Three articles in the WHFP this week caught the eye and go to the very crux of the current debate on the survival of rural communities. The first being the West Harris Trust erecting a 5 kilowatt turbine to supply their school with electricity and excess to the grid. This is action on the ground taken with the hope that they not only can save their school but turn round the decline of the school roll. They are down to 6. The Trust have a target of increasing their population by 50% partly by providing affordable housing and the retention of the school is an integral part of this laudable ambition. We then move on to Scalpay, Harris where they are discussing whether to go ahead with a community buyout. This has come out of the blue and they have not suffered from a bad landlord, but they have lived through a generation of decline, both economically and socially. I found some of the stats staggering like the absence of pre school children, primary school already closed. This is on an island which had a population of 600 post WWII declining to approximately 300 now. Fishing industry devastated and the bridge built to the “mainland” of Harris along with increased education and communication opportunities seem to have all contributed to this decline. A further list too long to repeat is quite startling but also the comments from a resident, Donald Macdonald, who stated that if people had not come into the island to live the situation would be even worse. One of the possibilities is they go into partnership with the North Harris Trust which has a completely different set of figures from Scalpay since 2003 when they took over the community. The article finishes on a positive note saying that the possible buy-out is giving a boost to people to start doing things for themselves. They did in the past but have suffered from a generational “brain drain” which has diminished this in recent times. The third story that caught the eye was the future funding of the Comhairle nan Eilean Sar, The Western Isles Council, which is facing larger than average spending cuts as they are based on population figures. They are expecting a cut of 6% over two years but at the same time are experiencing larger costs because of an ageing profile in the community. Although it was a party political article the facts remained the same and , to be honest I was less interested in who was to blame than the fact that it was taking place.In the same vein I saw a fb post urging people to buy local,from the neighbour who makes jewellery or crafts,local food from the croft or veg from some one’s plot, home baking and not to send the dosh outside the community to some faceless multi national that only exists to make more money from you than the last time they did. Money kept circulating locally is worth far more than that which is earned and disappears into anonymous coffers. More and more people are getting interested in looking after their own, not at the expense of any one else but alongside each other.
It was with this in mind as I headed of to work at the Inn, expecting a routine that is to say quiet evening. Quick look round the bar and the bookings for the evening dispelled that notion. It still never ceases to amaze me about this place. At one stage we had 14 customers waiting for seats, admittedly almost every one wanted to eat in the bar and not the small dinning room. But still, a thursday evening in November with very inclement weather outside….. The Hill was almost impassable and we had to advise the family heading back to Onich to go back round the coast as the Hill was treacherous. With everyone fed and watered I got into a discussion about what is happening here and the future of the community. Lots of little snippets of gossip to keep the conversation going but the theme was the same and I mentioned some of the above and the way some people misrepresent what you say and mean. The Applecross population IS in decline,IS getting older,school roll IS in decline,PO hours ARE getting less,services ARE getting harder to maintain, far less improve, and me saying that we need 100 more people living here to keep this community viable in often met with 50 shades of horror, what would they do? where would they live? and the slightly dodgy view of would they be undesirable? whatever that means. I look around Applecross and see people not “incomers” just people who are prepared to live here and take part in this community. After all I suspect that if we went back far enough everyone “came in”, it is just not an issue. The issue is we need more and all that would do is to sustain numbers not create the implied imbalance that people use in their arguments against this as an aim. This does appear very negative but there is no point in “ochoning”,saying it’s not the way it used to be and putting our heads in the sand. The question of what people would do is answered with the fact that there is almost 100% employment here all be it not in some people’s chosen field of work. There are many basic trades that are missing and many of the new opportunities will now become available if our broadband plans come to fruition. Watch this space. I think that is the essence of the Community Company , to create the structure that allows people to prosper in a sustainable way within the area. The trick is combining “old wisdom” and new technologies in a way that is sustainable and does little disruption to the environment. Proof reading, making ice cream, having a hen care home is a classic example of this. It also means that a house my grandfather, my dad, and I lived in is still “alive” and guys that want to live here and contribute to the community can. The only way that happened was me not selling to the highest bidder and again to me that is worth far more than a few quid. Doing that on a community level is going to be far trickier and needs a mindset change but maybe …… This has all got a bit serious so back to the beauty of living here.Yesterday while taking Dougal and family up the Glen the larch plantation was looking so bright after the rare summer we had. And a couple of weeks ago on the way home this rowan,growing almost on a rock, caught my eye in the evening sun at Ardhu.For those following the competition, Pakistan arrived last night .