There’s plenty of good news for the Highlands and Islands.
Visitor numbers are up. Orkney leads the shift to electric cars and renewable energy. And now, Spain Greece and Croatia are so impressed with Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE) they plan to set up similar growth-creating quangos of their own.
Why? Because the Highlands has reversed centuries of population decline to regain its 1850’s total of 470,000 folk - and these southern EU member states believe HIE and its predecessor the Highlands and Islands Development Board are largely responsible.
Now it would be churlish not to express delight that the “basket-case” Highlands have proved doubters wrong. HIE and more particularly the HIDB have indeed pump-primed much of that economic development and the University of the Highlands and Islands, with its digital learning and dispersed campuses, has been another positive development.
But it would be mistaken to presume the job-creating quangos have single-handedly produced a miraculous pan-Highland population increase - as I think they would be first to admit. It would be wrong to presume population growth is happening beyond Highland towns and cities like Inverness, Aviemore, Nairn, Dingwall, Fort William, Oban, Kirkwall, Lerwick and Portree (though that is obviously welcome); wrong to presume that the region’s age profile is irrelevant and absolutely wrong to think the 1850 population total is as good as the Highlands and Islands can get.
While the population of Highland towns is growing, more remote areas are facing a modern clearance thanks to long-term leases for locals being replaced with short-term lets for tourists; unaffordable land and empty glens caused by Scotland’s archaic land ownership patterns; the loss of East-European seasonal labour endangering seasonal businesses; worry over the impending impact of Brexit-related tariffs on fisheries and agricultural produce and cuts in services like public transport, elderly care and childcare - until recently there was just one nursery in the whole of Sutherland. It would be troubling if the decision to use HIE as a role model by Mediterranean states, gave the impression that all’s well in Highland (and indeed wider rural Scotland) and prompted Scots to question the need for urgent action to stop another generation of young Highland Scots giving up and moving out. Yesterday, a Sunday newspaper spent five pages questioning the success of community landownership in Scotland on the basis of one problematic forestry scheme on Bute. Is this really the Highlands’ biggest issue?
What’s needed is a wider perspective.
Firstly, urban growth can easily conceal the hard fact that half an hour down the road, “remote” Highland and Island communities are really struggling.
Last year a report by the James Hutton Institute predicted the working age population in Scotland’s rural areas will plummet by a third by 2046, pushing communities in remote corners of the Highlands and Islands into a “spiral of decline.” It found “sparsely populated areas” - defined as those more than half an hour away from a town of 10,000 folk - account for almost half of Scotland’s land mass, but just 2.6 per cent of Scotland’s population. These places are projected to lose more than a quarter of their population in the next 30 years, with Western Isles, Argyll and the Southern Uplands among the worst affected.
Yet the picture is so different in the Highland capital. In 1861, the population of Inverness was 12,509. In 2018 it was almost 70,000, with a quarter of the Highland population living in or around it.
So, let’s call a spade a spade. The Inverness/Black Isle/Nairn corridor is doing well - picking up southerners looking for the best quality of life in the UK and young Highlanders pushed out of more remote glens - not because land there is irredeemably infertile and fit only for use as a grouse moor, rich man’s playground or re-wilding but because centuries of paternalistic ownership mean there’s no available, affordable land, therefore no affordable housing and therefore no feasible way for younger folk to take advantage of the jobs and business opportunities that absolutely do exist. Planning presumptions all too often mirror that man-made, unnatural emptiness.
So, let’s think again about the levels of population we should expect in the Highlands and Islands and reconsider the date chosen to illustrate the scale of the present population surge.
The 1850s saw the Highlands on its collective knees after seventy years of clearance and widespread starvation as a result of the potato famine. Is this a suitable benchmark for the carrying capacity of the scenic, energy-rich, culturally-vibrant region today?
We should be comparing and contrasting the Highlands and Islands not with the region’s own broken past but with the thriving present of its neighbours - like Tromso, the capital of Arctic Norway.
Situated on an island amidst barren fjords, it lies more than a thousand miles north of Inverness. Yet the population of this truly remote city matches the Highland capital with 77,000 folk. Arctic Bodø has 30.000 residents, Alta 20,000 and sub-Arctic Trondheim a whopping 196,000 residents.
The relatively high population base of remote Northern Norway has been achieved not by the actions of specific quangos, but by the fact Norway escaped feudalism, therefore has the largest and most diverse number of individual landowners in Europe and land prices that are a fraction of those demanded for the tiny parcels available in Highland Scotland. Folk in Northern Norway were also aided by the abolition of nobility in 1821, the nationalisation of rivers for hydro power straight after independence and a long tradition of ultra-local democratic control which prompted investment in light industry.
Let’s be clear. Scotland’s community buyouts have boosted highland and island populations and provided jobs with secure, affordable and properly insulated homes in remote areas where private owners miserably failed.
The problem is that rural Scotland cannot be fixed, acre by acre, or buyout by buyout. Community control delivers speedy relief for the communities able to jump hurdles and take over control, but places a strain on volunteers and leaves Scotland’s highly dysfunctional systems of land ownership and distant democratic control unchanged and intact.
So, let’s imagine what the Highlands might look like if Holyrood and Westminster politicians were as bold as community activists, delivering the modern equivalent of the Crofting Acts, or the high rates of taxation that prompted one-fifth of Scottish land to be sold in the 1920s or Tom Johnston’s hydro-electric revolution in the 1940s.
The Highlands urgently needs release from outdated feudal structures to grow sustainably. Governments not quangos can deliver.