Following coverage of the open letter from Hebridean communities regarding the economic pressure on housing for locals, our Chartered Building Surveyor Eilidh Walker – herself a Hebridean – felt a particularly personal connection to the issues raised. Here she gives her own view on the challenges faced on Scotland’s western islands:
“This year’s pandemic has been a revelation to many. It seems that the old adage of safety in numbers no longer applies and paradoxically the great cities have become vulnerable. As a result, COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the islands, manifested in demand for rural land and property. This pandemic has further intensified the romanticism of rural island life.
The Hebrides are commonly described as islands on the edge and this is true in many ways and has been for many years. The communities here are resilient, traditional, and capable however not invincible. In many areas of these islands on the edge they are vulnerable, and almost fragile, which seems ironic given all they have to offer. The wealth of the island’s history, its great variety of terrains, wildlife and its sheer beauty is all part of the rich tapestry. The winters however are very harsh, ‘character building’ some say, and as much as smooth seas do not make a skilled sailor, you’re almost required to experience them to fully value the glorious summer months. And herein lies the problem.
On a recent fishing trip, I took a step back as I often do taking in the view and appreciating my surroundings and the island I call my home, a question came into my thoughts. As the daylight was fading, how many homes were lit on the coastal village we were approaching. Not very many it appeared. This is a reflection on what the islands are becoming, a safe haven, a place to occupy for short and fragmented periods of time during the more favourable months of course.
Having been born and brought up on the Island of Lewis, speaking Gaelic and playing traditional music I would say I was almost stereotypically an island native. My summer months were also partially spent cutting peat making hay and growing various vegetables all as preparation for the coming winters. These are all things that are still a large part of my summer on the island. As much as they are nostalgic, they are both necessary and enjoyable and help to keep these learnt skills and traditions alive. As a Chartered Building Surveyor working predominantly on Mainland Scotland, I now find myself similar to other islanders travelling on and off the island at weekends for work. The pull to return to the islands remains strong.
The reality now is that the opportunities arising and aspirations I have are now becoming more difficult and out with my financial grasp. A desire to be rooted in my Hebridean Home, contributing to the local economy and community is becoming increasingly difficult. This reality is nothing new in coastal and certain rural communities across the country. The problem becomes an issue when the natives within these communities are priced out and can no longer remain. In the Hebrides this means losing not only the people but unique skills, traditions, and a language. This is now self-evident in many areas of the Outer Hebrides, but there is light at the end of the village. With improved technology and great connectivity this has allowed me to remain for more sustained periods of time in my island home, whilst still being able to work nationally.
Crofting tenure has been a part of rural history in Scotland, in this era, crofting would merely supplement a rural dwellers lifestyle, as an income it cannot be fully dependent upon. However, for those local individuals who want to take on the tenancy of a croft with the view to refurbishing or developing a croft house and work the land aside from their full time occupation, the bar is becoming higher to secure this. Having more understanding and knowledge in terms of rural living between corporate, financial, and governing entities may allow for more locals to remain or return.
The islands will continue to be places of almost unrivaled beauty and be attractive to so many, yet the culture, heritage, traditions and language will be at risk without sustaining and retaining the native islanders that inherently can prevent this loss.”
Eilidh covers the Highlands and Islands from our Inverness office and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org