PARTY politics aren’t front and centre in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar as the council make-up is dominated by independent candidates, but it holds the unfortunate title of Scotland’s only all-male local authority.

As Tracey Dinner, one of the eight women standing for election in the Western Isles, said: “It’s time for a shake-up.”

Women have been represented on the council before, but in 2017, all 31 members returned were men. This is despite Elect Her running workshops to encourage women to stand in the area, which over 70 women attended.

Yet the number of female candidates in 2022 is still minute in comparison to their male counterparts – of which there are 42 (84% of the total candidates). The Western Isles came out at the bottom of The National’s analysis on the gender balance of candidate lists across the country.

READ MORE: Idea of 'local issues' a contradiction for this Scottish council

But the women who have put themselves forward are undeterred, and certainly not intimidated. The National spoke to four of the eight female candidates to get a sense of the local issues dominating the election on the islands.

The two delayed Ferguson Marine ferries inevitably come up on the doorstep, but the cost-of-living crisis is looming, and fuel poverty is also a big concern. A recent study by Energy Action Scotland predicted 57% of the council area’s population will be living in fuel poverty in the coming months.

There is also the problem of tourism infrastructure and creating more camping areas, a lack of support for families with children or adults who have additional support needs, and crucially, recovery from the pandemic and increasing the number of affordable homes to retain young people on the islands.

Six of the eight female candidates standing are independents, the other two are under the SNP banner. The Western Isles has a history of electing a majority of independent candidates, and it wasn’t until 1994 that they had any party affiliated representatives on the authority.

In 2017, 23 independents were elected, seven SNP councillors, and one Tory. In the upcoming poll, only four parties – SNP (9 candidates), Tory (2), Green (1) and Alba (1) – are fielding candidates. There are 37 independents standing.

Dinner, a proprietor of The Chimney & Gable in Stornoway, said that she believes that communities in the islands favour electing someone they know and feel they can trust. Having lived in the community for 20 years, but originally from Ontario in Canada, she said that it’s time for a change in the council chambers.

The 53-year-old, who is standing in the Steornabhagh a Tuath ward, said: “I think now is the time to stand up and hopefully make a change, because I think this next five years is going to be very difficult.

“Just in generating income to service things like the care component for people who have disabilities or who have health issues, along with just trying to bring the town back – because it is suffering.

“I want to get some heart back into the place, it really has changed, the pandemic has changed it.”

On the previous administration, Dinner added that she felt they were too quiet during the pandemic.

She said: “They were silent – did they do a good job? I’m going to say I don’t think so. A lot of people were very disappointed there wasn’t more communication with the residents or more steps taken to act.”

The Western Isles were still seeing large numbers of Covid-19 infections as restrictions eased across Scotland, something all four candidates brought up, with one saying there is a definite feeling of “fear” still amongst islanders.

There is also concern on the islands about how to rebuild, and what to prioritise, as well as striking a fine balance between catering to residents and providing infrastructure ahead of the influx of tourists in the summer months.

For Catriona Murray, an independent candidate in Loch a Tuath ward, it’s important that those elected focus on what the local people need – and care services tops the list. The 46-year-old noted families with children or adults with additional support needs have had clubs and support groups stopped due to the pandemic, with “no talk of replacing them”, and cuts elsewhere to transport services have left elderly parents tasked with getting their dependents to college.

The tone of the debate in the council chamber, Murray added, could do with improvement. She adds that watching live streams of proceedings she felt there was “a lot of ego tripping going on” and she was “appalled” at times.

She said: “There are more things uniting those currently 30 members than dividing them, because ultimately that should all be there for the same reason. They might have different ideas about how to get there and that’s where respectful debate comes in.

“I have heard from women who were councillors previously who have said that the presence of even one female in the chamber tends to improve the tone of the debate.

“The men behave themselves a little bit better. So you would hope there will be at least one or two this time around.”

Frances Murray, an SNP candidate in Steornabhagh a Deas, said she is standing under a political banner so that voters can see the party manifesto, and hold her accountable.

The former Rector at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, Murray had to hold off campaigning until her retirement after 35 years was made official two weeks ago.

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for somebody who’s an older man to represent the needs of a community and the voice of the community, but it was so stark that there were no female voices at all,” she said.

Pondering the national media attention on the gender issue, Murray points out she thinks the issue is framed incorrectly: “It’s what it says about the Western Isles, because I think the main reason that, for example, someone like myself hasn’t stood isn’t because of any natural inborn reticence in the Hebridean woman – it’s because so many of us work for the authority and you cannot be a counsellor if you work for the council.”

For Annie MacDonald, a former SNP councillor for nine years in the Western Isles, standing this time and in 2017 as an independent candidate, one of the big issues in her ward is the number of deer and the lack of employment opportunities.

READ MORE: Scottish Greens target island gains to breach bastion of the independents

Standing in Sgire Nan Loch, she adds that most people have specific issues they bring up on the doorstep and that all of these things impact who local people elect to represent them – and that sometimes, gender isn’t a consideration.

“If it’s five years of the same, then you’ve got to remember that the Western Isles people are choosing [who they want to represent them] and there’s nothing anybody can do.

“You could shout from the highest rooftop, vote for the women! But the reality is, it’s in the people’s hands.”

The other four female candidates standing are Susan Thomson (SNP) in Uibhist a Dead, Eirisgheigh Agus Beinn na Faoghla, Dorthy Morrison (Independent) in An Taobh Siar Agus Nis, Hazel Glenys Mansfield (Independent) in Loch a Tuath, and Maxi MacNeill (Independent) in Steornabhagh a Tuath.

Scotland’s ballots will be cast in the local elections on May 5. Between now and polling day, The National will profile EVERY ONE of the country’s 32 local authorities. Click HERE to see all of those published so far.