In his book, the Making of the Crofting Community, the Scottish historian James Hunter quotes a small farmer in the Highlands as saying they “hate us in London but ignore us in Edinburgh.” Standing on the windswept pier at Stornoway, the main town on the isle of Lewis, both metropoles feel like a world away. The twice-daily ferry takes almost three hours just to reach the mainland. From there, it is another 200 miles to the Scottish capital.
There are few places in the United Kingdom further from the corridors of power than the Western Isles, the scenic archipelago of fifteen inhabited ribbons off Scotland’s west coast. Many of the islanders speak Scots Gaelic and rely on farming, fishing and tourism for their income. So what does the prospect of Scottish independence – or staying in the union – mean so far away from Westminster and Holyrood?
The Western Isles is a Scottish National Party stronghold. Both the sitting MP and the member of the Scottish Parliament are nationalists. But when it comes to the referendum Lewis, where the majority of the islands’ population of around 30,000 live, seems as split as the rest of Scotland. “The island is 50/50,” says one local journalist. “People seem pretty settled in their minds. I don’t think the campaigns have made much impact.”
One of the reasons the yes and no sides have struggled to make inroads on Lewis is that the major national concerns are not always the most significant for this island community. Ask someone walking the narrow streets of Stornoway what the big issues are for them and they will most likely mention fuel poverty, the removal of tax relief on ferry freight and local control of revenue levied on using the seabed.
For some there is wariness about whether independence would actually mean more local power for places such as Lewis. The SNP administration at the devolved parliament in Holyrood has displayed a fondness for centralization, bringing policing, emergency services and European funding under central government control. A council tax freeze mandated from Holyrood has left officials in the pebbledashed council offices, built in the 1970s to house a newly created Western Isles local authority, with less control over local affairs than they used to have.
“One of the worries is that it is worse to be run from Edinburgh than London,” says Fred Silver, former editor of the Stornoway Gazette when we met for a balti in Lewis’s only curry house. An Englishman who has spent more than two decades in the Western Isles, Silver sports a blue “Yes” badge but concedes that Edinburgh has not always done right by the islands.
“You can actually demonstrate that the best period for the island was under the Tory government in the 1980s,” he says, citing the creation of a Gaelic television fund, the spread of Gaelic medium education and the establishment of a local enterprise company that has since been disbanded.
Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister in Westminster in Tony Blair’s first administration, has long been one of the strongest critics of the SNP. “Nationalism believes in taking decision making to the centre. Their localism is Scotland,” he says. “There is a very strong philosophy in Scotland just now of centralizing in order to bring everything under ministerial control.”
“There are large areas of public policy that need completely different perspectives in island communities or in very peripheral communities and to be honest there is not a lot of interest in any of that. They will tick the boxes but there is no real understanding of how difficult things are or what is needed,” says Wilson, who was a Labour MP in Ayrshire.
But Alastair Allan, local SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, says that only a “yes” vote would guarantee more powers for island communities. “The decision about what Scotland’s budget is is not ours to make. We pay our taxes to the UK government and they decide what Scotland gets to spend.”
The islands have certainly benefited from the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament, particularly when it comes to changing Scotland’s almost feudal system of land ownership. Around 2500 people own about three-quarters of all private land in Scotland. Take a drive almost anywhere beyond the housing schemes of the Central Belt and you will soon run into vast private estates. The Duke of Buccleuch alone owns some quarter of a million acres.
In 2003, the Labour government in Holyrood introduced the Land Reform Act, which allows local communities to buy the land they live on. While the act has had little impact on the baronial estates on the mainland, it has transformed many island communities. Since its introduction, around 70 per cent of the Western Isles has come under direct community ownership. On islands like Eigg, the local community has been able to raise money to buy the entire island.
For some the community buy-outs on islands like Harris and South Uist are evidence of why Scotland needs independence to fulfil its potential. David Cameron (not the British prime minister – the chair of Community Land Scotland) disagrees. “We have community empowerment now and that has got cross-community support. Whatever happens next week won’t make a whit of difference to us,” he says at the end of a day-long conference on land reform held in the function room of a Stornoway hotel. Among the delegates are representatives from communities across the Western Isles that are at various stages in purchasing the land they live on.
For many on the Scottish islands, the referendum on Thursday is not so much about currency or European Union membership but what the communities themselves will gain either from staying with the UK or being part of an independent Scotland. In 2013, the Western Isles teamed up with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, as part of the “Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign” aimed at securing a better deal for island communities whatever way the vote goes.
In June, the Scottish government in Edinburgh offered island communities control of all income that comes from leasing the seabed for wind farms, piers and boats moorings – money that currently goes to the UK’s Crown Estate – and the devolution of planning to local partnerships. The London government, so far, has promised little.
“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line”. On such modest proposals, perhaps, are islands (and nations) won and lost.
This piece originally appeared on Vice.