In 1970 the island of Papa Stour, one of the fifteen smaller inhabited isles in Shetland, made headlines by advertising in a national newspaper for potential new inhabitants. This move represented one last desperate bid to stem a state of seemingly irreversible population decline.
Back then, the inducements of a croft and a few sheep were deemed sufficient to draw people north. But despite the new influx helping to stabilise the island’s population at around 30 in the eighties and nineties, the number of inhabitants now stands at six, half of whom are over 65.
The original story provided great copy – a compelling frame that allowed a wide audience to project their fantasies of building a new life in a distant wilderness. Latterly, Papa Stour would prove newsworthy once again as lurid details of bitter feuds emerged amongst the new islanders.
The latest example of this sub-genre – let’s call it, ‘Would you move here, for this?’ – has followed the Scottish Government’s floating of a £50,000 Islands Bond. This grant would be made available to families and young people to stay in, or relocate to, one of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands.
The proposed £5 million scheme, which would be spread over five years, is the news-sized appetiser for a menu of other potential measures included within the National Islands Plan.
So if the policy’s real aim is to spark debate, it has certainly succeeded – it was even picked up by Spanish newspaper El Pais. The risk, however, is that the gimmick becomes the main event, something which seems to have pissed-off a fair few islanders.
There is a deeper problem here about the cultural role that islands are expected to play – a tendency which seems to have had a knock-on impact on policy making itself.
The Edge of the World?
In 1938 Michael Powell based his silver-screen romance, The Edge of the World, on the story of St Kilda. In doing so, he translated the story of total depopulation and the angst that its finality brings about for a mass audience: embedding a strain of popular fascination about places ‘on the brink.’
The islands of Scotland still play the role of convenient romantic other; waiting for miraculous deliverance and discovery. They are always presented as places to start over, to moderate the pace of contemporary life, and to escape from the rat race.
These narratives are of course encouraged by local tourist boards: but whether they currently do much more than boost uptake of Airbnbs and second homes is questionable.
The problem is that one person’s ‘edge’ is another’s centre; one person’s ‘wilderness’ the basis for another’s livelihood. The isles may suffer more from this tendency to project a new self on to a place precisely because they are, by definition, set apart. Most of Scotland’s islands are at once close and familiar enough to make a life-changing move feasible, while also seeming to offer small contained worlds of their own, offering distance and escape.
Growing up on Shetland, this picture of splendid isolation is not one that I recognise.
I think instead of the old men who’d dream of youthful forays to the Indian Ocean over a pint: of isles subject to a constant traffic of culture, goods and peoples, negotiating the challenges and opportunities that they bring. I also think of working in the Outer Hebrides, and noticing the people’s zeal for education, which made outward migration for the young a kind of pilgrimage.
I can also recall interviewing the head of Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre, who told me with a disarming frankness: ‘there is something really powerful about an island … it’s really hard to keep a secret’.
People often go to the islands bearing a profusion of internal thoughts and needs like the Papar – the hermit-monks who probably gave Papa Stour its name.
In some ways, the observations above are just another set of romantic ideals, partial and equally challenging to live up to in reality. But they hold a crucial difference to the ‘Would you live here?’ narrative – they come from the people rather than the landscape, and are grounded in the basic reality that ‘island life’ is often far more intimate and reciprocal than it is isolated.
But the need for ‘people’ – which can sometimes be presented as a simple numbers game – would perhaps be better understood as the need to become a people in the democratic sense of the word; to form, or sustain, a community.
Deep within the island experience is the often dramatic and heart-wrenching process of depopulation, but the arc of that narrative can often obscure a twin process of disempowerment.
There is a long, often bitter, history in all of these places of perverse incentives to stay or go – depending on what grand project the laird had decreed was in vogue at the time.
The truth is, there are few rational reasons within a market-based system for such places to exist. Episodes of economic collapse based on a single extractive resource, such as kelp or herring, provide a haunting historic subtext whenever the term ‘sustainability’ is mentioned.
In contrast, if you live on a Scottish island today, your life will almost certainly be underpinned by a reliance on subsidised lifeline services and other forms of support to the wider economy provided by the state.
While many islands now perform well when it comes to the Scottish Government’s economic holy trinity of food and drink, energy, and tourism, there will always be a fragility within the isles because diversification is inevitably far more constrained.
This is why for crofting, and other sectors too, the potential level of public funding available already dwarfs the mooted £50,000. More significantly, in the post-war era the islands were finally connected up to national infrastructure: and could thus attain a basic modern standard of living for the first time.
Since then, with the shrinking of the state and its diminished capacity for intervention, there has been a constant struggle to reconcile the dogma of marketisation with the imperative of universal service obligations in areas of low population density.
On its own, the market has no interest in sending a parcel from London to Unst, any more than it does in sending ions down a cable in the opposite direction. In private hands, economies of scale win through, and those in the margins pay out in exorbitant fees. Partly as a result of this, the cost of living on islands like Papa Stour is thought to be between 29 and 64 per cent higher than the UK average.
Power to the islands
This is why the isles need policies that are less eye-catching, but more far-reaching.
These include a clamp down on second-home ownership, extensive and responsive social housing in areas of acute need, and a refusal to outsource lifeline services to corporations with poor social records, like Serco.
All of these measures, if fully realised, would require the state to take a far more interventionist role in the economy, a role that clearly doesn’t fit with the current governing logics of the SNP.
In this sense the Islands Bonus is similar to the Scottish Government’s enthusiasm for a Universal Basic Income – perhaps the pinnacle of market-centric policy solutions. Like UBI, the Islands Bond risks exacerbating existing inequalities: just as the housing benefit bill currently subsidises private landlords.
On some islands, as post-pandemic trends push rural house prices even further beyond the reach of local people, £50,000 wouldn’t even cover the difference between the declared asking price and the offers made by asset-rich urban escapees.
If ‘sustainability’ really is just a calculation of consumer demand, then the isles really do face a bleak future – as mere tourist ‘experiences’ – the canvas for latter-day Victorian fantasists.
But if we choose instead to embrace a broader, democratic, definition of sustainability, there is hope for any place, however small.
The factors behind rural depopulation may be unique everywhere, but they share a common source: the drive towards irreversible decline is not about a lack of incentives, it is about a lack of power.