"Invest in the west", say Lewis marine businessmen

The owners of two successful marine businesses on Lewis have expressed alarm about the lack of any investment plan for infrastructure on the west side of the Hebrides in advance of offshore wind developments.

By Brian Wilson
Thursday, 16th December 2021, 7:32 am
GulfXStream vessels, operated by the firm of Calum Buchannan of Lewis, at work on offshore wind farms. Facilities for such work need to be developed in west Lewis, he says.
GulfXStream vessels, operated by the firm of Calum Buchannan of Lewis, at work on offshore wind farms. Facilities for such work need to be developed in west Lewis, he says.

Calum Buchanan and Murray MacLeod both operate small fleets of vessels and employ island crews, all over the UK and beyond. However, they say they have not been consulted about how local companies can compete for even a small part of the marine work that will be generated by huge offshore projects.

An announcement is due next month about the awarding of licences under the ScotWind programme, but the two operators say there has been no consultation and very little information about how the Western Isles – outside Stornoway – can gain economic benefit from them.

One of the licences will be for a close to shore windfarm to the west of Lewis with another to the north-west of the Butt of Lewis. Both could be serviced from harbours on the west coast – but significant investment will be required in roads and harbours, of which there is absolutely no current sign.

While Stornoway has its own Port Authority with major plans for harbour redevelopment, the transportation committee of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is the Harbour Authority for the rest of the islands, with little sign of any major plans or investment.

Calum Buchanan, whose company GulfXStream, has three large vessels working in offshore renewables around the UK coast and in Europe, said there has been absolutely no consultation about what could or should happen on the west coast “not just in Lewis but down into Harris and Uist”.

He said that options could include upgrading piers at Breasclete to accommodate larger vessels while Miavaig would be “ideal for smaller vessels – surveys, guard vessels, crew transfer vessels, work boats”. Kirkibost and Carloway could also benefit if upgraded.

Mr Buchanan pointed out that although it would be several years before the major work on the ScotWind projects begins, work would immediately get underway on cable surveys, mammal studies, bird surveys and the like – all requiring boats to provide these services.

“There is nothing on the west side at present which would allow this to happen on any scale. If local companies are not involved from the start then it will be the same old story and others will come in to take the work. Who is doing any planning to make sure this does not happen?’

While everyone wants to see Arnish succeed when it came to fabrication, he said, it would be completely wrong to focus on Stornoway for other roles in the offshore renewables industry. “It’s half an hour from Miabhaig to the first site off the west of Lewis and two or three hours from Stornoway”, said Mr Buchanan.

Murray MacLeod, who owns Seatrek, a company which operates eight vessels, said: “It’s only really in the last wee while that we have heard anything at all, and that’s more or less by accident. We need to be gearing up. This is definitely happening and if anything at all is going to come to the west side, we’ve got to seed the ideas.

“In Shetland, the facilities are mind-blowing. If we had just one of these things in the Western Isles, it would be transformational. Everything does not have to be in Stornoway. The first step is to make people aware that there are other options which at present do not seem to be getting any consideration or plans for investment”.

Both Murray MacLeod and Calum Buchanan pointed out that the Crown Estate has been taking money out of seabed leases in East and West Loch Roag for decades without any of it being re-invested in the area. Now substantial sums are coming back to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar from the Crown Estate but it is still not being invested in marine infrastructure around the islands.