WITH a subtropical climate and located almost 500 miles south of the Border, the Scilly Isles would appear to have little in common with their Scottish counterparts.
But facing a winter transport crisis that will cut them off from the English mainland, the remote archipelago has applied for membership of the Scottish Islands Federation.
Disappointed with a lack of support from the UK government, the islands are risking an identity crisis by joining forces with the SIF in an attempt to increase their lobbying power at Westminster and in the EU.
Their application for associate membership looks almost certain to be accepted by the SIF, which will see its responsibilities extended from the Shetlands to the group of islands known for their lush vegetation and as an upmarket tourism destination.
The idea was supported unanimously at a recent meeting of the European Small Islands Network in Mull and promises to heighten the political profile of the isles.
The proposal was made by Marian Bennett, a councillor and a leading figure in the pressure group Friends of Isles of Scilly Transport (FRIST).
Yesterday she said: “I think islanders have great empathy for each other. In Scotland there just seems to be a great affection for the islands from the Scottish Government and the nation itself. Whereas we feel very isolated and out on a limb, cast adrift.
“What the Isles of Scilly need and what, possibly, the Scottish Islands Federation could provide is a level of moral and practical support. If we, as we have done, make representations to our government or the EU then we would have the support of the federation.”
The feeling of isolation has been exacerbated by the prospect of a winter with very limited transport to and from the islands, which are 28 miles to the south-west of Land’s End.
The lone passenger ship to the islands only runs from the end of March to the end of October each year, an arrangement that has left the islanders reliant on a helicopter service.
But British International, the private company that runs the service, has announced that its flights are to cease shortly, leaving islanders with just a fixed-wing aircraft service that is not suitable for those with mobility problems.
“The helicopter service is the nearest thing we have got to a lifeline all the year round, so we are going to be very bereft,” Bennett said.
“But this hasn’t just been prompted by the end of the helicopters, we have been battling away to get equal treatment with the Scottish isles for some time. For the past 30 years, the islanders here have been grumbling away about it. Now the council has produced a report comparing the Scottish isles with the Isles of Scilly.”
The report found that the taxpayer-funded subsidies that the Scottish Government gives to its islands meant that transport to and from Hebridean communities was far cheaper than in the Scillies, where the ferry and aircraft are run entirely by private enterprise.
For example, the standard return fare to Islay, an equivalent Scottish island in terms of population and distance from the mainland, is just £12.50 compared with the £85 it costs for a return ticket to the Scilly Isles.
“When we look at all the islands we are about six to ten times more expensive,” Bennett said.
“Consequently, our freight charges are enormous. On foodstuffs, in the Co-op in St Mary’s, Scilly, we pay 20 per cent more than they do in the Co-op in our nearest mainland port.
“Fuel is 25 per cent more and building materials are almost 100 per cent more. Strangle might be too strong a word, but with the decline in visitor numbers this is the last thing we need.”
Alyn Smith, the SNP MEP who was at the Mull meeting, supported the move. Smith said: “This is a vulnerable community that is going to be cut off.
“There are no cost implications to them joining the Scottish Islands Federation and it will help them take up their problems in Whitehall and Brussels.”
Camille Dressler, secretary of the Scottish Islands Federation, said: “We are very happy to have any other islands in our organisation. We will need to look at our constitution, but by becoming an associate member we could help them through our network.
“To find that a group of islands is losing its lifeline throughout the winter is quite unacceptable. We would be happy to help the struggle of this small number of courageous islanders.”