I see the Scottish Government are 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 Church, setting the compass eastwards from its Gaelic roots. It’s a miracle we’ve survived.
The Gàidhealteachd curries no exceptionalism. The rampant capitalism that is ravaging the earth, from the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest to the climate change which 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.
Whatever is given can always be reimagined
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 which make it next to impossible for any local young person to buy or rent. An over-reliance on tourism. The scourge of Airbnb. A ferry service not fit for purpose. An infrastructure which 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.
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 anyway? What’s the point of ploughing that field, because nothing will grow in it anyway? 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 will just answer in English? What’s the point of…
Our islands have that potential. They are amongst the most beautiful, green places on earth. The people are good and kind and capable
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. At Japan, destroyed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rising from the ashes. Look at Finland, with the worst health statistics in Europe a generation ago, now one of the most advanced, healthy societies in the world.
We have an opportunity to forge a changed culture
Our islands have that potential. They are amongst 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 joiners and builders and electricians and welders and fishers and potters and painters and poets and musicians and filmmakers and jewellers and 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.
Not by giving £50,000 to the lucky few, which is like flinging paraffin on to the embers of a peat fire, but by embedding 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 is an award-winning writer and actor from South Uist