The Press and Journal (Inverness, Highlands, and Islands)

Real change can still save our islands


Isee the Scottish Government’s offering individual handouts of £50,000 to 100 lucky people willing to go and live and/or set up business in our islands. It’s like a wee lottery win for the fortunate few, and my applicatio­n is already in the post. Along with those of my six children, who have all failed to buy or rent any place in their ancestral homeland because of the extortiona­te price of land and housing.

So that’s £350,000 gobbled up already by my poor family, which doesn’t leave that much for the rest of you, once I call my cousins and all my Uist pals exiled for years in places like Grimbsy and Guadalajar­a.

My dear good friend, the late, great Dr John MacInnes, always used to tell me that the (Scottish) state’s official assault against Gaelic began in the 11th Century, when (Saint) Margaret of Scotland moved away from the Celtic Church to the Roman one, setting the compass eastwards from its Gaelic roots. It’s a miracle we’ve survived.

The Gàidhealte­achd curries no exceptiona­lism. The rampant capitalism ravaging the earth — from the destructio­n of the Amazon rainforest to the climate change that sees Greece on fire — doesn’t stop at some sort of mythic Highland line.

Just like Covid, the pursuit of land and profit doesn’t suddenly cease at any given geographic or linguistic border. Unfortunat­ely, “Perth and no further” is not a language that a raging materialis­t fire obeys. Cambo continues. I can shout “stad” (stop) until my voice fails, but I might be better to use the fire extinguish­er, or flee. Except there’s nowhere to escape to, mostly because those fleeing from the south are buying out the natives.

So the problems that the Scottish islands face are particular, though not unique. We are not (as yet) refugees. Problemati­c as getting a CalMac ferry is, we are not fleeing on rickety dinghies across the Minch, filmed by the reptile that is Farage. Hundreds of thousands of our ancestors bore that sacrifice for us, sailing on all those emigrant ships from Lochboisda­le and Stornoway, never to return.

But our pain is sufficient. House prices that make it next to impossible for any local young person to buy or rent. An overrelian­ce on tourism. The scourge of Airbnb. A ferry service not fit for purpose. An infrastruc­ture that is totally inadequate. A Gaelic language in communal decline. An ageing population. Lack of jobs.

The list goes on, each sentence adding gravity to the next.

But the good news is that it does not need to be like this. A thousand years of oppression has its consequenc­es: it beats any confidence out of you. What’s the point of draining that ditch, because the next downpour will fill it up again? What’s the point of ploughing that field, because nothing will grow in it? What’s the point of booking a ticket on the ferry, because it will break down? What’s the point of speaking Gaelic to the children, because they’ll just answer in English? What’s the point of...

Well, the point is that things can change. Whatever is given can always be reimagined, as Seamus Heaney counselled Ireland. Look at Germany, ravaged after two world wars, to become the most developed industrial nation in Europe. Or Japan, destroyed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rising from the ashes; or at Finland, with the worst health statistics in Europe a generation ago, now one of the world’s most advanced, healthy societies.

Our islands have that potential. They are among the most beautiful, green places on earth. The people are good and kind and capable. Indigenous Gaelic is still spoken beautifull­y, even in Lewis.

Give the joiners, builders, electricia­ns, welders, fishers, potters, painters, poets, musicians, filmmakers, jewellers, sustainabl­e seaweed collectors and heather honey makers low-rent or free-rent premises to develop their businesses. Severely limit Airbnb. Tax second homes to invest in local housing. Build ferries that work. Give our young local people land (there’s plenty of it) and crofts (half lying abandoned, the rest sold for English and Scottish gold) and homes and they will make a success of it.

Don’t give £50,000 to the lucky few, which is like flinging paraffin on to the embers of a peat fire, but embed transforma­tional environmen­tal, social, cultural, linguistic and structural changes.

Instead of perpetuati­ng a hopeless system where folk cry: “What’s the point?”, we have an opportunit­y to forge a changed culture which declares: “Let’s do it. An-seo. An-drasta. Here. Now.”

Angus Peter Campbell writer and South Uist

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