Scottish independence essay: Highlands rising

This is the latest in a weekly series of indyref essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum.

Proof of self belief in younger generation, University of the Highlands and Islands. Picture: Contributed
Proof of self belief in younger generation, University of the Highlands and Islands. Picture: Contributed

EASILY the most destructive element in Highland life over much of the past two centuries was the ceaseless denigration of the area and its inhabitants by people in authority.

Starting with Gaelic, practically everything Highland, or so it was dinned into generation after generation, was inferior, second-rate, of no account. The Highlands were remote, bereft of resources, lacking in potential. Highlanders, like their fellow Celts in Ireland, were described routinely (and especially in the Press) as hopelessly backward idlers whose troubles, if mentioned, were said to be entirely their own fault.

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The lie was given to tales of Highland fecklessness by thousands of emigrant families whose desperate journeys (made in circumstances not unlike those confronting economic migrants today) often started when they were kicked off their land by its owners.

Travelling across Canada, as I’ve done in search of our diaspora’s history, I’ve heard over and over again the story of how so many of our people, arriving there with nothing, got themselves established in a country where, in the words of a Gaelic song made in 1780s Ontario by Anna Gillis from Morar, ‘sugar may be gotten from a tree, and landlords will no more oppress us’.

I share the pride our diaspora takes in its collective achievements. But always when listening to emigrant narratives – whether in Canada, the US, Australia or New Zealand – I have somewhere in my mind the thought of how tragic (the word is not too strong) it has been for the Highlands that so much talent, drive and ambition was forever lost to us.

Even as recently as the 1950s and early 1960s, when I was growing up in North Argyll and when UK politicians like Harold Macmillan were telling us our country had “never had it so good”, mantelpieces and dressers across the Highlands and Islands continued to be decorated with photographs of young women and young men living and working in Sydney or Wellington or Los Angeles or Ottawa – emigrants whom their parents, in that pre-cheap-flight era, did not expect to see again.

Success, it had come to be thought by Highlanders themselves, was something that was attainable only an ocean’s breadth away.

Getting out from under such thinking has not been easy. But in all sorts of ways – not least through the rediscovery of pride in language, traditional music, an unrivalled natural environment and much else – Highlanders have begun, indeed more than begun, to regain the self-confidence and self-esteem that are the key to enterprise and initiative of every kind.

When I first visited the Sleat peninsula in the southern part of Skye, Sleat was the most run-down and depopulated part of a run-down and depopulated island.

Today, on the back of developments like Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the degree-awarding Gaelic College that’s now a vital component of the University of the Highlands and Islands, Sleat is awash with new homes – while the population of Skye as a whole is double what it was at its 1960s low point.

Not every part of the Highlands and Islands is doing as well as Skye. Some localities still struggle.

But the region overall is on the way back and the way up – something signalled by the fact that, in recent decades and for the first time in centuries, many more people have been moving into the north of Scotland than have been moving out.

Basic to this development has been the huge effort that’s gone on at many levels to encourage people, both here and elsewhere, to think of the Highlands as a place which, far from having no prospects, has a great deal going for it.

That’s why it’s scarcely believable, from this Highlander’s perspective at any rate, that Better Together and the anti-independence campaign more generally, seem intent on spreading, at an all-Scotland level this time, exactly the same sort of doubt, despair and despondency that did so much damage, over so many years, to the Highlands.

Our oil, we’ve been told, is running out faster than we think. Our unmatched renewables resources – wind, wave, tidal – are neither here nor there. There is no alternative to austerity-driven spending cuts.

And as for independence, well, forget it. Our defence will be imperilled. We’ll be kicked out of the European Union. We won’t have a credible currency. There will be a run on the banks. And so it goes. Week after week after week.

Imagine Canada’s fate if that exemplar of emigrant success, John A Macdonald, his country’s first prime minister, had indulged in such runaway negativity.

Glasgow-born Macdonald, taken as a child to Ontario by his Sutherland father and Badenoch mother, devoted his career to ensuring that Canada, then a precariously bundled-together set of ex-colonies, was kept clear of union with the neighbouring, and hugely more powerful, United States – whose politicians long expected to take over the territory to their north.

Canada’s independence was secured when Macdonald gave his so-called “national dream” concrete form in the shape of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

That continent-spanning railroad was built (despite the Rockies standing in the way) in just five years, half the time it took to construct the Edinburgh tramway, by a country with a population smaller than Scotland’s is today.

Had Macdonald had a Better Together mindset, he couldn’t have so much as contemplated what his critics thought a costly, mad and utterly doomed scheme undertaken in pursuit of a political delusion.

People I know will vote No in September out of an impassioned conviction about the merits of preserving the UK. That’s fine.

But if a significant proportion of the Scottish electorate votes No because people have been persuaded to buy into the notion of our country’s alleged inadequacies, the consequences could be as pernicious as were those that followed from insistence on supposed Highland failings.

Why on earth in such circumstances should our young people not conclude, as lots of Highlanders once did, that they’d best get themselves out of what they’ve been told is a benighted backwater where everything’s headed for hell in a handcart?

Much the best thing that’s happened in the Highlands of late is the expansion of community ownership. In Gigha, Eigg and other places where people have taken over the land around them, they’ve reversed decades of decline, built new homes, created new businesses – done all sorts of good things, in short, that were previously said to be impossible.

At the root of those achievements is the human energy that’s liberated when people find the confidence to take charge at last of their own lives, their own surroundings, their own locality.

That’s not to say that, nationally in Scotland, similar success will be an automatic consequence of self-government. A country is more complicated than a small island.

But whether locally or nationally, advancement (under any constitutional arrangement) is contingent on building up, not seeking to undermine, people’s faith (a) in their own abilities, and (b) in there being to hand the resources (economic and otherwise) required to make things better. That’s why every pronouncement meant to sow dubiety about Scotland’s prospects has the paradoxical effect of making me more determined to vote Yes.

• James Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands and a former chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. He is the author of twelve books about the Highlands and the region’s worldwide diaspora.