Rural Scots raise fears over new Highland Clearances because of Brexit

The Herald Scotland, by Alistair Grant 


Scots living in some of the country’s most remote areas are bracing themselves for a 21st century Highland Clearances, amid fears over plummeting funds and the devastating impact of depopulation.

A new Government-funded report lays bare the fears of rural families and business owners, with some already struggling to make ends meet.

And the official report on the impact of Brexit on rural Scotland has included the quote: “We are f*****,” it can be revealed.

It raises concerns Brexit will prove to be the “straw that breaks rural Scotland’s back”, exacerbating demographic issues and cutting off vital EU funding for infrastructure development.

Scottish Rural Action (SRA) held 284 face-to-face conversations across 17 different events to find out what rural Scots thought about Brexit, with a further 134 participating in online discussions and 1,500 engaging in the wider campaign.

The charity found widespread concerns remote communities will be disproportionately affected, as well as fears leaving the EU will simply compound existing problems.

Its official report, launched by Scottish ministers in Elgin, includes a number of banners attributed to participants of a workshop which asked them to imagine what newspaper headlines they might expect to see after Brexit.

These feature the quote “We are f*****”, as well as references to the 21st century Highland Clearances and rural Scotland being abandoned.

Amanda Burgauer, chairwoman of the SRA, said the exercise had been used as an “icebreaker” and that several of the participants had used “earthy language”.

She said: “This report is about giving voice to a rural point of view that is rooted in Scotland’s people and places, rather than its rural industries. Three major themes emerged.

“Of most concern was the fear of long term depopulation, exacerbated by the economic impact of the end of freedom of movement. There was an expectation of a hollowing out of rural Scotland through loss of EU funding, and there was worry about social cohesion with Brexit intensifying a sense of ongoing powerlessness in rural communities.

There is widespread anger and frustration across rural Scotland, but that anger isn’t solely about Brexit. It was clear from workshop discussions that Brexit is compounding long standing concerns about rural equity and fragility.

“Brexit was described as the ‘straw that breaks rural Scotland’s back’, with people pointing to structural fragilities across rural communities.

“Participants generally believed that a historic over-reliance on EU funding to ‘prop-up’ rural areas makes rural Scotland particularly exposed to future loss of EU support.”

The report said Brexit is already affecting the viability of rural businesses, with one soft fruit firm in Angus which requires around 4,500 seasonal workers forced to get by on just over 20 per cent of this.

Meanwhile, those taking part pointed to the long history of EU support for rural and island areas, and raised fears their future needs would be unheard and unmet.

The paper was launched in Elgin at an event with Brexit Secretary Mike Russell and SNP MSP Richard Lochhead, who represents Moray.

Mr Russell said the Scottish Government is “committed to ensuring the voices of rural communities are heard”.

He added: “The findings in this report are stark. Taking Scotland out of the EU against our will removes us from a market which is eight times bigger than the UK alone.

“Rural communities are deeply worried about the impact of Brexit on their lives.”

Last year, a senior EU official warned the Highlands risk “calamitous” environmental damage and mass depopulation after Brexit.