Scotland’s neglected island communities: ‘London ignores us, Edinburgh hates us’

The stunning Outer Hebrides are threatened by depopulation and a ferries fiasco

The drone of the turboprop’s engines became undulating as the pilot steadied it for landing. The rural terrain below – barren, brown yet with a wild kind of scabrous beauty – came rushing up to meet us. A hush descended among the dozen or so passengers on board.

The plane hovered in near silence for a few moments just above the ground before, finally, the pilot put it down. Not on a runway, but on the sand flats of a vast tidal beach. A dull hum came in the sound of seawater spraying up on to the plane’s belly as it slowed to taxiing speed. The local airport on the tiny Isle of Barra, in the isolated Outer Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s northwest coast an hour flight from Glasgow, is unlike any other in Europe and possibly the world.

This curved scattering of rugged islands also known as the Western Isles is also unlike anywhere else in Britain. The land looks different. The accents – Scottish with a near-Nordic twang – sound unique. With half the 26,000 inhabitants speaking Scottish Gaelic (pronounced like “Gallic”), the language is also different. Even the mix of religious faiths among the friendly islanders is uncommon: Sabbatarian Presbyterians live in the northern isles of the archipelago while those in the south such as Barra follow a traditional brand of Catholicism redolent of the west of Ireland decades ago.

Yet different as they are, the Western Isles are also an exemplar of certain shifts in the tectonic plates of politics roiling government in Edinburgh and, to an extent, London more than 800km away (the same distance as Paris to Barcelona).

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The Western Isles population has a near-even split over the issue of Scottish independence. Yet the Scottish National Party (SNP) looks set to lose its near two-decade hold on the islands’ Westminster seat, known in Gaelic as Na h-Eileanan an Iar. It is a key target for Labour in this year’s election as it plots a path to power on a course smoothed by gains in Scotland.

Some problems facing the Western Isles – scant affordable housing for young people and gaps in medical care – are similar to the worries of people across Scotland and in England and Wales. Yet others – accelerating depopulation and an access fiasco caused by the mismanagement of the islands’ ferry network – seem more Hebridean, even if blame lies elsewhere.

“There is an old saying: in London they ignore us and in Edinburgh they hate us,” said Brian Wilson, a director of Celtic football club and former UK Labour government minister, who lives in the hamlet of Mangersta on the picturesque northern Isle of Lewis.

“The power over this place is too centralised away from the islands. It’s down to a lack of interest in the region and a lack of understanding. It is debilitating. It is affecting everything.”

The sitting MP for the Western Isles since 2005 is charismatic Barra crofting farmer, Angus Brendan MacNeil, the son of a Waterford nurse and Gaelgoir who stayed on the island after she married the local postman. His elderly aunt is a nun in Ireland.

MacNeil was expelled from the SNP last year after a row with the party’s chief whip in the House of Commons. A passionate supporter of Scottish independence who believes the SNP has lost its way on the issue, he is running as an independent candidate in the Westminster election.

This will split the SNP vote away from the party’s candidate, Susan Thomson, and probably hand the seat to Labour’s fancied candidate for Na h-Eilenanan an Iar, former political journalist Torcuil Crichton. He is a native islander from Lewis, yet one also as urbane in his demeanour as MacNeil is as instinctively rhapsodic in his. Both seem wily in different ways.

MacNeil insisted he “doesn’t enter elections to lose them”, despite the odds heavily in Labour’s favour.

He was due to meet me for dinner on Barra but was running late. Half an hour before the kitchen was due to shut in the local hotel in the village of Castlebay, he came haring in his car down the single-track roads and turned into the driveway of his house, where we were to meet.

“Wait until I have a quick shower – I’m covered in urine,” he said. “A neighbour’s sheep had a prolapse. I had to help out.”

Shortly afterwards, and less agriculturally fragrant, we were walking up to the front door of the Craigard for dinner. He introduced a neighbour heading for the bar. “Meet Angus MacNeil,” said Angus Brendan MacNeil, as his near-eponymous grinning neighbour extended a handshake.

“There are a lot of MacNeils on Barra,” he said. Below us, the early evening moonlight lit up Kisimul Castle on the bay that gave the village its name. The 1,000-year-old ruin was the ancient seat of MacNeil clan.

The MP explained the labour shortages on the island of about 1,200 people. The woman who cooked the dinner also delivered the post. Her mother served the meal. An hour later she was serving pints for the handful of locals at the bar – the islands are far busier in summer when the tourists come.

“Being an island makes it distinct in the bunch of characters you have around you,” said MacNeil. “There is a dialect of humour. They can be your best friends, then jab you in the rib, then be best friends again.”

That night in the pub he fielded plenty of slagging in banter with characters such as “Bread”. Why do you call him Bread, I asked. “Because his name is Aran,” said MacNeil. Scottish Gaelic is very close to Irish.

Few locals in the pub wanted to talk about his dream of independence. For most, housing and the impact of the fiasco over the delayed delivery of two new ships for the CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) ferry operator were more important. The new ferries are five years late and the cost to taxpayers has trebled to £360 million. The delays have hamstrung access to and between the islands.

“They say the ferries always break down because it is an ageing fleet,” said an older woman next day who stopped to chat at the shop. Then she smiled. “And I thought it was just us who were ageing.”

MacNeil wants the Scottish government to build undersea tunnels connecting the islands, similar to the Faroe Islands. The Western Isles archipelago has 15 inhabited islands, and about 50 uninhabited. MacNeil says he has spoken to Middle Eastern funds who would be prepared to invest to link the main islands, if the government would only give the go ahead.

It would cost hundreds of millions to link the islands with tunnels – MacNeil says the Faroes did it for £9.8 million per kilometre. Currently it takes two ferry trips and, providing timetables match up, well over five hours to get the 210km from Barra via the two Uist islands and Benbecula to the town of Stornoway up north on Lewis. It is connected by causeway to the beguiling and mountainous Isle of Harris.

Crichton, who covered Westminster as a journalist for almost 15 years before entering politics, identified depopulation as the biggest issue facing the islands. The population fell by 5.5 per cent between the census of 2011 and 2022. It is forecast to fall by a further 6 per cent by 2028 while the cohort of over 75s is set to grow by 25 per cent.

Wealthy retirees are buying up as second homes, lots of houses and crofts (securely tenanted traditional farming crops), pricing out young families, many of whom now prefer to live on the mainland.

“The economy is bursting at the seams. There is seaweed processing. Harris Tweed is on the up. There are jobs on offer but people can’t take these jobs because the social housing isn’t there. Private housing has gone beyond the reach of most young people,” said Crichton.

“We’re passing through millionaire’s row now,” he said, as we drove in his red-and-white striped mini back from the ancient church in Rodel on Harris, past old crofts now turned into luxury homes. Even when new homes are built, most are in developments near Stornoway, sucking life from isolated hamlets such as Mangersta, where Wilson says three of the 12 houses are holiday homes.

Depopulation, the housing shortage and the islands’ access problems (air services are also under strain) have had other negative impacts. A recent NHS report said “depopulation is the single biggest risk facing treatment and care services” on the Western Isles – retirees need more medical care than fit (and increasingly absent) young families. Services are “unsustainable”, said the report.

On the Uist islands and Benbecula, the half Catholic-half-Protestant midpoint of the archipelago, health service managers are offering record contracts worth up to £150,000 to tempt five desperately-needed GPs. Meanwhile, Crichton said fuel poverty is another big issue – the islands are colder than other parts of the country. Government data suggests the rate of fuel poverty is up to 40 per cent, compared with the Scottish average of 24 per cent.

Crichton said he would fight for island communities to get equity stakes in big planned renewable energy projects, such as the Spioraid na Mara wind farm scheme, a quarter owed by ESB. Near Wilson’s home, a noticeboard poster at Uig Community shop asked to “stop the wind farm madness” – the project’s enormous turbines three miles off western Lewis will be visible from the coast.

On the language, Gaelic expert and local artist Malcolm Maclean blamed government for mishandling the administration of the language’s revival. He said state investment to promote Gaelic has too often been made in mainland city areas and not enough on the Western Isles, where the proportion speaking it, although higher than elsewhere, is in decline.

“Language in the Hebrides is in serious crisis because of strategic failures,” said Maclean. “It is another manifestation of too much centralisation of power. They can’t see these islands from Edinburgh. Glasgow or Inverness are as far as their vision stretches. It has been catastrophic.”

Where the Western Isles show a positive way for other areas, however, is in the apparent lack of sectarian attitudes between its Catholic south and the Presbyterians of the north, where sabbath is widely observed in shuttered commerce on Sundays. Although from a family of native islanders, Maclean spent his early years in Glasgow, where he was exposed to sectarianism growing up “opposite Ibrox”.

“By the time I was 10 I had a repertoire of Orange Order songs. But my family were deeply hostile to that kind of thing because they didn’t have it in their background. It just doesn’t exist here in the way that it does in places like Glasgow.”

As the night closed in on his rural idyll, Maclean said he hoped for a renewed focus from government on boosting quality of life on the isles through better access and services to reverse the depopulation that threatens the archipelago’s future.

“These issues are not seen as important because this part of the world is not seen as important. But if you can have a change of attitude to reverse centralisation of power from Edinburgh, then all sorts of things become possible. Without that, we are spiralling into decline.”

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