Lesley Riddoch: Islands show way for rural Scots

Towns and villages across the mainland should produce their own charters for change, writes Lesley Riddoch
Easdales 65 residents fear Historic Scotland could constrain building, ferry operations and tourism. Picture: David MoirEasdales 65 residents fear Historic Scotland could constrain building, ferry operations and tourism. Picture: David Moir
Easdales 65 residents fear Historic Scotland could constrain building, ferry operations and tourism. Picture: David Moir

DO SCOTLAND’S rural communities hold the key to the independence referendum? Groups like women, English-born voters, youngsters and Poles have all recently been credited with the ability to swing the result – so why not remote, rural Scots?

Admittedly, their numbers are rather small – 18 per cent of Scots live in rural areas, of which only 6 per cent are “remote”. But together, rural Scots account for almost a million voters, they are more likely to vote (because they are relatively older) and their fate has long been iconic for the rest of Scotland. Now, thanks to canny timing and the combined efforts of three island councils, remote Scots may finally be set to enjoy their moment in the sun.

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“Our Islands, Our Future” arose from a conversation between the leaders of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council in which marine resources, energy growth, constitutional status, economic vitality and island wellbeing were agreed as matters of common concern. Now the island councils have a political shopping list: they want control of the seabed; control of revenues currently paid to the Crown Estates; new grid connections to the Scottish mainland; new fiscal arrangements for the islands and recognition of island status in any new Scottish constitutional settlement.

It’s a tidy package that shrewdly involves taking back powers from Holyrood and Westminster and has already prompted much shuttle diplomacy and warm words as leaders of the Yes and No campaigns try to head off a skirmish on the “northern front”.

But Pandora’s Box is now open and with it some intriguing questions – how long can the islanders’ clout last, which powers can they win and will they stoke a bidding war amongst other disgruntled communities across Scotland for a share of the action? In short, are the islands spearheading an internal battle for devolution from Edinburgh that mirrors the dynamics of the larger battle for more powers from London – and could it prove just as important?

Despite having a combined population of less than 60,000, the latest flexing of northern political muscle has grabbed headlines across the world. Even though island independence is backed by just 8 per cent of Orcadians and Shetlanders in the latest opinion poll, the proximity of oil, a past history of autonomy movements and the prospect of Alex Salmond being hoist by his own petard have combined to make the story irresistible.

I was on Orkney last week for the latest BBC referendum debate and the issues given priority by the three island groups were raised by the audience. While Nato membership dominates the “national” debate, defence is no academic issue for North Sea fishermen without conventional protection against the incursion of massive foreign boats sweeping through valuable fishing grounds. Despite sabre-rattling by UK government ministers over the threat of independence to renewable energy, islanders view the threat rather differently. Not a single island can benefit further from excellent renewable energy resources because of a failure by the UK privatised electricity industry to build inter-connectors from these islands to the mainland.

If Our Islands, Our Future can extract a definite commitment to a connection date from Alex Salmond in Scotland or David Cameron in the UK, it will be worth its weight in gold.

Island authorities have made their hopes public and won’t take kindly to being dumped by either side after 18 September. More than that, they have sparked a bidding war. Mainland communities of 10,000-20,000 people (the average-size across Europe) are asking why only the islands are getting special treatment. Scotland has the largest, most remote “local” government in Europe – why shouldn’t every parish and town community, whether mainland or island, suburban or rural, have the same levels of autonomy as the three islands?

A group of would-be town councils is forming to press for mainland change – and this challenge could impact directly on the referendum. The SNP has been accused of centralising, not redistributing and devolving power since the establishment of a single police force – and now remote areas find they are wrestling with quangos apparently unaided by the Scottish Government.

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Tiny Easdale, off Seil Island by Oban, is facing a Historic Scotland bid to “safeguard” historic quarries which cover half the island. The 65 locals haven’t yet formed a response but some fear the quango could use powers of “adjacency” to constrain building, ferry operations, tourism or even the famous world stone-skimming championships in the populated half. If the local community considers the case and decides to reject it, will Historic Scotland press on regardless or listen?

Meanwhile, the 11 remaining residents of Canna are battling with island owners the National Trust for Scotland over six-month leases, tied housing and a refusal to transfer land for a community shop. NTS argue the land is “inalienable” because it was donated to “the nation”. But locals ask how unelected board members of a private charity can represent “the nation” and whether any “nation” would condemn islanders to such chronic housing insecurity.

A contrasting experience of development and security is published today by Community Land Scotland which reveals neighbouring, community-owned islands like Eigg and peninsulas like Knoydart have outperformed past private owners. The 12 remote community-owned estates surveyed have seen 300 new or refurbished housing units and house plots delivered, direct employment up 368 per cent, business turnover up 254 per cent, the number of private enterprises up over 100 per cent, the value of contracts and local staff up 434 per cent, 7MW of renewable energy capacity installed, £34 million of new investment delivered with a further £25m planned and the combined value of assets up to £59m.

According to David Cameron, chairman of Community Land Scotland, these results “completely destroy a myth that communities can only survive by the supposed largesse of private landowners”. The same can be said for paternalistic public landowners, too.

Resilient people – on islands, in remote villages and in Scotland’s shamefully abandoned small towns – are perfectly capable of protecting the national interest and their own local livelihoods. Indeed, the two are usually the same. If places like Canna cannot grow economically, they will become offshore museums where real communities once existed. Their future is a harbinger of all rural futures.

The meek may not inherit the earth. But neither will they be pushovers any longer.