Proud of place: how a new generation of young Highlanders has fallen back in love with the homeland

The Press and Journal, by Jim Hunter

Because news is very much about the here and now, it’s not often that a press release prompts much in the way of thinking about the longer-run significance of whatever’s being publicised.

But what seemed to me most striking about the contents of one recent release from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) was something that featured nowhere in the release itself or in the coverage it got.

Perhaps that’s because I’m a product of a time when the research findings on which HIE was reporting would have been thought so unlikely as to be impossible.

These findings are the product of what HIE called ‘a major study focused on the changing attitudes and aspirations of young people aged between 15 and 30 in relation to living in the Highlands and Islands’.

More than 3,000 folk in that age-group were surveyed in the course of this exercise. Nearly half of them, it emerged, were committed to staying in the Highlands and Islands on leaving school. More than half expected to be living in the area in 10 years time.

Both figures were well up on those that came out of an equivalent exercise in 2015. That’s encouraging. Still more encouraging is the presence in today’s Highlands and Islands of lots of young folk whose feelings about the place are hugely more positive than those of their earlier counterparts.

Had anyone conducted a survey of the HIE type in 1965 when I was a 17-year old student in a North Argyll secondary school, its only effect would have been to add to the then universal consensus that prospects for the Highlands and Islands were unalterably bleak.

The 1950s and early 1960s, when I was growing up, were a time when Britain’s prime minister, Harold MacMillan, could boast that his then booming country had ‘never had it so good’. But from a Highlands and Islands standpoint, talk of that sort served only to underline the breadth of the gulf that had opened up between the region and localities to its south.

There were parts of the 1950s Highlands and Islands where population had fallen by a quarter in only 20 years. Across a region which Picture Post, the era’s best-selling magazine, described as the UK’s ‘most gravely depressed area’, unemployment rates were way above the national average. And though there were localised bonanzas, such as those stemming from hydro dam construction, jobs overall were few and far between. Anyone from the Highlands and Islands who was looking to get on in the world, or so most folk said, had better begin by getting out.

So prevalent was the conviction that success could only be achieved elsewhere that someone still at home when in their early twenties was likely to be seen as being, by definition, a failure.

That’s why, to those of us who remember those times, the most heartening sentence in the HIE report is one that reads: ‘Almost 70% (of the young folk surveyed) agree that people who stay (in the north) are lucky to be able to work or study locally.’ That’s not at all how my generation felt about those members of our age-group left behind when the rest of us headed off.

So what’s changed? How has it come about that no less than nine out of ten young people in the Highlands and Islands describe themselves as proud of their home communities? Why are the Highlands and Islands now seen widely – by young folk from outside the area as well as by its own younger residents – as a good place to be?

There’s no easy answer. But one factor in the transformation that’s occurred is work done, over more than half a century, by HIE and its predecessor agency, the Highlands and Islands Development Board. With the backing of successive governments, these organisations have done an enormous amount, as have local authorities and others, to turn around an area once felt to have no future.

Which is not to say that what was once referred to as the Highland Problem has been solved. It hasn’t. There’s still much to do. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), which itself began as a joint initiative on the part of HIE and Highland Council, is clearly seen as a big plus by young folk everywhere in the north. But UHI, it’s equally clear, has got to push on with enhancing both the range and the quality of its courses. And beyond that, there are plenty of other tasks that urgently need tackled. Getting superfast broadband into every part of the Highlands and Islands has got to be a priority. So has cracking the lack of affordable housing.

But nothing of this should detract from the message conveyed by the young person who said to HIE’s researchers: ‘The Highlands and Islands is such a wonderful place and I always love telling people that is where I am from.’ I like that. It shows that a part of Scotland that was for too long on the slide is truly now on the way back and the way up.