Scotland the Brand has its easily identifiable markers: Balmoral, kilts, whisky and four-legged haggises. Scotland the Ridiculous has Billy Connolly and the Tartan Army. And Scotland the Political has the Barnett Formula, devised by the UK Treasury to ensure a fair allocation of public funds to the mysterious creatures north of the border, and seen by English taxpayers as a device for bleeding England dry.
But what of Scotland the Reality? The vast majority of Scots live in the narrow, 50-mile east-west corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The world knows it well. It is the world of endemic sectarianism, Taggart, Trainspotting, grim housing estates, heart attacks and, almost incidentally, some of Britain’s most renowned universities, medical schools and art galleries.
The Highlands, by contrast, are home to a tiny fraction of the population. Yet they contain a huge proportion of Scotland’s land mass. On the two-hour journey from Perth to Inverness, the road skirts a chain of small towns to its east, but to the west lie only thousands of acres of hostile mountain and barren moorland. North of Inverness, the vast interiors of Caithness, Ross and Sutherland are virtually uninhabited. Mere fragments of the native population remain, as rare as the remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Their ancient Gaelic language is lost, but the memory of past injustices still lingers.
Here, landowners are hated and poachers venerated, and crofters have jumped at the chance to arrange community buyouts of their native soil. The crofters of Assynt in north-west Sutherland set the precedent by buying out the loathed Vesteys.The people of the island of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides followed suit; and now crofter buyouts are flavour of the month. The days of Highland fiefdoms owned by City millionaires and reclusive pop stars are numbered. The land is going back to the people.
In the Highlands, distance renders prohibitive the cost of providing health clinics, ambulances and even GPs. Indeed, such is the cost of providing out-of-hours medical care that one Highland doctor is reputed to be the best-paid in Britain. The figure quoted is £300,000 a year: an exaggeration, no doubt, but denials are carefully worded.
In the Highlands, thousands of miles of road have to be maintained, under the most ferocious weather conditions, by a tiny number of council-tax payers. One redoubtable inhabitant of Raasay, an island adjacent to Skye, lobbied his local council for years asking for a road to his isolated hamlet. He eventually gave up, and started building the road himself. It was two miles long and 12 feet wide, up a steep, bouldered hillside, and he had only a succession of wheelbarrows (replaced as each one wore out), a sledgehammer, a shovel and a crowbar. It took him 20 years (1964-84), and the epic task was immortalised in a splendid book, Roger Hutchinson’s Calum’s Road.
This is the area, too, where the whole eco-nomy hinges on tourism. Once, hospitality to strangers was a sacred duty. Now, necessity has made it a commercial exercise. Crofts become caravan sites and homes become bed-and-breakfast establishments. The season is short, and at the mercy of the weather, the exchange rate and suicide bombers – and, while it lasts, the temptation to fill every vacant space with a lettable bed is well nigh irresistible.
On the margins of this Highland extremity lies another, even more extreme: the Western Isles. They have a population of 35,000 in total, and form a parliamentary constituency in their own right. Most Scots have never seen them. Fewer still understand them. This explains such stories as the one about the man from the north-west mainland who phoned NHS 24 (Scotland’s NHS Direct) and was told to go to the A&E department of Lewis Hospital, a mere 30 miles away. NHS 24 didn’t seem to know that this was 30 miles as the crow flies, and that even if he were a crow he would still have to fly over raging seas.
Electorally, this is one of Scotland’s most marginal constituencies. The Tories have no support, apart from one of my sons, though it helps that their candidate is a local man able to chat up the cailleachs (Gaelic for venerable old ladies). There was such a Tory candidate once, in the Thatcher years, who had a fair old chat-up with one such voter. When he eventually rose to go. he said, “I’ll be having your vote, then.” “Yes, dear,” said the cailleach warmly, “anything to get that woman out!” Her assumption had been that such a nice man couldn’t possibly represent the Iron Lady.
In this constituency, language matters. It is the only one in the world where Gaelic is still a living tongue, and both the MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and the local MSP, Alasdair Morrison, are former stars of the Gaelic media. The SNP’s candidate for the Scottish Parliament, Alasdair Allan, made history by being the first student ever to submit his PhD thesis in Gaelic. The one certainty in this election is that the successful candidate, whoever he is, will be sending his children to a Gaelic-medium school.
And here religion matters. The southern isles in the Hebridean chain are Catholic, the northern ones Presbyterian, but relations between them have never been marred by sectarian bigotry. On the other hand, neither group has been much impressed by Labour’s record on so-called ethical issues. The islands will still not provide facilities for gay marriages and, in the current stand-off between Catholic adoption agencies and the government, Catholics and Protestants alike are backing the Church.
But religion will not be a key issue. This is a sophisticated electorate, its passions fuelled by incessant public debate. The issue currently dividing the community is the proposal to pepper the moors of Lewis with Europe’s hugest windfarms. The opposition has formed itself into a powerful lobby group, Mointeach gun Mhuilinn (“Moorlands Without Turbines”), and there have been accusations of strong-arm tactics and intimidation. When one islander admitted his support for windfarms, the response was: “I’m glad to hear it. I’m for them, too, but I’ve been frightened to say it.” A petition organised by Moorlands Without Turbines received 5,000 signatures; when Lewis Wind Power recently submitted a planning application for 181 turbines, there were 3,500 objections; and when the application was granted, the distinguished local broadsheet, the Stornoway Gazette, carried a whole page of letters, almost all of them anti.
Paradox of Union
One of the prevailing fears is the visual impact of these monsters, if situated close to villages. The obvious place for them would be the thousands of acres of uninhabitable peaty wilderness at the heart of the island, but there, it is said, the risk to birds is too great. As ever in the Highlands, we shall inconvenience the people instead.
For decades, the Western Isles was solidly Labour, the only rural constituency in Britain to show this trend. The socialist vote reflected the links between the islands and Glasgow, where Isles men worked in the shipyards and learned their politics from Red Clydesiders in the tradition of Keir Hardie, James Maxton and Emman uel Shinwell. Labour was the party of the poor.
It was also the party of the Union, and though the islands now teeter on the brink of separatism, this would have been unthinkable in the 1940s and 1950s. Decades of association with the Royal Navy, in peace and war, had bred a strong sense of Britishness. In fact, on the outbreak of the Second World War, a written answer in the House of Commons showed that one-quarter of Britain’s naval reservists came from the Western Isles.
All this bred a lifelong pride in the British navy and a sense of Britishness that survived not only the Second World War, but also the fact that the casualty rate in the Western Isles was the highest in the country. Patriotism still flourished in the 1950s. I well remember one veteran expressing dismay at the weakness of the British response to some provocation from President Abdel Nasser. “And, of course,” he said in disgust, “Britain sends a protest!” The man wanted to send a battleship. Few young islanders today could even begin to understand such a sentiment.
It is part of the paradox of the Union that the most neglected region in Scotland is the one closest to England: the Borders. Here is a farming community still traumatised by the most recent foot-and-mouth epidemic; and, in the midst of it, countless Edinburgh-dependent suburbs without a rail link to the capital.
How is this discontent manifesting itself? The odd thing is that it isn’t. The Highlands have been eloquent advocates in their own cause, mobilising poets, novelists, journalists, dramatists and politicians to articulate their grievances. That’s why the whole world knows about the Highland Clearances, Culloden and Glencoe. And that’s why we’ve had the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Crofters Commission, the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee, the Gaelic Books Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and even, for a time, a minister for the Highlands.
The Borders have had no such political structures. They’ve had their own clearances, their own land shortages and their own forced emigrations, but their discontent has found only a muted voice. They were once as famed for their minstrels as they were feared for their marauders, but the music has died on their lips. It probably died through loss of hope. The UK, including the rest of Scotland, feels guilty about the Highlands. It doesn’t feel guilty about the Borders.
In the forthcoming election, the big battalions will be those of the central belt and of Scotland’s media village. But Highlanders, Islanders and Borderers may hold the balance of power.
The author is is professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh