Community paper for Mallaig, Morar, Arisaig, Lochailort, Glenfinnan
Glenuig, Knoydart and the Small Isles

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May 2006 Issue

Contents of the online version:

Top stories
Monthly news from Knoydart, Muck, Rum, Eigg, Glenfinnan
The Road to the Isles Agricultural Show
West Word ten years ago

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Arisaig School Board is unanimous in their response to Council's thinking on a Community Superschool.
The Lochaber Local Plan Consultation Document is inviting response to a Council led proposal to plan for the replacement of the primary schools at Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig with a new school to serve all the three communities based at Glasnacardoch or Kinsadel/Glenancross.
Arisaig School Board has responded swiftly and joined with Arisaig & District Community Council to call a joint public meeting to hear the views of the community before making further representations to the Planning Department in early June. Arisaig School Board issued the following statement:
"In response to your [Highland Council] invitation to make known our views on such a proposition, Arisaig School Board would like to confirm that it would be strongly opposed to such a plan
As you correctly state in Lochaber Futures, Arisaig is a buoyant community, supporting local services including a primary school, surgery and hall - and is well placed to absorb further growth. You also state that villages, such as Arisaig should become more sustainable with a better mix of housing (we have a sizable development in progress), jobs and services. Where, therefore, is the argument to remove such a vital service from such a buoyant community".

The case against relocating Local Community Primary Education Services are well documented. It is arguable that some gains may be achieved, however, Arisaig & District is a community that takes pride in the quality of care and education its local school has afforded to generations of Arisaig's primary age children. The School Board does not believe that the cost to the whole community of losing it's school would justify any gains that might be demonstrated.
One parent, whose son attends Arisaig Nursery, said; "When you live in a small community you want your children to go to a small community school - it is part of the choice of living in a small community. There are plenty of places where you can live and send your children to a bigger school - but that is not why people choose to live in a small village."
Another parent, from Glenfinnan, who sends her children to Arisaig School said; "There are qualities in a village school that do not exist in an urban school. The effect on the community in Glenfinnan of not having a village school is terrible - it is really detrimental - people leave the village - the children are all away to school and people to work and the community is significantly depopulated every day."
Local Councillor; Charlie King said; "I don't think the way ahead is a new school for Mallaig also serving Morar and Arisaig. Arisaig is a distinct community in itself and as such deserves its own school."
Research by the Small Schools Association shows that a schools close proximity to home helps children to be happy, secure, well-behaved, and with very good attitudes to work and each other. They are eager, enthusiastic, and able to take responsibility. It's also seen as a big factor for reducing bullying. Close links to home is a major strength of a small community school like Arisaig Primary and a major element of effective education.
Research also contradicts arguments that mixed age and ability groups are a disadvantage. Similarly whilst small schools have limited space there is no evidence to suggest that better buildings improve a young child's reading, writing, or arithmetic. The fact remains that it is the small and very small schools that regularly feature in OFSTED's top 100.
Arisaig School Board and Arisaig & District Community Council will host a Public meeting on Tuesday 23rd May 2006 at 7.30pm Astley Hall, Arisaig.
Please come and make your views known. Questionnaires must be submitted to the Council by the beginning of June. (Limited child care facilities will be available at the hall)

The long awaited hostel for island pupils attending Mallaig High School has come a step closer with the preferred design being put forward soon for planning permission. Negotiations are taking place and it is hoped the hostel could be finished in 2007.

Mallaig Lifeboat tows the cargo vessel Edmy,
which suffered engine failure in the Sound of Sleat. Photo by Denis Eddie

Swallows and House Martins have arrived, swooping low over the long beach field, the first cuckoo has been heard, daffodils are a splendid splash of colour, rain has ceased? (again) but the wind returned with a vengeance and we are still awaiting the greening. Easter has come and gone with the usual influx of visitors despite the inclement weather but the ceilidh was a great success with dancing late into the night to the music of our local musicians.
We also enjoyed David Fletcher's illustrated talk on his most recent experiences in the Antarctic, always enthralling, informative and presented with verve in his inimitable racy style. Looking at penguins huddled on the ice flows and at the towering icebergs puts winter here in perspective.
Last week there was a small local wine and cheese celebration in Inverie Village Hall to mark the anniversary of the formation of the Knoydart Foundation with presentations by representatives of the various groups and companies to demonstrate progress and future plans, followed by discussion. The sun was shining and the tables and fare looked very tempting and appetising against the freshly painted walls decorated with a record of events and achievements over the years since the Foundation's inauguration. The children certainly enjoyed the crisps and breadsticks etc!
Congratulations to Cara on the arrival of Archie and Robbie. Cara says they are such good babies that she doesn't know what all the fuss is about. Long may that continue Cara.
The New Pier development has reached the "roundabout" construction stage so we should be approaching the final "lap" when the Old Pier, which has served us well, will be demolished and visitors will approach Knoydart from a slightly different angle. You can follow stages of construction by visiting www.knoydart-foundation.com where you may also view some stunning photos of Knoydart in all seasons.
We are sorry to have to say good-bye this week to Louise Slack, who has been such a very good Nursery Assistant at Inverie Primary School. Louise is leaving to take up a post in the Lake District relevant to her profession (environmentalist) and which is nearer to her own grown-up son and daughter. Louise has instigated and followed through many interesting projects for the little ones, both indoors and out and inspired enthusiasm for their introduction to school. We trust you will return as a visitor from time to time Louise, when Knoydart is calm and peaceful again!
While in school 'mode' back in March Anne Martin and Ingrid Henderson visited and involved the children in singing and music workshops creating with them an impressive and entertaining performance at the concert given by Ann and Ingrid at the end of their stay.
Tommy has asked me to remind folk that Guided Walks in Knoydart will be taking place on Wednesdays and Saturdays with one of our two Rangers, Tommy or Jim. Details can also be found on the website.
We in Knoydart were very dismayed to learn the sad news of Iain MacLean who had been so helpful to us on many occasions. May we send sincere sympathy to Kirstin and Family.
I hope this reaches you in good time Ann and that you have a great day for Ross's wedding - Congratulations to Ross and his Bride, from Knoydart.
Anne Trussell

Every small community has its highs and lows and Muck is no exception. The highs are when the population is stable and everyone is working together. We seem to be going through a bit of a low at the moment and over the years we have had quite a few of them! First in January we lost a popular and highly skilled young lad who had a close connection with the island. Now we have the shattering news that Mandy and Ian Ketchin are going too. Not from preference I may say but Ian's health is really bad and he needs to be nearer medical health. Mandy is a superb architect whose designs are both pleasing to the eye and fit for the purpose (if only she had designed the Scottish Parliament!), Ian has set up a business creating Northumbrian Pipes. Both are superb gardeners and Mandy's work with Camas is well known to West Word readers. Luckily it is only to Banavie but they will be sadly missed and we all hope that the Belford can help Ian.
On the farm lambing is almost over. The coldest March for decades has been followed by a cool April and any grass which had not had the benefit of fertilizers is only just beginning to come. All the same it has been a good lambing, the only fly in the ointment being that the two Suffolk tups with the black ewes only managed to leave one lamb! Daughter Mary came for three weeks and she made a superb job of the rest of the Suffolk crosses and the Blackfaces. I was looking after the pure cheviots who have almost reached the stage that no supervision is necessary. I only handled 8 ewes out of 160. Just as well as Mary and I were lambing with 1 and a half dogs between us.
Lawrence MacEwen

Whilst some of us have been busy with festival preparations others, particularly Sean, have been busy with the animals - Sean's herd (they're not really his they're SNH's but he looks after them) have delivered 7 healthy calves with two more still to come, some of them have needed a hand to suckle but with Sean's pretty much 24/7 care, they're getting the hang of it. And two of last years colts - Bob and Archie have gone away to be looked after on the mainland as part of the Highland Pony Society's colt accommodation scheme. It's possible that one or both of them may be suitable for breeding purposes, which is a better prospect than their cousin (Angus) left behind, who awaits Chris Evans the Vet and a childless future…
Last Wednesday we had our monthly visit form Phil Wren from the Coastguard for a bit of training. The usual story, as always, is the dismal state of our shed where our kit is stored - the constant dampness is a cause for concern for our equipment, which is supposed to be there for emergencies. We have requested a new shed, something modest, but dry and without an asbestos roof. We wait to hear whether we will be successful.
We had our quietest Easter here ever this year. Normally there are loads of campers and the castle is full i.e a good recipe for a busy ceilidh. But no, it was a veritable ghost town. We had a ceilidh anyway, like you do, with spectacular tunes from Mathew Watson and band, who will be playing at the festival. The following week turned out to be Ed's wedding anniversary (a big surprise do - organised by his family - - he had no idea till his entire family trooped off the boat on Saturday morning) and another ceilidh - this time with Sandra MacBeath, Ali McKenzie and Colin Melville ( also playing at the festival).
Fliss Hough

On Eigg, "the late, cold & wet spring has certainly been reflected in wildlife sightings with everything seemingly weeks behind the norm." tells John , our SWT warden. "Primroses finally managed to put on a decent show late in the month & other early flowerers like violets & Golden Saxifrage are now also appearing widely. A few bumblebees & butterflies have been on the wing with the first optimistic Peacock seen on March 19th. More recently the odd Small Tortoiseshell & Green Veined White has also been seen. Birdwise it's been a good month for raptors with 3-4 Hen Harriers plus Peregrine & Merlin as well as the resident species. Generally though things have been fairly slow with hardly a drumming Snipe (a real spring sound here) heard yet & summer migrants slow to appear. First dates for some migrant species are Common Sandpiper (a very early) 11th, Cuckoo 14th, Swallow 13th, Wheatear March 28th & Willow Warbler 15th. Odd notes include a very impressive 3 singing Long Eared Owls in the plantation, 6 Linnets on the 24th & a Yellowhammer on the 18th. Bird of the month though was a probable Arctic Redpoll seen & photographed by Stephen MacDonald on the 23rd - "why oh, why did I elect to spend that afternoon watching a totally duff old firm football match!" laments John!
In spite of all this uncertain weather, lambing is well underway, and Easter came and went very pleasantly with relatives, friends and visitors enjoying the odd bit of sunshine, the scrumptious dinners at the "old Pier" restaurant, and the dance with Sandy Brechin and his "Jimmy Shandrix Experience" on Easter Saturday. Children very much enjoyed the Easter Fun day which raised funds for Feis Eige and the story telling on Easter Monday.
Sadly the news came through that Catriona Campbell passed away peacefully on Easter Friday in Glasgow, aged 87. Catriona had been looked after devotedly by her sister Maryanne, with her daughter Morag keeping a watchful eye between turns of duty as teacher in the Small Isles. Catriona and Maryanne were known locally as the "Blossoms", a pair of cheerful ladies, always laughing and joking, always whistling or singing as they busied themselves around the croft. Catriona's ill health had forced them to go back to Bearsden where Catriona had spent her married and working life, but they very much missed life on the croft, and their cheerful presence was also missed at the lunch club. She was laid to rest next to her husband Alan in Glasgow. Our thoughts are now with Maryanne, Morag and Donald.
Early April saw the arrival of John Hunter and his archaeological team form Birmingham University on Eigg: the geophysical investigation they carried out in the Kildonnan graveyard has confirmed that there were some interesting "structures" which will need to be investigated further. What appears to be a square structure in the middle of the graveyard turned out to be perfectly circular, another mystery to look into. As to the presumed monastic site on Rubha na Crannaig, it has turned out to be nothing more nor less than a perfectly conventional Iron Age Dun! We look forward to John's return next year. Meanwhile, the Eigg History Society's 2006 lecture was "A sense of Place," by Alastair McIntosh, co-founder of the original Eigg Trust, and well-kent Human Ecologist, now appointed visiting professor at Strathclyde University, a well overdue honour. Alastair's well illustrated lecture touched on the meaning of growing up in a remote Hebridean community and the values attached to such an upbringing, comparing it with what happens in the third world communities he has worked in and what is happening today in our own local communities. Food for thought indeed, as we enter the debate about the marine park ( thank you West Word for presenting the issues so well, as usual).
In the meantime, on the trust front, it looks as the housing policy is now finalised, with some innovative ways of looking at providing affordable housing through means of shared equity, which will greatly benefit the island. The other good news is that Europe and the Scottish Executive have delivered the goods: the final funding is now in place for the electrification of Eigg! The design of the system is carried out by E-connect and the project is undertaken by the Scottish company Hydro Contracting, a subsidiary of Scottish and Southern Electric. It's a real milestone! Well done to all involved, their hard work has paid off! It's a shame though that the powers that be have left an organisation like VAL to lose so many staff; they will be sadly missed by all of us in Lochaber, after all the useful job they have made in helping communities such as ours.
Finally, congratulations to Maggie and Wes on becoming grand-parents for the third time and welcome to the world to wee Amy Margaret! Congratulations also to Eilidh Shaw and Ross Martin who are soon to tie the knot: we will be there to celebrate with them.
Camille Dressler.

Have you eaten all your Easter chocolates yet? No more chocolate for me for a while now as it is wedding season is and I need to fit into my clothes! There's nothing like the approach of summer and revealing summer clothes to make you think about cutting back on a few treats. I read the book 'French Women Don't Get Fat' which really cheered me up as you don't have to give up anything. Just eat a little less, eat good quality food, drink lots of water and soup and eat lots of fruit. Sounds good and tastes good to me.
Sticking with the food theme…. Congratulations to Manja, Duncan and all the team at Glenfinnan House Hotel for their awards success. They won 1st prize for Sensationally Scottish Hotel and 2nd prize for Scottish Hotel Bar Food at an awards ceremony in the Radisson SAS in Glasgow. Want to know what all the fuss is about? Call in for a bar meal where you can enjoy restaurant quality food at bar meal prices.
Calum Hancock caught a whopper of a trout in Loch Shiel this month. Calum, 12, was up on holiday visiting his uncle Dougie Hunter. He hooked the 23lb 1oz trout and successfully landed it with a bit of help.
Some of the boats went in the water for the 1st fishing competition of the season. Results: First Zoe Doherty (Basket of 11pounds); Second Joe Gillies;
Junior winner Cameron Ramsay
Happy birthday to Sinè Gibson, age 5, Hannah Archibald, age 6 and Dougie Hunter, age 34. Sinè and Hannah had birthday parties and Dougie had a session in the bar.
Dougie's birthday music session was one of those impromptu good craic nights. We were treated to tunes from Colin Melville, Ally MacKenzie, Iain MacFarlane and Dougie himself and to a few songs, after a little persuasion, from Joe Gillies. It was the first time I heard the famous song Bonnie Glenfinnan!
Regular visitors Cavan and Barbara O'Connor have replaced their caravan so they should be more comfortable when they are up in the depths of winter. There has been a fair bit of building activity with the new house being built at the Blythe's and the work for the studio at Grianan underway.
Ardnamurchan Camanachd has started a weekly lotto draw. There have been no winners and the jackpot currently stands at £400. Tickets can be purchased for £1 from the bar at Glenfinnan House Hotel or from Dougie Hunter and Colm O'Rua. As West Word goes to press Catherine Robertson, daughter of Donald John and Joan, marries Greg Stables in the church at Glenfinnan, 28th April. Congratulations to you both.
Events in May:
Loch Shiel Spring Festival - classical music performances
Village tidy Sunday 7th May, 3pm meet under the chestnut tree at the bottom of the back track
Community Council meeting Monday 22nd May, 7pm at Glenfinnan House Hotel, All welcome
And in June: Glenfinnan Gala Day Saturday 3rd June raft race, games, BBQ
Eileen O'Rua

The Road to the Isles Agricultural Show
The Agricultural Show will be held this year on Saturday 10th June at Camusdarach by kind permission of Andrew and Angela Simpson, so please make a note in your diaries for that day!
The committee are hoping that there will be the usual strong support by exhibitors to all sections of the Show. The cattle and sheep classes are always well supported and the Highland Cattle are a very attractive addition ot the stock lines. The Industrial section has the usual wide variety of classes in Floral Decoration, Handicrafts and Knitting (including crochet, cross-stitch and painted glass) and Baking and Produce (mouth-watering goodies like meringues, Bakewell tarts and chocolate truffles are all on the menu).
Schedules for all the classes are available at local Post Offices, Spar shops and other outlets in the area. They are also available from the secretary on 01687 450655 or from Angela Simpson on 01687 450221.
The main event in the Ring this year will be the Loch Lomond Ducks with their 'handler', Mark Wylie. This is a very interesting and entertaining display and should not be missed! We are really pleased they can be with us again this year, because they are very busy travelling to shows all over the country to give their unique entertainment. Other events will include a Sheepdog Demonstration by Iain MacConnell of 'One Man and His Dog' fame and a parade of the Highland Cattle with some information about this ancient breed. Many of the regular exhibitors will also be in attendance, including the Plant Nurseries. Mallaig Deershunters, with their bikes, are also hoping to attend to promote their Great East European Challenge.
If any local organisations or groups would like to have a stand at the Show then please contact Angela on 01687 450221. The Show is an ideal way of reaching out to the local community to get your views or interests across so do contact us. There are lots of jobs to be done in the week before the Show to get everything ready, so if you have time or energy to spare then do come along and give a hand.
All this should add up to a good day out for all so do come along on the 10th June. We are sure you will enjoy yourselves. Lastly, please remember the Show Dance in the Astley Hall in the evening when Dodgieground will be providing the music.
Elizabeth Fleming

West Word - ten years ago
The May 1996 issue of West Word (cover price 50p) was one which contained lots of positive news, like the opening, well , the re-opening of Lochailort Inn; the pending announcement of the successful contractor for the Outer Breakwater Project at Mallaig Harbour, the launch of the Eda Fransden by the Doune family Robinson; and even a revolutionary new loo at Camusdarach. 'New in shape but old in spirit' said the headline above an article and a picture of the new Lochailort Inn which opened on 1st May - two years after the disastrous fire that destroyed the original structure. Now boasting 11 en-suite rooms, a 40 seat dining area and a bar twice the size of the original, one thing not affected is the Inn's unique atmosphere.
Mallaig Harbour Authority's Outer Breakwater Project had initially attracted nine companies willing to submit a tender price, but this had been whittled down to three with a final decision on who would be awarded the £7m contract set to be taken by the end of the month.
The launch of the Eda Frandsen attracted the biggest gathering of people at Doune, on the Knoydart peninsula, for over 150 years. So said the report on Page 3 which spoke of the blood, sweat and tears, not to mention the time taken to rebuild the 1939 Danish built sailing boat, by the Robinson family and Liz and Andy Tibbetts. Did you know that the 56 ft vessel was originally named Klaus Stein? Well, you do now!
With the building and treatment works costing £100,000, campers at Camusdarach could use the 'loo with a view', safe in the knowledge that a revolutionary new system was in situ using plants to purify the outflow from the sewerage system attached to the toilet, shower and laundry block.
Alongside the story about the loo with a view on Page 6 was another one of interest to campers - the formation of The Midge and Flyscreen Co!!!
The vexed question of the ownership of Eigg and Knoydart Estate was aired with local MP Sir Russell Johnston asking questions in the House of Commons on the former and rumours abounding that the latter was back on the market.
Sgt. Andrew MacLean's Police Corner forewarned of not only the forthcoming speed watch campaign but also police organised School's 5-a-side football, cycle proficiency tests and Road Safety tests.
On behalf of the Small Isles Community Council, Chairman E. C. MacEwen welcomed Charlie King as the new Highland Councillor and asked him to spearhead a campaign for a 7-day hostel for Small Isles schoolchildren attending Mallaig High School.
Easter time in Knoydart in 1996 brought Robin Hood, Little John, Maid Marion and the Sheriff of Nottingham out of (or in to?) Inverie Forest organising an Easter Treasure Hunt whilst in Arisaig plans were well underway for the Second Road to the Isles Agricultural Show due to be held at Camusdarach in June.
Three wedding photographs adorned Page 18 along with an advert for The Perfect Match Bridal Salon in Inverlochy. So it's congratulations on their Tin (10th) wedding anniversary to Jacqueline and Kevin McDonell, Aileen and Fraser Coupland, and Laura and Arnold MacBeth.
Heather Smith's final report from South America found her buying bananas from a street vendor in Venezuela while another local girl, Tanya Ironside, had a poem dedicated to her from The Girlies as she headed off to live and work in Jersey.
Paul Galbraith's Gaelic sayings/proverbs, Aunt Prudence's Astrological Advice Lines, Neil Robertson's 'Down to Earth', Bramble's 'Sweet Tooth Corner' and Ross Campbell's 'Heaven's Above' were some of the usual features and the Personal Angle column commented on the need to remove some of the trees that hang over the road just outside Arisaig.
An RSPB article on Corncrakes on Canna also contained references to Sea Eagles on Rum while Divot kept us up to date with events at Traigh Golf Club. Other energetic pursuits like swimming, primary school football and highland dancing were listed along with the more relaxed Whist Club and Arisaig WRI reports.
Morar's Angus MacLellan had been appointed official piper to MacDuff International Ltd - the proprietors of Islay Mist DeLuxe Scotch Whisky, and Mallaig Swimming Pool was still advertising for casual leisure attendants!!
The Snippets page informed us that it was double celebration time for local pharmacist Alisdair Ramsay - 40 on 12th May and on that same date he and Catherine celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary! So congratulations to you both 10 years down the line! Another snippet to finish on - is Kathy MacInnes responsible in a way for Isa Mary's curtains?!!!

Birdwatch by Stephen MacDonald
Bird Report April 2006

Summer migrants slowly trickled into the area at the start of April, increasing to a steady flow by the month end. The first few Sand Martins were seen at the Rhubana colony on the 2nd, while 3 more were seen over Loch nan Eala the following day.
On the 6th good numbers of Manx Shearwaters were noted in the Sound of Sleat, just off mallaig. The first Swallow reported was on the 18th, near the Land, Sea and Islands Centre, Arisaig, while the first Cuckoo reported was one calling near Portnadoran on the 19th, and one was seen at Arisaig House. The next day the Cuckoo was heard near Loch nan Eala (and in Glenfinnan), Tree Pipits were seen about Arisaig, a Common Sandpiper was by Loch Morar, and a Willow Warbler was seen and heard near Portnadoran. The first Grasshopper Warbler was reported from Mallaig Vaig on the 23rd.
Birds passing through the area to breed further north included White Wagtails, the first 3 seen at Traigh on the 20th, with small numbers seen each day until the month end, when there were 7 at Portnadoran on the 30th. Five 'Northern' Golden Plovers were seen at Back of Keppoch on the 24th, being chased by one of the local Lapwings.
Other waders noted during the month included the usual Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers by West Bay, Mallaig, Redshank by the Caimbe and Traigh, up to 30 Ringed Plover and 22 Dunlin at Traigh boatshed and presumably the same Greenshank as last month, on the Morar Estuary till the month end.
On the wildfowl scene, 5 Whooper Swans were still present on Loch nan Eala on the 12thm along with several Teal and Mallard. Goldeneye were still on Loch Morar till the end of the month, where a pair of Goosander were seen about the Rhubana area several times. Most of our local Greylag Geese seem to have paired off, leaving only small flocks feeding at Back of Keppoch and Traigh. On the 1st the same or another Canada Goose was with 18 Greylags in a field at Traigh and on the 5th there were 2 Canadas with greylags at the Caimbe. Flocks of migrant Greylags were seen flying north from the 9th.
The Immature Iceland Gull seen at the end of March, was still around at the end of April, favouring the East Bay area of Mallaig. The first Great Skua reported was seen on the 16th between Arisaig and Eigg, with others reported from the mouth of Loch Nevis later in the month. Two sightings of Arctic Skua were made between Arisaig and Eigg in the same period.
As last year, good numbers of Puffin and Razorbills were seen close to the mainland shore from Arisaig to Mallaig along with the more usual Common and Black Guillemots.
Red Throated and Great Northern Divers, most in Summer plumage, were reported from Loch nan Ceall, Traigh and Glasnacardoch.
Both Redwings and Fieldfares were seen at Camusdarach at the start of the month, but the last Redwings noted were a flock of approx. 20 by Mains Farm, Arisaig, on the 20th.
Reed Buntings were reported from Rhubana and by Loch nan Eala, Siskins seemed to be everywhere, Twite and Linnets were seen at Camusdarach, Traigh and Back of Keppoch and Goldfinches were seen in Arisaig, Morar and at Coteachan Hill, Mallaig.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard near Allt nan Loin, Morar, at the beginning of the month.
A WaterRail was seen on the 26th in the same garden in Arisaig where 2 were reported back in early February.
A female Merlin was seen hunting over the shore-line by Traigh Golf Course on the 20th.
Finally, on the 23rd, on a visit to Eigg, I was fortunate to see and photograph an Arctic Redpoll. This beautiful little bird breeds in the far North of Scandinavia and other Arctic regions and is a rare winter visitor to these shores.

Redpoll photo by Stephen MacDonald

Amazon Hope Medical Team March 2006 - by Dr Shina Young
So how did it come about then, that a newly-retired GP - not known for being adventurous - found herself on a converted naval tender vessel sailing on one of the tributaries of the Amazon river? Well, it's along story…
For the past 2-3 years, I had been looking for some way of putting something back into healthcare in a different situation. A career in medicine had brought me much professional fulfilment. I had skills and experience which might be useful - it was a question of finding the right niche. It proved easier to find an opportunity for surgical skills rather than general practice skills, but through various ways, the Amazon Hope Project became the right choice.
This Project is funded jointly by the Bo'ness based, Christian organisation, The Vine Trust, and Scripture Union, and its aim is to provide Primary Care to remote villages along the Amazon tributaries which fan out from around the town of Iquitos in NE Peru. The thick jungle means all travel is on the river, hence the concept of a medical boat. Amazon Hope works by permission of, and in conjunction with, the Peruvian Ministry of Health. Teams consist of 6-8 health professionals who pay all their own expenses and volunteers in their holidays, so it is organised in two week blocks. Our team had 2 doctors, 1 dentist, 1 dental nurse, 1 pharmacist and 1 nurse, who worked as a pharmacy assistant - we felt our team was well-balanced in terms of skill-mix. As well as the Peruvian boat crew, we worked along with a Peruvian GP, a dentist, midwife and 2 nurses who were trained in Child Health, including immunisations - 21 people in all on Amazon Hope.
After two days travelling, we reached the boat which was moored on the Ucayali river, about 1 and a half hours by fast river launch from the town of Nauta, SW of Iquitos. Each day started with morning worship at 7am and as we had our breakfast a little later people would be gathering on the open grassy area in front of the village where we were tied up. The forms would be filled in, and later collated, by the Peruvian crew, and then people waited patiently, sometimes for a long time, until it was their turn to see the doctor or dentist. We worked in the hold, which was air conditioned - it can get very hot on the main deck. Consulting was done in a tiny cubicle with cotton screens between one cubicle and the next. There were two interpreters so each consultancy was a 3-way process.
The village houses were built on stilts, are made of wooden planks and are roofed with banana leaves. There are only 2 or 3 rooms. Cooking is over an open fire; water for drinking, washing and cooking is carried from the river. There is no clean drinking water or sewage systems. Most villages had a school and some had a nurse's post which seemed only to be occasionally manned. Two of the larger villages - population about 1500, had a clinic staffed usually by a nurse/midwife.
The population we saw was mostly young, below 40. There were few 40-60 year olds, and very few 70+ year olds. Life expectancy was 48-50 years. People die from malaria and other infections, from accidents, from alcohol poisoning and from cancer. We met patients with HIV infections and with tuberculosis.
We'd start work around 8.30 and work until 1 or 1.30pm. after lunch, we'd have a rest in the hottest part of the day, then start again until all patients had been seen. In the late afternoon or evening, Amazon Hope would move on to the next village. What did we see and treat? Well, everyone has worms, infections which result in tummy aches and anaemia. People don't drink enough so are mostly mildly dehydrated. Childhood fevers are very common, muscle and joints pain, skin infections are also frequent. And we met unexpected sad conditions for which we had no suitable treatment. There were conditions which needed referral to hospital for investigation and treatment but that has to be paid for unless the patients are under 18 or are pregnant. People just didn't have the money for hospital care. That was very difficult to deal with - we are so used to writing a prescription for a full course of treatment or a referral letter to the appropriate NHS Clinic. We could only do small prescriptions at a time, partly because there is a black market for pain killing medication. The team was kept very busy, often seeing more than 100 patients in a morning. The dentists found many dental problems linked to sugar cane and the influx of fizzy drinks. In the eight days we were on board Amazon Hope, the team saw over 1900 patients.
The problems of poor people not being able to pay for treatment were evident in several examples.

photo photo
Going ashore!; Dr Shina's interpreter Freddie had a steep learning curve with some of the complaints he had to describe!
The new Clinic at Belen
Belen in the rain

Once back in Iquitos, we visited Scripture Union's Childcare Project, where children from poor or single parent families spend part of the day at the Centre to be fed and cared for while their parent works. We also visited the new Clinic at Puerto Belen, a bright attractive building standing in the filthy river water. Thousands of people live in the surrounding crumbling houses on stilts in the same dirty polluted water - water that's used for all purposes. We travelled to the Clinic in a wet, slippery dug out canoe and were very careful not to fall into the water. There was certainly poverty in the rural villages but Belen was so much worse. We came away, shocked, silent and appalled that human beings could be living in such conditions. And in the dry season when the river water recedes, it becomes a sea of stinking mud and that's even worse.
The next day, we flew from Iquitos back over the Andes to Lima on the coast. Our morning flight had been cancelled which seemed to happen quite a lot in Peru so there is always some leeway built into the travel arrangements. In Lima we had time to visit an archaeological site south of the city - it had evidence of four different periods of Peruvian civilisation. And it was in a desert area which was a real change from the lush growth of the jungle where we had worked.
And my overall impressions? They're of a beautiful country, friendly, welcoming people, of lovely babies, of a basic lack of things we take for granted, of a lack of choice in life, and of what could be done to improve people's lives. Clean water is essential along with some simple sewage disposal system, subsidised medical care for low income families, better family planning, and health education - 'Boil and cool the river water before you drink it!'
Amazon Hope 2 will be going soon to Peru, there are plans for community development and training of leaders in the villages, of establishing a regular pattern of visits by the boat, of extension of medical care into even more remote communities. Teams will be needed every month to staff both boats.
It was altogether an amazing experience of concentrated, tiring work, of good team work and of feeling we had made a difference to some lives, but there is so much more to be done.
And will I go back? Yes, I hope so.

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