This is an edited version of the text of a short presentation I gave as part of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Rural Policy meeting on October 29th 2019 on the topic of ‘Taking a place-based approach to address demographic change in rural Scotland’.
Place-based approaches to rural development are not new.
This is the village of Portnalong in North Talisker on the west side of Skye. It was created as a consequence of arguably the most radical example of land reform legislation in Scotland in the 20th century.
In 1919 the coalition Government of David Lloyd George passed the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act – celebrating its centenary this year. Legislation designed to provide smallholdings fit for the heroes returning home from the first world war.
In 1920, as a direct result of the Act, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland paid Norman MacLeod of MacLeod £58,609 (about £1.9 million at today’s prices, according to Jim Hunter) for 60,000 acres of land in North Talisker that had served as a sheep farm following clearance of the area in the 19th century.
And in 1923 families, mainly from the Bays of Harris – where I come from – and also from Lewis moved to 68 newly created crofts in the area, establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none. Many of the Harris folk who crossed the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of a generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays over a century earlier. I suspect I’m not alone in discerning a delicate mix of poignance and optimism within that symmetry of departure and arrival.
Fast forward to the present day and in the grand scheme of things Portnalong, and Talisker as a whole, are doing pretty well.
There’s employment, including at the thriving local distillery.
There’s a resident population which – according to the last census data – seems to have been bucking demographic trends elsewhere in parts of rural Scotland. And there’s a primary school that remains open despite previously being threatened with closure.
Head along the road to Minginish and you’ll see – as I did when I visited last summer – an impressive looking community hall celebrating its 10th anniversary as a vital community asset.
That’s not to say that the area is immune to the structural challenges – most obviously a lack of affordable housing – facing many other parts of Skye and elsewhere in rural Scotland. But make no mistake; at a time when skewed demographics lead some observers to contemplate the unpalatable prospect of fragile rural places facing ‘death with dignity’, Portnalong and the wider North Talisker area offer a powerful century-old counter-narrative of ‘rebirth with rights’. And the most fundamental right of all for a community is simply to ‘be’.
The need for political boldness and policy imagination of the sort that propelled Portnalong and its neighbouring settlements in North Talisker into existence is now more pressing than ever.
So, it may be that a Land Settlement Act from 100 years ago offers important contemporary pointers for the future of rural place-making in Scotland.
Not least regarding how the current land-use planning system can counter negative demographic change by helping to retain and grow existing communities’ populations and by enabling creation of new settlements where it’s feasible and appropriate to do so.
But that alone is not enough. Contemporary rural place-making also needs to embrace a radical rethinking of the relationship between communities, landscapes and sustainability.
Last year, in collaboration with Inherit (the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development), Community Land Scotland published a research report titled ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’.
It uncovered tensions between the principles of landscape policy (broadly encompassing natural, cultural and built heritage) and its practice that are vital to account for in taking a place-based approach to development.
These tensions include:
- An approach that dissects the environment into parts rather than taking a holistic approach to its management;
- An absence of diverse views on what defines a place;
- A continuing drive to single out and protect ‘special’ landscapes;
- A ‘fence and exclude’ conservation culture that treats development simply as a threat;
- A tendency to see landscape matters as the preserve of landscape professionals and institutions.
The research also found a significant ‘participation gap’ whereby communities felt ‘locked out’ of decisions about conservation and its relationship to development that affected their everyday lives.
These tensions and that participation gap matter. Because if we are serious about place-making as a way to reverse the damaging demographic trends that threaten our most sparsely populated areas, we need to think about our rural landscapes in ways that are genuinely economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable.
That means ensuring that communities’ voices are to the fore in characterising, valuing and managing our rural landscapes, rather than marginal, disenfranchised aspects of these processes.
It also means – and I accept this may be uncomfortable for some – stripping away the ‘wilderness myth’ that shrouds much of Highland Scotland in particular. There’s a political ecology at play in characterising many of our rural places as ‘wild’ that is beguilingly seductive for all sorts of reasons.
But it masks an inconvenient truth.
Our rural landscapes were never ‘wild’. They are socially constructed places that have been made and remade – for better or worse – by centuries of human intervention.
That’s not to suggest that we should forgo or somehow downplay and diminish the ecological heritage and diversity of our rural places. Quite the opposite, in fact, as we hurtle towards the existential threat of climate catastrophe.
Rather, the central challenge confronting us all – policymakers, civil society and communities alike- is how to calibrate the idea of rural place-making to embrace its economic, social and environmental possibilities holistically, in ways that are mutually and positively reinforcing. Locating community empowerment at the centre of that endeavour is critical to enabling our rural communities – and, by extension, our rural places – to thrive rather than simply survive.
That challenge also necessitates ensuring that land reform in its broadest sense – involving changes to the ownership and use of land in the public interest and for the common good – is hard-wired into public policy as a permanent cross-cutting issue for sustainable rural development rather than an optional extra.
In short, we need to re-connect the relationship between communities, landscapes and power to ensure that the road ahead takes all of our rural communities and places towards a sustainable future.