2007 - 2022

Power to the Islands!

Christopher Silver on the idea of a £50,000 ‘Islands Bonus’.

In 1970 the island of Papa Stour, one of the fifteen smaller inhabited isles in Shetland, made headlines by advertising in a national newspaper for potential new inhabitants. This move represented one last desperate bid to stem a state of seemingly irreversible population decline.

Back then, the inducements of a croft and a few sheep were deemed sufficient to draw people north. But despite the new influx helping to stabilise the island’s population at around 30 in the eighties and nineties, the number of inhabitants now stands at six, half of whom are over 65.

The original story provided great copy – a compelling frame that allowed a wide audience to project their fantasies of building a new life in a distant wilderness. Latterly, Papa Stour would prove newsworthy once again as lurid details of bitter feuds emerged amongst the new islanders.

The latest example of this sub-genre – let’s call it, ‘Would you move here, for this?’ – has followed the Scottish Government’s floating of a £50,000 Islands Bond. This grant would be made available to families and young people to stay in, or relocate to, one of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands.

The proposed £5 million scheme, which would be spread over five years, is the news-sized appetiser for a menu of other potential measures included within the National Islands Plan.

So if the policy’s real aim is to spark debate, it has certainly succeeded – it was even picked up by Spanish newspaper El Pais. The risk, however, is that the gimmick becomes the main event, something which seems to have pissed-off a fair few islanders.

There is a deeper problem here about the cultural role that islands are expected to play – a tendency which seems to have had a knock-on impact on policy making itself.

The Edge of the World?

In 1938 Michael Powell based his silver-screen romance, The Edge of the World, on the story of St Kilda. In doing so, he translated the story of total depopulation and the angst that its finality brings about for a mass audience: embedding a strain of popular fascination about places ‘on the brink.’

The islands of Scotland still play the role of convenient romantic other; waiting for miraculous deliverance and discovery. They are always presented as places to start over, to moderate the pace of contemporary life, and to escape from the rat race.

These narratives are of course encouraged by local tourist boards: but whether they currently do much more than boost uptake of Airbnbs and second homes is questionable.

The problem is that one person’s ‘edge’ is another’s centre; one person’s ‘wilderness’ the basis for another’s livelihood. The isles may suffer more from this tendency to project a new self on to a place precisely because they are, by definition, set apart. Most of Scotland’s islands are at once close and familiar enough to make a life-changing move feasible, while also seeming to offer small contained worlds of their own, offering distance and escape.

Growing up on Shetland, this picture of splendid isolation is not one that I recognise.

I think instead of the old men who’d dream of youthful forays to the Indian Ocean over a pint: of isles subject to a constant traffic of culture, goods and peoples, negotiating the challenges and opportunities that they bring. I also think of working in the Outer Hebrides, and noticing the people’s zeal for education, which made outward migration for the young a kind of pilgrimage.

I can also recall interviewing the head of Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre, who told me with a disarming frankness: ‘there is something really powerful about an island … it’s really hard to keep a secret’.

People often go to the islands bearing a profusion of internal thoughts and needs like the Papar – the hermit-monks who probably gave Papa Stour its name.

In some ways, the observations above are just another set of romantic ideals, partial and equally challenging to live up to in reality. But they hold a crucial difference to the ‘Would you live here?’ narrative – they come from the people rather than the landscape, and are grounded in the basic reality that ‘island life’ is often far more intimate and reciprocal than it is isolated.

But the need for ‘people’ – which can sometimes be presented as a simple numbers game – would perhaps be better understood as the need to become a people in the democratic sense of the word; to form, or sustain, a community.


Deep within the island experience is the often dramatic and heart-wrenching process of depopulation, but the arc of that narrative can often obscure a twin process of disempowerment.

There is a long, often bitter, history in all of these places of perverse incentives to stay or go – depending on what grand project the laird had decreed was in vogue at the time.

The truth is, there are few rational reasons within a market-based system for such places to exist. Episodes of economic collapse based on a single extractive resource, such as kelp or herring, provide a haunting historic subtext whenever the term ‘sustainability’ is mentioned.

In contrast, if you live on a Scottish island today, your life will almost certainly be underpinned by a reliance on subsidised lifeline services and other forms of support to the wider economy provided by the state.

While many islands now perform well when it comes to the Scottish Government’s economic holy trinity of food and drink, energy, and tourism, there will always be a fragility within the isles because diversification is inevitably far more constrained.

This is why for crofting, and other sectors too, the potential level of public funding available already dwarfs the mooted £50,000. More significantly, in the post-war era the islands were finally connected up to national infrastructure: and could thus attain a basic modern standard of living for the first time.

Since then, with the shrinking of the state and its diminished capacity for intervention, there has been a constant struggle to reconcile the dogma of marketisation with the imperative of universal service obligations in areas of low population density.

On its own, the market has no interest in sending a parcel from London to Unst, any more than it does in sending ions down a cable in the opposite direction. In private hands, economies of scale win through, and those in the margins pay out in exorbitant fees. Partly as a result of this, the cost of living on islands like Papa Stour is thought to be between 29 and 64 per cent higher than the UK average.

Power to the islands 

This is why the isles need policies that are less eye-catching, but more far-reaching.

These include a clamp down on second-home ownership, extensive and responsive social housing in areas of acute need, and a refusal to outsource lifeline services to corporations with poor social records, like Serco.

All of these measures, if fully realised, would require the state to take a far more interventionist role in the economy, a role that clearly doesn’t fit with the current governing logics of the SNP.

In this sense the Islands Bonus is similar to the Scottish Government’s enthusiasm for a Universal Basic Income – perhaps the pinnacle of market-centric policy solutions. Like UBI,  the Islands Bond risks exacerbating existing inequalities: just as the housing benefit bill currently subsidises private landlords.

On some islands, as post-pandemic trends push rural house prices even further beyond the reach of local people, £50,000 wouldn’t even cover the difference between the declared asking price and the offers made by asset-rich urban escapees.

If ‘sustainability’ really is just a calculation of consumer demand, then the isles really do face a bleak future – as mere tourist ‘experiences’ – the canvas for latter-day Victorian fantasists.

But if we choose instead to embrace a broader, democratic, definition of sustainability, there is hope for any place, however small.

The factors behind rural depopulation may be unique everywhere, but they share a common source: the drive towards irreversible decline is not about a lack of incentives, it is about a lack of power.

Comments (16)

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  1. Dial M for Murdo says:

    Good article. As a straw man, the £50,000 lure has done its job and got us all talking.

    A Bond is not a grant. It’s an instrument of indebtedness and comes with an obligation to pay interest or to repay when the Bond matures. Then there’s the Interest.

    This consultation might draw in some young folk with desirable skill from elsewhere to one of the islands and help them buy an already overpriced home, inconveniently saddling them with a lifetime of debt. I suspect it’s more likely to attract those young folk who, with help from family and careers elsewhere can probably afford it. What it doesn’t do is solve the rural housing crises, not just on the Islands, but across the South and North of the Central belt.

    Behind the romantic notions of island life as some profound sense of living a better life, lies the reality that many of the islands have had enormous subsidies to foster that notion, all simply because a ferry is required to visit anywhere else. The ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway takes 3 hours and 12 minutes. A drive from Ullapool to Thurso is one minute quicker 3 hours 11minutes. One is subsidised the other not. You can’t get out of the ferry for a stroll midway across the Minch, yet similarly there are few places to stop between Ullapool and Thurso for a stretch of the legs. The North Highlands is a huge chunk of Scotland littered with sporting estates and eNGO’s trying to preserve the land and the few people who remain, a people who find that up to 75% of their households live in fuel poverty whilst watching wind turbines line the pockets of off shore investors, a huge irony given that energy consumption in the North and much of the South of Scotland is in the 5th quantile 300-596kWh/m2/per year. In shorthand, we create the energy, use more of it yet pay more for it…Square that one.

    Where this consultation falls down is continuing with the Central belt credo that the Islands are special places like nowhere else, they’re not. Scotland outside of the Central Belt has exactly the same problems, depopulation, poverty, seasonal economies, infrastructure not fit for purpose and a complete lack of affordable housing.

    Seeing as I’m on an anti Island dig, I could ask what the spend per head is on Ulva and Eigg, that beloved Island with the great narrative that doesn’t engender the Whisky Galore stereotype at all, at all or ask why the Scottish Government’s archaic council funding formula the Grant Aided Expenditure allocates £4146 per head to Western Isles, some £1774 more per head than to the Highlands. Then there’s the Shetlands who get a whopping £4589 per head of government funding some £2045 more than the Highlands to be honest that not only punches us in our collective faces, it rubs industrial salt into the gaping wounds…

    Should I even mention the democratic deficit that sees the Islands with far greater representation than the North Highlands…nah I’ll go and have my tea.

    I would advocate that everyone in rural Scotland interested in redressing the imbalance between the Islands and the remote rural mainland has their say on the consultation.

    Link here. https://consult.gov.scot/agriculture-and-rural-economy/development-of-the-islands-bond/consultation/subpage.2016-07-07.1474135251/

    1. Ali Inkster says:

      Similarly Scotland gets £1400+ more in funding per head than England and there is millions of you. Now isn’t that a kick in the nuts

  2. Malcolm Kerr says:

    Thanks for this analysis, Christopher. Agreed, the ‘island bond’ is a gimmicky distraction. Why not address the underlying issues? Land reform? Action against the land banking which makes it impossible for young people to get housing.? A land value tax? Over-reliance on tourism? Some sense of equity in dispersing Scottish Government largesse outside the central belt? Universities? Government departments? Above all, note that the losses associated with the botched ferry procurement, which the Scottish Government has presided over since 2007 absolutely dwarf the resources of this project.

    1. Mouse says:

      Newsnight last night was interesting. The Scottish government awarded the contract to the highest bidder, who didn’t even qualify to tender in the first place. Their tender evaluations must be fascinating. I presume they’ve been burned.

      I didn’t quite realise that Nicola Sturgeon got on TV and launched a hulk with painted-on windows, funnels made of plastic sheets, and a bow that had been badly tacked-together from scraps. They did a good job of painting on the windows, but God knows what it’s doing in the water. Maybe Ferguson’s should be in the theatrical prop business.

      It looks like £150 million + worth of government corruption.

  3. Mouse says:

    There’s a beautiful woman behind every tree on Shetland.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Ah, but she’s a selkie.

  4. Mouse says:

    Maybe the idea is that the £50,000 is an interest-free loan towards building a house on the lower park that you can sell to some Edinburgh banker at great profit? Certainly more profit than sheep-husbandry.

  5. Islander says:

    Why do we go to such lengths to keep humans living comfortably in our most remote communities? Previously these most remote islands were poor but relatively self sufficient. A place like Foula was culturally distinct. The Barnett Formula arguably exists to support continued human habitation in such places, rather than Dumfries nurses get a 4% pay rise rather than the 3% offered in Carlisle.

    The most remote islands are dominated by incomers, mainly from England. There is little “aboriginal “ culture left to preserve. So, what is the point?

    When I attended a school hostel we were told it would have been cheaper to send us all to Eton.

    While on one level government intervention has reduced since Thatcher, that hardly applies in the case of somewhere like Eigg or Fair Isle, whose residents may not have much cash but whose lifestyles have nevertheless been subsidised to the tune of millions.

    With its additional oil revenues, Shetland has been able to decentralise facilities and services more than most, but there are some cases when we must question the value of propping up retirement communities and instead prioritise less marginal places where people
    actually want to live.

    1. Malcolm Kerr says:

      Islander, we don’t hear much about ‘subsidy’ when we are talking about the London dock lands development, rail infrastructure, including HS2, defence expenditure, Government R&D, etc, etc, although the funds transfer fairly directly to people living where they are deployed. Islands, on the other hand suffer from the ‘law of centripetal flow’, with their resources being exploited by people living in cities. Islands haven’t always been impoverished. The vast bulk of the £1 billion which the SG claims to have spent on ferry procurement over a decade hasn’t benefitted islanders other than in the provision of ferry services. BTW, NHS staff in Dumfries get 4% because (in respect of health expenditure) we get the government we voted for. Have you a problem with that?

    2. Malcolm Kerr says:

      Worth saying also, on my island, young people who want to stay or return are unable to do so because of a shortage of housing. This is the result of policy failures in respect of land ownership, land banking and conservative planning conventions, rather than subsidy of a retirement community.

    3. Another islander says:

      Islander , I can only question what the solution you have to what you are pointing in your comment . Should we close the islands ? Should we move everyone to mainland Scotland and to cities so we cost as little as possible ? I don’t know how to explain islandness. I found here on this tiny island a life I couldn’t have anywhere else and I feel so lucky. There is space on those depopulated islands for more people to thrive so why not encourage it. What would Scotland become without any islands ? We don’t have millions pounds swimming pools stadiums and over facilities. How much does the underground in cities cost per head compare to our ferries ( I actually don’t know the answer ) ? How much revenue does the islands bring to the general country income.. they are assets that needs to be safeguarded.

  6. Catriona Mullay says:

    Excellent article! Thanks very much for writing, Christopher

  7. Andy Holt says:

    When we came to Papa in 1973, the ferry was an open 23’ wooden boat, there was no connection to the grid, water came from a concrete tank pumped directly from a nearby Loch and stopped short of the ruin we were given by a couple of hundred yards and telephone was a red phone box on the other side of the Voe. After a tragic accident control of the ferry shifted to mainland operators and eventually the council took complete control of the service. Water now comes via a million pound scheme foisted on us by Scottish water which is perpetually malfunctioning but which provides very lucrative employment to a never ending series of contractors from Inverness. We have a huge modern pier to accommodate our roro ferry, courtesy of the SIC. The wisdom of which decision I questioned at the time. Improved communication and transport links are a mixed blessing making keeping a Croft here whilst not being resident the norm. Current Crofting law now enables this situation. There are thousands of neglected and empty crofts in the Highlands and Islands but the Commission doesn’t have the resources to tackle this scourge effectively. This scandal is further exacerbated by the reluctance of Crofters to demonstrate disloyalty by reporting even the most egregious cases. Since 1976 and the advent of the right to buy ones Croft, Croft land and houses are financial assets and investments and the market is king. Tenancies of postage stamp sized crofts go for 5 figure sums, more with planning permission. Owner occupied crofts fetch even higher sums. Various solutions have been proposed including the creation of new crofts from, for instance, common grazings and making it legally possible to raise a mortgage on a Croft. I used to worry about the future of these fragile communities and Papa, a place I dearly love. I still spend a good proportion of my time puzzling over how she might thrive again. I do know my wife and I have been blessed to live and raise a family in such a beautiful place. Some things are beyond monetary value, thank God.

  8. Another islander says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article. It feels like a ban on second homes would solve a lot of problems. Or a first right to buy at valuation for locals that would reside full time within the communities.. something that would insure people can afford to stay or move back to their community.

  9. Michelle Forrester says:

    A poorly researched article lacking in substance. The picture doesn’t even include the northern isles.

    1. Quite difficult to get a photo that has all the islands in it Michelle.

      Is there an error in the article?

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