Something Less Than Love: FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT

3644309244_9f0c0884aa_zLast 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.

Comments (16)

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  1. John Fullerton says:

    Excellent, really excellent, in its writing, its authority and its observations/conclusions.

  2. John Tracey says:

    Very well presented after much thought.
    Living and working in The Highland Council area leaves me thinking that “Local” Authority is not an appropriate description. The area covered by HIE is even larger! Local democracy, local planning, local action are what must drive development. This can certainly be supported by (not driven by) an overarching organisation. First task for a Holyrood government is to have real land reform in this geographical area roughly equivalent in size to Belgium and in which some land owners have huge tracts of land which is for their own purposes. Land must be used for development for all people in the area and for those outside the area.

  3. Valerie says:

    Great informative piece, which really brings the land ownership issue into sharp focus.

  4. Neil Mair MacCallum says:

    Heartily concur! Populate the Glens. How? Create places for people to live – speculatively.

  5. David Sillars says:

    Move government departments across the country to provide employment opportunities. It would also lead to infrastructure improvements that were not seen as subsidies from the government.

  6. Anton says:

    “The SNP have already done way with the Local Enterprise Companies (the “Lecs”) and centralised everything in Inverness. ”

    I’m confused. It seems only the other day (on 4 November) that this blog was pouring scorn on the Economist’s claim that the current SNP Government is essentially centralist – i.e. devolution for Scotland but not devolution within Scotland.

    So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

  7. George Gunn says:

    Dear Anton,

    what I think is happening with the Scottish Government (SNP) in relation to Highlands and Islands Enterprise is that they know it is malfunctioning and not what the Highlands needs and that they want to do away with it. The centralising of the Local Enterprise Companies in Inverness is just a stage in this process and in 2016/17 I think we’ll see some movement in that regard. What they will replace it with both philosophically and specifically remains to be seen. Personally – and as I tried to say – local control of economic development in the Highlands and islands is essential if we are to retain our young people and attract more to the North.

    1. Anton says:

      @ George Gunn: Well you may well be right that “Highlands and Islands Enterprise is…malfunctioning and not what the Highlands needs” and so it may be important to take it away from local communities and centralise it under the direct control of the Scottish Government. Like Policing. And Fire and Rescue Services. And Council Tax. And hospital funding. And crofting. And so on – to the extent that that Scotland is now one of the most centralised countries in the Western World (see the independent 2014 COSLA Report).

      I agree with you that “local control of economic development in the Highlands and islands is essential if we are to retain our young people and attract more to the North”. The SNP’s record, however, suggests that this not on the agenda.

      I’m a passionate believer in devolution, which is why I support Scottish Independence. My problem is that the Scottish Government wants devolution from Westminster, but by their actions seems to be opposed to devolution within Scotland.

      1. George Gunn says:

        I agree with you, Anton, the SNP send out mixed messages here – whilst on one hand they pontificate positively about more powers to island local authorities (Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles) and then act in the opposite way with enterprise agencies and police. Their record on private contracts to vital areas of infrastructure such as Serco taking over Northlink ferries and Abellio taking over Scot Rail is not good: both have resulted in a poorer, more expensive service. Their defense to all of this would be that the money supply is reduced from Westminster and with the new Scotland Bill it is going to be even more of a Houdini’s dinner jacket. Autonomy after independence is the motto I cling to; but is their life before we are re-born? I think the real problem for the SNP in Holyrood is that they have to be seen to be acting like a government but the problem for Scotland has always been the way governments act. The “let’s not scare the horses” approach to governance will, inevitably, piss off the people. If only they had the courage to act radically now then our country will have more of a chance of becoming a constitutional reality rather than remaining an administrative and administered region.

        1. Graeme Purves says:

          You have given us a valuable reminder of the way the HIDB and SDA were turned from their broad development purposes to serve the god of enterprise under Thatcher and how their successors were then engulfed by empty management rhetoric in the first decade of this century. So far, our restored Parliament has done too little to repair the damage. The SDA was doing interesting work on the geographical dimension of development until 2007, but the SNP government’s preference for an aspatial focus on key economic sectors snuffed that out.

          Despite its radical social rhetoric, the current SNP Government is finding it difficult to abandon its considerable neoliberal baggage. The Scottish Government has been enlightened enough to appoint Mariana Mazzucato to its Council of Economic Advisers, but does it have the courage and imagination to put her vision of the entrepreneurial state into practice? Whether it can overcome its present inertia on questions of social development remains to be seen.

          On a historical note, in the early 1950s Frank Mears addressed the issue of rural depopulation in his strategy for the revitalisation of Sutherland. Against the prevailing wisdom of the time, he rejected the view that the problem could be solved “by a simple process of decanting a given proportion of large-scale industries into partially depopulated areas.” Instead, in a plan strongly influenced by Frank Fraser Darling’s Preliminary Report on the West Highland Survey, he advocated a strategy based on the regeneration of the crofting economy through measures such as land rehabilitation, tenure reform, investment in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and the encouragement of small rural industries based on indigenous resources.

  8. Brian MacIver [@Palayo] says:

    I awaken in a cold sweat, from the nightmare of Disney ‘buying’ the Highlands and opening ‘ScottisherLand’ theme park. Where children embrace youths in ‘Nessie’ Costumes,
    and a never ending parade of pipe bands play, as the crowds mount ‘rides’ while ignoring the views. Haggis bars serve ‘haggis burgers’ and shortbread washed down with ‘whiskey pops’.

    Perhaps, the worst part of this nightmare is WE did it to ourselves.

    LAND is OUR key resource.
    LAND is the most urgent aspect of Scotland’s future.
    LAND Reform is urgent and vital if WE are to tackle Socio-Economic change in Scotland.

    If we do not start now, then when?
    If we do not start in the Highlands and Islands, then where?
    If not US, then WHO?

  9. meaghan says:

    excellent article

  10. JG says:

    The signs as far as Transport Infrastructure are not good – at least as far as Ferries are concerned.

    The almost continuous bungling of the franchise process, new infrastructure and vessels and all at vast expense. is a stain on the Scottish Government’s reputation which may have dangerous consequences electorally in the Highlands and Islands.

    Everything they do seems designed to serve the interests of a monumentally bloated CALMAC and little to do with serving the needs of islanders.

    And this not a private good/public bad argument.

    Best ferry practise in Scotland comes from those services managed by the councils in Shetland, Orkney and Highland as well as efficient private operators such as Pentland Ferries and Western Ferries NOT the Scottish Government and CALMAC or indeed Northlink.

    As an SNP supporter I am deeply ashamed of their performance in this field.

  11. Andrew Wilson says:

    excellent article. Much of what you say applies to Dumfries & Galloway where I live. Yes indeed the SNP do need to grasp land reform and be radical. I hope they do, I am a member because I love all of Scotland, and see no division between Highland and Lowland; having learnt Gaelic and adore the Scots Language too.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      As someone with roots in the Borders, I agree, Andrew. In 2009, the second National Planning Framework for Scotland expressed the view that the South of Scotland “needs to develop an indigenous institutional framework as vigorous and successful as that of the Highlands and Islands” (para. 232).

  12. Ray Burnett says:

    Apologies for lateness of response, George, but very much enjoyed this piece. You understandably focus on the need to re-focus the ‘land question’ not on management but on ownership, a paradigm shift that David McCrone perceptively identified back in 1997. But your article also brings out the much wider range of issues that are caught up in this whole debate as to ‘the Highlands’ – issues of the commodification of land and culture; issues of language and identity; issues of history and heritage (two quite distinct entities); issues of mapping out regions and the ‘local’; issues of planning and democracy; issues of ‘belonging.

    Quite a can of worms! All deserve our thought and attention, not least in groupings such as RIC and the disparate elements of the left and radical thought it represents. Something to return to in a separate post, other than a couple of concluding thoughts.

    As you rightly suggest, by 2016-17, HIE will become a thing of the past but its successor is far from clear. In this context:
    i) has not the inherited concept and administrative construct of ‘the Highlands and Islands’ long outlived its usefulness?
    ii) should not the mismatched alignment of ‘Highland’ with ‘A’ Gàidhealtachd’ be discontinued?
    iii) is not the notion of an ‘Islands’ grouping that does not include the islands of Argyll or of the Clyde a contradiction in terms?
    iv) how do we develop ideas and policies for 21st C Scotland that address the issues of sparsely populated areas, the localities ascribed ‘peripheral’ and ‘remote’ from the perspective of those resident within these localities yet within a national framework?

    Now see what you’ve started!

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