“FROM the lone shieling on the misty island / Mountains divide us and the waste of seas” are the opening lines of a famous poem known as the Canadian Boat Song.
Who wrote it is a bit of a mystery but ever since it was first published in 1829 it has summed up the Highlander’s experience of clearance and exile, driven off his land and out of his country so that, as the poem puts it, a “degenerate lord can boast his sheep.”
One hundred and seventy years later the glens and straths which were emptied remain largely uninhabited. That is why immigration to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is particularly important because, speaking as a Highlands and Islands MSP as well as a long term resident of a massively under inhabited landscape, we simply don’t have enough people to sustain our economy or our future.
I have had a number of well-publicised disagreements with Argyll and Bute Council, the local authority which covers my constituency, but I agree with them that solving the problem of depopulation is, and must be, at the very top of our shared list of priorities as public representatives.
There is a simple reason for that. We just can’t sustain the services that a modern population needs if we rely on the existing ageing council tax payers who need more and more but can afford less and less.
And if the basic services aren’t provided – schools, refuse collection, road maintenance – then fewer and fewer people will come here to make their lives and we will be trapped in a cycle of decline.
Today however we face – across the Highlands as well as in other parts of Scotland – a double whammy.
The ending of freedom of movement as a result of Brexit isn’t something to celebrate, despite the crass and insensitive claims to the contrary by out of touch Tory politicians. For the Highlands and Islands – and indeed for the whole of Scotland – it is an impending disaster.
Twenty per cent of our working population in the Highlands will retire within the next 10 years. We are growing older and we are not reproducing ourselves (there is zero natural growth in our population) so we must attract into our area enough people to replace that shrinking workforce.
Over the next decade that means around 80,000 people, but Brexit is already acting as a deterrent. I regularly meet EU nationals who are thinking about going back to their country of origin, though they love living here and they would dearly like to stay.
Many are professionals – doctors, vets, university researchers – whilst others own businesses or work in key sectors where there is already a labour shortage.
Their contribution cannot be replaced.
And they also contribute massively to our cultural and social well-being.
The second part of this crisis is to do with Tory legislation that will follow Brexit. A new earnings threshold of £30,000 (a very high wage in a rural area) means that even top jobs will go unfilled because even if there are no local candidates, no incoming workers will be allowed to apply or stay here.
I have met with successive UK immigration ministers whose knowledge of Scotland is usually rudimentary and whose sympathy for the country non-existent. The current incumbent is Caroline Nokes, who memorably and arrogantly told a Westminster committee last year: “We are not going to grant an ability to the Scottish Government that I might not also be granting to Lincolnshire county council.”
Her department was immovable on the issue of Sine Halfpenny, a fully qualified Gaelic teacher in Canada who had been offered a job on Mull but who didn’t meet even the existing lower salary threshold. Children went untaught because of official, London based, intransigence.
The cause of the crisis in the Highlands we are now facing is not just the indifference of Westminster, nor the obsession with migration that drives the current xenophobic Tory party. It also arises from a chronic inequality in land ownership, which largely still persists.
But things are being made substantially worse by Brexit. Winnie Ewing gained a special EU status for the Highlands which gave access to additional help and was crucial in the process of recovery. Successive Scottish Governments have continued to see the area as a priority, supporting the work of – amongst others – Highlands and Islands Enterprise and steadily modernising the archaic land laws.
But without continued access to European funds and, most crucially, a continued influx of European citizens, things will start to go backwards again.
In fact they are already doing so. Only independence as a full member of the EU can stop the rot.