, they only usually got their bus fare but this guy was giving them a fiver each – even Johnny Com coming down from Stormyhill. “. The visit prompted an exodus to Easter Ross but Brot insisted they never forced anyone to go. “I did what the rules said – offer jobs to people who were expert at avoiding them. We were much more lenient than other offices, including Stornoway”.

His old colleague in the Portree Labour Exchange, John MacLennan, tells a story which confirms the compassionate side of Brot.  On one occasion, when weather conditions had brought all public transport to a halt, he disconnected the milometer on his official Civil Service car and drove a Skye lady to Edinburgh for an urgent medical appointment.  The mission did not end well, however. The West End Hotel beckoned and in these early days of the breathalyser, Brot provided a reading in Princes Street which stood as a Scottish record for years to come

His departure from the Civil Service coincided with a decision to give up drink. Back in Lewis, with the help of the AAs, he had his last taste of alcohol in November 1973.  He spent the next 20 years as manager of Duncan MacIver Ltd who ran two long-established businesses in Stornoway – coal merchants and shipping agents.

It was a fascinating period in modern Lewis history as Arnish grew and grew, generating a huge amount of work for the local shipping agents.  Brot saw it as a golden age for the island with plenty of well-paid work, which has never been repeated.

Duncan MacIver was eventually taken over by a Liverpool-based company which made the mistake of thinking they knew more about running the business than Brot did. “Having realized I couldn’t work with the suits of BFL, I set up on my own without any help in any financial way from any source. The shipping world is based on personal contacts and I built Stornoway Shipping Services up to a reasonably successful business – to the point where my former employers pulled out altogether”.

When he came back to Lewis in the 1970s and kicked the whisky, Brot was persuaded by John Murdo Morrison – then working for An Comunn Gaidhealach and himself a veteran of the Employment Service – to lead the revival of An Comunn’s Lewis branch which had gone into abeyance, along with the Lewis Mod. In this role, Brot was a huge success. He and his colleagues went beyond that initial remit to bring the National Mod to Stornoway for the first time in 1979.

At Stornoway Shipping Services, Brot found himself again working alongside John MacLennan, who became chief executive of the Stornoway Port Authority. John says: “I found him incredibly helpful and supportive  – a man of total integrity and honesty both in business and personal conduct; a bullshit-free zone. If you didn’t take Norman’s advice, it was at your own peril”.

Norman MacArthur is survived by his wife Annie Flora, his daughter, Malvene MacRae, sister Dolly Anne and a large extended family to whom sympathy is extended. 

The funeral service at Stornoway Free Church (Continuing) was very largely attended and the burial followed at Dalmore Cemetery.

 

Members of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar staff in Sandwick Road were delighted to hand over a cheque for £1370 to Bethesda Hospice in Springfield Road, Stornoway.

The funds were raised through a Christmas Hamper Raffle.

Grateful thanks from the organisers to all those who supported this appeal.

The centralisation of Air Traffic Control (ATC) services is proceeding and that Benbecula Airport is to be downgraded, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, says

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has hit out at HIAL's lack of ambition for the Islands displayed in their announcement .

It was announced yesterday (Thursday January 16th) that Benbecula will be downgraded to an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) resulting in a loss of jobs and an inability to grow air services in Benbecula.

Together with a loss of jobs at Stornoway as a result of centralising ATC services in Inverness, including those for Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness and Kirkwall, there could be a loss of up to 20 jobs in the Islands, a significant number of skilled jobs in an island location.

The Comhairle has called on Scottish Government to intervene. Comhairle Leader Roddie Mackay said: “This is not an attitude or approach we would expect from a Scottish Government owned company.”

Councillor Uisdean Robertson, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure, said: “It seems to me that HIAL are looking at Stornoway and Benbecula Airports as burdens rather than assets. They are intent on running them down with the resultant loss of employment.

"This displays an incredible lack of ambition for the future of air services to and from the Islands. We should be looking at how these assets can be grown and developed to best serve the communities of the Islands. I will be writing to the Minister highlighting that is against the principles of Community empowerment and the Islands Act.

"Centralisation of services and jobs is entirely contrary to what Island authorities have been working towards over the past few years and indeed is completely at odds with the Islands Act. I will be calling for an Islands Impact Assessment, in line with Island proofing, to be carried out on the implications of these shortsighted measures for our communities.

"I will be calling upon Ministers to ensure that agencies like HIAL grow their staff headcount in our islands not remove valuable jobs and families from our communities.”

Councillor Robertson also highlighted that safety and resilience were at risk of being comprised under the proposed measures for centralization. He said: ”Anyone who has seen the weather this week in Benbecula and Stornoway will know that systems and technology could be at risk. I will be contacting the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson. I also propose to meet with my counterparts in Shetland and Orkney who share similar concerns.

"Our communities have extreme Transport challenges ahead. Our ferry services have deteriorated because of ill thought through decision making made by mainland based management. It is sad that HIAL is making the same mistake.

"HIAL are putting their own priorities and dogma way above the needs of their customers and partners. Taxpayers money is being spent on a needless vanity project. It is utterly unacceptable in this day and age for a publicly funded body to behave in this high handed way.”

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, has also condemned the announcement that plans to centralise ATC in the Highlands and Islands will go ahead, despite fierce opposition from local communities, from the Prospect Union and from a cross section of MSPs.

HIAL said the change will modernise air traffic control but the Prospect Union say the plan puts 60 jobs at risk and described it as "poorly thought through". It will rely on remote towers, which will not need to be staffed, feeding information to a new surveillance centre in Inverness.

Rhoda Grant said “From the day these proposals were first aired in 2017 I have received representation from local communities who are desperate to maintain the current system for safety reasons and to protect island jobs.

“I have been told that this project relies on superhigh bandwith to succeed. We all know that many of our remote and rural areas do not have this so how can HIAL press on regardless?

“The proposals to downgrade services at Wick and Benbecula are astounding given the localities have been earmarked as space ports. These decisions also fly in the face of the Scottish Government’s own recently published Islands Plan which seeks to protect and improve services and employment in island communities.

“HIAL appears to be intent on pushing this through despite its own consultants identifying the ‘remote tower’ model as the most costly and risky option.

“While this decision fits with the Scottish Government’s determination to centralise services out of local areas, it is an appalling decision and HIAL and the Scottish Government must stop these plans right now before remote air services are jeopardised and more local jobs are taken out of rural communities.” 

 

The power of professional pantomime was on display again at An Lanntair last night (Thursday January 16th)

The classic tale of Sleeping Beauty was brought vividly to live on stage – and today (Friday 17) and tomorrow (Saturday 18) a total of three performances are being held each day, with the first one on Saturday as early as 11am.  However, two of today’s shows are already sold out.

Once again, the show proved that – despite the attractions of the on-line world -  modern audiences still love to participate in the shows, with huge involvement in the ritual exchanges between cast and particularly – but not exclusively – the children in the audience.

The all-new set – plus loads of modern production techniques and a great selection of music – kept the great old story vivid and up-to-date.

And the local dancers – getting their annual chance to join professionals on a full-scale stage and in a professional show – were superb in the many scenes where they appeared, both as crowds and supporting performers, of course, as stylish dancers with great costumes. 

Directed and produced by Stuart Morrison who hails from Ness, the pantomime stars Victoria Jane, David Rumelle, Steven Arnold and Linda Clark. 

Stuart said earlier: “This year's pantomime is going to be one of the most extravagant of all, utilising the wonderful talent of the cast we have managed to get together - some of which are Lewis regulars - as well as introducing some great newcomers, not to mention our star this year, Steven Arnold, well known and much loved for his many, many years in Coronation Street.”

David Rumelle, who plays Nurse Nancy Nettlerash, says: “This will be my fourth year in Stornoway.  We always have a good time there.  It’s an absolute joy to do.”

The role of the villain, bad fairy Carabosse, is played by Linda Clark.  Linda, who also appeared in an episode of David Tennant’s Doctor Who, says: “The baddies are so much more fun to play – and you get used to being booed!”

Linda has been to Stornoway three times in the past.  “I first came 25 years ago, when we performed in the Town Hall,” she relates.  “The biggest memory for me was calling my husband from a phone box after a performance in June at 10:40pm and marvelling at how light it was even at that hour! 

There were public thanks to the main sponsors and supporters - the Scottish Co-op; Cala Hotels; CalMac and EVENTS newspaper.

You can book here

 

The 1,440 small Western Isles businesses could potentially find themselves paying Comhairle nan Eilean Siar £2.2 million a year collectively, and some perhaps more than £7,000 individually, if amendments passed at Stage 2 of the Scottish Government’s Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill become law, says the Federation of Small Businesses.

Speaking to welovestornoway.com local MSP Alasdair Allan pointed out that this came about because the SNP is a minority government and the other parties had combined to force the changes through. The Government's own policy was to maintain the uniform business rate with the 100% discount.

Public Finance Minister Kate Forbes MSP earlier replied to a letter from the Scottish business community highlighting the Scottish Government’s support for maintaining the Uniform Business Rate. She said:

"Thank you for your joint letter of 15 January 2020 regarding your concerns over the recent amendments to the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill which seek to scrap the Uniform Business Rate and abolish Scottish Ministers’ ability to set national reliefs.

"The Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill was introduced to support growth, improve the administration of the system and increases fairness as envisaged by the Barclay Review of Non-Domestic Rates.

"It is clear from the strength of feeling of Scottish businesses as expressed in your letter that the Bill, as amended by the Conservative, Labour and the Green Parties, does not currently do so.

"I am writing to confirm the Scottish Government’s unequivocal support for the Uniform Business Rate. The Scottish Government shares your collective view that the amendment supported by Opposition MSPs at Stage 2 introduces complexity, risks and potential unpredictability into the rates system. Non-domestic rates play an integrated role in the current wider local government finance arrangements by providing certainty and protection to local government funding whilst also ensuring certainty for ratepayers across Scotland.

"I have previously written to the Local Government and Communities Committee after the Conservative, Labour and Green MSPs united to support Andy Wightman’s amendment.

"In a few short weeks, all MSPs will have an opportunity at Stage 3 of the Bill to respond directly and immediately to the concerns of Scottish business.

"For the Scottish Government’s part, I can reassure you all that we will not be supporting any amendments that continue to threaten the Uniform Business Rate, jeopardise the Scottish Government’s ability to set reliefs in subordinate legislation or undermine Local Government funding mechanisms."

The Federation of Small Businesses says Scotland’s rates system is old fashioned, opaque and difficult to understand, and the FSB therefore welcomed the new Bill, believing that vitally important national reliefs like the Small Business Bonus (SBBS) would be preserved.

The SBBS, a relief won for smaller businesses by FSB Scotland, ensures that our smallest businesses pay few or no commercial rates. The savings are reinvested in businesses and used to mitigate rising overheads such as utility bills.

In opening October’s Stage 1 debate, Kate Forbes said that, “The Government is committed to using the limited economic powers at our disposal to create a tax environment that supports economic opportunity”.

Sadly, says the FSB, that ambition was dealt a near-fatal blow at Stage 2 in December, when an amendment was passed empowering Scotland’s 32 local authorities to set their own business rates.

"The result? The ending of national reliefs, including the SBBS. What will replace the SBBS locally? Nobody knows. What we do know is that it could spell very bad news for local businesses, economies and communities.

"One recent FSB survey found that one in five small firms would close if the SBBS was abolished, and similar numbers would cancel investments and amend their growth plans.

"Another FSB survey, conducted this Christmas, found that three-quarters of Scottish firms believe that giving councils additional powers over non-domestic rates would be bad for business, 80 per cent opposing the abolition of national rates reliefs like the SBBS, and 84 per cent not wanting overall control to pass to councils."

Stage 3 of the Bill’s passage will take place on February 19th and FSB Scotland is campaigning hard to convince MSPs to remove the damaging amendments made at Stage 2.

"If you are worried about your business, join our campaign and write to your MSP now," says the FSB.

(This article has been updated overnight to include local MSP and Scottish Government comments)

The families of women prisoners in the Highlands and islands are having to travel long distances to see their relatives.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, David Stewart, questioned the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf, in Parliament this week about facilities for women prisoners from the Highlands and Islands and Moray.

Mr Stewart asked the Cabinet Secretary what plans the Scottish Government has for a new women’s community integration unit in the Highlands and Islands.

The Cabinet Secretary replied that in 2015 the Scottish Government announced plans for a new 80-place national women’s facility at Cornton Vale and up to five new community based custodial units (CCUs) which would each accommodate around 20 women at locations across Scotland. 

He said the national facility and the first two CCUs in Glasgow and Dundee were due to be operational by the end of 2021.  The Cabinet Secretary said the decision on the next phase of CCUs will depend on risk profile, community locations of women in custody and on lessons learned from bringing the first phase of CCUs into operation.

Mr Stewart said that in 2019 there were 24 women in custody from the Highlands and Islands and Moray who were serving their sentences in HMP Grampian or Cornton Vale.  The MSP said that distance from families affects relationships at home and behaviour within the prison environment. 

He asked if the Cabinet Secretary will consider a Community Integration Unit within the Highlands and Islands for women who are serving short sentences, on remand, on community integration or are at the end of their sentence.

The Cabinet Secretary said there were no longer facilities for women prisoners in Inverness because of the low numbers of women prisoners in the area but said Mr Stewart made the important point that locations for the other custody units have not yet been decided upon and that Mr Stewart should make representation to the Scottish Prison Service if he thinks there is a justifiable case for a Community Custody Unit in the Highlands and Islands.

David Stewart said “Together with my colleague, Rhoda Grant, I will indeed make representation to the Scottish Prison Service on this.  The new Community Custody Units are being designed to accommodate twenty women.  In 2019 there were 16 women from the Highlands in custody with the other eight being from island communities or Moray.

“Distances within the Highlands and Islands and Moray are already vast and to ask family members to travel further into Grampian or the Central Belt to visit female relatives is completely unjust.  We will be making the case for facilities to be made available within the Highlands and Islands.”

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who has also campaigned for local facilities said “Prison sentences not only impact on the prisoner but on their families too and we must ensure families, particularly children, can easily visit a loved one whilst they are serving their sentence.  This is even more important where that access is to their mother.