Sunday, 18 July 2010

Welcome to New Amsterdam: Stornoway

I was very fortunate to be offered a day's sailing while I was home on Lewis aboard a beautiful yacht that took us from Stornoway, south through the Minch by Kebcock Head, to Scalpay where we came ashore as disorientated as Davie Balfour on Erraid island.

We saw a Minke Whale breach between us and the Shiant Islands, some dolphins and too many seals for my liking. And we feasted on home-smoked mackerel and copious cups of tea.

But the beginning of the voyage was fascinating because of the great perspective sailing at water level gives you of Stornoway harbour.

Stornoway is long renowned as one of the great natural harbours on the west coast of Scotland. It's a huge, sheltered horseshoe bay with the town at the centre of the arc spreading north easterly to Goat Island and the settlements of lower Sandwick.

On the west side of the bay are the magnificent, wooded Castle grounds and then a long stretch of rough moorland to the Arnish oil fabrication yard at the mouth of the bay.

Seeing other yachts arrive for the annual boat festival gave me the impetus, once ashore, to travel out the Arnish road and look back onto the town.

It's a great site - looking in across the bay to the settlement on one side and out into the Minch, beyond the Arnish lighthouse, on the other.

Standing there, with the Arnish harbour to the right and the walkways of the Castle Grounds to the left, it struck me that this is the perfect location for a new town - yes, a brand new town. A New Amsterdam if you like, not on the Hudson but on the Minch.

Like every other small town, 21st century wealth is extending dear Stornoway beyond it's 18th century grid. The New Valley and New Market townships are rapidly becoming an unsightly "rurubia" dormitory of the town with more and more croft land being taken up in a bunglowmania to match Ireland in the boom times.

There is a big planning debate to be had about whether extreme rural areas - Lerwick, Reykjavik and the like - only become viable in terms of social services and infrastructure if people live in large concentrations.

In fact, the debate is almost over - schools and hospitals are already centralising and many of the outlying populations are moving into the towns. Two thirds of the Iceland population lives in the capital, Stornoway itself has become a town of majority Gaelic speakers for the first time as the Maws (the rural islanders) take over the place.

So, the solution for Lewis? To keep building out into the wilds of the Barvas moor as the dormitory townships continue losing any of their village character?

What about a new, planned settlement, firstly of houses, on the Arnish shoreline linked to the town by a great walkway through the Castle grounds and the service road to the oil yard.

The land is extremely rough and boggy, but why build on the land? Pylons and piers and decking and exciting design could give us a series of shoreside homes linked by decks that would be the envy of any Nordic city, where that style of construction is common. There is a fabrication yard on the doorstep with the requisite skills.

A "Staten Island" passenger ferry linking the old and new town would naturally follow as the car-free town grew (Worry not, the 4X4s could be parked behind in piece of reclaimed moorland next to the road).

If the idea sounds too far-fetched go look at Gulberwick, south of Lerwick in Shetland where a fortune must have been spent building a new private housing estate into the side of a steep hill where no one would have practically thought of building before. You look at that scheme, built to meet the kind of demand all rural towns are feeling, and wonder why the houses are not by the water. You look at the Barvas moor and you ask do you want to build on it?

The land for this New Amsterdam is already owned by the community, through the Stornoway Trust. They just need a developer to do the sums and an imaginative group of planners, engineers and architects.

That kind of step of your yacht into your harbour-side home doesn't come cheap, it's not for everyone, but the infrastructure costs could be recouped in house sales and once the initial outlays are met more buildings, hotels and shops, could follow. Build it I say, and they will come.

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