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First minister Humza Yousaf pitched up in Lewis yesterday (Friday April 5). The FM’s visit, which is part of a wider SNP charm offensive in the Highlands and Islands ahead of a prospective general election later this year, took in New Tolsta Croft, the Shed Project in Stornoway and Arnish.

Accompanied by local MSP Alasdair Allan, and the SNP’s Westminster candidate for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, South Uist Councillor Susan Thomson, the FM was pictured cuddling a new-born lamb on the croft at Tolsta. At Arnish, where the first cruise ship berthed at the new Deep Water Terminal on 1 April, he toured facilities, meeting with apprentices and senior representatives of shipbuilders Harland and Wolff.

The Little Stars children’s group, which takes place on Friday mornings in Martin’s Memorial Church and is run by the Shed Project, welcomed the FM to Stornoway. Now in its tenth year, the project provides youth and community services, as well as facilities for hire.

Later, the FM faced the press in the Shed café, where the ongoing ferry crisis was top of the agenda. Batting off suggestions that it had been brave of him to travel to the island by ferry given how strongly islanders feel about service failures, he said that the Scottish Government was investing in new vessels, despite capital cuts from the UK Government of £1.3 billion over the next five years.  

‘Calmac must listen to communities,’ he added when challenged on the state-owned ferry company’s cloth ear for communities and stakeholders. Pressed on what that meant in practice, he said there should be a closer focus on delivering and that community feedback should be implemented ‘where we can’.

Addressing wider infrastructure issues in the Western Isles, such as a lack of affordable housing and fast broadband connections, the FM pointed to Scottish Government investment in new housing across the country. MSP Alasdair Allan added that, while improved broadband connections had not reached all communities in the Western Isles, the improvements that had been made were attributable to Scottish Government initiatives, although it is a reserved matter.

The FM was also quizzed about funding for Bòrd na Gàidhlig after 27 development worker posts were saved by a short-term commitment of £270,000 from the Scottish Government. Explaining the initial slashing of BnG’s funding, he again referenced UK government cuts and underlined the ‘very limited’ nature of the Scottish Government’s fund-raising powers.

‘Despite the extraordinary financial challenges facing the Scottish government, Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s core baseline funding has been protected, and we are bringing forward the Scottish languages bill to provide further protection for Scotland’s indigenous languages,’ he said.

The FM went on to defend the Scottish Government’s advanced and top rate tax bands. Most Scots would pay less tax than their English counterparts, he maintained, saying he made no apology for asking those who earn more – including himself on the first minister’s salary – to contribute more.

Addressing the controversial Hate Crime Bill, the FM doubled down on his previous remarks about the gender-critical writer JK Rowling, describing certain of her Tweets about transwomen as ‘offensive’. He said it was ‘ludicrous’ to suggest the bill would fetter free speech, as the bar for criminality was very high.

‘The bill protects freedom of speech,’ he maintained, criticising Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar for failing to stand up for a bill his party supported. ‘When the going gets tough, he gets going.’

Looking forward to the next general election, the FM said the man for the SNP to beat in the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency was Labour candidate Torcuil Crichton. And he dismissed the notion that sitting MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, who lost the SNP whip and plans to stand as an independent, might split the indy vote.

‘The SNP has a unique offer,’ he said. ‘The SNP stands up for Scotland.’

Asked if that included the Western Isles, where some find Edinburgh as uninvolved as London, he acknowledged that the islands face challenges. But he framed the choice at the next general election as one between an SNP candidate focused on Scotland’s interests and one who would take orders from Keir Starmer.

Later in the day, the FM visited the Stornoway mosque, before meeting locals and party activists at South Beach.