Lesley Riddoch: Unspoilt Scotland spoils for fight

North Uists beauty can still be preserved alongside harnessing its natural resources to benefit islanders. Picture: GettyNorth Uists beauty can still be preserved alongside harnessing its natural resources to benefit islanders. Picture: Getty
North Uists beauty can still be preserved alongside harnessing its natural resources to benefit islanders. Picture: Getty
Victorian idealism about our rural life now must be challenged, argues Lesley Riddoch

Scotland was recently voted the most beautiful country in the world by users of Rough Guide travel books, knocking Ireland into 18th place, England into seventh and beating New Zealand, Italy Malaysia and – well everywhere else on Earth.

After a week on North Uist I know why. The remotest parts of Scotland are breathtakingly beautiful – and that’s partly because of Scottish rain. It takes a “maritime climate” and five mile-long white sandy beaches for example, to produce the near unique Hebridean habitat of machair – a colourful tangle of marsh orchids, poppies, clover, tiny pansies and up to 200 species of other delicate flowers and grasses which form a colourful carpet along most of the Outer Hebrides western seaboard. Cloudy, misty days produce a welter of rainbows and a smoky light that transforms the low lying clutter of houses on neighbouring islands into a fascinating floating mirage. And of course, when the sun does appear, its rarity makes the sparkling crispness of the luscious vegetation radiant.

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But this year, like every year, I encountered very few Scots visitors. Of course, English and foreign visitors generally holiday in August not July. But travelling at any time of year, you meet happy, curious folk from every part of the world – except Scotland. Perhaps that’s a relic from the holiday apartheid that developed during the Victorian era when Sir Walter Scott’s novels and Queen Victoria’s sojourn at Balmoral made the Highlands a favoured destination of the European gentry. In the 1820s the Inverness Courier reported that 30,000 folk were said to have come to the Highlands in the years after the publication of Scott’s Lady of the Lake in 1810, which also established the vogue for cruising along Loch Katrine. By the 1850s a railway through the Highlands was planned.

According to AV Seaton in his History of Tourism in Scotland (1998), mid-19th century Highland Scotland was an adventure park for those with the money or information to partake of its pleasures, but from the start those visitors were typically members of the literate middle or upper-classes – English, German or French.

The domestic market only developed in the second half of the 19th century with cheap rail and steam excursions to go “doon the watter” on day trips and, after the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, for longer stays in rented accommodation. This has left an odd tradition whereby different parts of Scotland cater for different types of tourist. According to Seaton it also resulted in a demand for picturesque landscape, “which favoured roughness over smoothness, the ancient over the modern, the unimproved over the improved and the empty and desolate over the populated and everyday”. This was deplored by William Cobbett who made a tour of Scotland and was outraged that Edinburgh, which he regarded as the finest city in the world, was not surrounded by thriving agricultural villages because the nobility liked to keep their estates empty, rural and ”unspoiled”. The repercussions are still being felt to this day.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu believed each social class develops distinctive tastes and preferences (their “habitus”) which reinforce group identity so individuals are reluctant to dabble in behaviours which belong to the “other side”. In leisure terms, that could mean the average Scot has come to see the Highlands and Islands as the preserve of an alien, landowning class – not somewhere they feel at home or at ease. By contrast the presence of ownership rights and generations of free and unproblematic access to land has encouraged Norwegians to build almost 450,000 small, wooden weekend huts in their countryside – Scotland has fewer than 500.

What of it?

I suspect many decision-makers still believe good Highland landscapes are pristine and empty ones. It’s often an unexamined reflex and an unconscious bias – but it places real obstacles in the way of folk trying to live in some of the world’s most beautiful places.

Right now, for example, the Western Isles are coping with a quadruple whammy.

Delays crossing the Channel have hit island shellfish producers hard.

The wet and windy “summer” weather may have been a “belter” for renewable energy across Scotland, but the Outer Isles – with some of the best onshore wind speeds in Europe – have watched the cash and investment go elsewhere. After a decade of campaigning, the Isles now seem further than ever from having a subsea interconnector to carry renewable energy to the grid, after David Cameron’s decision to cut onshore wind subsidies. So the Western and Northern Isles must continue to thole the highest levels of fuel poverty and emigration in the areas with the most productive and least connected wind and marine energy resource.

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If the European Union goes ahead with a North Sea supergrid linking Scottish and European offshore wind farms, an unconnected Western Isles will be left behind. Smaller islands in Sweden and Denmark have had such cables for a decade despite a much poorer wind resource. Indeed, during a visit to Stornoway last week, Scottish Secretary David Mundell was told the Western Isles risks missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance to revitalise its economy unless UK government energy policy changes fast. Sadly, that looks unlikely.

There’s also the problem of a poor mobile phone network and patchy broadband with a complete absence of signal in much of the Outer Hebrides. That may be romantic and calming for a week’s holiday but it’s destructive to business and family life. Fibre-optic cabling will improve the situation for some – but those missed out will be in a near permanent communications slow-lane. A new primary school in Paible on North Uist, for example, looks set to be bypassed. Frustrating – or just par for the course?

Meanwhile, a call to have Crown Estate seabed assets devolved so Scottish islands can generate revenue from fish farm rentals and marine energy developments – another issue raised during the indyref by council leaders of the Our Islands Our Future campaign – doesn’t look likely to happen fast either.

Of course these problems arise in areas reserved to the UK government, but perhaps if Scots visited the beautiful, thwarted corners of this nation more often, we might feel their frustration more keenly and make their priorities our own.

Islanders can only hope the Scottish Government continues to treat them with a bit more respect.

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