2007 - 2022

Are young women about to sink the Western Isles?

Gaels from the strict Free Church tradition see nothing at Callanish but a pile of stones made special only by heathen tradition. For such folk, relating the tales of Brigid and suggesting they predate her appearance in

Christianity as “St Bride” also borders on the sacrilegious. But for island women, who’ve accepted their absence from public life is both “natural” and “traditional”, it’s important to know there’s another story where women shared the responsibility for shaping Celtic society. That’s why the feminist magazine Harpies and Quines in the 1990’s used the image of Scottish actress Juliet Cadzow in warrior mode from a John McGrath play to express the traditional strength of Celtic women.

And that’s why Brigid needs mentioning again. Because without a resurgence of women power on the Outer Hebrides, the island chain faces depopulation and stagnation. And without knowing it, the island fathers have invoked the memory of the Celts most powerful female figure by the simple act of renaming the island chain last year.

bride3.jpgHebrides means the place protected by the pre-Christian fire goddess Brigid or Bride. And the Gaels’ decision to revert to “the Outer Hebrides” after 35 years as the breezy-sounding Western Isles, would suggest the ancient role of women in protecting island culture is finally being embraced.

Not so. According to the Outer Hebrides Migration Study young women are about to sink the “place protected by the goddess” – by leaving.

The report, published in February, states baldly that twice as many young women as young men are peeling away from the traditional crofting areas on the Western Isles. And 71% of the incomers are men. If the current trends continue there will be more males than females by 2009.

This demographic role reversal may sound like girl heaven for women wanting a bit of prospective partner choice. Or just a correction of the “woman heavy” status of the Isles since war casualties and emigration removed proportionally more young men from the islands than from any other part of the UK in the 1920s. Traditionally on the Hebrides, men have left and women have stayed. But now that bedrock is shifting, and with it the whole infrastructure of island life is being shaken. Fewer children are being born, the population is ageing and these old people need care – traditionally supplied by women – who have left.

Why are they leaving?

If anyone could answer that question, rural societies across the world wouldn’t be sharing the Western Isles’ problem.

But ten years ago Norway’s first female Minister of Agriculture Gunhild Øyangen had a try. She surveyed areas losing people and discovered that contrary to local mythology it was local women who were leaving first.

“The young girl dreams of another life than her mother’s. A professional career may be easier to obtain in the cities. The small villages are felt to be narrowminded and with no space for untraditional or unconventional behaviour. The girls lack relevant female role models, and few local jobs fit with their future plans. Many social and cultural activities are those that men favour, like hunting and fishing, and this does not necessarily attract younger women.”

Spot on.

The Norwegian solution was truly radical. They introduced quotas to get women into local planning and politics – “women can be a vitamin injection in the democratic process.” They paid remote mums or dads who wanted to bring up their children full time. They gave special funding to women setting up businesses in remote areas – “women’s ventures tend to add value to the raw materials produced by male labour.” They backed places for socialising other than the sheep fank. They put public money into creating challenging indoor jobs not just producing more jobs at fish farms. And they paid for good public transport to stop women feeling trapped without access to boats or cars.

At least on the Outer Hebrides, the creation of a “Spinal Route” has helped. Causeways now connect outlying islands to larger ones and that means women can come and go when they want — lifting car keys rather than an outboard motor to cross the sea.

But in a society that still calls girls Hughina and Williamina (sometimes to curry favour with a croft-owning relative who might assign it to his namesake after death, sometimes to remember a relative lost in the wars, and sometimes to continue the fathers’ own name as if they had been boys) few seem to understand women might take offence at being offered second class status. And that’s in part because women have accepted it for decades and left quietly rather than risk family wrath by questioning those Island Terms of Trade.

It is now time for Hebridean women to risk that wrath and have that argument. If island ways don’t change to suit the women who’re leaving, they’ll change to suit the incomers who are arriving. And that will be a profoundly bigger shift.

From Barra to the Butt, many women with whom I had hugely enjoyable private conversations involuntarily recoiled the minute I even mentioned the microphone … and made me promise I would divulge nothing of their inner thoughts. Most men had no such misgivings. One husband even told me to delete the perfectly innocent interview I’d just completed at the breakfast table with his wife about the trials and tribulations of running a B&B. I pointed out the radio series would give the impression no women lived on the Isles.

“So be it,” he said. And the fabulously effusive lady of the house stood there, eyes downcast, embarrassed to the core.

Women don’t argue back in public here. I don’t know what happens in private. But that absence of public dissent may be mistaken for widespread female satisfaction with local male leadership. Wrong. Women don’t argue – they either accept the deal and moan in private, or leave without warning when the brick wall is finally revealed in its full impenetrable glory. Excuses will be given, punches will be pulled but no-one close to the decision will be in any doubt. Intelligent women leave the Isles just as intelligent women leave Africa as nurses or Belfast as students. Societies that offer no challenge to capable women are simply losing them. And if the Western Isles Council goes ahead with plans to close 7-9 schools over the next couple of years, the number of decent jobs for women will plummet.

In 2003, the Western Isles had the lowest percentage of women councillors in Scotland – at 10% less than half the Scottish average.

Gender parity in island government would not in itself turn the depopulation problem around – the fact it is currently unthinkable and probably unachievable speaks silent volumes.

Doubtless some Gaels will think they’re better off without demanding, “modern” women. But ironically, the language leaves with all young women – whatever their outlook on life. One of the biggest and least discussed problems for the language is the loss of Gaelic speaking mums. Some incoming women have learned Gaelic, many have tried, but most know only a few words. And an uncertain mum can be enough to stop Gaelic being used informally by her children – even though dads may be native speakers. Ironically again, the more “traditional” the household, the more it falls to the women to inculcate language skills and prompt basic, intimate communication with children. So Gaelic is losing sassy, young would-be mums, at its peril.

The Isles are also losing women with life-saving social and economic skills.

On Orkney, women have helped build up the largest jewellery industry in Britain outside Birmingham and thriving knitwear chains. They’re also behind some of the brands like Orkney Ice Cream and Orkney Cheddar which add value to the basic foodstuffs island men produce. By contrast, on the Outer Hebrides everything from seaweed and lobsters to tweed and wool have been exported as raw materials for centuries. And the value added skills of design, clothing manufacture, marketing and processing have gone to the mainland instead.

The issue of women’s involvement is also critical in managing successful community buyouts. Having had the good fortune to watch several historic bits of land reform at close quarters – principally Eigg and Assynt – there’s no doubt in my mind that problems start when men try to perform DIY single-handed on their own community. The role of women in Eigg was pivotal. Women like Maggie Fyffe, Camille Dressler, Sue Kirk, Marie Carr and many others made it their business to keep even the most sceptical islanders informed of progress. Their ability to build bridges with outsiders and local doubters and their determination to restore island culture as well as bricks and mortar has paid massive dividends. The island is about to go energy self sufficient this Spring.

Strangely this echoes the mythical past where Eigg was run by a race of “Big Women” who killed the Christian St Donnan and in turn walked off cliffs to their own deaths in a trance. Local belief in the legend is evidenced by placenames and the gaelic nickname for the island itself. I’m not saying the current generation of powerful Women on Eigg developed because of the old “Big Women” myth.

But it did question the “natural” order of things, and may have helped release some women from the feeling they (and indeed all “proper” islanders) should be “seen and not heard”.

So maybe it’s time for the Outer Isles to embrace their “Big Woman” too. She is, after all, the Mummy of the lot. Brigid was a Celtic goddess who in later times became revered as a Christian saint and was often described as the midwife of Christ. She’s pictured in Scottish artist John Duncan’s famous picture, The Coming of Bride as a wide-eyed, golden-haired girl, encircled by children.

Brigid – whose name means “The Exalted One” – was also known as Bridget, Brighid, Brighde, Brig or Bride. Names like Kilbride and Brechin speak of her influence. And there are apparently ruins of “Brigid worshipping” nunneries along the western seaboard – though none to my knowledge has been surveyed or named. Brigid was worshipped as goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft. Elsewhere she is described as the patron of other practical crafts: dyeing, weaving and brewing. Her festival day on February 1, heralds the return of the life-giving forces of spring. Of her, the celebrated Gaelic folklorist Alexander Carmichael wrote:

Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day.

Isn’t this kind of awakening precisely what the Outer Hebrides needs now?


Riddoch; On the Outer Hebrides is published by Luath price £12.99 More info on speaking events


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Comments (8)

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  1. Raymond Bell says:

    Without a doubt, the islands need positive change, which includes infrastructure, affordable housing for locals (not letting it all get snapped up by the latest Home Counties “lifestyler”), and a proper Gaidhlig youth culture. Women’s rights are a huge part, but it is also worth mentioning that the disenfranchisement of island men, has led to a high suicide rate.

    “Hebrides means the place protected by the pre-Christian fire goddess Brigid or Bride.”

    Almost certainly not. This is actually a “foreign” name, and is probably a corruption of the Norse “Hafbrodeyjar”, meaning the “islands on the edge of the ocean.” “Brechin” is almost certainly not from her either, although Kilbride, Kirkbride etc are.

    “And without knowing it, the island fathers have invoked the memory of the Celts most powerful female figure by the simple act of renaming the island chain last year.”

    Untrue… but I think it is wrong to talk about the “Western Isles” as the Outer Hebrides. To many people, it means ALL the Hebrides.

  2. Jock MacCrocker says:

    The Hebrides is a failing community, and agree with many of the above statements. I think there re some other things that should be addressed here. I find it disturbing that the article paints a picture of an isle of repressed little local women who can’t speak for themselves and monstrous local wife beaters. This is unfair. In my experience and upbringing on the island it is ‘generally’ the women who are empowered while the men would rather keep their mouths shut and do as they were told to keep the peace and prevent the lash of a woman’s tongue. There will always be domestic abuse in any society, going both ways. I know of more men being abused at home than I know women, though that is just one perspective. What I am trying to say, is if you able to seek a certain type of person, you will find them, no matter where you are. That does not mean that everyone is the same. Your references to the cultural ways, domestic abuse and treatment of women as a Hebridean thing overall is totally wrong.

    The increase of incomers from different cultural backgrounds, come here for a regular set of reasons. They are looking for a quite life, hiding, or have a work arrangement better than in their own country, or were moved here.

    I have many friends from different parts of the world, and they have so far all fallen into one of these areas. The most regular reason tends to be they are running and hiding from someone or something. Unfortunately, this often means less desirable people tend to pour into the place.

    The underlying clash with local folk and incomers, although another issue, is an important one. Hebridean’s have a very strict code of conduct when dealing with others socially. This means that incomers come across as barbarous, loud and complaining. Local people are much better mannered. Saying that, I have yet to meet an ill mannered European.

    I work from home, and keep house as equally with my partner. I do almost all the cooking (because my wife hates it); and care for our children. I don’t find any issue with staying at home while my wife goes out to work. I have my own work, and am home to keep house, and be home in case I’m needed. I think a family unit functions far more efficiently if someone is at home to hold the fort. It is our intention to build a croft house in the Hebrides, as we are currently in rented accommodation. My partner has voiced her hopes to leave work and keep house full time; helping with the croft work, while I keep a regular income through my IT business. If she wants to be a house wife then where is the harm in it.

    As I said, I agree with many of the points made, but rather than bashing men based on limited experience and blaming them for women leaving, why not look at the big picture. People are leaving because it makes financial sense. There is little work available. Many locals who are left their parents homes sell them for a substantial sum to incomers, so they can leave and find work on the mainland. Many of them don’t want to do it, but do so for a better quality of life. Yes, women are less inclined to stay because much of the work here is labouring, but be aware, there are more women up here (also mentioned in the article above) to leave, so of course there will be a higher number of women leaving than men.

  3. Wifey says:

    Generally the only power that island women demonstrate over their menfolk is that of a mother over a boy.

    Otherwise there is absolutely no doubt that the islands remain predominantly in the pre-feminist era. Women remain in the sidelines, there is little opportunity for employment outside of traditional roles, and those who do break the mold are treated with suspicion and more often a lack of respect.

    Evidence of low self esteem and even lower life expectations are clearly evident in many girls even at junior school. Is this any wonder when the failure to produce a male child is still seen as a sadness.

    I hope that my daughters will end up with skills that enable them to become self employed here or leave the island. Given the attitudes of the majority of men on the island, I hope that my daughters will never come to accept them as acceptable traits in a future life partner. In other words, the mainland will be the better alternative for a future.

  4. Miss Macphail says:

    This article seems tobe a typical bashing at Island culture with a tone that for some reason I personally find deeply irratating. Women are far more involved than you state, they do not just sit on the side lines. It is not seen as a dissappointment if a women does not give birth to a boy, we are not as backwards as that. Also if a women does achieve success it is seen as something good and congratulatory. I feel sorry for you if you are treated with suspicion and disrespect for your hard earned success but you can not simply make your own experience the stereotype and generalisation for the whole of the Western Isles female experience. And as for island chain being renamed I think you may read too much into it. All the best.

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  6. Rose says:

    Do you have an update on the state of this female diaspora?

  7. Islander by Nature says:

    + This is only what Lesley Riddoch thinks . . i have lived most of my 59 years on the Isle of Lewis, we love it here . . who really cares what Lesley Riddoch thinks, it is a free world, if no one wants to be here, then there is nothing to stop them from leaving. What i seem to find is that some folk who come to settle in the outer Hebridies, want to try and ‘change things’ . . if they dont like the way of life here, then likewise there is nothing to stop them leaving . . but do not ‘try to change’ the way of life here just to suit yourselves.

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