Building a sustainable community in the Western Isles

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Image shows a crofter with sheep in South Uist on the Western Isles.
People living in the Western Isles are invited to join an exhibition and consultation day, led by master's students from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture (SSS) at Robert Gordon University (RGU), to help map out a sustainable future in the Outer Hebrides.

An exhibition and consultation day called ‘Ideas from the studio: thriving sustainable communities in the Western Isles’ will take place on Monday 3 October, from 10.30am until 8pm at the Cnoc Soilleir in South Uist.

The event is being led by architecture students from The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment(SSS) at Robert Gordon University (RGU) who have been working on ideas for the Western Isles as part of an ongoing project called ‘Place, Craft and Community’ for their master's degree that explores the challenges of island life.

Last year’s master's graduates, produced plans to create social, cultural and economic opportunities for islanders living on South Uist. The group were unable to visit the Western Isles due to the pandemic but reached out to stakeholders and islanders online and through social media. Their work will be showcased at this community exhibition and the next group of master's students, will be at the event to launch a new project in North Uist and Benbecula.

Professor Karen Anderson, who is leading the project, explains more; “Throughout our project to enhance community sustainability in the Outer Hebrides, we have learnt how adaptable and self-sufficient islanders are to the challenges of island life such as depopulation, climate change and access to services.

“Last year’s master’s students focused on designing projects to enhance the lives of islanders living on South Uist. The next of master's students will present designs to enhance lives for the people of North Uist and Benbecula. They’re keen to gather their ideas so that they can come up with ideas that will add real value to island life.”

Professor Gokay Deveci, from the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, who is also supporting the project, said: “The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture is committed to supporting students so that they can positively contribute to the fabric of social life. As one of the oldest architectural schools in the UK, we have a strong track record in facilitating the design and build of sustainable, well-considered structures and spaces that enhance people’s everyday lives. We want to create ideas that will foster new opportunities and ideas that can add public value to island life and bring societal benefit.”

One of the master's students who took part in last year’s project in South Uist is Wissam Nacef from Aberdeen. Over the past two years, Wissam has worked with a team of students to celebrate island life and to identify long term solutions to encourage sustainability in South Uist.

Their project, entitled ‘Re Cheile’ which means ‘Together’ in recognition of the authentic spirit that the island community impressed upon the students, identifies many of the challenges remote islanders face including climatic changes and the flooding of the machair and low-lying land, a lack of affordable housing, few job opportunities, a declining population, fuel poverty and broadband problems. Despite these challenges Wissam, says the team of architectural students has worked collaboratively with islanders and come up with a number of innovative solutions.

Wissam Nacef said: “It has been a privilege to work with the islanders to find ways to mitigate any of challenges that many face as a result of living in a remote community such as South Uist. Whilst celebrating what the island has to offer, we’ve come up with a range of ideas including a marine research centre, an outdoor swimming retreat and a ‘Community Living room’ and can’t wait to show these to the islanders in our exhibition.

“Our work has very much been a two-way collaboration and without the support and involvement of people living in the community, we wouldn’t have been able to get to this stage. We have drawn on islander’s creative expertise and worked together to produce creative designs to support island life. Through this exhibition we hope to not only showcase our ideas and suggestions but also to offer a platform to welcome the contribution and involvement of people living in the community.”


The project aligns with the ambitions of the Island Growth deal announced in 2021, which secured £100 million funding from the UK and Scottish Governments in March, to boost jobs, infrastructure, transport and tourism in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.  

The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at RGU is also working closely with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) and other bodies including NatureScot, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and community groups, to develop research-informed designs contribute that will contribute to the future sustainability of the Western Isles community.

Members of the public are invited to come along on Monday 3 October, from 10.30am to 8pm at the Cnoc Soillier, Daliburgh on the Isle of South Uist, to see the proposals and talk to the next group of students considering North Uist and Benbecula.

Image shows master's graduate, Wissam Nacef, with a a mural she created to reflect the importance of craftsmanship in South Uist as part of her project on the Western Isles.

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