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):

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

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