There was a good turn out at Tingwall school on Saturday night for the last debate in the Althing Social Group’s current season. The motion was that “Shetland’s remote islands are more trouble than they are worth”.
The straw poll taken at the start of the meeting showed six in favour of the motion, 16 against and 19 undecided. Some members of the audience did not vote at all.
The first speaker of the evening speaking for the motion was the editor of The Shetland Times, Paul Riddell.
Taking the long view, Mr Riddell was quick to point out the decline in population of the remote islands around Shetland, a decline that has been steady and constant since the mid-19th century. In 1891 Foula had a population of 239; it is now 24. Fair Isle had a population of 232 in 1841; now it is 70. The population of Papa Stour once stood at 382; it is now down to just nine. The biggest decline of all was in Fetlar. There were 761 people living there in 1841, compared with a mere 48 now.
The decline has been inexorable as young people have left the islands and not stayed to maintain the population. The decline had been inexorable since not enough young people had stayed to maintain the islands’ populations.
Mr Riddell said he did not object to money being spent on essential services such as schools, ferry links and electricity. If we valued island communities, as we surely did, it was right and proper to provide those living there with such amenities.
But such provision should only ever serve to support thriving communities, not to prop up failing ones.
For an island to be economically viable there had to be something in place to maintain an economy and thus bring in an income, but many of the remote islands, particularly Fetlar, Foula and Papa Stour had few prospects.
He concluded by stating categorically that he had nothing against the remote islands or the people who lived there but there was no longer any room for sentimentality. Tough choices had to be made and would it not make more sense to support thriving communities rather than continue to pour hundreds of thousands of pounds into shoring up ailing communities that seemed to be doomed to failure?
The first speaker to oppose the motion was Shetland Life editor Malachy Tallack.
Mr Tallack said that it was easy to think purely in fiscal terms when it came to talking about the worth of these islands but he wanted to broaden the debate to talk about the other values inherent in such small communities. There is tremendous cultural, historical, social and environmental worth in these places.
Mr Tallack suggested that if you want to really learn about Shetland’s culture and history and what makes these islands what they are, then you could do a lot worse than go to visit one of the remote islands where old ways and traditions are more apparent than in the Mainland of Shetland.
While modern culture has permeated the islands in the same way that it has in all other places too, in the outer isles something of the past still remains and this is important in retaining a sense of cultural identity.
Other islands, Fair Isle in particular, have embraced modern technologies and the local community has worked hard to adapt to modern ways. The energy project of which Fair Isle can so rightly be proud, was the first of its kind in Europe and stands as an example of the way in which small communities can pull together to put things in place to ensure a sustainable future.
The environment is worth protecting too. In Shetland, large percentages of the remote islands stand as conservation sites, protecting the natural flora and fauna of the isles. Encouraging conservation and protection of the landscape could provide extra employment and income for these small islands.
Mr Tallack explained that the small isles need to be supported and encouraged. Fetlar is so popular with visitors and the Norwegian Stofa project in Papa Stour can only help to encourage visitors to another small community.
The bird observatory in Fair Isle has now been established for over 60 years and has provided a source of important income to the island but has also proved to be instrumental in terms of research and information for ornithologists.
Mr Tallack spoke of the uniqueness of these islands and it is that very uniqueness that is needed to bring people in.
Crofting has often been the very bedrock of these places and up until recent years it provided stability and security. This has now been eroded but it does not mean that the islands no longer have anything going for them. Other opportunities should be looked at and the small islands should be offered constructive support so that they can be helped in order to help themselves.
Crofters Commission chairman Drew Ratter was the third speaker and gave a paper that underlined many of the points raised by Mr Riddell. Referring to attendees Jonathan Wills and Bobby Hunter, he was quick to point out light-heartedly that Bressay was a suburb of Lerwick while Burra had not been an island for 40 years.
Mr Ratter suggested that transport issues were perhaps one of the main issues that affected the state of the small islands nowadays. Since the days of imperialism when rulers realised the importance of good transport links, it has been noted that transport was often developed and used to take things away rather than bring them in.
Mr Ratter went on to say that if the relevant authorities thought these remote islands were really worth all the bother would not something have been done long before now to ensure their future rather than a lot of discussion mixed with displacement activities that detract from dealing with real issues?
If things had been done and suggestions acted upon and put in place then these small communities might indeed be bursting with life as they used to be.
Mr Ratter noted that Fair Isle once had a population of over 300 and Fetlar used to be referred to as the “Garden of Shetland”.
Mr Ratter explained that there was really no constructive policy laid down to help and support these small communities; time has never really been allocated to set down policies and when utterly predictable crises occur such as secondary schools with only one pupil, there is no constructive action of any kind.
When so called task forces are set up they often only pay lip service to the issues and it has been felt that perhaps brave decisions would have been made if the powers that be felt that these small islands were worth the trouble.
The final speaker of the evening was Althing committee member Chris Bunyan, who gave a speech that asked the audience to consider Shetland as a remote island compared to the UK as a whole. He suggested that if Shetland were to stop supporting Fetlar, Foula and Fair Isle, for example, would Edinburgh stop supporting Shetland as the term “subsidy junkies” has already been bandied about when talking of remote islands?
If Shetland makes the excuse that we can no longer afford to prop up the outer islands, then will Holyrood say they can no longer afford Shetland?
How can these arguments be fought? If we abandon these small places then where next? Will parts of the Mainland –Sandness, Vidlin, Nesting, be pushed out of the equation too?
Mr Bunyan asked how do we define viability? Many would argue that Papa Stour is no longer viable, but the SIC has to be applauded for providing the transport links that it does to the island.
However, many decisions are taken not at the last minute but at the very last second when it comes to helping small islands.
The problems are not really foreseen and if they are, then they tend to be ignored until they have either started or in most cases are well under way before something is done, by which time it is often too late.
Mr Bunyan asked are the remote islands really that much trouble?
There is no public housing on these islands, no essie cart, no street lighting, not even a little vehicle to grit the pavements because there are no pavements. These small populations only ever get crumbs and occasional crusts dropped on them from way up above and of 116 projects currently outlined for development by the SIC only four concern the remote islands. Mr Bunyan concluded by saying that in real terms the small islands cause very little trouble because they don’t ask for very much and they don’t expect very much.
After the break comments were made as to whether the panel considered that the small islands were writing themselves off by not doing enough to try to remain sustainable. Perhaps Papa Stour or Fetlar should become nature reserves which would bring in more visitors and provide some employment as well?
The audience were reminded that even uninhabited islands still had worth, Mousa being a case in point.
Discussion ensued regarded crofting and the large tracts of crofting land that now went untended as they were left neglected by absentee landlords. Could these areas not be developed in some way?
Transport links are good to many of the small islands but when is Fetlar going to get its breakwater and/or pier, the audience wanted to know?
In summing up Mr Tallack stated that small islands provide a cultural, social and environmental asset, that the inhabitants of these islands are resourceful and that rather than being dismissive we should in fact be proud of them.
Mr Riddell counteracted this comment by reiterating points made in both his speech and Mr Ratter’s by saying that if the council had felt that these islands did have intrinsic worth then surely something would have been done long before now?
At the end of the evening the votes were returned as nine for the motion, 32 (ish?) against, with one brave soul raising his hand to admit he was still undecided, so the motion fell.
The last debate of the current season drew to a close and people began to wend their way home, the vast majority of them to their houses in Shetland’s Mainland.