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10 January 2000

Conspiracy cloaked as conservation

New Statesman Scotland - A new book argues the Hebrides' fate is bleaker than ever. And it

By Peter Clarke

It is delicious when those we all assumed to be goodies turn out to be baddies. This is the thrill of Ian Mitchell’s surprising essay The Isles of the West. The book is an account of a voyage around the Hebrides and records the depredations and follies of the new owners of much of the islands – quangos and charities committed to conservation. Mitchell has surprised himself.

You and I thought the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was harmlessly virtuous, harvesting subscriptions from the Home Counties to save endangered species in remote glens. The National Trust for Scotland may be slightly too snooty, but who can doubt its credentials as a custodian of buildings long past their use and also some scrumptious beauty spots?

The Nature Conservancy Council and now its successor body, Scottish Natural Heritage, control all conservation decisions made by the Scottish executive. It might have been possible to predict some Civil Service inertia and a few decisions made in Edinburgh rendered daft 200 miles away, but all that could be forgiven if it saved a rare butterfly or nurtured the corncrake.

I had assumed a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” was a designation that really merited its grand title. But these SSSIs are a kind of nationalisation of the land. There are 1,441 in Scotland, covering 12 per cent of the entire country. Splendid if they saved the great crested newt or even some obscure midge, but they do not. They are a new version of mortmain.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust is supported by thousands of well-intentioned countryside lovers. It seems to be civic virtue personified. But in reality all these organisations are in cahoots to degrade and depopulate the islands of Scotland. Better a few sea eagles than 30 smallholders.

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The two monster landowners in the Western Highlands are the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence. They, too, score low marks from Mitchell. Parliament never intended its agencies to depopulate the Hebrides, but nobody speaks for the human population of the islands.

What makes these discoveries more vivid than they might otherwise have been is they went against the grain of his own prejudices. He had assumed that kindly spirited public bodies and popularly sustained charities could have only a happier effect than the lairds – absentee landowners or those who still live on the magical isles.

Rona, just north of Raasay and east of Skye, is owned by a Danish conservation group. It has been cleared of people and left to “go back to nature”, which seems to be “native” hardwoods that were never local and Highland cattle left to roam freely – something they never did in the past. Mitchell sums up Rona: “The whole island is dead now: a conservationist’s paradise.”

The largest island mostly cleansed of humans is Rhum. It is the biggest single territory of Scottish Natural Heritage. They are very proud of it. It is described as “the property of the people of Scotland, owned in perpetuity”. The truth is, of course, that it is run by and for the bureaucrats.

Mitchell argues that Scotland is a one-party state. And that party is not Labour. The nominal party of power merely tags along with what the public sector and its client agencies decide. Ministers are allowed marginal decisions. Rhum is a “closed island”, as forbidden as any of the dachas of Soviet leaders. Mitchell has tried hard to discover what “scientific research” has been accomplished by those who bar the rest of us. There seems to be little, and still less of any value.

In this inventory of folly Eigg stands out as a history of nonsense. The island is now owned by the Eigg Heritage Trust which is 50 per cent resident, 25 per cent Scottish Wildlife Trust and 25 per cent Highland Regional Council. They have the powers to assess and ban newcomers. They have so far banned all applicants. The myth that islanders did not have any property rights has proved impossible to puncture. Muddle-headed and kind-hearted eco-folk assumed they were liberating Eigg. In fact it has sunk into a new degree of servility. Insert the two mesmerising words “community” and “sustainability” and all critical faculties fail.

The RSPB is a group of superb salesmen. Its direct marketing is highly professional. According to Mitchell, it is often an elegant fraud. Who would not like to donate to the preservation of the corncrake, driven out of its range by modern farming? The subsidy per bird on islands such as Coll seems to be £30,000. The corncrake preservation theme has been a brilliant wheeze. What it really achieves is salaries and pensions and perks at Sandy in Bedfordshire, the charity’s HQ. Mitchell has cleverly let the Hebridean witnesses explain their exasperation and despair at the ruination of the islands by the militant conservationists.

There is a cameo of the entire dismal story from Coll where Macleans are not allowed to visit their ancestral graveyard without written permission from the RSPB. If an old-style laird, in his tweeds, had tried that on what a rumpus there would have been.

Will the Scottish Parliament tackle these horrors of maladministration? No laws are being broken. Ian Mitchell seems confident it will do nothing to upset the cosy conspiracy of conservation gone to seed.

“The Isles of the West”, Canongate, £9.99