Western Isles back in full lockdown

As of first thing yesterday morning, the whole of the Western Isles has been placed in Tier 4 – full lockdown – as a result of the rising number of cases not only on Barra and Vatersay, in the south, placed earlier into Tier 4, but further, isolated clusters arising in Stornoway centred on the hospital, in Benbecula and in South Uist.

All very necessary, of course, but it does mean the furthest I’m likely to be travelling for the next few months is the 5 miles to the Co-Op. And back. Travel will return, eventually, as a result of restrictions being eased in time but, for now, the longer lockdown goes on, the less likely I am to want to go anywhere at all. This is an interesting echo of the time before the military came here, when minor roads were tracks, before the causeways, before electricity and other utilities, when travel was much more difficult and, as a result, much less possible. Partly, this is in turn a reflection of the substantial distances involved: forget the number of people for a moment, the distances across the island chain are simply vast: to get from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, to Stornoway, the ‘capital’ up on Lewis, is – literally – a day-long journey: a road trip of 139 miles taking, according to a popular online distance service, no less than 5 hours and 57 minutes. And that’s provided you can time your trip with the two ferries you need to catch: more realistically, setting off just after breakfast on Monday (at 9.45 am), you would get to Stornoway at lunchtime. On Tuesday. And neither is it possible to fly from either end to the other, unless you take a substantial detour down to Glasgow.

It’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent about the extent to which a single Council area can effectively ensure the democratic representation of people on the southern Isles. Anecdotally, there is also evidence of a complete lack of information ‘up there’ about the institutions and services being provided to people ‘down here’; something which Covid-19 has done much to entrench in justification for councils’ desire to save money amidst reports pointing out the evident pressures. A single council covering such a distance, not least in these times, is evidently likely to suffer not only from issues of connectivity but also of understanding and awareness.

Issues such as these, marked and highlighted by Covid-19, are likely to continue long after the virus.

In the meantime, here at the end of January, the only journey I’m likely to be following is that of the sun as it ‘travels’ back across the sky – one of the points of inspiration for the timing of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival, the bill for which was still posted this week in Lerwick’s Market Place, commemorating this year’s (long-cancelled) festival.

With this in mind, here’s yesterday’s post-sunset view (taken out of the office window at 5.15), with the setting sun having ‘travelled’ across the road to set behind the lowest of the farm outbuildings on the extreme left:

And, in contrast, here’s the picture on 21 December, with the sun’s trajectory causing it to disappear to the left of the roof of our neighbour’s house, the view above extending just off the right hand side of the image below:

While we can’t journey ourselves, such obvious signs of progress, and the promise of warmth and positivity and better times to come, with the sun now between one-fifth and one-quarter of its way back from the depths of mid-winter, are a very welcome natural sign that these days too shall end.

A birthday poem (not by me)

Boxing Day saw the birthday of my good friend, Peter, an anniversary I invariably fail to remember until several days later (typically, in fact, round about now). This year, completely in tune with these times, Peter hosted a Skype call for friends and cleverly secured my timely recall of his anniversary by asking me to recite a poem.

After a bit of deliberation and a bit more research, this is what I came up with – it’s a poem written by Angus Dunn, which I found on the Poetry Map of Scotland, which I think captures well the elemental nature of living on these islands (not least just ahead of Storm Bella now, thankfully, blown out here (and which crossed also into Germany) although, this time, we were far from the worst-hit place in the UK). It’s not particularly celebratory for a birthday anniversary, and the ending is bleak, but Mr. Dunn captures some strong reference points to nature and, particularly, to history within his lines:

Uist

There is nothing here,
in all the wide ocean
to stop the wind
that frays the edge of the land.
On the foredune,
dry from the long sunlight and the sea breeze,
sand slips.
In the slack behind the dunes,
the brown bird lies low
in her nest among the grasses:
even here, sand moves, held in nets of buttercup roots.
When the storm comes,
sand flows like water, stings like hail –
air eating the earth –
small white houses
grip the soil of the machair,
one window gleaming all night long
to light the way home –
though some will not return.
Up on the hillside,
thin sheep graze on rocks,
and there the Lady stands
looking past the ocean
out to the furthest West
from where no one of us returns.

No poem is complete without a few footnotes, so here’s a few of my own.

The reference in line 9 to the ‘brown bird’ could be many things but most likely speaks to the corncrake, a migratory bird now few in number and on the UK’s Red List but which migrates to breed here in these islands from its winter home on the Africa savannahs. Here’s one (of the up to four males which can be heard in Aird A’Mhachair across the summer) in calling mode, captured in April 2019 amidst the wind-torn rags of daffodil leaves:

On line 16, the machair is the Gàidhlig word for the fertile, but fragile and shallow, coastal strip on which the wind and seaweed farming practices have, over centuries, dumped fragments of shell on the land, enriching it and making it cultivable. Machair is common to both these islands and the west coast of Ireland – another facet of the shared history between these two places – and is a riot of changing colour in the summer months owing to the profusion of wild flowers (buttercups among them) in uncrofted areas and in gardens.

The references in line 19 and at the conclusion to people not returning home is most likely to the people brutally forced from the land and their homes on these islands (though not without many protest actions taking place) as a part of the socio-economic tragedy of the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of them went west, with the largest numbers settling in Canada in the area around Cape Breton: hence why ‘the Lady’ looks west. Modern research has identified that the source of the wealth of many of the landowners involved was slave-derived – echoing the conditions of travel in which many Highlanders were forced across the Atlantic, with many dying en route and, of those that did make it, arriving destitute. Today, many islanders fear fresh de-population as a result not least of the lack of opportunity stemming from job and skills loss – including among air traffic controllers – and as a result of a distorted housing market forcing out young people. Both – to say nothing of the potential impact of Brexit on the crofting character of the islands – will have a deleterious impact on our communities.

The Lady‘ (on line 22) is a statute set up in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription at the initiative of ‘Father Rocket’ who realised that the coming of the military (these islands occuyping a place of strategic potential during the Cold War) would fundamentally change the lives of islanders. Canon John Morrison’s collection of artefacts, originally housed near to us in Iochdar, is now the basis of the collection of Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, the Kildonan Museum. Here is ‘Our Lady’, captured in 2017 looking west across the machair out to the Atlantic, and beyond:

Happy Birthday, Peter!

A wee bimble* up Beinn Mhor

* Not really. For a fuller explanation, see also the opening chapter of Simon Ingram’s Between the Sunset and the Sea.

Beinn Mhor (= ‘Big Mountain’) is the highest of the three major peaks on South Uist (and correctly called Gèideabhal) – it’s on the right-hand side of this picture I took looking south-east across the machair almost exactly a year ago last August:

South Uist Hills 2

While generally enjoying a bit of hill-walking, the stars are rarely aligned sufficiently to do very much of it; and so, when such an opportunity presented itself last Sunday ahead of a week-long trip down to Perth (where the schedule has been a little hectic), we jumped at the chance. Now, Walk Highlands describes the walk linking all three peaks as a ‘rough, tough but magnificent hillwalk… Beinn Mhor has a spectacular summit ridge…’; while Mike Townsend’s Walking on Uist and Barra describes the ascent of Beinn Mhor itself as requiring ‘the calorific output of many Munros’ (he has also described the journey from left to right, via the south-western slopes of Beinn Mhor, i.e. to Taobh a Tuath Loch Aineort, as ‘not one to replicate in reverse‘ although I think he was thinking more of ensuring that transport was available there rather than having to repeat the journey to the starting point.)

The route that most people take up Beinn Mhor is via Sniseabhal starting from the A865 main road, which essentially follows the broad shoulder seen below the summit in my first photo and then on up the ridge to the top. The view from Loch Aineort, which is the other side, shows it as a sizable wall of some impressive bulk (Loch nam Faoileann – Loch of the Seagulls – in the foreground):

IMG_7515

Note the three landslips on the centre right, to the right of the main summit and the amount of scree and loose rock below the outcrops of the summit ridge. (Pic reproduced by kind permission!)

Beinn Mhor is only 620m above sea level (2,034′ in old money) – a bimble, in ordinary terms – but, secondly only in the Outer Hebrides in height to An Cliseam (799m) and dwarfing Eabhal on North Uist (347m) – which dominates the header pic at the top of this page – this is clearly not a walk to take lightly. Thus advised, we set off, assured by some decent equipment, including map and compass, proper provisions and warm clothing, as well as by a mutual pact of quitting without question should one of us no longer fancy it. Following a short section through a lovely, largely natural woodland out on to the open moor, our route, broadly, was to follow the obvious burn dominating the lower slopes (Allt Bholagair) and then strike a traverse right across the rocky section, hoping to find a grass path, towards the large outcrop on the centre left.

The lower sections are, even after warm, dry-ish weather, slightly marshy in places and, despite a few squishy bits, largely safe to cross. The absence of any sort of path, exacerbated by the lack of (m)any walkers over the five months of lockdown, made it difficult to pick a route and our initial approach to the lower slopes, characterised by knee-deep, tussocky grass, largely ungrazed by sheep, (dryish) peat bog and detours around streams and negotiating deer fences, was long and slow, and which actually meant we didn’t get close to the burn until much higher up. Hearing the call of eagles even in the woodland, no fewer than three appeared, circling above us as we took short breaks (and clearly eying up potential carrion).

But the really difficult bit was the final traverse – rocky, and so precipitously steep that hands and feet were both required to make any progress. While looking to exploit what we hoped were grassy paths, it quickly became clear that going up a grass slope is more difficult than a rocky incline, so we tended to rest on the grass sections, on our backs, rucksacks wedged into rock holds, trying not to contemplate either the drop visible below our feet, given the angle, or that we didn’t know what the top actually had in store for us, before crossing over to the rocky section for the next bit. Not for the faint-hearted, this was a climb – not a hillwalk – in which the higher we went, actually the more impossible it became to keep our promise to call it off if necessary, not because we were nearing the summit but because getting back down again the same way was even more potentially tricky than getting further up.

Eventually, more exhausted and relieved than exhilarated, we reached a grassy plateau just below the main summit, where the main views are pretty spectacular:

IMG_5800 (2)

Looking north and a bit west to Beinn Corradail (right of centre) and Thacla (left of centre)

IMG_5807 (2)South over Loch Aineort to Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (though a bit murky) and then down to Barra

Our route down again was intended to take us south along that summit ridge (which apparently presents ‘no difficulties’ according to Walk Highlands) before turning west back to the starting point but, to be honest, we were a little tired and, despite the fine, sunny weather, didn’t really like the look of it, especially the sharp drop to the east (to the left of the ridge):

IMG_5812 (2)

Perhaps it would have been different had we not had such a tough scramble over difficult terrain to get up this far. So, proper ‘top’ omitted, we still had the challenge of getting off the mountain safely, which we achieved by heading north-west towards the Sniseabhal route and then walking in a long arc curving south again to omit the worst of the top part of the climb before determinedly following Allt Bholagair’s delightful course (including waterfalls) as far as we could back to base. From a more comfortable vantage point for photographs, here’s the view north over Loch Bi and the machair up to Ardivachar:

IMG_5824 (2)

And south to the fish farm (‘caught in the cold waters around Scotland’) – noting the angle of the hill in the foreground, the angle reflecting the one we climbed:

IMG_5823 (2)

Ahead of us lay the remaining lengthy yomp downwards over peat bog, uneven ground where a twisted ankle in hollows made invisible by the long grass was a frequent threat (though not as much of a menace as the midges out celebrating a calm evening and, worse, ravenously hungry flies which, evidently, hadn’t had a thing to eat for weeks), before arriving back to the woodland and to the calmness of Loch Aineort (better view of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich in the background):

IMG_5860 (2)Overall, a grand day out – but a long and tiring one (from parking the car at 11.45 until returning to it at 8.15 – much longer than the 5-6 hours expected: it took us five hours to get up!) and one in which disaster could have happened at several points. No phone signal was one thing (though people knew where we were), but the other was that we saw absolutely no-one, and no signs of anyone, all day: eagles, sheep and – I think – a young dotterel were the only living things of note (no deer! no rabbits!).

From the perspective of these enthusiastic, but cautious, amateurs, general advice would be to stick to the Sniseabhal route – less direct it might be, but somewhat less challenging in terms of the final approach to the summit. Do go and visit the woodland, though – it’s ace and offers stunning views over the sea entrance to Loch Aineort from the woodland paths up the lower slopes of Beinn Bheag Dheas.

Western Isles: peeking out from behind the curtains

At this stage in the pandemic, the islands continue to be quiet. There remains a surprising amount of traffic on our road – four miles from the main road and virtually the end of the spur which takes us to our north-west tip of South Uist – but these are largely our crofter neighbours going about their business on the land or the seas; tourists, in their camper vans and following sat navs across the dirt tracks of the range and via connecting roads that suddenly run out of tarmac before the end, are absent. Unlike on Skye, our bigger and busier neighbour, key workers are a little less likely here on Uist to be mistaken as a tourist for taking a photo, and consequently given abuse.

As I’ve written before, we continue to suffer the same lockdown as everyone else – and, indeed, in many ways worse than that since The Minch means we remain essentially cut-off: the airports have been closed and ferries remain open only for essential travel – and that’s, essentially, to allow food and key workers in (and the same out again). Some of our neighbours, with addresses on the mainland or elsewhere, haven’t been back here for months; while life for our neighbours with camp sites, caravans and B&Bs remains, just ahead of the longest day, an out of season quiet, empty limbo.

Nevertheless, the Scottish government has now started to ease the restrictions (here, by the way, is your regular reminder that Scotland is already an independent country), although people still need to remain around five miles from home for leisure or relaxation and, while shops have an end-of-June perspective on re-opening, this does not include ‘non-essential office, call-centre, culture, leisure and hospitality premises.’ Meanwhile, transport companies are starting to consider what opening up looks like: Loganair (‘we’re ready when you’re ready’) has started to offer some flights; the bus companies have a route map to move back to a regular timetable from being a virtually telephone booking service; and options are being considered for CalMac ferries.

While the message still quite clearly remains stay home, the tourist industry now has a perspective on re-opening, on 15 July, subject to a confirmation planned for 9 July (and is itself a reason for the travel planning now being done). This of course remains a thorny, potentially divisive subject. The tourist industry would like some level of re-opening before the season, and therefore 2020 as a whole, is lost completely; meanwhile, here on Uist and Benbecula (and Barra), we have still – as far as we know – had no cases of the virus: and long may it stay that way. It’s a quandary to which there is no compromise solution: tourism is clearly of major significance to the current shape of our local economy: across the highlands and islands, nearly one in three workers are currently furloughed – more than any other region in Scotland – and, while primary industry and the public sector accounts for much more employment in the western isles, tourism here has been heavily, if unfortunately edgily, promoted in recent years.

As an island (within an island group), we have several natural advantages which allow us to keep the virus at bay (if only that larger group had responded appropriately, and in an appropriately timely, less lazy, fashion, we might have been having this conversation months ago); and, at this point, the only ones bringing this thing in are, aside of the rumours surrounding the recent seventh case up on Lewis, likely to be tourists (here, this week’s New Zealand experience is salutary). While the rest of the Scotland and indeed the UK is contemplating a period of respite before a likely second wave that this respite itself is probably going to cause, we don’t want to be deploring the arrival of an initial wave. I don’t have a tourist business to run and I’m very sympathetic to those who do, but the potential costs (heavy here, for reasons explained before) surely outweigh the benefits, while an island group where there is a relatively high number of cases (it will travel rapidly here, should it arrive) may well quickly kill off next year’s business as well.

What’s also of some importance, to someone like me engaged with the idea of ‘to travel hopefully…‘ – that getting there is a fundamental, integral part of then being there – is the quality of the journey. Mandatory face masks on public transport, only passengers being  allowed in airport terminal buildings, ferries running at less than twenty per cent of capacity and airlines also with numbers restrictions, and both offering an experience of rows and series of taped-off seats and benches to ensure social distancing, amidst other invonveniences – clearly none of this offers an attractive travel opportunity. Travel has, in the past few years, and for a variety of reasons, represented an increasingly dispiriting, soulless experience and local transportation – getting to and from the western isles, and then around it in the leisurely way that is required – seems set to join the club. All necessary, of course – and I feel very much for the workers involved in that every day they go to work, who also need the confidence about exposure to the virus – but it offers an unattractive prospect.

As it is for B&B owners here too, one of whom told me only recently that her guests are regulars, having been coming for years, and who are always greeted with a hug. Not being able to do that under distancing rules leaves arrival and departure an awkward, unfriendly and unpleasant experience. Meanwhile, none of them either want to be the owner of a B&B whose guests were the ones bringing the virus in. On top of that, with ‘non-essential’ places – like museums, pubs and catering establishments – still shut, there’s little left for people coming here other than the outdoors. Nature is wonderful, and especially so here, but meeting people and enjoying their hospitality, and learning from them, is an essential part of the holiday experience and, if this is currently unavailable, the experience will be a partial, and incomplete, one and I wonder whether this, alongside the difficulties, increasing inconveniences and the cost of getting here, renders it also unworthwhile.

It might not be the end of travel, exactly; but travel is, it seems, likely to become for essential journeys only for the foreseeable future if for no other reason than the degraded quality of the experience. In that sense, the West Highland Free, in its editorial today (linked above), is right to wonder whether some ‘fresh thinking’ is required (and in the fairly short-term) about whether the region ‘should look beyond tourism and harness greater opportunities from the likes of agriculture, aquaculture, information technology and energy production’.

It is. Islanders tend to have several jobs, and for most – though far from all – tourism is not the only source of income, while tourism has come relatively late, but it is a healthy reminder that a diverse economy is a stronger one and that over-exposure to one or other sector will always leave people in a vulnerable position.

So, time to call sunset on this season, I think.

Talking of which, here’s one for you from last night, taken just before 11:

IMG_5686 (2)

And, as a bonus, here’s Ian’s fishing boat at twenty past ten last Friday night, resting up under a glorious pink-washed sky after a day’s hard work relieving the pressure on food deliveries in these times by bringing quality shellfish from the sea straight to our pots. Not only great work, but an important pointer to how things – the new normal – ought to be in the future.

IMG_5647 (2)

EDIT: 22 June – WeLoveStornoway.com yesterday carried an article voicing similar themes and reporting also that ‘quiet voices’ among islanders were coming to the conclusion that the islands should ‘stay closed ’til 2021′. This blog adds one more such voice.

Western Isles and CV-19

Today’s The Guardian featured as part of its regular coverage on Covid-19 a piece on how the Western Isles (Eileanan Siar) were ‘Perfectly primed to tackle coronavirus’.

The facts are fairly clear and indisputable – that there have only been six cases thus far and no new ones for the last 13 days; and that a recent death was, despite the initial suspicion, not actually due to the virus. Of course, in the absence of regular, systematic testing, this is only as far as we know and we don’t know how many cases have gone undetected or, indeed, which of our citizens may now have valuable antibodies. Nevertheless, the level of the lockdown – the airports are shut except for emergencies and CalMac is only bringing in essential (local) travellers and food: perhaps the one case when I might agree with the free movement of goods but not people – is clearly doing its job of keeping the virus out. So far.

The problem with the piece is the somewhat snide opening reference to islanders being experts at survival as a result of isolation, at somehow being able to greet shutdown with a stoic, habituated resilience. Yes, we don’t have to ride the tube to get to work and neither do we live in overcrowded environments where unknown other people’s hygiene represents a cause for concern and which accounts for the high incidence of cases in large urban areas.

On the other hand, it is a little galling to see the transport issues which we regularly experience now being heralded as some sort of virtue.

To see these islands as isolated is to adopt the same outside-in perspective that historian David Gange criticised in his work last year on the Frayed Atlantic Edge – this is a dislocated perspective in which the lives of people living here can freely be pushed to the margins of concern, dismissed, trivialised and otherwise patronised in ways that will be all too familiar to many of us. It is in such a context that ‘trials’ of easing the lockdown first in these islands is a word that many fellow residents will – rightly – see as one that is loaded, and not only with carelessness. Seeing the virtues of isolation as a result of transportation difficulties is exactly the sort of luxury, outside-in perspective that Gange described so accurately. And if people cannot get in, neither can we get out.

In spite of this, the reason that residents have co-operated so readily in the lockdown is, of course, the age profile, coupled with the extensive family support networks that are characteristic of many islanders’ lives: hearth and home, and family. The age profile of the Western Isles is sharply higher than that of the rest of Scotland – according to the 2011 census, nearly 30% of citizens here are aged 60 or over, compared to 22% across Scotland; while the median age is 47 for women and 44 for men, compared to 42 and 40 respectively elsewhere across the country. As the St. Andrews research has predicted, were the virus to arrive here and gain a foothold, it would take a terrible toll on the existing population. Not only that, but there is also the fragility of our future: when the Western Isles Council – the Comhairle – is already planning for a population loss of 14% by 2041, compared to a growth of 5.3% across Scotland as a whole, taking us down to 23,000 people over the next twenty years, any loss of population ahead of time jeopardises both essential stability and indeed the sustainability of human life on these islands. The dangers presented by the virus present – in actual reality – a case of our survival.

The note in the current edition of Am Pàipear, the newspaper for Uist and Benbecula, hits exactly the right note in speaking to the continued resilience of islanders – but to warn, at the same time, that we will only beat this by working as a team. Am Pàipear doesn’t really have an online presence but you can get a sense of the Editor’s expression of the nightmare, which we share with everyone else, via the paper’s Twitter feed. There might be few known cases here – and none known in Uist – but, just like anywhere else, restaurants and cafes are shut, centres are closed, summer festivals are cancelled, jobs are threatened and we are all wary of our neighbours. The virus affects our day-to-day activities just as much as if we were living in the centre of Glasgow, or of London.

Islanders might well be familiar with isolation as a result of the iniquities of parts of our existence – weather and ferry cancellations among them – but that doesn’t mean that it comes any easier to us, or does not already bring its own troubles to fragile personalities in terms of the full range of tough social problems, including addictions and abuse which are present here, too. Neither does it mean that we have any inbuilt advantages in dealing with isolation, and neither do we have any particular lessons to offer anyone else in overcoming it. We might be lucky here, so far, in having little direct experience of Covid-19 but we are affected by the lockdown just as much as anyone else.

Outer Hebrides and Shetland: a tale of two archipelagos

Just back from a short trip to the mainland, firstly to Dundee (more about which in a later post) and then up to Shetland. My partner lived on Shetland for a while and still has friends and family there. It’s thus a place I know quite well, having visited and toured it quite frequently, although I haven’t been there since September 2015, a year before I moved to Uist.

A couple of postcard snaps will follow (eventually), but I was struck by a couple of things during the visit. Firstly, and flippantly, it was several degrees cooler than on Uist. Arriving at Sumburgh Airport in the early afternoon, the wind delivered a proper and sustained blast of chilled air during the short walk from the plane to the (expanded) terminal building; and, surrounded by guard rails, towards one end of the terminal on the floor sat one massive heater, glowing red and fully on. On 31 May. We do indeed get bad weather on Uist, and perhaps a generally warm and dry spring has made me quickly forget how bad it can be, but it seemed right there and then and for much of the following, largely damp and cool, week that the northern isles do have it worse. Perhaps, being so far north – it is level with Bergen, after all, and half-way to the Faeroes – it’s just that it’s naturally colder as a result of being at 60° latitude.

Secondly, and with greater significance for my post, I was struck – and not for the first time – by the contrasting levels of economic development between the Hebrides and Shetland. Extended Sumburgh terminal building apart, there is an absolutely stunning new campus for Anderson High, the secondary school, whose 900 students enjoy a four-storey, two-winged education block as well as gracefully angled halls to accommodate students from outside the mainland. Despite being next to the Lerwick sports centre, Anderson High has its own sports grounds including all-weather track, grass pitches, nets for throwing events and swimming pool, located at the very front of the campus and sending a clear message for students walking past them to get to their classes about the importance of sporting endeavour. The Island Games were taking place there that Saturday, and raucous cheers spoke of the message being loudly received. There are at least four new food and drink places which have opened up in Lerwick, offering a range of interesting and well-crafted food and each offering extensive craft beer menus (in bottles and cans and on tap) and taking a pride in local produce: Fjarå; The Dowry; and The String as well as an excellent French cafe in C’est la Vie. All were busy, even outside the weekend. It’s not just in the capital: the cafe up at Braewick has also been significantly and beautifully extended. Furthermore, a second brewery (beer being something of a bellwether of development, in my view) – Lerwick Brewery – has added to its range and styles of beer in addition to the continued presence of the longer established Valhalla. And the houses are bigger, more opulent, while Lerwick supports both a Tesco and a Co-Op, in large supermarket form.

The facts confirm the impressions. GDP in Shetland is significantly larger than in the Hebrides and the gap is growing. While the economy of Eilean Siar has struggled to a growth of 12 per cent over the last ten years, the economy of Shetland has bounded ahead, with nary a pause even during the great recession, by over 40 per cent.

GDP Shetland and Eilean Siar

(Figures from Eurostat; unit of measure – million units of national currency. See also the Eurostat press release on the release of its 2017 NUTS 3 figures in February this year.)

And, to rub it in further, Shetland has fewer people: 23,080 (only Orkney is smaller in Scotland) compared to 26,950 living on Eilean Siar, so the gap in per capita GDP (£38,160 plays £22,190) is a canyon of 72%.

The major source of the difference is likely to be North Sea Oil which is driving Shetland’s economy via Sullom Voe much more than the agrarian one is driving our own (of course both Shetland and the Hebrides share an agrarian history and, while sheep are still very evident on Shetland, smallholdings and crofting are much less the case there these days). Oil has been a source not only of jobs in Shetland and, therefore, opportunities for people to remain, or return, there but also the high-tech skills with which come high wages and which, in turn, lead to money being spent in the shops (and the bars and cafes). Here, without an oil boom (and despite the rumours), it is not apparent that there has been significant skills transfer from the MoD presence, now in slow and steady withdrawal phase, while we are also faced with the further erosion of the skills base should HIAL proceed with its plans for the remote control of airport towers which my old union, Prospect, is fighting hard.

Both oil and small-scale sheep farming of course have their issues, the first from the highly-effective Extinction Rebellion protests which have led the government to plan to legislate for a zero carbon future by 2050 (though this is indeed less impressive than it looks), and which raises serious questions about whether those prospective oil finds should actually be left under the sea anyway; the second from Michael Gove and Brexit and the extent to which the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) government, farm policy being a devolved matter, will be both able and willing to replace CAP payments lost after Brexit.

A green view would be that GDP growth is an inefficient way of measuring economic vitality since it omits much of the voluntary and not-for-profit work that keeps things ticking over; while it is certainly true that it ignores quality of life and greater well-being – the reason many people move to the northern and western isles (though we should also not ignore that several serious health problems associated with isolation are not uncommon) – as well as community life and culture (though it is also possible to find both these things in London, too). And it is absolutely not that there is nothing going on here – the new and very welcome Islands Revival blog recently detailed many of the initiatives now being undertaken on Uist.

What is required is, as Islands Revival commented, not only an end to managed decline – the council response to austerity and driven by the rut of population decline – but continued and further public and private investment. With significant scale private investment likely to follow, or be inhibited by, the dynamics of economic growth, public sources and projects occupy the central position in generating the new opportunities required to stem the decline and inspire regeneration. The energetic and enthusiastic Scottish Islands Team, responsible for a lengthy consultation tour discussing the National Islands Plan, and recently also in Shetland too, needs to take away that message from its trip to Uist and Benbecula on Monday and Tuesday next week. In the meantime, that spaceport up on North Uist (coincidentally one of its rivals is Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland archipelago) is sorely needed.

I did promise you photographs. Here is a sunny view of the tombolo connecting St. Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland (complete with coo and young ‘uns):

IMG_3382 (Custom)

And here, on a rather more dreich day in Lerwick, are boats of neighbours, occupying peacefully adjacent spaces:

IMG_3426 (Custom)

Good news from HIE youth survey

Welcome news this morning from Enabling Our Next Generation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey of people aged 15-30, that a higher proportion of young people are committed to staying on the islands than when the survey was done three years ago; and indeed also to see their futures here. Migration of young people away from the area is indeed a problem – here on Uist and Benecula, we are an ageing society and the loss of young people represents a major concern as regards both the sustainability and the vitality of these islands.

This is a clear tribute to the hard work being done by many organisations – HIE among them – to provide greater opportunities for young people such that they are able to see a future for themselves in the region. And that means a future not just in 30-40 years time when they are considering retiring ‘home’ again but an immediate future of opportunities while – to put it frankly – people are at their most economically productive.

At 90 pages, I haven’t yet read the full report, which is detailed, in-depth and closely-argued and self-evidently a serious contribution to our thinking on economic development. It is also accompanied by sub-area reports focusing on the findings for each of HIE’s eight offices although these do not yet appear to be publicly-available. I hope that HIE and the report authors choose to put these into the public domain in due course as these will contain important research material.

I do note, however, that the survey is much older than it was three years ago – the proportion of young people aged 15-18 was 29% in this new survey, but 51% three years ago. The 2018 survey might well be more representative in this sense as a result, but consequently, any headline that focuses on a greater willingness to stay compared to 2015 needs to take this changing demographic into account – those aged 25-30 (34% of this year’s survey compared to 21% three years ago) are likely already to have made their plans and their choices based on the opportunities available to them. The key group remains those who are 15-18 and who may or may not see such opportunities as being open to them; and it would be interesting to see the views of how this specific group have changed.

It’s also interesting to note that the proportion of people from the Western Isles has also risen from 2015, to 8% (and actually three points higher than the percentage of people in the HIE area who are in the age group and living here). On this basis, the wider survey might be a fraction less representative, therefore – but the needs of people living in the islands are different to those elsewhere in the HIE area (which is huge, encompassing a vast swathe of land from the Western Isles down to Argyll and then up through Lochaber, Ross and Moray, Caithness and Sutherland to the Orkneys and Shetland). Frequently, those needs are quite specific based on the culture and geography of the islands on which they live. A close look at the response of specifically islands young people would also cast an interesting perspective on the extent to which the initiatives being undertaken are successful in making the decision to stay a meaningful one. And, in turn, what else needs to be done to make that decision one that subsequently rewards those making it.

Here on the islands – as anywhere else, really – the keys remain education opportunities, housing, and good quality and skilled jobs. And clearly, the key target group is not as broad as 15-30, it’s really 15-18 because, at 18, life choices are being made and, if not yet set in stone, will become much more so once young people have left full-time schooling. It remains the case that a decision at 18 to stay on the islands is both courageous and challenging (and one that is frequently subject to negative assessments from peers who regard it as unambitious, which is a different challenge for policy-makers entirely).

Greater opportunities for further and higher education courses via UHI – based up in Stornoway but with satellite centres on Barra, Benbecula and North Uist – and indeed for musicians via Ceòlas’ Cnoc Soilleir project, will help in making a desire to stay and study a more realistic one.

The new housing being constructed in Balivanich will add to the quality of the housing stock, as will – more importantly – the regular housing land audits identifying potential house-building sites which is encompassed as part of the Council’s five-year housing strategy. There remains, nevertheless, a substantial part of the housing stock right across the islands which is left empty and slowly rotting, creating eysores rather than opportunities. Action needs to be taken here as a means of improving the situation for people looking for housing locally.

Nevertheless, with regularly-revived concerns over the long-term future of the MoD range and the in-principle decision to proceed with centralising air traffic control services at Inverness, and operating Benbecula remotely, the threat to substantial parts of these islands’ employment and skills base is significant. Some people do take the decision to return to the islands when they have children – support from grandparents remains an important component of such decisions – but they need good quality jobs and, without those, opportunities for return become objectively much more difficult to make.

The business park based on small-scale units being built up at the airport will help with those looking to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (as, indeed, would a site for homeworkers to be able to come together). Welcome as these are, however, they will replace neither the skills base lost through the departure of high-tech employers nor the spending power of those employed by them. And neither, despite the same broad welcome, will jobs working in retail, tourism and hospitality, and the care industry. We might well, even within the same set of islands, take the view that centralising services leads, and on the same basis, to a loss of opportunities for people living more remotely.

Such concerns are clearly broader than the remit of today’s survey report but, in adding to the policy debate around the hard-edged economic decisions influencing island peoples’ choices to stay, it provides welcome evidence giving impetus to the policy tools that we have and to those on which we still need to work.

Every Day Is (Not) Like Sunday

I was interested to see that the trial Sunday opening of An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway, has made at least the local pages of the BBC website. The question of Sunday opening is a major trial for our northern cousins up on Lewis and Harris and the issue has been extensively chewed over recently on the blog of Hebrides Writer (a post on which I also commented directly last week). (Interestingly, Katie’s post on the An Lanntair trial got a lot more reaction than her excellent post a year ago on the LGBT History month exhibition at the same venue.)

Katie’s views on the issue were set out at length and she makes a number of points, among them that the consultation has been poorly handled, not least with regard to the concerns of staff working at the centre; and on the potential damage to the link between art and faith.

As a committed trade unionist, you’ll find no argument from me on the need for consultation on issues affecting staff to be handled properly – and I too remember Usdaw’s involvement in the ‘Keep Sunday Special‘ campaign in England and Wales (Scotland has no such laws on Sunday trading) in the 1980s. Usdaw’s involvement was founded on the specific concern that Sunday opening was a threat to workers’ rights not least in terms of undermining Sunday working premia – an issue on which, I suspect, it will have been proved substantially right, at least outside Usdaw-recognised workplaces.

On the issue of the link between arts and faith, I’m not so sure. Artists surely want to get their work out and, in the example to which Katie points, potentially refusing to collaborate with an arts organisation looks a spectacular example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, aside of the issue that a publicly-funded organisation ought to be there for all the community, including those of different faiths and, of course, none at all. But, more than that, we see things a little differently down here at the southern end of the Hebrides. A predominantly Catholic island, South Uist has no problems with the Co-op being open on a Sunday (right up until 10pm), and we have a swimming pool and a gym (on Benbecula – an island where religious affiliations are mixed) that are open, too (and, judging by the noise coming from the pool today, people were having a whale of a time). But no-one is going to tell me either that my hard-working crofting neighbours who take the time away from their sheep and cattle to pack out the local church on a Sunday are not properly Christian; or that South Uist doesn’t produce music worth listening to, as evidenced by Ceòlas Uibhist’s plans to build on these traditions with a new venue celebrating Gàidhlig music, dance and cultural heritage. I doubt – although I don’t precisely know – that the issue of Sunday opening of Cnoc Soilleir has been much debated within Ceòlas as it finalises its plans (and I fully expect it to be open). And neither is it about Gàidhlig itself, South Uist having a slightly higher percentage of Gàidhlig speakers than everywhere on Lewis other than Barvas – itself an important point in terms of the challengers to customs and traditions.

So the link between art and faith is not as simple as all that, and, while we should always be sensitive around issues of cultural heritage, the issue up at An Lanntair is really about a rather narrow version of interpretations of the Christian faith. I don’t think I’m missing the point here – the culture is (very) different on these two islands but Gàidhlig psalm singers sing from the heart and from an expression of their personal faith in their God: and I don’t believe that, were the arts centre, or the swimming pool, or the shops, to be open on a Sunday up on Lewis and Harris, that this will make that singing or that faith burn any less brighter.

The picture of today’s An Lanntair pickets on the BBC website story is illustrated with a biblical quote (from the Book of Exodus) about keeping the Sabbath Day holy, written in the pre-Christian era and for people for whom the Sabbath would have been (and still is, of course) Saturday, not Sunday. There’s an irony there which is not lost in the shift to Sunday as the holy day for Christians. Despite being a non-churchgoer myself, Sunday still seems to me to have a different character, and to be a day of rest, regardless of whether the shops and the swimming pool are open or not, and that’s been true regardless of when I lived right in the centre of Perth or here in a remote South Uist community. Sunday opening doesn’t define faith – your God does. And there is surely time and room for both, even on a Sunday. Or, indeed, a Saturday.

Book Review: Love of Country

Read while contemplating, and then completing, my final move to South Uist, I enjoyed this quite wonderful book immensely. Madeleine Bunting has used her journalistic skills of enquiry to weave together threads of geography, history, philosophy, literature and politics, and other familiar themes of spirituality, identity and migration from her years on The Guardian, into a sharply-focused, cohesive analysis of place and home.

Bunting’s journey across the Hebrides was inspired by family holidays as a child in the north of Scotland, and then as an adult with her own family in the north-west with a perspective on the Hebrides. Never having lived here, but always having felt the pull of the north-west (I can describe a similar experience standing in Falkirk one October/November Sunday morning, weekend school delegates hard at work in groups, staring at the heather to the north in full blaze in the morning sun, and wondering just how much further north there actually was), this is, nevertheless, no superficial, dry, desk-based analysis. On her journey, with separate chapters on various stopping-off points on her trip north-west, Bunting is prepared to get her hands fully dirty: camping; staying in hostels; visiting Corryvreckan (the ferocious whirlpool off Jura in which Orwell capsized); yomping across seven miles of moorland to camp at Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four; and taking spray-soaked, physically uncomfortable trips on small boats to St. Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This hands-on, elemental approach has allowed Bunting to write a warm, introspective, intimate and accurate portrait of the Hebrides in which her own spirit of inquiry and empathy allows her to get into the soul of the place and feel it as home.

There are a few quibbles: the use of ‘Gaelic’, when ‘Gàidhlig’ is surely to be preferred, seems a rather odd choice in a discussion on place, especially when Bunting takes such effort to get other place names, and descriptors, right (for example using Leòdhasaich, for the inhabitants of Lewis) and when she clearly understands the vital importance of the language to convey concepts when English, as rich as it is, is simply insufficient to describing the crucial attachment between people and land. South Uist, my own home, appears rather fleetingly (though not ungenerously) which, given it is the largest community buy-out thus far, seems something of a lacuna in a book with takes a strong look at issues of land ownership. The final chapter, at journey’s end, drifts somewhat unsatisfyingly, repeating some of the themes of the journey thus far but without really drawing them home, like a boat holed up temporarily at a cliff face, the swell echoing and playing with the boat until its engines kick in and drive it on again (perhaps this was inevitable given the circumstances). Oh, and it’s definitely just Buzzcocks (without the definite article). But these are minor issues in a book whose sweep and whose themes and treatment are as important as this.

Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical narrative, this is an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to visit the Hebrides or understand the complexities of life lived here which no amount of ‘life on the edge’ toe-dipping could ever convey (or where camera crews go away and construct their own narrative!). Coming out here from 2013, on regular trips that coincided with the timetable for Bunting’s own research visits, this is the book I had started to dream of writing myself. I’m going to have to find another one, now; dammit.

Islands (Scotland) Bill published

Just catching up with the news that the Scottish Government published its Islands Bill last Friday. This was probably a good day to bury bad news, given that much of the political establishment was focused elsewhere at the time, although there is no suggestion that the Islands Bill is is bad news. But the timing of its publication was awful.

The Bill is expressly the governmental response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign launched by the island councils elected by Shetland, Orkneys and Western Isles voters to establish a clearer constitutional recognition of the needs and status of island areas. The Bill – which builds on top of a consultation exercise undertaken in the last quarter of 2015 – will need to be carefully scrutinised as regards the extent to which it matches up to the aims of Our Islands Our Future as well as in terms of what it envisages actually happening in practice. At the headline level, it seeks to do the following:

– a duty on Scottish Ministers to publish a ‘National Islands Plan’ with a view to improving outcomes for island communities, alongside an annually-published Progress Report

– a duty on Scottish Ministers expressly to have regard to island communities in exercising their functions, including via an island communities impact assessment as a means of ‘island-proofing’ initiatives such that islanders are not disadvantaged as a result of their location

– protection for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constitutency akin to that already provided to the Shetlands and Orkneys constituencies such that the boundaries cannot be changed without primary legislation

– greater flexibility around councillor representation within island communities

– provision for all island authorities to have more control in the development of the seas around their communities via a marine licensing scheme for development activities.

Island communities continue to face major problems as regards – among many others – de-population, and the associated, but qualitatively different, problem of dealing with the needs, not least health, of an ageing society; the provision of affordable and suitable housing; and digital connectivity. Some of these issues are being taken forward, at least to some degree, such as the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initative, although improvements can always be made to any governmental programme both as regards provision and as regards pace.

The Islands Bill is not inherently a development-based one, but a policy and access one. Consequently, the solution to many of the development problems facing the islands – of jobs, incomes and sustainability – need to be tackled in other forums and by other initiatives, although I would have liked to see express recognition of the need to engage and work with community landlords – such as Storas Uibhist on South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, which has just celebrated ten years of community ownership of these islands – included formally in the Bill. Whether the Islands Bill turns out to make a difference to islanders’ lives in practice of course remains to be seen, but a legislative start has been made on creating greater voice and access for the islands to policy, and in red-circling that for the future. To the extent that this represents at least a signal of a reversal of the recent policy trend towards greater centralisation in the Scottish Government, the Bill is welcome. Practice needs to follow.