FERRY operator CalMac is helping the communities it serves tackle a wide range of social problems, many of which have been fuelled further by the pandemic. 

CalMac, which provides a daily lifeline service to island communities, is set to distribute awards of up to £2,000 to 60 projects dotted around west coast islands and its mainland ports.

The funds will help community organisations deliver everything from a comforting cup of tea and company for lonely pensioners to support for stressed-out parents and counselling for schoolchildren who have expressed fears and worries related to Covid-19. 

Groups which provide alcohol and drug support – which have seen demand soar since the beginning of the pandemic – will also benefit.

About half of the 60 awards will go to groups which help address social isolation while one-third are related to mental health issues. The remaining awards are for a variety of projects addressing a range of social issues relative to their community.

The CalMac fund awards come as about 40 of the ferry operator’s staff in Oban carry out a major fundraising effort in tribute to their colleague Megan Baillie, who worked on board MV Isle of Mull ferry. 

Megan, 22, is receiving specialist care at Edinburgh’s Astley Ainslie hospital nine months after attempting to take her own life. A fundraising group, Megan’s Miles, was set up by her friend Nicola MacKechnie, who works on the MV Clansman, and is currently carrying out 126 miles of exercise representing the distance between Oban and Edinburgh. 

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Donations, which will go to the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), have now reached nearly £10,000.

Rural and island communities are particularly fragile due to isolation, poor transport links, financial worries, and difficulties accessing support and mental health services.

Suicide rates

While farmers and crofters are particularly at risk from depression and anxiety with on average one farmer taking their own life in the UK each week. 

The suicide rate in the Highlands is higher than the Scottish average, while recent national research commissioned by mental health charity Support in Mind Scotland (SiMS) and the National Rural Mental Health Forum, suggested that 93 per cent of people living in marginalised rural communities believe the pandemic has had an impact on their mental health and wellbeing. 

The awards from the CalMac Community Fund span the ferry company’s area of operation and include sport and youth groups, elderly support services, health and parenting organisations as well as services designed to help with addiction, mental health and wellbeing. 

Among the groups to benefit is Cowal Elderly Befrienders, made up of volunteers who help around 300 isolated older people to be more independent and active, and Kintyre Alcohol and Drug Advisory Service based in Campbeltown, which has seen an increase in the number of young people referred for help for anxiety, isolation and relationship difficulties.  

Counselling Care Skye and Lochalsh which is using funds for play therapy boxes for young people, after the pandemic sparked a rise in children looking for counselling. 

Meanwhile, on the community-owned Isle of Gigha, it is hoped a £2,000 award from the fund may help to encourage young people to stay on the small island by turning a vacant cabin into a social hub designed to encourage socialising, exercise and learning. 

“Living in remote areas can create a sense of isolation and loneliness, and particularly in young people, we are recognising the social challenges of living on an island that puts them at a disadvantage to those on the mainland,” said Jane Millar, development manager at The Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust. 

READ MORE: CalMac examines cuts to journeys after coming under fire for running a full service of empty ferries

“Gigha has a hotel, shop, and restaurant. However, we do not have facilities such as hubs, leisure centres or cinemas.

“We hope this project, which is being led by our young people, will start to address these needs and help make Gigha a vibrant and welcoming place for young people to live.”

In Benbecula, an award from the CalMac fund will help to create a series of virtual tea parties which bring together up to 75 people across the area who either have dementia or are recognised as being frail, lonely or isolated. 


JO Sinclair of community group Caraidean Uibhist said the packs of tea and cake delivered to homes across the five islands had brought comfort to people feeling isolated as a result of the pandemic.

Even those who struggled to use digital technology to take part are said to benefited from feeling involved and remembered, while others expanded their digital tea party to include family and friends who they were unable to visit due to lockdown restrictions. 

“The virtual tea parties bring folk together – it is accepted that social interaction has huge health benefits and increases an individual’s wellbeing,” she said. 

“It gives those attending a chance to catch up with friends, reminisce and find out what else is going on in the community, it combats issues of isolation and encourages those who had been nervous of doing so to be more adventurous in their use of digital technology,” she added.

The Leanne Fund, a specialist support service for people affected by Cystic Fibrosis is one of a number of Western Isles groups to receive financial support. 

Chrisetta Mitchell, Development Manager of the Fund, which is named after Leanne Mitchell who died of Cystic Fibrosis at the age of 21, said: “The pandemic continues to make it incredibly difficult for charities like The Leanne Fund to raise necessary funds. We were delighted to be awarded a grant from CalMac Community Fund towards our counselling service.

“Working through the pandemic has highlighted the impact the current situation has on the mental health of individuals and families affected by Cystic Fibrosis. 
“This will allow us to provide specialist support to enable them to cope better with the many issues that arise as a result of self-isolation.”

The CalMac fund provides a social return of £5.14 for every pound spent. It is expected to deliver £676,391 of value over three years.

Gordon McKillop, CalMac’s corporate social responsibility manager, said: “The CalMac Community Fund is much more than corporate giving. The community fund was created to make a difference for our communities and customers, and we are beginning to see its impact and value.  

“The last year has been turbulent for so many and the third sector has responded magnificently across our network. There are still many challenges to come as we progress through the Covid-19 pandemic and I hope the awards we have made alleviate some of the social issues that arise consequently.”