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      Harris & Scalpay News

Today (4 March 2024) the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) celebrates 200 years of saving lives at sea – thanks to volunteers, like those at Stornoway, Leverburgh and Castlebay lifeboat stations, giving their time to save others, all funded by voluntary public donations.

On the day the charity turns 200, the RNLI is revealing its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved an incredible 146,277 lives during its two centuries of lifesaving. This figure equates to 2 lives saved per day, throughout the 200 years.

The Castlebay station – officially Barra Island Lifeboat Station – has been in existence since 1931 while Stornoway was established in 1887, and the newest is Leverburgh RNLI lifeboat station which was founded in 2012 and in that time its crew have launched their lifeboat 110 times.

This week Stornoway RNLI is opening its Cromwell Street  shop today, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10am - 2pm each day. "As a thank you for your continued support, there will be 15% off everything," they say.  

Around Christmas, a very special appeal opened. Joel and Orlaith stated: "On the 4th of March 2024, it will be the RNLI 200th anniversary & the day before, it will be 30 years since our Daddy joined Stornoway RNLI on his 17th birthday in 1994!  To celebrate these two anniversaries, over the next 10 weeks, from Christmas Day to 04/03/2024 between the two of us we plan to reach a target of 230miles (RNLI 200yr birthday + Daddy’s 30yr anniversary), this will be done by walking, running, cycling, swimming, scootering whatever it takes to get the miles in!"  Here's the link.

The Leverburgh station has seen several types of Lifeboat since its inception, beginning with a Mersey Class Lifeboat, moving on to a Shannon in 2018 and then in 2021 an Atlantic 85 was welcomed to the station. The station serves a wide area from the north of Harris to the coasts of North Uist, and not forgetting the station’s ‘home turf’ the Sound of Harris – a stretch of water known not to be for the faint-hearted!

There are currently nine qualified crew at the station (including four helms) and five trainees. The volunteer crew are supported by a team of Launch Authorities, their Boathouse Manager and a local team of fundraisers. The current lifeboat was called on 16 times in its first full year of service, which is no mean feat for such a small team. None of which would have been possible without the support of the local community.

To mark 200 years of the RNLI, a Service of Thanksgiving will take place at Westminster Abbey in London today  (4 March). It will be attended by representatives from RNLI lifesaving communities around the UK and Ireland, including Mairi MacInnes and Jethro Lomas from Leverburgh’s volunteer crew and Kenny MacLeod, the station’s training co-ordinator. The service will also be live-streamed for anyone wishing to tune in on the day.

Catriona MacLennan, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Leverburgh RNLI says: "Despite having only been around for a very short time in comparison to the wider’s charity, we feel fortunate to be in the position where we can continue the work of saving lives at sea, like so many before us around the nation have done.’

"We will be marking this special anniversary through a number of events both here in Harris and in North Uist. We will be holding a coffee Afternoon in Leverburgh Village Hall on Saturday 23 March. A warm welcome will await everyone between 2 and 4.30 pm.

"Our fundraisers in North Uist have been exceptionally busy across the water flying the flag for the RNLI and for this we are extremely greatful. They will be holding two events in the coming weeks. The first will be a ceilidh Dance at Cairinish Hall on Saturday 23 March and from 27 April – 11 May in the Old Lochmaddy Primary School there will be an exhibition commemorating the 200th Anniversary.’

The founding of the charity Royal National Lifeboat Institution took place in a London tavern on 4 March 1824 following an appeal from Sir William Hillary, who lived on the Isle of Man and witnessed many shipwrecks. Since then, the RNLI has continued saving lives at sea throughout the tests of its history, including tragic disasters, funding challenges and two World Wars.

Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity’s lifesavers – from the early oar-powered vessels to today’s technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity; and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with.

The RNLI’s lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years. Today, it operates 238 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland, including four on the River Thames, and has seasonal lifeguards on over 240 lifeguarded beaches around the UK. It designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes.

While much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same – the charity’s dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public which have funded the service for the past two centuries.

RNLI Chief Executive, Mark Dowie, says: "It has been an honour and a privilege to be at the helm of the RNLI for the past five years, and to see the charity reach its bicentenary. For a charity to have survived 200 years based on the time and commitment of volunteers, and the sheer generosity of the public donating to fund it, is truly remarkable. It is through the courage and dedication of its incredible people that the RNLI has survived the tests of time, including tragic losses, funding challenges, two World Wars and, more recently, a global pandemic.

"Today, we mark the bicentenary of the RNLI. We remember the achievements and commitment of all those who have been part of the RNLI family over the past two centuries; we celebrate the world-class lifesaving service we provide today, based on our 200 years of learning, expertise and innovation, and we hope to inspire future generations of lifesavers and supporters who will take the RNLI into its next century and beyond.

"I am immensely grateful to everyone who is involved with the charity – our volunteers, supporters and staff. This is our watch and it is our role to keep our charity safe and secure so it can continue to save lives into the future, as we strive in our vision to save every one."