The special issue of Arctic Yearbook is now available online at https://arcticyearbook.com. CoDeL’s contribution, one of 15 scholarly papers, is available here. It builds on CoDeL’s extensive research across the Northern Periphery and Arctic during Covid, and applies the insights from the Covid research to the even greater challenges of the twin climate and biodiversity emergencies. The abstract and the link to the full article follows below.
The Arctic Yearbook will host a webinar to officially launch this collection on 7th September 2023 (1100 to 1230 EST) and an in person event during Arctic Circle in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Challenging dominant narratives to enable effective responses to pandemics and other crises in rural and island communities by Thomas Fisher and Theona Morrison
This article strongly evidences the need to transform narratives and perspectives on rural, island and indigenous communities, and the many elements for such transformation that are already in place. We start by summarising extensive research conducted during COVID-19 on communities across the Northern Periphery and Arctic that turned what are often regarded as the challenges of peripherality to their advantage as resilience factors. In the process, they challenged many economic frameworks that have long dominated development policy for ‘remote’ regions. We then examine emerging research on dominant paradigms that are driving responses to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. Once again, these paradigms are often not rooted in the lived experience and (inherited) knowledge of local peoples and communities, who manage the vast majority of our natural assets. This leads to the wrong ‘solutions’ which can directly threaten rural, island and indigenous communities while not delivering positive outcomes for the climate and biodiversity. The call to “redefine peripherality” is backed by extensive evidence, and makes a series of recommendations for a more integrated, holistic and sustainable approach to peripheral communities, building on their many assets, strengths and resources. Likewise, many voices, from local communities to international bodies, are calling for more effective responses to the climate and biodiversity emergencies that incorporate the worldviews of indigenous peoples and local communities who have so much to contribute.
Transforming dominant narratives cannot happen until we genuinely listen and respond to the voices of rural, island and indigenous peoples within the Arctic and beyond.
by Theona Morrison and Thomas Fisher, Directors of CoDeL
Join us for the launch of the Uist Beò website on facebook live (https://fb.me/e/2yGzHzEZh) on 8 March 2023 at 6:30pm. And this is the related opinion piece that appeared in the March issue of the award-winning local community paper, Am Pàipear.
If I look through a window and you look through it – for all the outlook is the same, we will see and remember different things from that view.
This month sees the launch of the Uist Beò website to showcase a dynamic and vibrant Uist, through the eyes of young Uibhistich – entirely an insiders’ view.
Do we really know what’s going on in our own community? Are we seeing different things?
For long the dominant perception has been that we are in terminal decline. If the projected future population trends for the Outer Hebrides prove true in Uist, we will be turning out the lights before 2050.
But even five years ago this did not feel right. Gathering a list of 469 young Uibhistich in their 20s and 30s, we discovered half were returners or new to Uist: not the exodus of young people our community always assumed (“to get on, you have to get off”).
Why were so many in the prime of their working lives making Uist their home? The very first returner we asked gave a simple answer: “my social life here is so much better than in Glasgow”!
The ‘night time’ economy is not just for cities. Regular sessions from Saturday nights at Creagorry to the fortnightly Accordian and Fiddle Club as well as ceilidhs and fund-raising events, often with our many award-winning musicians. Are you dancing? Tuesday night Carinish, Saturday St. Peter’s, Sunday Stoneybridge, and that’s only for the adults!
Are you interested in art, crafts or archaeology, or sports (athletics, running, football, badminton, squash, golf, swimming indoors and outdoors, paddle-boarding, kickboxing, yoga, etc.)? Ceòlas, now at Cnoc Soilleir, has more than 100 joining their Gàidhlig classes.
Primary school children are spoilt for choice, especially in sports and music, Highland and Irish dancing. They could be at an activity every evening of the week, and at a fraction of the costs in a city, some even free.
So does the window you look through have an old frame or is it newer? Of course older generations hold memories of much greater numbers, from schools to dances. But how about the last decade? Last year we had only 9 fewer primary school pupils in Uist than 10 years earlier, out of more than 300. In Barra the number of primary pupils last year was 19% higher than in 2010! And this is likely to continue. Cothrom Òg Gàidhlig nursery has 26 children signed up and a waiting list. All pupils entering Daliburgh School for the last two years are in Gàidhlig medium.
Sustaining the number of younger children for a decade is a remarkable success. In Grimsay one child started primary school a decade ago, today there are 15 children. No, it’s not what is was 40 years ago, but it is more than 10 years ago. Locheport, with only 3 children recently, now has 13, with 3 more expected soon.
It’s too early to say whether the decline has bottomed out. For historical reasons we have a high proportion of elderly people, so there will be more deaths than births. But for many returning or making Uist their new home, the view through the window is looking exciting and vibrant.
Take all the young businesses. North Uist Distillery, set up by two young returners, now employs 13 people, bringing life back to one of Uist’s most historic buildings. We have award winning young businesses, e.g. Coral Box and Studiovans, who recycle plastic from our shores to create modular units for vans. As the Uist Beò website will show, we have young people and families in crofting, culture and music; beauty, health and wellbeing; photography, art and architecture. We have numerous PhD students, and many who work online, e.g. in the medical sector or web-based design. And the islands have the highest density of community enterprises per head of population in all of Scotland.
In hospitality the Politician, Croft & Cuan, the Bistro, Grimsay cafe, Westford Inn, the Dunes Cabin, Lochmaddy Hotel, the Berneray shop, the Wee Cottage Kitchen have all recently been taken over or set up, often by young people with children, showing confidence in the local economy. Many young people have told us that they see so much opportunity here.
The narratives we tell ourselves as a community are really important. Nobody would say we don’t have our fair share of challenges, what with ferries and housing! Many include jobs also, although the greater challenge is filling the many vacant jobs we have at all times, providing plenty of opportunity for people if they can only find somewhere to live.
Whether we view our glass as half empty or as half full has real impacts. Past ‘official’ narratives, of decline, a place to leave, or of a romanticised empty place to retire to, both undermine our future. Who wants to be in a place where the lights are going out soon? We don’t need to look far from our islands to see other islands now abandoned.
Whether here or in other island communities, we always first ask people, why are you here, in spite of the many challenges you obviously face? Many of us could join the numerous Hebrideans in Glasgow and elsewhere, but we choose to live here. Why? It isn’t because of ferries, shopping malls, ice rinks, diverse global foods.
More important factors are influencing our life choices, factors that came to the fore during Covid: land, sea and croft; community and family; wellbeing and resilience, freedom and safety; Gàidhlig and vibrant culture; dynamic community groups and activities; small class sizes and dedicated teachers; being valued for who we are, a sense of equality; our strong sense of identity and belonging, of being there for each other; etc. etc.
Many of us have lived elsewhere, including when young people leaving school go to experience life elsewhere. So we can recognise how valuable all those factors are, how at home we can feel here, and how envious people elsewhere are of what we have, and share.
So let us all, from individuals and community groups to agencies and CnES, ditch managing decline, rationalising and centralising, and instead invest in our future, by building on these great foundations, including a more assertive community that no longer kowtows to distant powerholders or outdated narratives.
In my previous blogpost about the Arctic Circle Assembly I said that would focus a little on indigenous voices. As well as the session on ‘Remote Areas: A window of opportunity’, I also presented at one called ‘Polar Law: The Just Transition to Low Carbon Economies in the Arctic and Beyond’.
I spoke about food and the global movement of ‘product’ around the world. Rosie MacLeod, who was with me from Raasay, presented her work on the new hydro power in Raasay (see Rosie’s blogpost here). SSE had given £350,000 towards the scheme, but three local young people on the board of Raasay Development Trust issued a Community Share Offer which raised a further £650,000 in seven weeks! They aim to sell the electricity locally, with profits going into a community benefit scheme which they will use to refit old houses – brilliant! Oh that we could do that in Uist and everywhere else! The injustice of hosting production of renewable energy and then paying more for the the use of the energy than those in cities is anything but ‘just’.
This was the feedback from Professor Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Professor at Háskólinn (University) á Akureyri:
Dear friends,I wanted to thank you for a very successful (in my humble view) session on the Just Transition at ACA. We had a great turnout and good feedback on the session. To my delight, Aili Keskitalo, former president of the Saami Parliament in Norwegian Sápmi, came up and thanked us for the session and was very positive about it! If we have her approval, I do not need anyone else’s!Let’s keep fighting the good fight!Rachael
As I said in my previous blogpost, it was encouraging to see that indigenous peoples could be heard in a range of sessions, although, as one person said, “we do not lack technical innovation in the Arctic, but we lack business (will, as in commitment) and political innovation”.
‘A sign of hope is being able to speak in your own indigenous language’.
Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada (the first indigenous person to hold this office) at the Arctic Assembly
I attended a plenary session hosted by the Americans: ‘The Future of Arctic Peace, Science and Security’. They summarised their new strategy in which they spoke about prosperity, sustainable growth etc. Of course security is a big driver, because ‘their’ Arctic is across the water from ‘the Russian Arctic’. But always growth, just mitigating the how. After the presentation I said I hadn’t read their new strategy but hoped that it was crafted with a good heart. However, I asked whether we shouldn’t be considering new ways of living, instead of a continual extraction model to prop up societies far removed from the Arctic. Shouldn’t we be considering some degrowth ideas? There was a big round of applause and then a group of indigenous people came and hugged me.
The response from the stage was that it was ok for those of us who have what we need to take that position, but he thought indigenous peoples would want roads and hospitals, etc. The following day the Inuit gave me a book explaining how mitigating strategies like pumping CO2 into defunct oil wells is not having a good impact on climate responses locally.
We also heard that Arctic people have the insights but not the voice or governance. Local groups can respond but don’t have influence. If a cause is taken up by national or international organisations, it can be debated year on year with no action in the end. Models lack the space for justice and equity.
Some of the most insightful sessions I attended were actually led by indigenous people from across the Arctic. One session was called ‘Indigenous knowledge and cosmovision in climate mitigation’. Some of the quotes I noted were:
“Our language roots us with our traditions (Inuit). English phrases such as ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ puts us in a box”.
“If we were to leave this earth (as humans) Mother Earth would heal herself, the animals would remain.”
They regard themselves as a land-based people whose knowledge is shared. So many similarities to that of the Gaels on the western fringes of Scotland.
At another session, ‘A “Just” Energy Transition in the Arctic’, indigenous leader and Senior Regional Director of Alaska said ‘be careful what you wish for’. Tesla are rolling out electric cars as a green fuel alternative for cars, but this has resulted in the destruction of a mountain in their territory being mined for minerals needed for the electric cars.
In addition to visiting the tomato farm on the last day, we also visited the National Park where the first National Parliament was held by the Vikings, not regional assemblies, but country wide. There were no indigenous people in Iceland, the Vikings from Norway were first, arriving via Ireland, so their genetic mix on the male line is Norwegian and Irish on the female line. Yet more links between Scotland and the Arctic.
“Iceland was in independent Commonwealth from 874- 13th century with the oldest parliament in the world. It subsequently came under the influence of the Kingdoms of Norway and Denmark but continued as an independent country. In 1944 it became a republic, rejecting monarchy.” (Thanks to D Hitchins for this comment on my previous blogpost from the Arctic Circle.)
I was delighted to attend the 13th OECD Rural Conference in Cavan, Ireland last September to speak at a plenary session on young people as leaders in our rural communities.
A few weeks beforehand we were briefed on what the aims of the session were and given some guidance on what kinds of things we should try to get across to our audience. We were told to be confident, bold, and to try and get a key message out to a room full of policymakers and stakeholders. Some pressure came with such a great opportunity to speak up and get the views of myself and other young people heard on the issues facing our local areas and what policymakers – some of them sat in the room – needed to do better on.
I remember first seeing my picture appear on the OECD’s website where the speakers were all listed. There I was situated right next to the then Taoiseach Micheál Martin. I could not quite believe it at first, and honestly felt a bit of imposter syndrome creep in. Who was I, a young student from a far-off island and why should anyone listen to me at this event next to top academics and policymakers from Europe and beyond? I knew, however, that my place at the table was just as important as theirs. I’ve lived my whole life in the islands, I am passionate about the Gàidhlig language and culture which is inseparable from where I am from, I have had years of experience standing up as a young person and contributing to policymaking and a range of local and national issues, and the voices of young people deserve to be heard – especially in the world we live in today.
The plenary session was exciting, engaging and elicited a fantastic response from those who sat in the room. Alana and I spoke on the key issues facing the islands, and 2 young women from Ireland spoke with passion about their rural areas as well. It was fascinating to see how much we had in common in rural Ireland and Scotland. All of us were proud of our local areas and the culture and heritage which is so strong in them, and we were passionate about the issues faced in them today.
We called on policymakers to break down the barriers preventing young people from returning and to help match their aspirations with the opportunities available. We called on policymakers to directly empower communities, to bring them around the table, and to especially involve young people directly, who are vital in ensuring the continued prosperity of our rural communities, emphasising that the responsibility fell on the policymakers to reach out, to listen and to act on what we need. Our key messages were that young people do want to return, we are proud of our communities, and we need action to reduce the difficulties faced when trying to return to our rural communities. We also emphasised that young people are already leaders in our communities and that policymakers should never underestimate the power of our voices.
Our discussion and the key messages that came from all of us on the panel made a big impression on those in the audience. After a long day of academics and professionals presenting their carefully planned, long-winded, meticulous and nuanced viewpoints, it was incredibly refreshing for them to hear directly from the young people from these rural communities speaking boldly and passionately from their own life experiences and what they strongly believed was the future of their communities. We had several of the attendees speak to us after the session, praising us for being so bold and outspoken which made me feel as if I had accomplished my mission of really grabbing their attention and getting our key messages across to them. That was my first international conference, and so to have that kind of reaction was unbelievable to me, given how easily the voices of young people have been disregarded in the past.
My thanks firstly go to the Scottish Rural Network for making it possible for me to attend the conference, to everyone at CoDeL who reached out and invited me to attend, and finally to the OECD for facilitating such a vitally important discussion and giving a platform to young people from rural communities to speak our truth which I think had a big impact on many of the attendees at the conference.
Living on an island, it is easy to get caught in a bubble, thinking that the issues faced by your community are isolated and completely unique. My recent trip to the Arctic Circle Assembly, hosted in Iceland, provided an opportunity to see that whilst the issues faced in my community are on a different scale compared to Arctic communities, at their core, they are very similar. I found myself attending panel discussions on the remote housing crises for young people, the importance of reviving language and tradition, and on sustainable island futures.
Island communities can offer something completely different, and in my opinion significantly more, than cities and suburbs. However, the two shouldn’t be compared and neither should be disadvantaged. I made the decision to move home after graduating, knowing that I was severely damaging my job and career prospects, especially in the Energy/Engineering field. However, since Covid, I have watched more and more opportunities open up due to home working. I think there is huge potential here (once we have started to address the housing crisis) to revive island populations and reduce the large ‘brain waste’ i.e. people not using their education, training or skills (another term I picked up at the conference).
A few things stuck out to me from the discussions, like the introduction of entrepreneurship into the local school curriculum and how intrinsically linked the housing crisis is to mental health. Starting with the former, in my opinion, Covid highlighted that our economy in the Highlands and Islands is far too reliant on the seasonal tourism industry. Whilst tourism definitely has its place here (who wouldn’t want to experience our incredible landscape?), in order to achieve sustainable communities, there really needs to be a diversification of career opportunities. These can stem from both access to home working and entrepreneurship, so why not get a jump start and teach it in schools?
On the latter point, it seems completely obvious that the housing crisis is significantly affecting young peoples’ mental health, yet it didn’t even cross my mind until it was mentioned at the conference. Having no option but to live in insufficient housing, a caravan or with your parents when half the houses are holiday homes would be difficult for anyone. Add in lack of access to mental health services and you are basically pushing young people and families out the door. I could spend days ranting about the housing situation here, but others have already done a far more eloquent job, so I’ll leave it there.
I would like to thank CoDeL for inviting me to the Arctic Circle Assembly, and the Scottish Rural Network for funding my travel and participation at the conference. I was invited through my involvement with Raasay Community Renewables who set up and run the local community owned hydro scheme. By participating in a panel on the Just Transition to Low-Carbon Economies, I got to share our story of using a community share offer to fund the majority of the project, our hopes and plans for selling the energy generated locally, and the community benefit fund that will be created with the profits. I got to meet and listen to speakers on subjects that I am very interested in, such as green hydrogen and marine renewables and their place in a low carbon future. Overall the experience was invaluable and I loved seeing what Iceland and the Arctic has to offer.
Tha CoDeL an dòchas gum bidh deagh Nollaig is Bliadhn’ Ùr aig a h-uile duine; do muinntir Uibhist, dhaibhsan a tha a’ cumail taic rinn agus cuideachd dhaibhsan a tha nas fhaide air falbh. Tha bliadhna thrang air a bhith againn fad 2022. Tha sinn air ar cumail a dol le Uist Beò agus tha sinn air molaidhean fhaighinn aig an taigh agus cuideachd air feadh an t-saoghal. Seo dealbh no dha a sheallas an obair a tha CoDeL air a dhèanamh thairis air 2022.
The Arctic Circle Assembly is the largest annual international gathering on the Arctic, attended by more than 2000 participants from over 60 countries and held every year in the Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland. The Harpa concert hall is an incredible building with maybe 15 floors (my head couldn’t cope beyond about floor 5!). It was mere foundations when Iceland experienced a colossal financial crash, so eventually when the government were able to raise funds (their currency had also crashed), they managed to build it after all. So it is very symbolic for them.
“Well over 2000 participants from almost 70 countries [are here today]. It is a formidable demonstration of the desire from so many different quarters of the planet to come together in a new dialogue, in a new form of cooperation, and to seek solutions to the challenges we face. And also in the shadows of wars and increasing geo-political tensions, it is remarkable that all of you have come here today to send the world the message, we want to continue, despite the hurdles, to achieve results for a better future.”
There were representatives from all sectors of life from the Arctic Circle, with strong representation from Scotland, the most northerly non-Arctic country present. CodeL (also promoting Uist Beò), was delighted to have presented at the assembly in the session on ‘Remote Areas: A window of opportunity’. I live in the Isle of Grimsay (Griomasaigh) in Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and there is also a Grimsey Island in Iceland, so we’re closer than at first thought in some ways!
Special thanks to Scottish Rural Network, who are not only supporting Uist Beò, but also enabled Rosie MacLeod to present her work on the new hydro power in the Isle of Raasay at a session on ‘The Just Transition to Low Carbon Economies in the Arctic and Beyond’. It was encouraging to see that indigenous peoples could be heard in a range of sessions, including this one, and I will pick up on that session in my second blog from the Assembly. However, as one person said, “we do not lack technical innovation in the Arctic, but we lack business (will, as in commitment) and political innovation”.
I presented at the session on remote areas with colleagues from the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Invited by NORA, we all presented positive examples of turnaround in the communities in which we work. Our host and facilitator,Jákup Sørensen, reported after our session:“Just a short thank you for your time at our session. I think you all can be very proud. I have never before got so much positive feedback before. Here is a message from one of our guests: ‘I felt it was the best session I attended at the entire conference – all the speakers were BRILLIANT, engaging and funny and real actionable potential came from several.’” I was overwhelmed by the positive response. On a lighter note, I was feeling a little short with our Nordic cousins!
In summary, although there are obvious challenges, it was so encouraging to realise that the impact of my work past and present is inspiring others who face rural depopulation: from linking the education curriculum with local economic opportunity and industry standard qualifications, through the ‘economic literacy workshops’ which Thomas Fisher and I developed and delivered and the demographic research we conducted on young people returning, settling or staying in Uist, and now Uist Beò. I showed statements from the usual tourism messages as well as images, of an empty beach and a roofless cottage, to a soundtrack used for promoting Scotland. I then compared it to Uist Beò, on instagram, Facebook and tik tok.
On the last day we were able to get out of the conference centre and see a little of Iceland. We visited a tomato farm – hydroponics and of course heated by geothermal energy. It produces 40% of Iceland’s tomatoes. One other farm produces another 30%, so they do not export because they still have to import.
Iceland only gained its independence in 1944. They have a population of 360,000. Fish, mainly cod, is the number one sector, followed by tourism.
Two words in common usage come from Iceland: Saga and Geyser. My only comment is the toll tourism has and will take on the environment. Our guide on the Golden Circle said there are volcanoes under one of the glaciers, and if the ice melts they will no longer be ‘capped’, so eruptions could be really damaging. At the same time I saw all the massive vehicles which enable folk to trample and cover the ice. To say nothing of the tonnes of concrete that must have gone into the path to the waterfall, which keeps folk off the grass and keeps them on the straight and narrow by the bus load, but it’s a whole load of concrete which contributes 8% of global emissions. My passion would be to diversify the economy so that tourism is not so important.
CoDeL is honoured to have received an award from the Regional Studies Association for their best blogpost in 2022: view the video here.
We are delighted that this global research network recognises the insight held by many so-called remote rural and island communities as we confront global crises, and gave the award to a small social enterprise in a ‘remote’ island in contrast to a well-established academic institution.
In the award video we look beyond our original blog post focused on responses to the pandemic to the next and bigger emergencies of climate change and biodiversity. We call on researchers and policy-makers to value the knowledge and wisdom held by so-called remote communities and indigenous peoples about living in tune with nature and community.
Enabling us to explore these links has been helped by CoDeL taking a break from much social media over the past several months. We have been able to reflect more deeply on new directions and next steps, following our intensive work with many great partners around responses to the pandemic under the heading of “Redefining Peripherality”.
While we may have had a break from CoDeL social media, we have been busy at sharing insights about redefining peripherality at many different events this year: the EU’s Rural Pact conference, the World Rural Health Conference, the European Rural Parliament, the OECD Rural Development conference and the Arctic Circle Assembly. We have been struck by how much our ideas have resonated with participants from so many different communities and contexts. And by how much radical thinking, for example around degrowth rather than growth, has been welcomed at many of these events.
We will be sharing insights from some of these events in our next blogposts, starting with the Arctic Circle Assembly where Theona Morrison linked with communities across the Arctic, including representatives of indigenous communities. We will also explore emerging insights, for example around the dangerous inadequacies of natural capital frameworks that underpin much green accounting regionally, nationally and globally.
As well as looking forward, we have also come full circle back to our original research on island population which led us to set up CoDeL in 2018. Since May we have focused much energy on supporting the development of the new digital platform, Uist Beò, delivered by a dynamic group of younger islanders. The social media (on instagram, facebook and tik tok) shows clearly just how vibrant and dynamic so-called remote communities can be, with many younger people returning, settling or staying.
These younger people are setting up dynamic businesses, running remarkable social enterprises, contributing hugely to community and culture, and to the sustainable use of resources amidst the climate emergency. We continue to be inspired by their energy, confidence and commitment within a community that may be remote to many, but is at the heart not only of Gàidhlig language and culture but also of much value-driven creativity and innovation, from practical initiatives to deep thinking.
Look out for our blogpost on the Arctic Circle Assembly coming soon, and to the launch of the Uist Beò website in February.
Theona Morrison reports on the World Rural Health Conference in Limerick, Ireland
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the definition of health is:
‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.
It is worth reflecting on those words. How often when we think about health, we visualise the GP surgery or something pertaining to the medical aspect of health care. And yet we probably instinctively recognise that our ‘health’ in the context of wellbeing is influenced by a whole range of factors, not least, our environment and the communities in which we live, work and socialise.
Approximately 600 health sector workers from across the globe attended the WONCA World Rural Health Conference held at Limerick University, Ireland in June 2022. CoDeL were the imposters! Why were we there?
The chair of the conference Dr Liam Glynn, Professor of General Practice at Limerick University and GP in a rural practice in the west of Ireland, was quoted as saying (see Liam’s blogpost here):
“The deep knowledge of individual and family health profiles that each of the community-based healthcare teams posses in relation to the population they serve and the therapeutic relationships on which these are based, are an enormous health asset in our healthcare system.”
In other words, there are a whole lot of influencing factors which impact health outcomes before we take a seat in the doctor’s surgery.
Liam’s words perhaps sum up well how health provision can work well when rooted in a community. We asked those gathered to consider what assets does the community have which contribute to wellbeing.
We found ourselves facilitating and delivering a workshop to an internationally diverse group of doctors and healthcare workers. We heard from those working with indigenous Sami communities in northern Norway bordering Russia; indigenous first nation communities in Canada and Australia; a township in South Africa; Ontario in Canada; Kenya, and much closer to home a GP working in the rural lands that straddle the Republic and North of Ireland.
When asked what positive actions they had been involved with or seen in the communities they were working, we were overwhelmingly moved by the examples of resilience and turn-around in fortunes that these communities had achieved.
Indigenous people, or at least communities which had historically been ruled by a n other, had often been perceived with a sense of powerlessness and valueless resulting in the well charted negative health outcomes that such communities suffered. This, combined with a global shift from rural to urban built on the narrative that rural often indigenous peoples needed assistance from those who ‘knew better’, has been applied across the globe against a backdrop of colonialism.
Yet, on the contrary, we heard story after story of remarkable resilience, in spite of being ‘remote’, socially and economically ‘deprived’. Something to do with what Liam had noted, ‘that deep knowledge of individual and family health profiles that each community healthcare team posses’
Strange isn’t it, that if we were to turn our attention to land, we know that according to the United Nations Environment Programme, ‘even though indigenous peoples make up just 6% of the global population, their lands shelter about 80% of the remaining biodiversity.’ This of course only includes those peoples who have indigenous status. There are those with linguistic and cultural inheritance unprotected by indigenous rites, but who also carry the knowledge of custodianship of each other and the land where they live.
We facilitated recognition of the assets communities often already have which contribute to the wellbeing of the people within those communities. We sought to present the context that health care infrastructure sits within the wider parameter of a ‘healthy community’ in its broadest but place-based sense.
Our findings have come to be framed under ‘Redefining Peripherality’, and increasingly as we present findings we also gather more lived-experience evidence across, health, economy and land. We see the paradigm really is shifting in recognition of what ‘rural’ provides for humanity.
Scotland’s Landscape Alliance (SLA) was set up in 2019 by a grouping of over 60 organisations with a common interest in raising awareness of the importance of Scotland’s landscapes to climate resilience and nature, economic performance and public health and wellbeing and, in doing this, gain public and political support for the better care of Scotland’s landscape and places to maximise future benefits.
A key message from SLA is that ‘Good landscape contributes to improved health and wellbeing, including in our poorest, most deprived areas and most vulnerable groups. The benefits of being in landscape are not limited to improvements associated with physical activity; using the outdoors improves mental wellbeing and encourages community cohesion.’
Bobby Macaulay has argued that community land ownership can contribute to better community health and wellbeing (see here).
So, I think we all instinctively know that being in what they call ‘good landscape’ is conducive to better wellbeing, if not exactly better health outcomes. After all, many of us take our ‘holidays’ in the rural beauty spots, indeed we know this only too well in places like the English Lake District, Snowdonia in Wales, the Scottish Highlands and Islands and the West ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ of Ireland. Places where in the summer time one can hardly move for the hoards of humanity that gravitate to such ‘hot spots’ to feel the benefit of ‘good landscape’.
The SLA goes on to say that ‘Greater numbers of people could benefit from landscape for health and wellbeing but cannot do so due to under-investment in design, implementation and stewardship of their local landscapes.’
“The picture that emerges from the extensive evidence of this project demonstrates peripheral communities have often shown remarkable resilience, drawing on many local assets and strengths, demonstrating significant flexibility and adaptation, generating much innovation and creativity (from technology to sustainable living) and many localised solutions. Often borne out of necessity, peripheral communities have tapped into their long history, rooted in generations of experience, of having to respond and adapt to changes and crises. They have turned what are often regarded as the challenges of peripherality to their advantage during Covid-19 as resilience factors ….”
“Peripheral areas demonstrated remarkable resilience during the pandemic and, on balance, performed relatively well during Covid-19, even though many did not have fully developed health infrastructure.”
Once again this reaffirms the impact of being in what have traditionally been considered peripheral locations, somehow ‘back in the day’, but just great for holidays. Somehow these places hold a great deal more than the tourist marketing would suggest.
Redefining Peripherality is not just in Scotland, Ireland, Nordic countries but stretches across the globe. It encompasses health, land (access, food production, ownership), also the social, environmental as well as financial economy and cultural cohesion.
We were the imposters at WONCA but collectively the narrative is changing and what we have shone a light on is not new, the resilience factors have been there for millennia, but they are gaining new recognition in the light of challenges such as Covid-19 and the climate emergency.
by Ryan Dziadowiec. Ryan is a PhD student currently based in the Isle of Grimsay whose thesis is “Dùthchas: Locating and Nourishing the Roots of Scotland’s Land Reform Revolution”. He is interested in crofting and the way people relate to land. When not at the desk he likes all things cows and going swimming in lochs.
On an unbelievably sunny day in September 2021, I climbed Beinn Shlèibhe, the tallest point in Berneray. I had been living in the Outer Hebrides for just over a month at that point, and had already done my fair share of banter with friends over WhatsApp and email about my recent move ‘to the edge of the world’. Before coming to the Outer Hebrides, I had lived and worked in Skye, and before that I had spent a few years doing different jobs up and down the Highlands in mainland Scotland. I was already used to Highland living and to people asking me what it’s like to ‘live in the middle of nowhere’. But I remember that, somehow, moving to Uist felt different. It came with an apprehensive feeling of going somewhere that was very far away. Uncharted territory, at least for me.
Standing on the summit of Beinn Shlèibhe in all its 93 metres of glory on that balmy September day, I felt the rock and soil beneath my feet shifting. Earthquake-like, my pre-conceptions and apprehensions split apart and tumbled down the hill, into the sea. I found myself experiencing a paradigm shift and I knew things would never be the same again. Up there, I found myself seeing a country which doesn’t, to my knowledge, feature on any maps: Dùthaich MhicLeòid, or MacLeod Country.
The Gaelic scholar John MacInnes once said that the word dùthaich – like dùthchas, a concept I am researching – cannot be translated into English without losing its ‘emotional energy’. The Dùthaich MhicLeòid which I was looking at from Berneray is so much more than ‘MacLeod Country’. It is a richly storied mythopoetic landscape; it is made up of many miles of geologically diverse islands, each with a unique identity though all united by the Gaelic language; it is the native place of MacLeods as well as many other kindreds and clans. Dùthaich MhicLeòid is a world of its own – and in favourable conditions, a birlinn could take you across the Cuan Sgith or Minch to another island, another dùthaich (the Gaelic name for Sutherland is Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh or MacKay Country, for example). Or you could travel onwards to Ireland, Scandinavia, and continental Europe. So much for ‘the edge of the world’. After my paradigm shift, I was looking at the centre of the world. I’m not the only person to have experienced this effect, either. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s professor Hugh Cheape has described his own experience of ‘paradigm shift’ back in 1984 when he visited South Uist:
“Conceptual clichés of periphery and centre flipped over and slipped away. In an eurocentric and anglocentric culture, cities have been at the centre and islands at the edge. [In Gaelic], periphery or edge is iomall and it has been traditionally perceived that iomall na Gàidhealtachd was not the Outer Hebrides but places such as Dumbarton, Dunkeld, Blairgowrie and Braemar… Here, on the west coast of Uist and on the doorstep of Tobha Mòr, was the self-evident highway of the oceans leading west and an ‘Atlantic corridor’ leading north and south.”
On that sunny September day, I could imagine a MacLeod chief taking his heir up Beinn Shlèibhe and saying something akin to Mufasa’s speech to Simba in the Lion King: son, everything the light touches is part of our kingdom. Evidence of this kingdom is still etched into the dùthaich: Dunvegan Castle is just the famous tourist trap. Back in the Middle Ages, what is now a heap of stones on Pabbay was the castle of the MacLeods of Harris, where Tormod MacLeod died in 1320. Near the hostel on Berneray there is a cluster of old byres and outbuildings known as ‘MacLeod’s Gunnery’, with a plaque commemorating a Tormod MacLeod who was born here three centuries later. The dùthaich stretched as far out as St. Kilda which the MacLeods had the right to for some time; in 1549 Donald Monro wrote that MacLeod would send a man to Hiort annually at midsummer to collect the rents from the tenantry or tuatha. If the weather was fair, I can imagine no better place to watch the sun plunge into the sea in the distant north-west about 11PM on those glorious summer days.
How can we, today, benefit from standing about on hills and thinking of places like Dùthaich MhicLeòid? There is a wealth of knowledge that can be drawn out of the well of history. But we should look carefully at what we’re drawing up and see if it will nourish us. The sorts of clan chief tales told on Highland tour buses are typically still concerned with romantic notions of Jacobites in kilts in bygone days. They rarely tell of the clan chiefs as rack-renters, blackmailers, kidnappers, warmongers, thieves, or slave traders. But that is what many, if not most, of them became – particularly in the 19th century when the chiefly castles which attract so many visitors every year were (re)built. The 22nd chief of clan MacLeod, Tormod (1705–1772) was remembered by his tuatha as ‘an Droch Dhuine’ or ‘the Wicked Man’, and for good reason. There is much more nourishing knowledge to be re-gained from studying the ways of the tuatha – the tenantry – than the Droch Dhuine himself.
From the tuatha we can get a glimpse of what Dùthaich MhicLeòid was like before the demands of commercial landlords forced the wealth of this ‘periphery’ to be shipped to some distant ‘core’. From their patterns of land use – like ‘run-rig’ or the annual redistribution of arable land, the tradition of common grazings, and seasonal movement of cattle to shielings – we can infer that for most of history, they had communal rights to at least some of their people’s territory. From their proverbs – breac à linne, slat à coille ‘s fiadh à fìreach: mèirle às nach do ghabh Gàidheal riamh nàire – we can infer that they also enjoyed implicit rights to fish, game, and wood. There were no written laws stating the rights that people had to these, as well as myriad other resources edible and inedible, possibly because the rules that governed this were both obvious and sacred to the people. Estate management became increasingly systematised and written rather than oral around the same time that the peoples’ customary rights were being eroded. There is an undeniable bias in the estates’ sources towards documenting the enforcement of laws banning the taking of game or seaweed, or evictions of folk who never had a written lease before. Only from the tuatha’s reactions to these can we see what laws the people knew to be right and just for all.
In today’s utterly commodified world, governments struggle to see the wealth of this ‘periphery’. They see low population density resulting in little tax revenue to be made. They see a land in constant need of importing everything: government money, human food, animal feed, medicine, fuel, electricity (pinging back up north via the National Grid at a hefty premium, despite most of it being generated in ‘the north’ from renewable sources), and even people to tackle demographic decline. But wealth comes under many guises and this ‘periphery’ has done its fair share of export: kelp ash, rent money, cattle, marble, diatomite, slate, gravel, and – most importantly – people. Dùthaich MhicLeòid may not have vast reserves of oil or old growth forest ripe for exploitation by the forces of international capital, but it has immeasurable stores of cultural wealth that those in government are reluctant to recognise. The words of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, renown Gaelic bard, come to mind:
Cuimhnichibh gur sluagh sibh / Is cumaibh suas ur còir
Tha beairteas fo na cruachan / far an d’fhuair sibh àrach òg…
Remember that you are a people / and stand up for your rights;
wealth lies beneath those mountains / where you spent your early life…
The recently-published bilingual anthology of poetry and prose by Alasdair MacIlleBhàin, maim-slè, feels like a journey across the Isle of Mull. Reading it, I felt like a wallflower listening in to conversations Alasdair was having with the folk of his native island. Alasdair’s sensitive relaying of Mull seanchas or local lore peeled back the bracken and Sitka spruce which covers much of the island’s native settlements from before the Clearances and crofting, revealing the riches beneath. Through his research, he often comes across names – like Loch Leamhain or Bròlas – which are seldom used today, not unlike Dùthaich MhicLeòid. Most pertinently, Alasdair MacIlleBhàin’s book explores the connection between tìr is teanga – land and language – and èiginn na gnàth-chànain agus èiginn na gnàth-shìde – the Gaelic crisis and the climate crisis.
There is much in the Gaelic language that can help us find new ways of using old knowledge to help us cope with a changing climate. There is also much in the Hebridean demeanor that can help us cope with the modern-day crisis of compassion. The crises are interlinked and need a holistic approach; but to see the issues we’ve always deemed as ‘peripheral’ flipped around to form the ‘core’ of the matter requires a paradigm shift – and these are rarely comfortable.
To come full circle, I want to share a song, Thèid mi le’m Dheòin, here performed by Alasdair MacIlleBhàin and Niteworks. The song was composed by the 17th century bard extraordinaire, Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh. It was likely composed when the bard had been temporarily exiled to Mull for praising Tormod MacLeod of Berneray – yes, the one from the commemorative plaque mentioned earlier. Sailing back north, she sang, Thèid mi le’m dheòindo Dhùthaich MhicLeòid – willingly I shall go to MacLeod country. Hearing Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh’s words today, nearly four centuries later, accompanied by synths and a pulsing bass, re-draws the shape of Màiri’s dùthaich, and re-positions us today at the centre of her world. A real place that pulses with life, whose pulse can teach an outsider like me how to find my bearings within.