When Tony and Kirsty Wade arrived in Lewis in 1999, they increased the number of fitness instructors in the islands dramatically.
On Friday (2 June) Tony bows out of his role as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s sports facilities services manager after 23 years, leaving the island population a great deal healthier than he found it.
He doesn’t take the credit for that himself, paying tribute instead to a great staff team and a local authority with the will to commit funding and effort to growing sports enthusiasm.
Reflecting on his time in charge of sports centres, pitches, running tracks and swimming pools through the islands, Tony said: “Since we have been here, there’s been a step-change across the whole range of sports, partly down to club structures and coaches, and partly due to the improvement in facilities – and they can’t work without each other.”
All that seemed a million miles away when the pair first came to Lewis for a sabbatical, after 13 years running a private fitness centre, café and delicatessen in Newcastle.
Kirsty was already a household name across the UK – a three-times Commonwealth Games medallist and a British record-holding middle-distance runner.
But for the couple’s early days in Uig they flew completely under the radar, trying out life in an island setting with their two children, Rachel and Alex, while house-sitting for an out-of-season bed and breakfast.
Tony said: “The kids were getting a taste of a different way of life and we were thinking about how various health-related projects might work here. I studied for a postgraduate degree in health promotion while we looked to see what might be available.”
Then, said Tony, all the cards were thrown up in the air when Kirsty discovered she was expecting their third child. Megan was the last baby registered in Uig in the 20th century and Tony became the family breadwinner.
“That changed things a bit,” he says, with calm understatement. “A house came on the market, a baby was coming and during the summer we had helped out with a bit of sports coaching, so we were already getting known.
“This job was advertised early in 2000 and in March that year I started work, essentially in the job I am in now, but with a very different landscape.”
That included an ancient and quite dilapidated sports centre, pretty much kept going by the one-man efforts of Norman Macfarlane, an old-school engineer who would visit shipyards in Glasgow once a year to find parts to patch up the swimming pool plant.
As the man in charge of Western Isles sports facilities, Tony and other sport and health colleagues had to act. He said: “It was clear something was going to have to be done. In the first year I was just trying to keep the building going and Norman remained here past his retirement date just to make sure the whole place didn’t break down.
“Comhairle nan Eilean Siar made a leap of faith and put up £4.5 million to part-fund a new facility. To that was added £500k from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and a facility grant of £2 million from SportScotland, at the time the largest they had ever given.
“For me, I had never made funding applications like this before and I was learning on the job, while trying to keep the existing building going.”
Almost a quarter of a century later, the island sporting environment has completely changed. There are sports centres in Tarbert, Castlebay and Liniclate, pools in Shawbost and Lionel and running tracks, multi-sports pitches and other sports grounds the length of the islands.
“From where things were when we arrived, we now have a swimmer selected for the GB team at the World Championships, Kara Hanlon, who did all her early training here. If anyone had said that could happen 23 years ago, we would have laughed.
“We have Scottish athletics champions, professional footballers and a council which deserves a pat on the back for investing in facilities which encourage top-end athletes.”
Among Tony’s proudest achievements in the time he’s been in post is the Slàinte Mhath scheme – the cheapest local authority membership scheme in Scotland, encouraging physical activity among people of all ages.
“We used to have some of the worst health statistics in Scotland for things like coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer. In terms of long-term impact on health, getting people active is the best thing we can do.
“Another difference we have spotted is the way in which women, especially, now run. I can remember Kirsty pointing out a woman running, because it was so unusual. Now in the grounds it’s women and not so much men that you see running.
“A great moment for us was getting the Olympic torch here – partly because we were at university with Sebastian Coe, so we could use that contact. It’s hard to think that was 11 years ago, but we were so pleased with the day and the fact that our picture, of Kirsty with the torch at Callanish, was the one which had the front pages right round the world.
“And we hosted such a successful event in 2012 that it was instrumental in getting the Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton relay here in 2014, in photogenic locations from Castlebay to St Kilda.
“Other memorable events have happened just because of the facilities that we have – the Iolaire commemoration event was a really special, iconic night which was a fitting tribute to such a momentous event in island history.
“It also showed the building as an integral part of the community, not just a sports centre. People were here who might never otherwise have even been in through the door.
“It’s all been done with a fantastic team of people. We’ve been through a lot together, from new babies and marriages to some very sad moments. The staff are the people that not everyone realises go above and beyond to keep services functioning.
“I couldn’t have wished for a more willing and hard-working, committed team to have beside me. People who put themselves out and go the extra mile.
“And I’d like to think that, by the impetus we have given, we have created opportunities and good quality facilities for young and old to be healthier, for longer, in the Western Isles.”