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The High Road: The Highlands since devolution

Holyrood's 20th anniversary regional spotlights - Highland

The High Road: The Highlands since devolution

As plans for a Scottish parliament began to take shape, Highland historian and writer James Hunter, was asked by the BBC what his expectations were of the new parliament in terms of its potential impact on the Highlands.

He quipped in response: “Well, we had a Scottish Parliament previously, prior to 1707, and its members seemed to spend a lot of time working out how to kill more Highlanders, and more efficiently, so I was expecting an improvement in that regard. 

“People had various expectations,” Hunter, a professor of history, ex-director of the Scottish Crofters Union and chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) when the parliament was opened, continues: “I remember at the time of the 1979 referendum, I was then a journalist at the P&J, talking to this old fellow, an elderly crofter and very pro-Gaelic, and I said to him that I was in favour of devolution, and I might have said something that implied that he might have been in favour of it as well. And he was dead against it, and when I asked him why, he said: ‘In London, they ignore us but in Edinburgh, they hate us.’ 

“Now, that is a somewhat exaggerated view, but it has a good grounding in several hundred years of history. It does indicate that not everybody in the more far-flung regions of the country expected that devolution would necessarily be a good thing, and some people expected that it might turn out to be a very bad thing. So I think anticipation of what would happen was very varied.

“But one area where there was a widespread anticipation that something radical might happen was in the area of land reform. Although, arguably, we still have a long way to go on that front but I think that – in fact, I’m certain that – things have happened on that front that would not have happened had power remained entirely in London.”

But if one issue signifies the complex if not fraught historical relationship between the Highlands and remote power in all its forms, elected, inherited, earned or ordained, then land reform is perhaps it, and while Hunter’s overall positivity on land reform is one broadly shared in the political spectrum, there remains a multifaceted frustration that not more has happened since the pioneering 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act established the community right to buy, extended crofter community ownership rights and brought in the provisions for freedom of access to land.

For former Labour MP and government minister Brian Wilson, who was in the Westminster parliament from 1987 to 2005, and whose portfolios in the Scottish Office included Minister for Education and Industry with a specific responsibility for the Highlands and Islands, the issue is one of addressing a wider spectrum of land ownership than crofting rights.

Wilson said: “On land reform, the early years of devolution were quite positive, largely because an agenda was set before devolution through the Land Reform Working Group, and there was a programme in place which was the low-hanging fruit of land reform: crofting community ownership, feudal abolition, national parks and freedom to roam. So there was an agenda set pre-devolution that was carried through post-devolution, although not all of it was.

“Then it plateaued and ground to a halt so that I think most people would be surprised how little has changed in the overall structure of land ownership 20 years after devolution. Andy Wightman said recently, and I think he is quite right, that crofting community ownership became almost a fig leaf because while it is an important issue in its own right, it is only a small fraction in the overall Scottish land question. So you get high-profile crofting community buy-outs, which as I say, is important, but it is not the central issue, which is that Scotland has the most unequal distribution of land ownership in Europe, and that remains completely untouched.

“Because of the nature of crofting tenure, crofting community buy-outs always were the easy bit. There was a right to buy there, an individual right to buy that could be translated into a community right to buy, so there was a much easier base, but on the real challenge in the non-crofting estates, virtually nothing has happened.”

For Rob Gibson, who served as an SNP MSP from 2003 to 2016, first in the Highlands and Islands region, and then, from 2011 in the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, the issue of progress on land reform also has its frustrations.

Gibson said: “It took the lairds a long time to make this mess, and it will take us some years to sort it out. Devolution has provided many of the means to do that in terms of land reform, and you do still see places losing population due to the private ownership of land by land monopolists. So, therefore you can see that where the policies have worked and it has been possible to carry them out, they have made a heck of a difference.

“But the reason for the so-called tinkering on the issue is quite plain to see, it is about the way in which human rights laws have been used against tenants and against communities and have often favoured the landlord, and we need to find a way to get past those constraints. There is not a lack of political will, in terms of the general mood, and don’t forget that 80 per cent of MSPs have voted in favour of each of the land-reform measures.

“But some places have benefitted much more than others. Going back to the old Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) days, saying that the west and the crofting areas were the ones that would be the biggest problem – well, they tend still to because depopulation is most likely from Sutherland, from Lochaber and from some of the outer islands. These are huge issues for anyone to tackle, but in terms of devolution, there has been an addressing of some of the issues. What has made a difference, is the Scottish Government, in particular, deciding that it is going to try and support, for example, Machrihanish, Arnish and, obviously, the Cromarty Firth, which is transformed from much of its earlier work producing for the oil industry to playing a big part now in the offshore renewables world.

“If it hadn’t been for the fact that we had planning powers in Scotland, we might well have seen the development of another nuclear power station, perhaps a new Dounreay. In the meantime, devolution has meant that promoting the opportunities for renewable energy, whether that be local community hydro, individual wind turbines or large commercial developments, has been pushed forward.”

The population growth of the Highlands is, though, a matter for some celebration and, indeed, hope. Highland Council’s own figures show that in the ten years to 2016, the area’s population grew by 12 per cent – twice the national average.

With a population of just under 235,000, Highland is the seventh most populated local authority in Scotland.

Inverness, as the economic centre of the Highlands, is benefitting from inward migration from Scotland but also from beyond the border and from within the region.

The most recent figures from the National Records of Scotland show that in mid-2017, Highland was comparatively low in the table of inward migration from within Scotland, with Scots accounting for 55 per cent of new arrivals, but was high in the list of areas with migrants from elsewhere in the UK, accounting for more than a third of all immigrants.

Highland is a region of industry, innovation and of ambition both in terms of individual enterprise and in communities and, for HIE, the opportunities for growth are in the burgeoning life sciences sector, renewable energy, business services, food and drink and the creative industries. A key growth sector is also space, with the recent announcement of the advancement of plans for a rocket launch facility in Sutherland, bringing a new industry to the area and with it the potential for much-needed new employment.

Connectivity has also been transformed in the 20 years of devolution both in terms of physical travel and in digital infrastructure, a clear win for a region the size of Belgium that for many is best considered as a country within a country. The dualling of the A9 makes steady progress to providing a twin-tracked road, but, as Rob Gibson points out, the much-need dualling of the rail track north of Perth remains an issue.

A recent survey from HIE showed that young Highlanders are overturning many years of the grinding social expectation that if you want to get on, you have to get out.

Many now are expressing a desire to remain and build careers on their home patch and are expressing their own positive energy about the region as a place to stay.

The continued development of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), a pre-devolution project that grew from the efforts of HIE and Highland Council, has provided both a means of staying and a magnet attracting people to the area. 

For Rhoda Grant, who has been a Highlands and Islands MSP since the start of the parliament for all but one term between 2003 and 2007, UHI is making a difference.

“UHI has given young people a choice to stay and study in their own communities, and there are really imaginative things happening, giving young people that opportunity. North Highlands College has a specialist centre that deals with the peatlands and people come from all over the world to work there, and there are lot of similar things in UHI that have offered a range of qualifications but have also worked in something that is important for the local community. We have a way to go on this journey but it is exciting. You go to any of those places and you find foreign students. So it’s not just about keeping our own at home and giving our young people an opportunity, it’s also about depopulation, we need to take a bit of a New Zealand-like approach and start to encourage people to come here, and UHI is important for doing both of those things.”

Another key industry for the Highlands is tourism, and a boom in visitor numbers is hitting most parts of the Highlands, but not all are equally as equipped in terms of infrastructure to support the throng.

Literary locations and small-screen spin-offs have provided significant growth opportunities for both Harry Potter and Outlander bucket-listers.

The region’s latest tourism hit, the North Coast 500 – a rival to the USA’s Route 66 – is a tour around the top circle of Scotland’s mainland, and all of it within the Highland region.

The route has brought a new awareness of the rugged glories of Assynt as much as it has the bleak beauty of the high moors of the north coast, but, to use the local parlance, the NC500 is rammed.

For Rhoda Grant, devolution has made a difference in terms of engagement and empowerment.

“The parliament itself,” she says, “aside from the government, is much more accessible to us and has done quite a lot to try and get to people and communities and they know that the parliament is accessible, and they know it can make a difference by shining a light on things.

“There are levers now that people have that they didn’t have before, which I think makes people much more politically engaged. They know there are systems and they know how to access things. Nothing is ever going to be perfect but without people being engaged, you are not going to be able to make it better. People feel more engaged and they have lines to power that they never had before, and they understand that they can use their own power to make a difference.”

Grant’s is a view shared by Fergus Ewing MSP, who has served the Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber constituency since the founding of the parliament and is the current Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity.

“Devolution,” says Ewing, “has enabled decision making to be made closer to people and communities and this government works hard to recognise and meet the needs and interests of the Highlands and islands, not least in our continued support for Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Convention of the Highlands and Islands.

“We have also created a rural housing fund, continue to support crofting, and have enabled many Highland communities to buy land and develop existing and new assets such as hydro schemes.

“This government passed the historic Islands bill last year to ensure that government policy and laws take into account the unique challenges and interests of our islands and to improve outcomes for island communities.

“We have also invested in digital and transport infrastructure, raising broadband connectivity to unprecedented levels and dualling the A9.

“We continue to ensure that the voice of the Highlands is heard at the heart of government through a dedicated Islands minister, as well as through our four ministers with Highland constituencies.

“Of course, Brexit threatens to severely disrupt the progress made under devolution, with certain industries like farming and food and drink particularly susceptible. That is why I, as Rural Economy Secretary and my Cabinet colleagues, will continue to work to keep Scotland in the EU and to prevent a disastrous no-deal Brexit which would undo the progress of the past 20 years.”

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