Is Redefining Peripherality an impossible task?  A view from Iceland

by Matthias Kokorsch, University Centre of the Westfords

Words are powerful and they can determine our consciousness. There are many terms which we have a vague idea of, or words we might use carelessly, and in most cases this does no real harm.  Many terms do not provide a universal definition and yet carry specific connotations.

There are also terms that we can define mainly through their opposites or through their absence. Justice, for example, is surely an important virtue and principle for society. Despite its importance, or perhaps because of it, a universal definition cannot be found. On the other hand, most people can easily identify the absence of justice and it might thus be easier to define this very value by its opposite. Something I would certainly not suggest for the words I want to highlight now.

‘Rural’, ‘remote’, and ‘peripheral’ are other terms that lack a universal definition. Unfortunately, they are too often defined merely by their counterpart: the urban. ‘Urban’ is a term that in a way serves as the reference point or benchmark. As a thought experiment, I wonder which image comes into peoples’ mind, when they close their eyes and hear the words rural or peripheral. Do people from Orkney, Klaksvík or Grimsey have the same image in mind as those living in Edinburgh, Copenhagen, or Reykjavík?

Should rural, peripheral and remote be rethought and redefined? Should they be classes of their own? Remote and peripheral in relation to what? And why do rural, peripheral and remote often come with rather problematic connotations, even stigmatisation? This definition dilemma is something I am confronted with on a daily basis – both on a personal and professional level. And what to do when you keep on thinking inconclusively, getting lost in one of the many rabbit holes the rural-urban discourse has to offer? Well, you make others think and get some fresh perspectives. This is what I do frequently.

I teach a course at the University Centre of the Westfjords, located in the town of Ísafjörður. A place that is almost impossible to define. Some people – mainly those that have never been here – refer to it as peripheral, rural and remote. Maybe it is. But then let’s be consistent and at least call it ‘double-peripheral’: a peripheral community on a very peripheral island. A peculiarity that some people in the capital region of Iceland tend to forget.

One of the first tasks I set for the students in my class is to define some key words, such as rural, community, and peripheral. Not surprisingly this task is much more complex than it seems. And even less surprising, after a few rounds of racking their brains, most students provide definitions that are based on quantitative assessments and derive from an urban-centred viewpoint. In short, rural and peripheral are mainly what urban is not. The old paradigm, the old rural-urban divide, hardens.

But how to change this thinking, when even allegedly ‘new paradigms’ still have “functional urban areas” as their origin or reference point (like some textbooks offered for classes on regional development). When I shift the task by setting the rule to find qualitative approaches and assess the topic more critically, blank papers and silence are the result.

And even though this is neither the students’ fault, who just started our programme, nor a problem per se, I hope that the students – and thus community developers of the future – will develop a critical mindset and use qualitative and innovative measurements in their future careers. Changing not only mindsets, but also advocating shifts regarding the toolbox to use is something a small but incredibly inspiring group of practitioners and researchers is doing. Some of them teach at our University Center. Changing paradigms, however, has taken, and will take, decades. We at the University Center have one year to work with very sharp individuals and we just welcomed our third cohort. After three years, I am optimistic that we have some excellent critical thinkers and promising young scholars who will discover the many facets of community development.

But why is it so important to question traditional and current narratives?

Peripherality and distance are factors that can be measured, at least to some extent. But more importantly, it is something that can be felt. Getting back to Ísafjörður, we might wonder: are we peripheral? are we rural? According to classic definitions and the quantitative lens, we most likely are. And we are certainly rural in terms of population figures or when we apply classic key economic variables, as useless as they may be.

But I do not tire of my mantra: stop counting heads. We might have just some 2,500 people. But what does this number say? Absolutely nothing. It is individuals that make a difference and turn space into meaningful place. We have an international and vibrant community with inspiring individuals from all over the world, international and innovative companies, a rich cultural life and awesome festivals. Priceless. And not part of any measurement. Having lived in many urban centers before deciding to move to the edge of the Arctic Circle, I have never experienced such an inspiring and international environment anywhere else before. If this is what peripheral means, I certainly embrace it.

Being peripheral or remote is, from my perspective, mainly about a mindset. Returning to the beginning of this post, words are powerful, and they can accelerate stigma. And I think we can talk about some sort of semantic lock-in that the rural, remote and peripheral discourse is located in. How do we talk about ourselves and comparable places? Which narrative and which adjectives will we add to the notion of peripheral? Will we be apologetic – “we are remote but…”?

This semantic lock-in might however be one of the easier lock-ins to unlock or resolve. We can start with ourselves. Functional lock-ins (hierarchical networks and ossified leaders), cognitive lock-ins (antiquated world views and strategies that hinder innovative imagination), organisational lock-ins (institutional inertia and overreliance on existing local networks and ties) and political lock-ins (thick institutional tissues that seek to preserve existing and traditional industrial structures, hampering the development of indigenous potential and creativity) are most likely to stay with us a bit longer. But that is another story.

Redefining peripherality might not be impossible, but it is meaningless without changing mindsets, without rethinking.

Rural geography of hope: the power of visual narratives

by Anna Karlsdóttir, Nordregio and University of Iceland

Once upon a time, more precisely in the 1970s, the Nordic countries experienced an untypical demographic trend compared to the decades pre and post World War 1 and 2.  A movement of people were driven by their desire to settle in less densely populated areas.

Let’s look to Sweden where it was called the “Green Wave”. The reason was lifestyle choices that led to an exodus from larger urban areas to smaller villages in rural areas or the countryside. This put a halt to depopulation of smaller villages, villages that had until then in the 20th century been gradually depopulated, with an increasing number of people moving for a variety of work opportunities to larger urban areas and cities.

Today many countries are experiencing a renewed interest in rural living in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Since the start of the pandemic, anecdotes have been shared across countries of people from cities ‘escaping’ to rural areas, to access rural assets like affordability, space and natural amenities. In some instances individuals have relocated to a seasonal residence during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. In other cases, highly educated ‘knowledge workers’ who have shifted to remote work during Covid-19 are moving to rural areas, again driven by the search for more space, greater affordability, natural amenities, and a different lifestyle.

This “retreat to rural” can certainly bring opportunities, including demographic and economic growth, diversity, new ideas, and new networks.  Some rural communities and provinces are even looking to attract so-called “digital nomads” to work from rural areas. However, not all rural communities can capitalise on this ‘retreat to rural’. Access to high quality, reliable broadband is essential for working from home and this is a significant challenge for many rural communities, for example across Atlantic Canada, Scotland and parts of Nordic countries.

Swedish media is demonstrating the emerging trend that Covid-19 has directly enhanced. One of the largest newspapers in Sweden (DN) has reported on young families moving from Stockholm to smaller more peripheral places. Young families are looking for more spacious facilities outside of cities where they can combine work and family life, after almost 40% of working age professionals were sent home to work. Persistently booming urban house prices, expensive flats with smaller living areas in dense urban settings and the move to home for work have created a push to rural areas.

In the peripheral region of East Iceland, no house or apartment is available for sale.  If any is put on the market in the area of Egilstaðir, Fellabær or Fljótsdalur, it is sold within the hour. And there are reports of people normally working in Norway and Denmark who have moved to the Faroe Islands with much fewer Covid-19 restrictions because they can work remotely.

In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland a significant trend of “moving house from urban to attractive rural areas is being identified – in part due to the increased need or scope for home working” (see here, p.9 and here, p.7). There is significant evidence from both Scotland and Ireland that house prices in some rural areas are rising sharply as urban residents seek to shift to rural areas.

The main contours for this change emerging in the Nordic countries are twofold. People are moving out of the large cities to the edge of the city, or frontier to the countryside. And people are moving to a greater extent to municipalities in rural areas that have an attraction value. However, it is probably premature to see how and if this will be a dominant or persistent trend in counter-urbanisation.

The important attraction values are natural environment, affordable housing, doing more flexible work and achieving greater work-life balance. All over Sweden there are abandoned farmhouses, often called ‘torp’ (e.g. here and here). In the South of Sweden they have been popular for decades among Danish families who acquire a renovation project and a second home, all at once. Now it seems that Swedes are starting to love to buy into some kind of rural dream or attraction value.

One manifestation of this shift is narratives of rural living through social media exposure that counteract the very well rooted and at times tiresome idea that rural areas, however diverse, are just places of population decline and meager opportunities. The other new element is that these narratives are projected with visual images, photography and video clips, especially on Instagram. Narratives in text are not as influential as pictures or other visualisations. This can be identified as a shift in the way narratives are mediated in favor of rural living.

What is interesting here is that myriad different groups have emerged.  Conscious of the multiple different groups on Instagram, here I will take my point of departure in a Swedish Instagram account/group called “Landsbygdsdröm”. The word in Swedish refers to a dream, but it does not fully translate into English, because it can also imply an aspiration that has come true. The stories are often told by young families who have chosen a lifestyle shift where tradition and innovation mix. They are making their mark by taking care of dilapidated houses or abandoned farmhouses. What the narratives focus on is the look after renovation, which is an outcome of nurturing craftmanship and their role as custodians of heritage value within the rural environment. Their currency is creativity and a longing to make the countryside their new home.

But what does this really mean? Is it an indication that values of life, a sharper sense of the climate emergency, a need for a slower pace of life, and a sense of needing to live on the land are on the increase?  Many of these families talk about how they not only manage to make their new homes more habitable but how they long for and realise their aspirations for growing more of their own food, how they can combine work and family life better, and how they can shape and rule their own life to a larger extent than earlier by venturing into new horizons for work and living.

It is an exciting time from so many perspectives. These settlers and change-makers contribute to increasing the attraction value of  heritage houses, to beautifying the countryside and revitalising the social environment.  And the benefit to them may be leaving behind a stressful life, unsubscribing from the culture of pervasive urgency.

Are the twenties of the 21st century the new 70s of the 20th century?  In what sense does this address the need to redefine peripheralities? There is definitely more to this than the houses available.  See more at https://www.instagram.com/landsbygdsdrom/, and a myriad of other Instagram narratives supporting these rural lifestyles.

One recent post from Terese, who is not among the newcomers, though expresses this clearly (first in English translation; the Swedish original text follows below; see @terese_bengard)

To me, at least, it was love at first sight. I fell for this incredibly beautiful place. I also fell for the feeling of security, to be seen but also needed. The year was 1999. The place is Ragunda municipality. And I have had the privilege of being able to live there ever since.

Ragunda kommun

The paradox was that I left a place that was ranked as “best to live” to go to a place that was worst on that list. My opinion was the opposite. And so began the “struggle” to change the notion that only urban places are the ones that count.

Today I have the opportunity to work with what I am passionate about. Just so that places like these will get what they deserve. A road that can be ridden. Good connection. A school in the immediate area. An ambulance. That the police come when you need it. That you can afford to renovate the rural farm, which is the rural arena for culture and an important meeting place. That one should be seen in the media world. To be counted. Yes, you get it. That places that are not big cities should have the same opportunities. Good conditions. Development opportunities and above all not devalued.

In the city, you take a lot for granted. As in the countryside and in smaller towns, it is just as obvious that the countryside people have to fix themselves. At the same time, there is a perception that “all contributions” go to these places. It’s not true. Slowly but surely the picture is changing and I am very happy about it. Part of that work has been to produce our “Balance Reports” which precisely report how the distribution of resources between locations is. And now the podcast we started: All of Sweden talks where I have the privilege of talking to interesting people about these issues on a deeper level. [English readers can get a good sense of the talks using web-based translation tools, and about the balance reports here].

Above all, I can now to an even greater extent work from home (the pandemic has had some positive consequences) as more meetings take place digitally. It improves the chances of being able to live and work throughout Sweden, but also because I can more often take a lunch walking in this wonderful place on earth.”

“För mig var det i alla fall kärlek vid första ögonkastet. Denna oerhört vackra plats föll jag för. Pladask. Men också känslan av trygghet, att vara sedd men också behövd. Året var 1999. Platsen Ragunda kommun. Och jag har haft förmånen att kunna bo där sedan dess.

“Paradoxen var att jag lämnat en plats som rankades som ”bäst att bo” till en plats som låg sämst på den listan. Min uppfattning var tvärtom. Och så började ”kampen” om att ändra uppfattningen att bara urbana platser är de som räknas.

“Idag har jag möjligheten att jobba med det jag brinner för. Just för att platser som dessa ska få det som de förtjänar. En väg som går att åka på. Bra uppkoppling. En skola i närområdet. En ambulans. Att polisen kommer när man behöver det. Att man har råd att renovera bygdegården som är landsbygden arena för kultur och en viktig mötesplats. Att man ska synas i den mediala världen. Att räknas. Ja, ni fattar. Att platser som inte är storstäder ska ha samma möjligheter. Goda villkor. Utvecklingsmöjligheter och framförallt inte nedvärderas.

“I stan tar man mycket för givet. Som i landsbygderna och på mindre orter det är lika självklart att bygden folk själva ska fixa. Samtidigt som det finns en uppfattning om att ”alla bidrag” går till dessa orter. Det är inte sant. Sakta men säkert håller bilden på att ändras och jag är väldigt glad över det. En del i det arbetet har varit att ta fram våra ”Balansrapporter” som just redovisar hur resursfördelningen mellan platser är. Och nu podden vi startat: Hela Sverige pratar där jag har förmånen att samtala med intressanta personer om dessa frågor på ett djupare plan.

“Framförallt kan jag nu i ännu större utsträckning jobba hemifrån, (pandemin har haft vissa positiva följder) då mer möten sker digitalt. Det förbättrar chanserna att kunna leva och bo i hela Sverige men också för att jag oftare kan ta en lunchpromenad på detta underbara plats på jorden.”

Reversals, continuity and connectivity

Part 3 of 3 for this week’s post

I recently watched a film with my children, Teen Spirit on BBC iPlayer, about East European immigrants on the Isle of Wight.  It ends with a powerful song, including the words:

You love to tear me down

You pick me apart

Then build me up like I depend on you

In some ways this reflects a major strand of history experienced in places like the Outer Hebrides and the Highlands and Islands generally, “with the brutal suppression of Gaelic culture following the Jacobite rebellion, and then its apparent revival by outsiders”.

And like so many groups and peoples that have experienced oppression, this can become internalised.  In our communities, many of us can be very good beggars, shouting about what we lack; and in the process even we sometimes forget our remarkable strengths and assets.  At CoDeL we have experienced how political leaders have not wanted to share good news about positive developments and growth of our islands because it might undermine their ability to beg for more resources.  Fortunately, renewed confidence and assertiveness is reemerging, not least among younger islanders.

Strong roots for such confidence can be found in our history.  “Places seen in the past as peripheral were linked by sea to the rest of the world, known and unknown, and linked to Europe in fact more directly than most parts of Scotland. 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.”  (Hugh Cheape, The Road to Tobha Mòr).

Standing on the beach and facing the ocean, gulping down the sound and sight, my world rearranged itself. … Conceptual clichés of periphery and centre flipped over and slipped away. In a eurocentric and anglocentric culture, cities have been at the centre and islands at the edge. Moreover, this north-west edge of Europe seemed not to be familiar and any discourse from the past had inferred values of ‘otherness’, remoteness, strangeness or even backwardness.  This was a landscape of condescension whose history was imposed and articulated from the centre.

Hugh Cheape, The Road to Tobha Mòr

such reversals abound.  The so-called Enlightenment might be interpreted as the triumph of a few cities at the expense of other regions.  In contrast, much of what was once referred to as Dark Ages had been eras of great coastal strength and enlightenment, when the intellectual traditions of the Irish Atlantic were the most advanced in Europe.

David Gange, The Frayed Atlantic Edge, HarperCollins, 2019

Hugh Cheape’s 2-part blogpost about Tobha Mòr in South Uist is beautifully written, and I would encourage you to read it.  And I make no apologies for quoting sections of it in this blogpost.

“the Gaelic world of Scotland and Ireland had its own civilisation – and still has. More to the point for a modern audience, it has an autonomous history, generated in its own right and from within. … well before the European Renaissance, traditions of learning were as highly respected and as carefully nurtured on the edge of Europe as at its centre; and here on the edge was a major European language with a literature drawing in its origins on the oldest literary tradition in Europe beyond Latin and Greek. … Research has shown … that the traditions of learning fostered by the celtic church, which in turn made such a significant contribution to European learning, drew on and embraced pre-Christian and vernacular traditions in Gaelic to a unique degree.

“In modern re-assessments of Indo-European linguistics, the emphasis has moved from a European ‘heartland’ to the ‘Atlantic Celts’ and to a time-period reaching back before the first millennium BC. The study is of ‘continuity’ and ‘connectivity’, of migration and mobility, and this has tended to replace theories of waves of invaders and mass settlement.  … The suggestion is made also that a ‘celtic’ language developed in Northern Iberia about 5000 years ago and that it was the lingua franca of the western sea-lanes.

“A vital aspect of this autonomous history for us today is that the Hebrides have been connected to a wider European culture and especially throughout prehistoric and early historic times. … Details can be teased out of Gaelic literature about Atlantic links with the Crusades and Islam, about trade and commercial life in Europe’s ‘12th century renaissance’ and continuing links with Spain which in turn linked into conduits of culture and learning from the Eastern Mediterranean. Ireland was a golden link in this chain and, with Spain, an intellectual source for other areas of learning such as philosophy and medicine, and material culture such as currency, precious metals and weaponry, textiles and wines.”

Is this all our own romanticism about a long-lost past?  The simple answer is, no.  With the pandemic, with the climate emergency, rural areas and islands are returning centre stage.

“The cohesiveness and the coordinated response that many rural communities developed organically, in response to the pandemic, really did mitigate a lot of harm of the pandemic. Despite being probably the greatest crisis in the lived memory of many communities, it did bring a new sense of confidence and possibilities to people living in rural areas.”

Liam Glynn, Professor of General Practice, Limerick University, Ireland

We want to build on (a) our inherited knowledge and intuitive understanding about land and sea, (b) a rich biodiversity thanks to low-impact lifestyles, crofting and protected habitats, and (c) extensive activity and expertise in local food production, recycling, energy generation and resource use.” 

Social Enterprise Place Uist Brochure, p.12 (How many other places and communities could lay claim to such a rich and diverse asset base to respond to the climate emergency? )

The indigenous communities of the western isles are a beacon of how life will be in the future; they are a blueprint for human scale living, rooted in the landscape with a view to supporting the whole of the community, not just some. They are a signpost FORWARD not, as many assume, BACKWARD.

Joanne Nelson on Guth nan Siarach facebook, Feb 16, 2022

So we have a long and rich autonomous history to draw on, as well as so much remarkable contemporary good practice (see, for example, the Social Enterprise Place Uist brochure).  What is critical for the survival of Gaelic as a vernacular language in the islands is that we reconnect with that autonomous history and build on our contemporary dynamism, drawing on all the myriad connections within and beyond our islands, as well as the growing confidence and assertiveness, that come from both past and present. Turning this into reality is not possible without significant decentalisation of decision-making power and resources to our islands.

In Norway, with its population of 5.5 million, there are 356 municipalities.  In Scotland, with the same population size, we have 32 local authorities, including the vast Highland council, a third of the land area of Scotland and 20% larger than Wales.  Combined with the three island authorities of the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, it is larger than Belgium.  It is deeply ironic that while many in Scotland want to be independent from control by a Westminster Government that is so distant and so different, Scotland itself continues to be one of the most highly centralised nations in Europe.

This lies at the heart of propositions for an ethnolinguistic assembly for Gàidheil or other decentalised governance structures, rather than the national structures currently in place that have failed to stem the decline in vernacular Gaelic.  “The Urras model — with its central focus on Gaelic in this region and its particular needs – would ensure that community representatives were voted in and could wield influence across sectors in the region and indeed nationally.  The alternative Misneachd model of smaller Gàidhealtachds (where Gàihhealtachd refers to people rather than place) is equally worthy of consideration.” (Guth nan Siarach).

The proposed Gàidheal assembly has the potential to create a protected space for the regeneration and recovery of an indigenous national group.

Iain MacKinnon, Recognising and Reconstituting Gàidheil Ethnicity

Let us make clear that we are not setting out some kind of exclusive agenda. Such an agenda would be far removed from the practice of our communities and the experience of islands.  For those who may wish to see the film Teen Spirit where we started this blogpost, we would not want to transfer all the sentiments from the last song to our context, least of all the line “I wanted you to know that you don’t belong here”.

In the recent debates about Gaelic, Guth nan Siarach has argued strongly against the “distressing and offensive” suggestion of ethnically based prejudice: “Our members routinely put many hours, both paid and as volunteers, into sharing our mother tongue with as many learners globally and locally as we can”, and the same applies for communities across the Outer Hebrides.

As this week’s 3-part blogpost has shown, we have been part of a dense network of connections for millenia, and continue to be so.  No community is free of prejudice, but, in contrast to some external perspectives, “the degree of isolation and remoteness that islands share have historically made them venues for encounters between different cultures.”  This is very true even of the wee section of South Uist where I live.  Close by is evidence of many Norse placenames, Irish and Ioanian monastic practice, a family that traces its ancestry to the Spanish Armada, the many links abroad, especially in Canada, created by the clearances, the ancestral home of one of Napoleon’s foremost generals, a castle that was built for the daughter of the (Scottish) Governor of Tangier (in Morocco), and the many merchant sailors in our community who have travelled the world (whose experiences are also reflected in local bardic poetry).  When I first arrived here, I was at least the fifth person within the small Uist community that had extensive links with India.

If you ever want a good definition of ‘intersectional’, look at islands.

Rhoda Meek, Social Entrepreneur, Isle of Tiree

We are an open and welcoming community, as my family and I have experienced over the last 20 years, and we have benefitted from many immigrants, from within Scotland, Britain and further afield.

CoDeL is very fortunate to be playing a small part, in partnership with the Scottish Refugee Council and others, in supporting refugees in Scotland. In Scotland we rightly respect migrants from abroad as people and recognise their worth by referring to them as New Scots.  In recent times the Outer Hebrides have welcomed and benefitted from immigrants from Pakistan and Syria (there is now even a mosque in Stornoway), and most recently from Afghanistan (thanks to the remarkable work, over more than a decade, of the Linda Norgrove Foundation based in the far west of Lewis), … from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, and, in smaller numbers, from many other countries, such as Peru and Liberia.  And it is striking how many from within these groups have learnt Gaelic. 

As reported in the Stornway Gazette (26 April 2021) and The National (27 April 2021)

A Syrian primary school pupil in Scotland has gone viral on social media after being commended for his progress in learning Gaelic. Abdullah Al Nakeeb, 10, moved to Stornoway from Homs four years ago. He had already picked up English as a second language but now, in Primary 6, he is well on his way to mastering a third language. Abdullah’s two younger brothers, Anas and Majd, are also learning Gaelic.

The Al Nakeeb family said: “We are really proud of Abdullah, he loves going to school here and Gaelic has become one of his favourite subjects. since moving here he has managed to pick up Gaelic very quickly. Hopefully Abdullah’s brothers will continue to follow in his footsteps, it would be great to have them all speaking a new language.”

And so migration and mobility continue to grow our web of connections and links within and far beyond our islands, triggering yet more encounters between different cultures, all the while deepening our commitment to “unlock layers of memory and meaning and reflect on who we are and where we come from” to develop and strengthen our complex Gaelic ethnic identity and the self-determination that is needed to achieve this.

Gaelic, ethnicity and indigenous rights

Part 2 of 3 for this week’s post

Part 1 of this week’s blog post ended with reflections on Gaelic language and culture.  Island based organisations (including Soillse through their report on the Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community and Misneachd in their manifesto) have proposed decentalised funding mechanisms, especially those rooted in Gaelic speaking communities.  As Gaelic activists in the Outer Hebrides have pointed out, this is a matter of governance, self-determination and survival.  And they chafe at local island communities being seen by external agencies as a resource (goireas) for Gaelic learners and others from elsewhere, a term that “de-humanises, subordinates and diminishes” our communities, rather than engaging with us as communities “with critical needs and the right to determine those needs”. (Guth nan Siarach)

From a human rights perspective, is mainstream support for Gaelic seen primarily as a mechanism to support pluralism and diversity within Scotland, seeing Gaelic as ‘a non-primary, minority and complementary cultural practice to the dominant and normative English language culture in Scotland’? (Iain MacKinnon, Recognising and Reconstituting Gàidheil Ethnicity, quoting from the Soillse report).

On the other hand, the rights of indigenous peoples are very different from minority rights, “as set out in Article 27 in the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, because minority rights aim at ensuring a space for pluralism in society, whereas the instruments concerning indigenous peoples’ rights are intended to allow for a high degree of autonomous development for indigenous peoples. Important for indigenous peoples is that they are a people with self-determination, the right to self-government and rights over their natural resources.  …  Article 3 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, provides: ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”  See CoDeL report: Katinka Svanberg, Human Rights in Times of Covid-19, p.30

It is striking that responses to a survey on Gaelic identity indicate that Gàidheil generally believe that political commitment to material practices such as crofting, fishing and land use are at least as central to being a Gàidheal as are language and culture (reported in Iain MacKinnon).

According to Amnesty, the World Bank and UNDP, there are 370 to 500 million Indigenous people around the world and spread across more than 90 countries. They belong to more than 5,000 different Indigenous peoples and represent about 5 to 6% of the world’s population.

Indigeous peoples speak more than 4,000 languages, the majority in fact of the world’s languages.  Indigenous languages are extensive, complex systems of knowledge. They are central to the identity of indigenous peoples, the preservation of their cultures, worldviews and visions, as well as expressions of self-determination.

Indigenous Peoples have a special relationship with the land on which they have lived for generations, sometimes for tens of thousands of years. They hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks.

The land that Indigenous Peoples live on is in fact home to over 80% of our planet’s biodiversity and rich in natural resources, such as oil, gas, timber and minerals. However these lands are routinely appropriated, sold, leased or simply plundered and polluted by governments and private companies.

The strong focus for investment within Scotland on Gaelic language, and extensive investment in mechanisms to enable non-speakers to learn Gaelic as part of Scotland’s showcasing of its national culture, potentially risks denying the vernacular speaking Gaelic communities, primarily in the Outer Hebrides, of characteristics of Gaelic ethnic identity.

The audience witnessed past and present fuse together as Pàdruig and friends accompanied his forebears in real time, unlocking layers of memory and meaning and inviting us to reflect on who we are and where we come from…[T]his work of creative ethnology is a moving reminder of what it is to be human. We live in a society that has forgotten to value what it is to be human, in a world where far too many people get left behind. Our economy cares not for localities, cultures, ways of life or the cohesion of kin and community.

Mairi McFayden about Grimsay musician Pàdruig Morrison’s participation in the ‘Kin and the Community’ project, where he responded creatively to ethnographic recordings made by his grandfather, a crofter and bard who passed away many years before Pàdruig was born.

For highland and island Scotland such risks trigger deep sensitivities, with the brutal suppression of Gaelic culture following the Jacobite rebellion, and then its apparent revival by outsiders, not least in the Victorian era, as a quaint mixture of tartan, pipes and choral music, whilst the real essence of the language and culture was often reduced to the category of quaint and odd customs.

‘To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra: of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest. They are strangers to the language and the manners, to the advantages and wants of the people, whose life they would model, and whose evils they would remedy.’ 

Dr Johnson on his Hebridean tour in 1773

And contrast: “the Western Isles of Scotland are different yes, but not in the ways that people assume. It’s different because of the passion that we have for where we live, it’s different because of how connected we are with our history and our future, it’s different because so many people get all they need from these islands, without the need to travel further afield. Not because it’s isolated or out of touch.”

A young islander from Lewis in 2018

I have articulated in the West Highland Free Press the immense importance of Gaelic as a language that is still rooted in its people, its land, its culture and its diverse spiritual expressions, and that the Gaelic heartlands in the islands are the closest we get to an indigenous way of life within Britain.

“In these communities the separation between disciplines that has become so dominant in modern society, and so deeply undermines holistic solutions, is not apparent.  Here it is impossible to separate Gaelic from crofting or fishing, to separate people, [family and ancestry] from land, to separate our way of life, culture, creativity, spirituality from people and land.  I want to say that without any one of these, the others lose so much, but the point is that there are no “others”, there is only a whole, that is always evolving but has remained holistic.  This is the closest we get to an indigenous way of life within Britain.  … In our times, where we all confront the enormity of the climate emergency, such a holistic culture is truly a precious treasure, for local communities in the Gaelic heartlands AND for the world at large.”

The degree of isolation and remoteness that islands share have historically made them venues for encounters between different cultures. This continuity of interactions has shaped and defined island cultures as having unique traditions of living within spatial, ecological, and social boundaries. The world can learn a lot from the cultures and traditions of islanders in protecting the environment including the use of traditional knowledge and practices.

Alexia Lamothe, Island Innovation

For the Social Enterprise Place Award for Uist, the local steering group identified Gaelic language and culture as one of their four key priorities: “to sustain and strengthen our Gaelic language, heritage and culture as treasured community assets, and for which we are also critical custodians on behalf of wider Scottish and global society”, including the aspiration “to establish protected recognition of the indigenous language of the Gael in the vernacular communities across Uist and to re-establish and strengthen Gaelic as the language of the community.” (see p.15 here)

In Part 3 we will explore how the current centre-periphery framework is a comparatively recent construct, and that historically the islands and west coast of Scotland “were linked by sea to the rest of the world, known and unknown, and linked to Europe in fact more directly than most parts of Scotland.” (Hugh Cheape).

A Wealth of Assets

Part 1 of 3 for this week’s post

In all CoDeL’s work, we take an asset or strengths based approach, building on the assets and strengths that communities and individuals have, rather than always starting with what they don’t have.  In reflecting on island and rural communities, the extent of their assets are truly remarkable.

The OECD say rural regions account for approximately 80 percent of the territory and are home to 30 percent of the population. These lands, and the people who live on them, are the source of almost all the food, fresh water, energy, minerals and other resources that make our way of life possible. Many rural regions are rich in natural resources, contain great environmental biodiversity, are important tourism locations and are home to a rich variety of indigenous traditions and cultures. Rural places are, in short, vital to the prosperity and well-being of all people and our society.

In Scotland, 98% of the land mass, including almost 100 inhabited islands, is rural with just 17% of Scotland’s population. As we focus on how we will tackle the climate emergency, rurality comes centre stage because it is the rural areas which will have to feed, power and manage the lands in a more volatile climate (see here).

With such a wealth of assets, why is it that island and rural communities aren’t flourishing across the board?  This paradox is at the heart of the powerful centre-periphery framework for viewing and organising society, which enables the centre to extract resources and value from ‘peripheral’ areas. The most obvious adverse impacts of these structures are in natural resources.  For example,

LAND: 67% of land in Scotland is privately owned by just 0.025% of the population, who may not even live in Scotland.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: Although the Highlands and Islands region in Scotland exports 227% more clean, green electricity to the National Grid than it requires to meet its own internal demand requirements, consumers are still charged the highest unit price in the UK because of the outdated and very unfair way that the region’s distribution and environmental-impact costs are still calculated.  This means that, in spite of all the energy generation, the region has by far the highest levels of fuel poverty and extreme fuel poverty (a third of all households) in Scotland and the UK (chng.it/k2rB2qDS)

MINERALS: Many indigenous lands across the world are rich in minerals, but indigenous communities often don’t see the benefits of that.  The latest example to hit the indigenous Sami people in northern Scandinavia (best known internationally for their reindeer herding, although they engage in a wide variety of livelihoods) is another iron-ore mine in an area where Sami communities have lived for thousands of years.  The Sami parliament, the representative body for indigenous people in Sweden (there are parliaments in Norway and Finland also, all linked within a Parliamentary Council), has written to the Swedish government warning that the mine will destroy grazing areas and cut off the only viable migratory route for reindeer followed by the Jåhkågasska Sami community.

There are many examples also of MORE INTANGIBLE ASSETS.  Island and rural communities are all too familiar with repeated RESEARCH conducted on us by outsiders, tapping into our experience, expertise and knowledge, and even the way we understand ourselves, which is then processed and framed by those external researchers who position themselves as the experts, attracting significant resources in the process!

Last year a partnership of internationally-connected Scottish rural and island social enterprises articulated the need “to develop alternatives to current ‘extractive’ models of knowledge creation about our communities, our vital social and community enterprises and wider economies. Community owned and curated knowledge, built on the best global participative approaches and with young people at its core, is, we believe, key to realising the transformational potential within our communities. … we will seed and accelerate activities across rural Scotland that will see community ownership of knowledge have an equivalent impact to community ownership of land and housing.”

And significant debate around Gaelic language and culture has once again broken out, in recent issues of the Scottish Affairs journal and within the regional West Highland Free Press.  Have the significant funds allocated by the Scottish Government for Gaelic development primarily been invested in ‘aspirations and assertions of individuals in relation to a peripheral practice of a marginal culture’, rather than in communities and places where Gaelic is still the vernacular language?  Has the allocation of funds been invested in and influenced too much by institutions in the central belt of Scotland, and not sufficiently within the Gaelic heartlands themselves?

This applies particularly to the Outer Hebrides where most of the only remaining vernacular Gaelic communities still survive, but whose survival is under significant threat.  It is ironic that my children who have grown up here in the Outer Hebrides have less opportunities for secondary education in Gaelic medium than their friends in Glasgow who are deeply committed to Gaelic but have no roots in a Gaelic vernacular community.

In summary, the wealth of assets in so-called peripheral areas are often appropriated by those at the centre, whether land, energy and resources, knowledge, language and culture.  In parts 2 and 3 of this week’s blog post we will reflect on Gaelic culture and history, on indigenous peoples and on reversing current centre-periphery structures.

Young voices reimagining island and rural living

To reimagine island and rural living, we need look no further than the young adults who are returning, staying, settling in these areas.  They come with fresh energy and vision, often focused on opportunities and enterprise, and embrace challenge.  Many bring young families who sustain our communities and schools.
 
So let’s listen to their voices.  From next week we will be launching weekly reflections, on our social media, from young islanders, especially in Uist, but also elsewhere … on community and family, Gaelic language and culture, housing, work, health and inclusion, the climate emergency and many other topics.
 
You can listen to many young island voices in the podcasts on CoDeL’s website at http://codel.scot/young-uist-voices and http://codel.scot/island-voices, put together by Alana, a young islander from Uist herself.
 
And you can watch the recent film The Rhythm of Uist, “a lyrical meditation that takes the audience to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, immersing them in the sphere of life for three young adults who have grown up in these unique and cultural islands”.  And another recent video here reflects a very modern new business on Uist.
 
Embracing challenges, seeking out opportunities.
 
 

Indigenous wealth-building strategies

This is the opening statement in a new and brief report from a practitioner round table organised by Scottish Rural Action, InspirAlba and the David Hume Institute.

CoDeL has long highlighted the tradition of community wealth building in rural and island communities (see for example the Social Enterprise Place Uist brochure), which predates by decades and more the Scottish Government and local authorities’ own recent and welcome focus on community wealth building.

The new report from SRA, InspiAlba and DHI is important in highlighting indigenous micro-scale strategies within local communities, including “micro and social enterprise, volunteering (formal and informal), tradition bearing, crofting, Traveller culture, peripatetic work and combining a portfolio of part-time paid work, including self-employment”. All of these strategies have contributed to resilience within island and rural communities, both in the past and more recently during Covid-19 (see CoDeL’s Northern Periphery and Arctic research and SRA’s research during lockdowns).

As one critical example, the pluralistic work patterns adopted by many islanders, where they combine a portfolio of multiple paid work activities, along with much volunteering, delivers not only economic resilience for households but also creates that dense web of cross-cutting networks within the community that delivers both resilience in times of crisis and underpins so much community activity, including cultural revival.

The new report rightly calls for the work on community wealth building by the Scottish Government and local authorities to “better connect the activities of public sector anchor institutions to these micro-scale, community-led strategies [to] help deliver economic transformation in rural and island places, rather than creating a new model.”

The report also makes the critical link between indigenous wealth building strategies and young people staying, returning and settling in island and rural communities. CoDeL first identified this in our original demographic research on Uist (see here) and through our Islands Revival blog containing stories and casestudies of island population turnaround in Scotland and beyond. Some of the latest figures of population growth in islands since they moved into community ownership are striking (as tweeted recently by Philip Coghill at HIE):

Eigg up 83% since the buyout (60 to 110 today), Gigha up 82% (from 92 to 165-70), Knoydart up 73% (from 60 to 104) and West Harris up 49% (from 110 to 164).

So here’s that opening paragraph from the new report:

“Indigenous wealth building strategies in rural and island Scotland include micro and social enterprise, volunteering (formal and informal), tradition bearing, crofting, Traveller culture, peripatetic work and combining a portfolio of part-time paid work, including self-employment. These micro-scale strategies have enabled communities to survive and, in many cases, to flourish for hundreds of years. They are paving the way for increasing numbers of younger people seeking to remain, return or move to rural and island places.”

Great to see the emergence of a far better understanding of the strengths of our dynamic and resilient communities.

Carbon is not the enemy of life but the creator: insights from the Oxford REAL Farming Conference

Hogmanay passed, and in the dark days of early January, life starts to move into gear for the year ahead. The prospect of going headlong into a three-day online conference on January 5th was both inspiring whilst at the same time being full-on, in at the deep end…

The Oxford REAL Farming Conference consisting of 500 speakers over 135 sessions in just three days felt it could be heavy going.  In honesty, living and working on a croft in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, knowing that as the crow flies, I am geographically closer to Denmark than Oxford, and culturally perhaps a good deal further apart, I was not full of hope.

How wrong one can be! It was such an insightful conference, now in it’s 13th year, thankfully for me online, but so inspiring that I might in future consider travelling the distance to attend physically.

Sessions ranged from international trade and the fight for food sovereignty to dung beetles as the farmers’ friends, from how small agroecological farms facilitate landscape-scale biodiversity to food and farming as part of global climate action, from the impact of food and farming enterprises to land justice, from designing regenerative food systems to capitalism, and much more. 

One of the sessions I attended was on How Meadows And Healthy Soil Can Fight Climate Change As Well As Reconnect Us To Cultural Landscapes delivered by Michael Wachter, from the historic garden at Great Dixter in Sussex, but originally from Bavaria, and Gillian Burke, biologist, broadcaster and writer.

The descriptor said “It took around 6000 years to create the species-rich grassland for which the UK is globally famous. Yet in less than a century we have lost 97% of it. This talk will look at meadows as part of a natural as well as a cultural working landscape, highlight the potential carbon capture possibilities and why this can outcompete even woodlands. We will look at why meadows are a vital tool to combat habitat loss and its associated invertebrates but also provide a wider range of minerals and amino acids for livestock than intensive pasture. Furthermore this talk will highlight how the loss of species-rich grassland correlated with the loss of connection to the wider countryside but also how we can get these habitats back.”

Some of the key take-away points for me were: “Carbon is not the enemy of life but the creator” and that “Carbon is the outbreath of nature over the year”.  April and May is the “inbreath of carbon, outbreath is in Autumn, with leaf-fall and die-back of vegetation.”  Soil can store twice as much carbon as vegetation. Plants share 30 -40% of their carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis. Carbon is the main driver for growth, not potassium.

With increased livestock stocking density, this has resulted in too many sheep (selective grazers), resulting in reduced grasses and the soil becoming crushed. When soil is compacted, air, water and organic matter is driven out, then the minerals diminish. Compaction leads to run-off. The UK has lost approximately 17 inches of soil in the last 18 years because of intensive practices.

But rewilding forgets not just people (“We mustn’t forget humans as part of the landscape, not only as observers with binoculars, but as keystone species facilitating life”), it also forgets large herbivores which create open space habitats. Grass not being grazed begins to oxidise and fades, like grass on a roof, because of lack of grazing. Cattle open up habitats enabling them to quite literally flower.

The Food and Global Security Network reported last year, that “soil should be politically recognised as a strategic asset, as its ability to produce food underpins peace and civil society”.  Apparently, more money is spent on studying the stars than on the soil which keeps us alive.

If we think about the dust storms in the US, the changes driven by a global food system which even on my own patch has seen a move away from a mixed model of farming where both sheep and importantly cattle roamed the higher ground (land unsuitable for arable), moved in their hefted roaming patterns, in larger areas, driven by humans, thereby creating lush herbal ley swathes, rich and productive.

From a human biology perspective, “unfortunately, plant nutrients often suffer from low bioavailability – which means that they are hard for us to extract, absorb and utilise” according to research by Georgie Ede, MD in the US and a raft of international research illustrated trials which showed reduced absorption rates for Vitamin A, iron, Zinc  and DHA/EPA, the forms of essential omega 3 required for brain and immune system function from plant based diets alone.

Why does all this matter? Farming is under huge pressure to ‘reform’ as part of the move towards Net Zero combatting climate change. Looking back, many farmers are beginning to say, that the way their fathers farmed, they now realise, was flawed. One speaker at the conference said when he asked his father, a dairy farmer, why he sprayed either pesticide or insecticide under the hedges, his father said, that’s what he and his peers had been advised to do. Thankfully the inherited knowledge (more from the grandfathers) of working the land in a sustainable way is just about still in living memory. Authors such as James Rebanks, learnt from their grandfather how to farm in harmony with nature rather than seeking to eradicate anything.

Some lovely thoughts of my own, some of which were given at ORFC for us to leave with, I now pass on …

  • Recognise your context and plan appropriately
  • Talk to others, peer groups and ask the old guys how they used to do it.
  • Slow and steady continual improvement- land doesn’t change overnight.
  • Start now!

… and some practical examples in holistic planning grazing, managing grazing animals mimicking natural patterns to build soil and sequester carbon; multi species rotations, keeping the soil covered with minimum till.  Soil, it’s under our feet – this is the Soil Association’s strap line, perfect.

Theona Morrison, CoDeL Director and Acting Chair, Scottish Rural Action

 

Today we launch our weekly blog posts and social media messages on the theme of Redefining Peripherality.  We call for a radical rethink of perspectives and policy towards rural and island communities that values and builds on our communities’ assets, strengths and knowledge, rather than seeing them as backward and needing to catch up with ‘the centre’.

Based on extensive evidence, we believe that the deep experience and innovation within peripheral communities places them at the very heart and centre of solutions to societies’ most pressing challenges, not least the climate emergency.

We will be exploring what this means in practice in a series of events leading up to the World Rural Health Conference in Limerick, Ireland in June.  The first event, on January 19, starts with direct experience on the ground: showcasing, in partnership with Social Enterprise Scotland, the extraordinary community and social enterprises that are driving positive change in Uist, where CoDeL itself is based, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

We invite you to follow our blog and social media, and please get in touch if you would like to join an emerging network of practitioners and researchers seeking to put our new thinking into practice, from local action to national and international policy.

We would like to thank the Scottish Government and the Scottish Rural Network for supporting this communication work.  It emerged from a diverse partnership, cutting across diverse countries and territories from Canada to Finland, disciplines (including economics, health and human rights) and institutions, that delivered research on Covid economic impacts and recovery in remote communities across the Northern Periphery and Arctic (see here).

As 2021 comes to a close …

Welcome to CoDeL.  We wish all the many individuals and communities, partners and funders who have engaged with our work, especially over the last two years, a peaceful Christmas and a successful New Year, regardless of the challenges it may bring.

After working so intensely with communities, organisations and individuals, in Uist, Scotland, Ireland, across the Nordic region and internationally, since the onset of the pandemic, we have now refreshed and significantly updated our website.

You can find out more about CoDeL here and about some of our projects, activities and reports down the right hand margin (all the images have links).  You can browse CoDeL’s blog with posts over the last three years, and of course click on the menu tabs along the top to explore the main areas of CoDeL’s diverse work … enabling community development, younger voices and action; coaching for enterprise and facilitating visioning, learning and organisational development; conducting and communicating innovative research; influencing local, national and international policy.

We would like to thank especially all the young people and community organisations in Uist who have contributed so much to our activities.  Our joint work brings insight and relevance as we face society’s challenges only because it is deeply rooted in the life and meaning of islanders here in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  We would also like to thank our partners across Scotland, Ireland, the Nordics and as far afield as Canada and Malaysia for the opportunities and insight they have been so willing to share, putting into practice new forms of exchange and collaboration that the pandemic and the climate crisis are demanding of us all.

Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ùr airson 2022!