Putting the “Highland problem” into perspective

With the region’s population rising, Caithness and Sutherland still face a daunting decline in the coming decades, but Magnus Davidson sees hope

Tireless volunteers like Joan Lawrie in Thurso can help communities thrive.

The “Highland problem” seems to have come to an end. New statistics from the National Records of Scotland now show that the area’s population has grown by 22% over the past 40 years and 2% over the past 10.

Inverness has been a city, and a rapidly growing one at that, for most of my life. We don’t quite have the 20th century metropolis once envisioned from Nairn to Tain, but growth in the Inner Moray Firth region has shown it to be well on its way.

The Kessock Bridge recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and the Black Isle where I am from, for better or worse, is now a suburb.

But for many Highland communities, the problem is far from over. Last week another newspaper ran a series on depopulation, and it reminded us all of the daunting challenge facing Caithness.

The projected population loss over the next 20 years exceeds any other county in the region at more than 21% over a 25-year period between 2016 and 2041. Sutherland is projected to lose 12% of its population over the same period.

Yet relatively poor infrastructure, depopulation and aging demographics threaten our communities. Only the high unemployment rate has been reduced, but sometimes replaced by poor jobs as the economy turns to low-wage seasonal tourism.

The tourism industry has certainly shown benefits for people in places like Skye, but at what social and environmental cost?

Other “fragile” areas in the Highlands and Islands are also expected to lose residents. The area has been described as ‘Scottish man of conscience’, which is no longer quite the case.

This is not a lament for rural communities. It’s just reality. Forecasts are forecasts and yet we are lucky to have the tools at our doorstep to deal with the problem.

First and foremost, people. Spreading names that make an impact is inspiring. People like Frances Gunn from Tongue, fighting for her corner of Sutherland and her community, or Finlay MacLennan promoting the virtues of community ownership in the Western Isles, or the North West 2045 team I saw presenting their case at government minister Mairi McAllan in Helmsdale last month.

Eann Sinclair of HIE at Scrabster Harbour.
Eann Sinclair of HIE at Scrabster Harbour.

Our own Eann Sinclair, with a keen and pragmatic understanding of the region, remarked that “we’re all on the same page at the same time right now” when it comes to depopulation.

In Caithness I am fortunate to work with countless people and community organizations who work tirelessly for the betterment of our county. Last summer I worked with the Caithness Voluntary Group to record and analyze how the community responded to the Covid pandemic, with countless examples of individual and collective efforts that have kept our county going. . This type of response can and should be channeled into our depopulation challenge.

In Thurso, the success of the Community Development Trust is evident in the multitude of buildings and spaces transformed into social growth assets. Joan Lawrie and the team deserve a special award for finding 48 hours in a day.

Economically, the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership faces the formidable task of dealing with Dounreay’s dilemma, a finely balanced task of ensuring that there is a skilled workforce for a safe and successful dismantling, with new jobs at the other end.

The University of the Highlands and Islands is the region’s biggest success story for the past 30 years. UHI North Highland is modernizing into a scalable higher education institution with a planned merger with UHI West Highland and UHI Outer Hebrides.

This may be difficult to explain from the inside, but it is a much needed development and it will show that the Highlands and Islands to the north and west can lead the whole university towards reform.

I am often found embracing the natural capital of the region, particularly here in Caithness, but reflecting on the past two years, the real potential lies in the people who work tirelessly for their communities.

The fact that I write this column at home in the Northern Highlands, that I work in the Northern Highlands, that I studied in the Northern Highlands proves, at least to me, that we could one day see a real end to the “Highland problem”.

Magnus Davidson.
Magnus Davidson.
  • Magnus Davidson is a Thurso-based researcher.
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