Earlier this month, I went to St Kilda, an archipelago west of the Western Isles. It was pretty amazing and words do not do the place justice, so here are some photos.
In one of the photographs, you will note a number of ships. For an island far off the west coast of the Scottish mainland, and indeed the west coast of Harris, it was quite a busy place. Tourists, scientists, conservationists and military personnel were all busying themselves on Hirta (the main island of the archipelago) when I arrived. But there is no indigenous population there. The last thirty or so native inhabitants evacuated in 1930. (An earlier mass migration in the 19th century explains why a district of Melbourne has the name of St Kilda.) There is a semi-permanent population on Hirta, in terms of military personnel and National Trust for Scotland staff, but there are no indigenous people left. Their way of life, subsisting on (inter alia) sea birds, not to mention their legendary climbing skills to catch those seabirds, have disappeared.
With that uniqueness and far-flung-ness, I think a strong argument can be made that they were the last [static] indigenous group in the British Isles. If they were still around today, the UK would be under international obligations towards them, in a manner not dissimilar to the Inuit in North America.
Alas, the UK government did not offer any particular support to the islanders to prevent them calling for evacuation, when perhaps they could have offered permanent roles to the menfolk (yes, it probably would have been men, back in the day) in military or meteorological circles to make the indigenous community just a bit more viable, and so the community has gone, never to be recovered. Ochone, ochone, and other nostalgic Scottish musings. (I am aware this paragraph is a gross over-simplification, but I want to keep this blog short.)
A serious point relating to the present day might still be made. Retaining a community is much easier than replacing a community. That is why land reform in the Western Isles is such a topical issue. On my trip to the Western Isles, I visited the community lands of the North Harris Trust. They are involved in a number of projects, such as path development.
They have freed up land for local housing. They are regenerating woodland – in Harris! They are providing employment. All of this would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community ownership.
Community ownership is not a magic bullet. There is no “one size fits all” approach to land management in Scotland. That being the case, it does give something to think think about. Even measures short of outright ownership might be enough to re-energise a community. Which takes me back to St Kilda. Sure, I went there on a cracking day (indeed, the boat would not have left Leverburgh without a promise of clear skies), so my one experience of St Kilda will bear no resemblance whatsoever to a winter on a north Atlantic archipelago, but a combination of the hardships St Kildans faced and a lack of support means that that community has gone forever. That makes me sad. To prevent me being sad in the future, I think it would be wonderful if we could protect and encourage the communities that remain in Scotland’s fragile areas in whatever way we can.