After centuries of neglect, are Scotland’s islands now on the road to recovery?
The Guardian, by Kevin McKenna
On a tiny island beyond the northern fringe of Scotland’s coast, a lone piper salutes the end of a dozen generations. North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island of Orkney and today the primary school is saying farewell to its only pupil, 11-year-old Teigan Scott. None among the small group of friends and relatives who have gathered for the occasion can tell when North Ronaldsay School will next open its doors to another pupil. The piper, 80-year-old Sinclair Scott, refuses to play a lament because he observes hope in the midst of decay.
One by one, across other remote Scottish islands, the lights of many schools have flickered and then disappeared, starved of oxygen by depopulation and the relentless flight of youth. But Sinclair is optimistic that he’ll still be around to pipe in new pupils. He and his 40 or so fellow islanders are buoyed by the decision of Orkney council not to mothball their primary school – often the first step in a path that leads to extinction – but instead to maintain it in good working order. Thus it will be ready at a moment’s notice to welcome any new arrivals.
You feel privileged to have borne witness to this small ceremony, which seems to convey the story of Scotland’s islands. And you are moved by the unshakable hope of a community that others will come and join them if they can help fashion something sustainable to attract them. That hope is built on solid foundations.
At the 2011 census the population of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands stood at 103,700, an increase of more than 4,000 from the previous census in 2001. The Scottish government has now stated its intention to build on this slight recovery by introducing an Islands bill in the current parliamentary session. The bill, which the government has hailed as “historic”, is aimed at creating a sustainable future for the islands. At its centre is a measure to ensure that the special needs of Scotland’s most remote and long-neglected communities will be heeded in future policy-making. This will give island councils more autonomy over activities and policies which most affect their shorelines.
The history, traditions and folklore of Scotland’s islands are woven into the nation’s tapestry. Until recently the phrase “the dawn of time” was, to me, a meaningless one that I might have encountered amid the dialogue of Star Wars. And then, four years ago, on a rocky plateau on Tanera Morr in the Summer Isles, off the north-west Highlands, I looked upon a row of mountainous peaks to the north which are accepted as being among the planet’s oldest formations. If they didn’t emerge at the dawn of time, then they came along pretty soon after it.
Several were inhabited by Britain’s oldest human civilisations, and in the two world wars formed a natural and formidable bulwark against invasion. The winds that surround the islands carry the names of thousands of fishermen who perished on the rocks and in the seas as they harvested one of the UK’s most constant and reliable food supplies.
Michael Russell is the Scottish government’s minister for negotiations on Scotland’s place in Europe. More prosaically, he is the MSP for Argyll and Bute, one of the biggest parliamentary constituencies in the UK and one which includes 23 inhabited islands. He, too, is optimistic about the future of Scotland’s islands, but cautiously so. “The pattern of challenges that face people living on Scotland’s islands is a complex one where one size doesn’t fit all,” he says. “Indeed, one size may not even fit one island.
“The biggest issue is depopulation: this is both our biggest fear and biggest challenge. At the heart of the proposed Islands bill is giving island authorities the wherewithal to reverse depopulation by maintaining existing population levels and growing them where possible. We can also do this by increasing tourism and achieving better connectivity by delivering broadband and making it faster where it already exists. People fall in love easily with these places and want to stay. Having access to bigger and better broadband allows them more scope to run sustainable businesses. This is key to reversing population decline.”
Another is affordable housing. The building of a mere handful of houses on an island can be the key factor in keeping an island school open. The concept of affordable housing on an island is an altogether different prospect from that which exists on the mainland. The transportation of materials adds to the cost, while construction time estimates are at the mercy of weather patterns. Russell is eager, though, to point to the island of Gigha off the west coast of Kintyre, where plots are being sold to people with craft skills. He is also delighted at the impact that the introduction of the Road Equivalent Tariff has had on building tourism numbers on Scotland’s islands. This is the process by which ferry fares are pegged to the cost of travelling an equivalent distance by road.
The pace and nature of land reform in Scotland will also be key to underpinning population recovery on its islands. Earlier this year the population of the island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides crept above 100 for the first time in half a century. Fittingly, this occurred just a few weeks before the islanders came together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the community buyout which helped to unlock this growth and prosperity.
Last April I sat down with Maggie Fyffe in the little community hub which sits at the head of the pier where the CalMac ferry disgorges its passengers twice a day. She has lived on the island for 41 years and is secretary of the Isle of Eigg heritage trust, the body that owns the island and which took it out of private ownership in 1997. She is one of a handful of veterans of the battles with the London motoring magnate Keith Schellenberg who, after buying the island in 1975, became deeply unpopular with locals.
“I don’t want to depict this as some kind of political and social utopia,” says Fyffe. “We are a rum bunch with as many bumps and warts as any community, but clearly we are doing something right. Young people who grew up here or who visited here are returning with their partners and children. We know what works here and what doesn’t, and nothing happens unless there is a majority agreement. We have been able to attract some young families here by freeing up crofts and plots of land. Those who have something to offer quickly realise they will be made very welcome here if they sincerely want to stay permanently.”
The spirit of Eigg, which raised donations for its buyout from all across the world, has been infectious. The six inhabitants of Ulva, an island which captured the imagination of Beatrix Potter, are currently attempting a similar buyout of this rocky and verdant diadem that lies just west of Mull on Scotland’s west coast. A proposed £4.25m sale has been put on hold while that possibility is assessed. Ulva, owned for almost a century by the Howard family, was one of several Highland communities to suffer grievously from the forced clearances by absentee landlords in the 19th century to make way for livestock.
It had a population of more than 500 less than two centuries ago. The feudal laws in Scotland permitted the illegal 17th-century land grabs that still permit fewer than 500 landowners to own more than half of modern Scotland. If Ulva’s six residents fail in their bid to raise the asking price then that pattern could be intensified just a little more. If they succeed it could lead to a re-population of the island following the example of Eigg.
Brian Wilson, a former Scottish Office minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government, has sought to create the conditions where more Eiggs can happen, creating a community land unit in the wake of that buyout. While he hopes the Islands bill will herald further positive developments elsewhere, Wilson has his doubts about the SNP’s commitment to the peripheries. Writing in the influential Scottish Review last November he issued a stern rebuke to the SNP over its penchant for centralisation. “Take the case of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is the one I know best,” he said. “Since 2008, the organisation’s powers and budget have been steadily whittled away. Its leadership was apparently hired on condition of docile anonymity. Previous decades had seen outstanding figures – [Professor Sir Robert] Grieve, [Sir Andrew] Gilchrist, [Sir Kenneth] Alexander, [Professor James]Hunter – at the head of the organisation. Each had become a very public (and effective) fighter for the region; major figures in Scottish public life. All of that is already gone.
“Public figures who challenge the authority and judgment of the Scottish government are no longer wanted because the politicians are no longer big enough to tolerate thorns in their flesh. The watchwords are control, control, control; Scotland, Scotland, Scotland. My own view is that HIE should be far more focused on the needs of its peripheral areas, where fragile communities are still losing population.” He will be one of several influential opposition figures keen to ensure that the Scottish government lives up to the promises implicit in its Islands bill.
Wilson is a resident of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, the third largest island in the UK. He was founding editor of the radical West Highland Free Press and remains one of the towering figures in the politics of the Highlands and Islands. He is also chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides and gave me a mini-tour of its Lewis headquarters when I met him in Stornoway in 2014. The island had just been declared the finest in Europe and one of the world’s top five by the travel site TripAdvisor. Wilson was justifiably proud of what had been achieved at Harris Tweed, employing a highly trained local workforce using arts and crafts handed down over generations. “These skills using locally produced and sourced raw material allied to tourism can unlock the potential of many of our remote and island communities,” he told me.
Tourism and whisky and fish exports help the islands contribute to Scotland’s economy. But there are those who question the amount of money and effort spent maintaining a way of life lived by so few. For every pound spent on providing services to the heavily populated central belt of Scotland, hundreds more are spent per head on delivering those services to our sparsely populated, remote areas.
That is almost certainly a minority view, however, given the crucial role the islands play in Scotland’s history and self-esteem. Three years after Lewis and Harris gained the TripAdvisor accolade, the entire nation of Scotland was voted the world’s most beautiful country by readers of the Rough Guide travel books. Few countries in the world are as renowned for their natural beauty as Scotland and a disproportionate part of this resides in its islands.
Humza Yousaf is Scotland’s islands minister. He acknowledges the special place that islands hold in the nation’s story and the role that they continue to play. “I’m a born and bred Glaswegian who has lived and worked in the city all my life,” he said. “Until I became islands minister I’d only ever been to Arran, Rothesay and Millport, like most urban lowlanders. So the first thing I had to do was to get out and visit as many of them as I could.
“It’s been a fascinating and rewarding experience for me and a real education. And I now know you simply can’t refer to Scotland’s islands as one homogeneous block. They encompass every facet of Scotland and possess a richness in their culture and beauty that has to be experienced, and often.
“There is no doubt, though, that depopulation is the biggest challenge facing these communities. I have no doubt that many young families fall in love with these islands when they encounter them and that there is a real desire to stay and put down roots. My hope is that the islands bill will help to open up opportunities in housing and employment sufficient to make them decide to settle on them.”
The isle of Cumbrae, more commonly known as Millport, lies in the Firth of Clyde off the Ayrshire coast. Its unfussy charms formed the backdrop to many west of Scotland working- class holidays. Like all those other sepia-tinted, postwar destinations on the Ayrshire riviera, its lustre was overshadowed by the enchantments of Spain’s Costa del Sol. Then someone thought that its languid main street and earthy taverns held a certain wild west swagger. Before you could say “I’m your huckleberry” Millport’s country and western festival was born and for a few days each year the island’s streets thronged with Doc Holliday, Kalamity Kate and the Virginian, all possessing imitation guns and a certain drawl bearing the hallmarks of Glasgow, the only city outside Texas where the locals speak from the sides of their mouths.
Millport may lack the wild grandeur of more aristocratic islands such as Skye and Iona, but it’s pretty nonetheless in a couthier way. And its festival – now called simply a country music festival – is known to devotees of waistcoats and big hats the world over. Alex Gordon, a well-known journalist and author, has had a holiday home in Millport for almost 20 years. He has also written a series of murder mysteries with the Millport country and western festival as their setting. Who Shot Wild Bill, What Spooked Crazy Horse and Who Stole Sitting Bull must go down as the most unlikely trilogy ever written about the charms of a Scottish island.
“I fell in love with this place when I was taken here as a child growing up in the Gorbals. I love it still,” he says. “Someone told me that there had never been a murder in the entire history of Millport and that gave me the idea for the books. The country festival as a backdrop was heaven-sent.”
Almost 400 miles further up the Scottish coast from Millport and beyond lies North Ronaldsay, as different from its larger cousin downstream as it’s possible to be. Earlier this year the talk was about what befell St Kilda, the archipelago just west of North Uist.
In 1930 the last 36 human residents voluntarily evacuated St Kilda and its shadow has begun to fall on North Ronaldsay. Billy Muir is the former lighthouse keeper on North Ronaldsay and, at the age of 71 and accompanied by his lifelong friend Sinclair Scott, is on a mission to revive his island and attract a few more precious incomers.
Billy does 20 jobs on the island including sheep farmer, drystane dyke repairer, JCB driver and all-round maintenance man. Late at night in his old lighthouse lodgings, an island single malt in hand, he pledged to keep fighting for his island “with every breath that I have left in my body”. This should be the next stop on the travels of Scotland’s other minister for the islands.
This small island in the Inner Hebrides was at the centre of the monastic tradition in Scotland and retains its spiritual roots with a world-famous ecumenical retreat. The monastery was founded in 563 by the Irish monk St Columba.
Part of the Orkney archipelago. In 1967, 15m viewers people watched on television as a group of six mountaineers ascended the renowned 450-foot sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy.
Foula in the Shetlands only adopted Scottish law in the 17th century, and the ancient Norsk language Norn was spoken until the 19th century.
Famed for its unique patterned jumpers. In 1588 the English chased the beaten Spanish Armada north and the flagship was wrecked on Fair Isle. The 200 survivors became a drain on the island’s resources and could find themselves shoved off a cliff if caught alone.