Fifty Scottish and Irish islanders gathered last week in Grimsay, North Uist to focus in particular on the contributions of younger islanders in renewing island life and contributing to sustainable island communities.
For a whole morning (of Wednesday 2nd October), 10 enterprising young islanders, most in their 20s and 30s, told of the often remarkable personal journeys that brought them to Uist, whether returning to their island home from the mainland or as far afield as Kenya, or being inspired to make Uist their new home. And they introduced all the participants to their business in Uist as founders of start-up enterprises or social enterprises like the North Uist Distillery, the Scandinavian Bakery, Uist Forest Retreat and an outdoor nursery, developing community sports, reviving a community charity that almost went under, as a climate change artist, or as a young leader seeking to tackle the shortage of appropriate housing that is preventing more people returning or settling.
Throughout the week from September 30th to October 4th hosted by CoDeL and the Scottish Islands Federation, more than 10 other young islanders led sessions on topics such as culture and identity, crofting, tourism, and developing island skills. They included young crofters and musicians, managers and development officers at social enterprises, arts, tourism and Gaelic development officers, and the founder of the Coral Box, Winner of this year’s Entrepreneur of the Year at the Young Women in Tourism Awards.
And young traditional musicians on Uist, both Uibhisteach and UHI students, entertained the visitors at a welcome ceilidh on Grimsay.
Jonny Ingledew of the North Uist Distillery spoke about “so many opportunities on the islands and so much community support”, Kathryn Johnson of Uist Forest Retreat of “being out in the wild, seeing the eagles”. “My sloinneadh tells me both who and where I belong”, explained Gemma MacKinnon, Manager of Caraidean Uibhist and founder of St. Jerome’s Children’s Home in Kenya, “home is home”.
“Within two weeks of arriving in Uist I had a job”, said Emma Axelsson from Sweden, and “now I have set up the Scandinavian Bakery, which I wouldn’t have done anywhere else”. “Where else would I have worked for a public agency, built a windfarm, built a harbour, and now be managing a major social enterprise, and all so early in my career?” asked Kirsty MacCormick, Manager of Cothrom.
The Grimsay island gathering brought together Uibhisteach with members of the Scottish and Irish island federations representing 14 Scottish and Irish islands and launched the Smart Islands project funded by Leader in the Outer Hebrides and in Ireland. With additional funding from the Community Learning Exchange and the Scottish Islands Federation, the gathering came at a critical point for island development.
The whole of the Scottish Government’s Islands Team joined the gathering on Grimsay midweek as the draft National Islands Plan was laid before the Scottish Parliament on the 3rd of October 2019. Key discussions included reviewing the extensive island consultations for the Plan, the implementation of the Plan, measuring its impact, how it can enable the best support for Scottish islands, and what the Irish participants might learn from this dynamic process.
And the gathering gave additional support and insight into the recent Islands Revival Declaration, released by the James Hutton Institute, SRUC, CoDeL and Community Land Scotland, which opened with the statement “that there is credible evidence of ‘green shoots’ of population turnaround in the Scottish islands, which as yet does not show up in official statistics.”
The Declaration points to “multiple factors driving and facilitating positive population trends in some island areas. These include… local control of territorial assets (land and marine), accompanied by good governance and leadership.’ It was appropriate, therefore, that issues in the spot-light were taking over the management of crown estate assets through a unique partnership between the community land estate Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn and CnES; community renewable energy as exemplified by the new wind turbines just opened by the North Uist Development Company; and the long journey that the island community of Eigg took to buy out their island and all the positive impacts. from population growth to creating their own island grid, that has caused.
An overview of the work of Community Energy Scotland across Scottish islands given by Rona Mackay from Benbecula and the presentation on managing crown estate assets by Lisa Maclean from Galson on the Isle of Lewis demonstrated just how much cutting-edge innovation island communities are now driving.
The Irish island representatives drew inspiration and insight not just from the young islanders, the Scottish Islands Act and Islands Plan and all the sessions, but also from visits to Uist organisations such as Taigh Chearsabhagh and the eSgoil centre at Carinish, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s on-line teaching programme, on North Uist, … Cothrom, Hebridean Jewellery and Kildonan museum on South Uist, … a working croft and polycrub on Benbecula, … as well as, on Grimsay itself, Uist Wool, Kallin harbour, the boat building shed and interpretation centres, the Blackland Centre and of course Ceann na h-Áirigh, the community centre of the Grimsay Community Association where the island gathering took place.
The Smart Island project, CoDeL and the Scottish Islands Federation are deeply grateful to the Grimsay Community Association, Cidsin, the cafe at Ceann na h-Áirigh, and Maclean’s Bakery/Stepping Stones Restaurant for providing such an excellent venue and food throughout the week. And to the young musicians, the Accordion and Fiddle Club, dance tutors Neil and Morag MacPhearson, and Stoneybridge Hall committee for the excellent ceilidhs during the event.
The whole week was part of the Leader funded “Smart Islands in Scotland and Ireland: Supporting Enterprises and Young People”. The next part of the project will be delivering training in Galway in Ireland for representatives from the 30 inhabited islands off Ireland, based on more than a decade of work on Uist focusing on community development, enterprise and young people.