Some view the Highlands and Islands as a museum, a place where artefacts take precedence over people. Don’t touch. Don’t shout. Don’t run. And definitely don’t spoil it for everybody else.
That’s fair enough at the Louvre, the National Library or an Historic Scotland property. But apply the same rules to communities and you suck the life out of them. Literally.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise estimate that if the Highlands had the same demographic profile as the rest of Scotland, there would be an additional 18,000 young people in the 15 to 30 age range. We’re missing a significant chunk of a generation and with some attitudes, policies and actions we’re well on our way to missing a second generation.
People are our greatest resource – with their ideas, their families and their commitment to rural communities – but they’ve long been an irritation to someone or some group. Uncivilised rogues that defied kingly creed and order. Then poor wretches with but a bit of land to tend that impeded the gentry’s grand plans for economic prosperity, sheep or deer. Easily forgotten by successive governments who only built the roads after the people left. And perhaps after they’d repackaged our culture in a more acceptable format.
Sure, that’s the past, and we over-romanticise and -sentimentalise our history to our own detriment. But, what is so different about making it so difficult to buy or build a house that people stream southward?
Last week, the Cairngorms National Park Authority finally approved an application for a housing development at the old saw mill site in Rothiemurchus. It took five years to prove why four young local couples and their families might be more important than slow worms and badgers and trees.
The greatest irony of all is that a commercial saw mill occupied the site 40 years ago and then a dump, before nature took over. The National Park is unique in that one of its aims is to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities. Requiring locals to shell out thousands of pounds and spend five years negotiating planning applications is an active dereliction of that aim.
I’ve heard the argument again and again that the National Park Authority has designated certain sites as permissible for residential properties. Well, covering 4,528 sq km (1748sq miles) across several local authorities, what if those sites aren’t particularly well located for work and family?
The same could be said for SNH’s objections to a small housing site in Staffin, a place with severely rapid depopulation. Spearheaded by Staffin Community Trust and the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust, several different sites have been investigated over the last few years before the current one was selected. If upheld, SNH’s objections in the name of scenic beauty, could put the community trust back at square one and, within the decade, the local primary will have no pupils.
We have a moral, economic and social prerogative to protect our flora and fauna, but there’s one endangered species that is greatly at risk and that is people.