Brian Wilson: Remote control is key for the future

The wellbeing of our outposts should be a badge of pride but we need desire to make a difference, writes Brian Wilson

The Margaret Rae arrives in the village of Rhenigidale in 1981. At that point, there were only two ways into the Harris outpost  by sea or on a hazardous hike. Picture: Contributed
The Margaret Rae arrives in the village of Rhenigidale in 1981. At that point, there were only two ways into the Harris outpost  by sea or on a hazardous hike. Picture: Contributed

I took a run into Rhenigidale in Harris the other day. The road was quite busy, the movements of a small population enhanced by meanderings of tourists who followed a Gaelic road sign to the crofting township, set in a beautiful location.

There is, now, nothing special about the road – eight miles of winding single-track with passing places. There are no monuments to confirm that, 30 years ago, the struggle for its construction became a powerful metaphor for the question of whether small communities in remote places have the right to survive.

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Until then, there were two ways into Rhenigidale. Pretty much everything and everyone came by sea. When weather conditions prevented landings and urgent contact was needed with Tarbert, the alternative was a hazardous hike over the footpath which was also traversed, three times weekly, by the postman.

Today in Tarbert, a book about Rhenigidale’s long struggle for a road, and hence survival, will be published. It has been written by the last postman to walk that route, Kenny MacKay, who was also the awesomely resilient campaigner for his native village.

Roads to remote places carry messages. The road built by Calum MacLeod on Raasay, largely by his own hand and to a place where there were no longer any people, demonstrated one man’s contempt for the avoidable destruction of a community. The road round the Applecross peninsula, avoiding the treacherous Bealach na Ba, arrived in time for the last native people to leave the coastal villages.

The question raised by Rhenigidale was not only about distant bureaucracy but also the understanding of places which are themselves considered far-flung by most of Scotland or Britain that they, too, owe a duty to those more remote than themselves. In other words, even peripheries have peripheries and must address the needs which accompany them.

Rhenigidale was formed as a crofting settlement in the early 1800s and grew in population as estates were cleared to make way for deer. The population rose to 100 by the early 20th century but gradually eroded because of the harsh conditions. In the 1920s, some families were resettled to the Portnalong area of Skye in a scheme for ex-servicemen.

The miracle was not that most left but that others stayed so long, maintaining an active crofting community noted for the quality of its livestock. The first request to Inverness County Council for vehicle access was made in the 1930s and the road finally opened more than half a century later. That this happened at all was due to two primary factors – the refusal of Kenny MacKay to take “no” for an answer and the emergence of EU funding for remote places.

Kenny notes that, in the hour of victory, I wrote: “The Rhenigidale road was important symbolically, as well as for practical purposes. I recall being appalled by the argument, coming from within the Western Isles Council, that you shouldn’t spend this kind of money on such a remote place with so few people. For, of course, the logical extension of that argument would be to turn it against the Western Isles as a whole…”. And for “Western Isles”, read “every thinly-populated area of Scotland”.

Rhenigidale was an extreme case. By the time the road came, the population was down to a dozen and approaching the point of no return. The relatively modest investment has since been justified, in economic terms, by construction of a few houses and enablement of a fish farming location. But beneath the specifics of the parable, lies a wider question which Scotland has the means, but scarcely the will, to address.

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There is no philosophy of the periphery; no flexible plan for how to maintain population where fate and history have cast it down. Contrary to headline statistics, most of our remote places are suffering steady decline with ageing populations struggling to sustain viable communities against formidable odds and official indifference.

Why should that bother anyone beyond those most immediately affected? Well, by and large it need not and does not. But then again, Scotland trades heavily on the images of remote locations and gains cultural diversity from them. Could it not also seek a badge of pride by responding to their distinctive needs with flair and imagination? The answer lies less in money than attitude.

For anyone who cares, the wellbeing of Scotland’s periphery could be a great political challenge. It would lead devolution in a logical direction, devising distinctive solutions for places with needs far removed from rocket science but unlikely to be diagnosed from Edinburgh. A handful of jobs, a few tweaks of public services, a modest amount of capital expenditure, a land management system that delivers rather than obstructs … an integrated approach from official agencies.

The problem is that all this conflicts with the instincts of government and bureaucracy, more so now than before. Scotland’s trends are towards centralisation and inflexibility. Local authorities have neither money nor powers. Peripheral places have environmental designations inflicted upon them regardless of local impacts. Quangos require the ear of Edinburgh more than the consent of communities.

Much-maligned Brussels had a better understanding of peripheral needs. For several decades, there was a flow of structural funding and enlightened rural development programmes. In the Highlands and Islands (as elsewhere in Scotland), there was a Partnership Programme, attuned to peripheral priorities. It was closed down by the Scottish Government and the funds taken in-house for centralised distribution. I doubt if the Rhenigidale road would happen today.

We hear endlessly about Norway – but only in the context of an oil fund which didn’t exist until 20 years ago. For decades before, Norway had policies geared to decentralisation of jobs and, very specifically, keeping people in the most geographically remote areas. Do we have nothing to learn apart from slogans?

Community land ownership offers a way forward but still applies mainly in the Western Isles alone. Rhenigidale became part of the community-owned North Harris Estate in 2004 and Kenny MacKay writes: “I could not help but think of the difference it would have made to the older generation of people, that had suffered so much and for so long, that now we had complete security of tenure and could not be cleared again.”

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However, even community ownership is frustrated by the fact that so much of the decision-making which affects these places is taken remotely. The challenge is to break down the silos of bureaucracy and internal colonialism to deliver for Scotland’s most fragile communities. Or is that too radical for Edinburgh to contemplate

• Rhenigidale: A Community’s Fight for Survival, by Kenneth Mackay, is published by Acair Books,