Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Highlands and Island Development Board by Harold Wilson’s government in 1965. In 1991 Margaret Thatcher’s government replaced it with Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
In 1980 the Board’s activities were described as ‘a merchant bank with a social purpose’, and in that year the population of the area was 320,000. In 2015 it is 466,112. In contrast by 1961 the population had bottomed out at 304,161 from a comparative high of 371,372 in 1921. In other words the population of the Highlands and Islands has grown by 26% and this in an area which covers approximately one sixth of the land area of the United Kingdom and just under half the land area of Scotland. What this means is that the Highlands is still chronically empty of people and whatever the statistic depopulation is still happening in certain physical areas such as Caithness and the Outer Hebrides. More importantly the real human loss is in those between the ages of 15 and 30, of which as many as 40% plan to leave. These are the very ones we need to keep as they are the most economically productive. Once they leave it is extremely difficult to attract them back. The Highland and Islands Development Boards first chairman, Sir Robert Grieve stated that “the Board will be judged by its ability to hold population in the true crofting areas”. These are the old crofting counties as outlined in the 1886 Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act and extend from Shetland in the North to Kintyre in the South-West and from Barra in the Hebrides to Moray in the East: some 36,300 square kilometres.
In 1965 the Board (commonly known as the HIDB) was charged with the task of “Assisting the people of the Highlands and Islands to improve their economic and social conditions”, while at the same time “enabling the Highlands and Islands to play a more effective part in the economic and social development of the nation”. Time has changed many things and one is them is what the Scottish people understand by the term “the nation”.
By 1990 the HIDB, although it had a few major failures such as big industrial dead ends in aluminium smelters and pulp mills, was getting a lot of things right. It understood, the hard way, that lots of small things work in the Highlands and that big things do not. When Thatcher came to power in 1979 she was determined to do away with the Scottish Development Agency as she saw it as socialist centralisation and a Labour vanity project and replaced it with Scottish Enterprise. In order to appear magnanimous as opposed to politically and socially vindictive her government decided to do away with the HIDB as well and replace it with Highlands and Islands Enterprise. This has had many negative consequences for the Highlands and Islands. The HIDB was at its best a proactive organisation and saw risk as necessary to successful development. The HIE is an organisation which is reactive and stuffed full of accountants who are risk averse. It was the HIDB which was the truly “entrepreneurial” body in the way such organisations still work in Norway and Canada. The HIE in comparison is non-interventionist and unimaginative and has shown on many occasions it does not know what “enterprise” actually means.
The HIE’s stated purpose is to deliver the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy which aims to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth. The strategy sets five strategic objectives, for Scotland to become: “Wealthier and fairer; Smarter; Healthier; Safer and stronger; Greener”. This is management-speak headings which generates very little except paper and means nothing. The HIDB looked for (partly, historically) and the HIE (totally, presently) look for results. “Results” can be spurious measurements of success. The reality is that only a slow process of infrastructural consolidation (transport, education etc) with a concurrent sustainable economic development plan will produce “results” for the Highlands and Islands.
Nothing can be consolidated or will be developed as long as most of the Highlands is owned by a few individuals and opaque, off-shore companies. Both HIDB and now HIE have concentrated on the management of land as opposed to the ownership of it and as a result the real potential of the land has never been realised because the vast empty estates are assets which are wasted and wasting rather than liberated and realised. Without people in the straths and glens no amount of “financial help and sensitive development programmes”, to quote from an HIDB report of 1980, can “overcome the problems of climate, relief and isolation”.
One of the weaknesses of the HIDB, as was, and the HIE as it is now is to see the Highlands as a “problem” with “solutions”, whether they be in socio-economical terms or to what the HIDB perceived as “the characteristic spatial variation in … the natural and man-made landscapes which give the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that ‘unity in diversity’, marking them as a unique region of the British Isles.” Until we stop thinking of the North of Scotland as “unique” and as a difficult or remote “region of the British Isles” then we are stuck in a rut. What the Highlands and Islands need is to be perceived as central to the future of Scotland as a unity and to be normalised. The topography will look after itself.
For too long the British state has subdued Scottish aspiration as portraying it as a nation “divided against itself” and it is true, As John MacInnes points out in his essay “The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands”:
“It would not be difficult to assemble a body of evidence to show that the Gaels of Scotland regarded the people of Lowlands with something less than love. And it would be just as easy to show that the Lowlanders were perfectly capable of returning the compliment.”
In Neil Gunn’s novel “Butcher’s Broom” Dark Mairi of The Glen is attacked by a borders collie belonging to a Lowland shepherd, not a mutt belonging to a Sutherland crofter. However MacInnes goes on to say that:
“Relationships between the two (Highlander and Lowlander) were of course much more complicated than such stereotypes would suggest and we have plenty of evidence of cultural interchange at different times and at different social levels: in literature, in folk tales, in music, and in language. Still, none of that is incompatible with failure to establish goodwill or even understanding at other possible points of contact, especially perhaps on the political plane. Paradoxically… Gaelic has no word precisely equivalent to ‘Lowlands’; nor for that matter does it have a word for ‘Highlands’.”
G. W. S. Barrow in his book “The Kingdom of The Scots” illuminates MacInnes’s point: “Neither in the chronicle nor in the record of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries do we hear of anything equivalent to the ‘Highland Line’ of later time. Indeed the very terms ‘Highlands’ and ‘Lowlands’ have no place in the considerable body of written evidence surviving from before 1300. ‘Ye hielans and ye lawlans, oh whaur hae ye been?’ The plain answer is that they do not seem to have been anywhere: in those terms, they had simply not entered the minds of men. We commonly think of this highland-lowland dichotomy as being rooted deep in the history of Scotland, as being, indeed, imposed upon that history by the mere facts of physical geography. Yet it seems to have left no trace in the reasonably plentiful record of two formative centuries.”
So our differences, questionable in the present or manufactured in the past, are exaggerated. The Highland perspective therefore is a cultural one. How we have traditionally delineated boundaries – if there had to be any – and how we saw them was through language: the Gaelic speaking area of Scotland is A’ Ghàidhealtachd and the rest, where it is not spoken, is A’ Ghalldachd. These terms have grown to be vague and are in no way place names. For example Caithness, where I live is part of the Ghalldachd, but it was not always so. The Hebrides, most certainly part of the Ghàidhealtachd, used to referred to as Innse Gall, the “Isle of the Foreigners”, that is – the Norsemen. Cultural boundaries are fluid and change over time. However the unity of Scotland – Alba – was never in question historically. Both Gael and Gall (Highland and Lowland) were without hesitation Albannaich, or Scottish: being Scottish was the common cause.
So, how will the Wheel of Fortune turn, how will the Sleeping Warrior rise up and how will the people re-inhabit, bring back to life and work in the straths and glens they were cleared from in the 18th and 19th century? Is the Highlands and Islands Enterprise up to the job? Is there evidence the Scottish government will give the land back to the people or do we have to wait for another Thomas the Rhymer to reassure us we will come into our own again?
The Highlands and Islands are not a “wilderness” for tourists to enjoy neither should they be seen as the plaything of Sheiks from Dubai who are free to build vast hunting lodges with four 65ft helipads when the people of Wester Ross have a chronic housing shortage and a transport infrastructure which belongs to a past century. That is division.
It is apparent that the HIE is not fit for purpose and that a new paradigm is required. I suspect that post-election next May the SNP will do for them: they have already done way with the Local Enterprise Companies (the “Lecs”) and centralised everything in Inverness. This has also not helped. A new SNP government must have the courage of the people’s convictions and adopt a truly radical policy on land ownership – they have to understand that on this issue and others they are not “leading” the Scottish people but following a wave. I am no Thomas the Rhymer or a prophet of any kind but even I can predict that if they dither and dilute the Scottish people will turn on them and consign them to history. The Highlands and Islands are not a “wilderness” for tourists to enjoy neither should they be seen as the plaything of Sheiks from Dubai who are free to build vast hunting lodges with four 65ft helipads when the people of Wester Ross have a chronic housing shortage and a transport infrastructure which belongs to a past century. That is division.
If we are to build a nation in Scotland, despite the best attempts of the Tories in London to deny us, then we have to begin to build it in the Highlands and Islands. We cannot afford to wait another fifty years for accountants, bureaucrats, gate keepers and landlords apologists to dither, obfuscate and betray us our rights. If the ordinary people are not encouraged and allowed to use their considerable energies and imagination to secure our future then the Highlands will become a theme park. All of Scotland cannot afford that. As the Tories prove every week they indeed look on us with “something less than love”. It is time for real politics in the Highlands, not the benign paternalism of agencies, however well meaning, who think that they know best. That should be our common cause for Alba.