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 (

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 and, 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!

Uist, Social Enterprise Places – further coverage

Scottish Community Alliance discussed Uist’s Social Places award in their fortnightly newsletter (Local People Leading), headed Catch up with Uist’. In reading the recently published brochure they concluded 

A perennial  frustration for those on the fringes of mainstream policy making, is that certain unshakable assumptions seem to underpin all this activity which no one seems prepared to challenge. An example being the unspoken belief that rural and island communities need to ‘catch up’ in some way with their urban counterparts in order to meet the challenges that they face. Research released earlier this year by the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme (with substantial Scottish island input) argues the complete opposite and this publication suggests Uist might be a good place to begin this rural policy reappraisal.

The Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme research was headed by CoDeL and more information can be found here

The complete Uist, Social Enterprise Places brochure can be read here. 




Uist, Social Enterprise Place brochure coverage

The recently released Uist, Social Enterprise Places brochure has received significant coverage on the web and in social media, including from the Scottish Government’s Scottish Rural Network who have commented

“A new digital brochure celebrates the benefits and work of award-winning social and community enterprises on Uist.

“Uist, with a 40+ year history of social and community enterprises, was one award-winner the judging panel felt had much to shout about. The stats are certainly impressive … but it’s not just the numbers that impress …. It is inspiring reading of resilient, resourceful and dynamic communities and a great example of just how much people can achieve together. The document highlights their amazing history, and key priorities for the future.”

Read the whole brochure here 



Uist – Social Enterprise Place

Earlier this year Uist  in the Outer Hebrides received one of two Social Enterprise Place Awards, the first ever awarded within Scotland.
Today we launch a brochure highlighting the history of community and social enterprises in Uist, the many diverse contributions they make now, and their ambitious goals for the future on the climate emergency, young people, health and inclusion, and Gaelic language and culture.
It is a remarkable showcase of just how strong and resilient our island communities are: we have been building community wealth for over 40 years, have sustained our island communities through Covid, which has in turn only served to heighten our ambitions for the future.
Mags McSporran, head of Social Enterprise Development at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, has commented, “it is such a great picture of social enterprise in Uist, its longevity, innovation and out and out tenacity”.  In a blog post, Mags says that the Scottish Government is prioritising the involvement of local communities and businesses in economic and community wealth building, and that there is so much to learn from the breadth of experience our communities have in stimulating sustainable development.  Uist is an outstanding example of such “innovation … with community prosperity at its core”. 
In our European work we have called for redefining peripherality: looking anew at remote island and rural communities to build on their remarkable strengths and assets that have always been there, but that became so much more visible during Covid. In his opening remarks at the NPA’s annual event, the Chair David Minton suggested that, following the experience of Covid, peripheral communities who have been so far left behind may well now end up in front.

Communities on Uist demonstrate what flourishing peripheral communities can be – their strength and resilience, their cohesion and collaboration, their innovation and adaptability

You can access the document here.