Friday, 5 January 2007

McRae's vision for crofting counties holds true today

Published: 05 January, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

TODAY we live in one of the officially designated crofting counties, even though there are fewer crofters than 30 years ago and crofting has less impact. And yet the issues of 30 years ago have still to be resolved.

In 1974 the SNP held Moray and Nairn, the Western Isles and Argyll; it was a close second in Inverness-shire, Ross-shire and Caithness and Sutherland. But Willie McRae, the SNP's Ross-shire firebrand, wasn't just a fine campaigner – his long experience helped to fashion the party's policy for the crofting counties.

Giving it a read again this holiday week, I find it's as fresh now as in the full flush of those boom years for Dounreay and the oil industry.

He wrote that it was impossible to look seriously at crofting without considering the whole fabric of life in the crofting counties. His guiding purposes for the SNP policy sought to restore the ability, the power, the will and the resources to rebuild depleted economic and social life. That was before the rise of Inverness, or the broadband revolution, or the prospects for the second renewable energy revolution of wind, wave and tides. It did recognise that in the long term you can't rely on large single industries to underpin an area's future. The experiences of Dounreay, the Invergordon smelter and the Fort William pulp mill were to bear that out, while the oil industry has contracted and reshaped to its present impact such as the pipe works at Wester and the new exploration base at Lybster, while the Beatrice oilfield is now a base for offshore wind power.

SNP policy in the 1970s wanted to build on successful hydro-electricity, the first green power. Then the lairds and the country-sports lobby were the objectors. Today there is far too little local consent and ownership of clean power projects – witness the many wind-farm debacles around Caithness. With a Scottish energy strategy and locally-agreed Clean Energy Plans, we can harness this power for local needs. That's what Norwegian communities have done, as visitors to Norway with the West Norway/Highland partnership have seen recently. Local municipalities recycled the revenues from supplying their own needs and selling the surplus to the national grid. So the SNP believes that locals should have the power to harness multinational businesses to help with the technology but for the major benefactors to be us, not just faraway shareholders, the Crown Estate and absentee lairds.

The 1970s SNP policy called for practical, radical land reform.

Under today's partial land reform laws, which were only passed due to the existence of the Scottish Parliament, we are starting to catch on. But few crofting communities have bought out their land except in the islands and in north Sutherland. In Caithness many of us still see our children choose to seek a life elsewhere because land for house-building is so expensive and local capital is still scarce. Willie McRae clearly saw that need to build up and extend crofting, partly to allow more people to have homes here, but also to see more local food production. These are just as urgent priorities in 2007.

There were hopes 30 years ago in SNP policy for the educational and social background in which Gaelic language and Norse dialects of different areas could be revived and could flourish, be living, working languages in daily use, and take their place in the multiple strands of Scottish culture. Excitingly, the success of Gaelic education has improved where parents wish to see this and there has been a huge boost to our native musical traditions through the Fèisean movement and its local equivalents like the Wick Traditional Music Workshops. These were all begun locally before gaining Scottish government support. In an unsettled world, the attraction of a strong-rooted culture will be even more essential for the future confidence and self-esteem of young Scots of whatever origin.

Above all, Willie McRae's policy saw the need to provide the crofting counties with the resources in land, in cash and in people to make the rebuilding of the Highlands after centuries of depopulation a vibrant reality. He saw this going hand in hand with integrating the North into the mainstream of Scotland's social, educational, agricultural and industrial life. We still need an injection of professional jobs in legal services, medicine and the energy sciences to meet the needs of our far-flung communities.

In this new year, the UHI will move ever closer to becoming a fully-fledged collegiate university. North Highland College will be a bastion of its dispersed structure. Recognising that the Highlands are an example to the rest of Scotland, the Scottish government has supported the celebration of 2007 as the Scottish Year of Highland Culture.

What we need to "take off" is more of that consistent vision that the SNP saw possible three decades ago and have it applied today. Each part of the nation can support many more working families, not just in cities like Inverness but by using our priceless natural resources here in Caithness to build satisfying lives. To get the cash and backing for local prosperity we need Holyrood to have full tax-raising powers. We need a national renewable energy strategy that puts communities at the centre of the action, and we need rail and road links fit for this climate-change age.

Don't let another 30 years pass when you can soon vote and demand a big say in the achievement of these essential goals to sustain the Far North's future. A Guid New Year tae ane and a'.

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