Friday, 8 May 2009

The Way is Clear from a Small Island

STANDING on a small island you may be able to see the way more clearly for the whole country. Granted it could be as misty there as elsewhere in the North.

But last weekend I was privileged to take part in the Giant's Footsteps Family Festival on the Isle of Eigg.

Knowing how Stroma and Eilean nan Ron were depopulated and Handa on the west coast supports a huge bird population, it's a pity these islands proved unsustainable for human habitation. But Eigg is also a wee island, about six miles long. Eighty-five people live there and it has stunning geology, rich wildlife and a vibrant and sometimes violent history. It is populated by a dynamic community which made Eigg an even more special place when, with friends and supporters worldwide, they achieved the historic buyout of the island from its feudal laird in 1997.

It's an hour's sail to Eigg in the Sheerwater from Arisaig on a bumpy sea, only a little short of Orkney in distance. Over the weekend we had fog, bright sun and heavy rain, even hailstones – after all it is early May in the Highlands. Now the island has the chance to steer its own course for the future.

The point of the weekend was that while this community is surrounded by water, a village, a street, a block of flats or an office can call themselves an "island". With just five simple steps every community can become green, but it is easier to do so working with others.

One of the huge achievements of Eigg has been to install a renewable electricity scheme for all the homes on the island. It cost £1.7 million and relies on four windmills, a small hydro plant and photovoltaic cells to provide everyone with 5kw per household. That's far less than most homes on the mainland use each day, but compared to the previous use of diesel generators it is far cheaper and far more reliable.

By popular acclaim the highlight of the weekend was a children's play, The Isle of Egg, an ecological fable that had the kids in the audience shouting for more and the adults in gales of laughter. Produced by Eco Drama it should be taken on a national tour of every primary school because the youngsters who see it will urge adults to change their habits as no government leaflets will.

But here's the rub, TV star Martin Clunes has visited lots of islands to make films of their life, the first broadcast last Sunday. I've read trenchant criticisms of his programme from Shetland. I heard Eigg folk lambast the items he used from their isle, and as for his portrayal of Lewis, namely psalm-singing and shooting deer, what a travesty! It sums up the usual London ITV view of the quaint natives.

It is peddling an old myth that small islands are heavily subsidised. Clunes said it again. Value judgements were being made by such tosh without any facts to back them. I have complained to ITV and I hope others will too, for our islands and small rural communities are vital to the diversity of Scotland and a lifeline to the future.


Rob Gibson beside the wind turbines at the Sgurr of Eigg last weekend. The development is part of the island's successful renewable electricity scheme.

FREEDOM of Information (FOI) is used increasingly to challenge governments. The crisis over the duty hike for whisky last year brought no action or intervention from Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, according to FOI requests to the Scotland Office in London. Mr Murphy's inaction at a time of crisis for a major Scottish industry destroyed the myth of him as a "hyper-energetic" Scottish secretary.

Last year saw two duty increases on whisky by the UK Government, meaning they planned a 17 per cent rise in a single year, one of the largest such hikes in history. The first nine per cent rise last March caused the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA) "extreme dismay" and they called it "punitive" and likely to set a damaging precedent for the export market. The second planned rise of eight per cent in the autumn was swiftly reduced to four per cent.

The SNP asked the Scotland Office for details of all meetings that took place in the run-up to that second hike with either the Treasury or the SWA, but the FOI request was rebuffed as being against the public interest. A follow-up request was made simply asking whether any such meetings had taken place. The reply stated that there was no record of any meeting with industry representatives.

So much for the role of the Scotland Office performing a vital function within Whitehall in standing up for Scottish interests; this is the first really concrete example of the gap between the rhetoric and the PR with the reality of what the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State actually do, especially with their burgeoning workforce and budget.


THIS week saw the biggest debating time given in the Holyrood chamber this session for any one bill. It took place over two afternoons on Wednesday and Thursday on the Climate Change Bill stage one report made by the transport infrastructure and climate change committee, of which I am a member.

I had the privilege of speaking on issues directly related to the Far North. I dwelt on Scotland's prime good luck to be at the forefront of marine renewable energy. I spoke about changing lifestyles and the need for every section of the nation to make measurable moves to reduce significantly our greenhouse gas emissions. I gave some of the examples of the challenges faced on Eigg, and I welcomed the way the SNP Government, which has introduced such radical ideas, was pressing ahead to make it the best climate change bill in the world. Now we must make it work...

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