The National Islands Plan published by the Scottish Government at the end of 2019 is intended to be a useable, practical document, according to its authors.

Scotland’s Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse said as the plan was launched on December 27th that it was an historic milestone created with the input of many islanders and containing their priorities for the future.

He added: “The plan is a key milestone, but it cannot be allowed to just sit on a shelf - I now look forward to working with colleagues and partner organisations to put the plan into action. Through the plan’s development, Scotland is showing our island communities that they are very important to our nation, we care about their futures and that their voices are strong and being heard.”

To ensure that the plan remains concrete and meaningful, it has a duration of five years with a requirement for annual reports on progress and a review at the end of the five-year period. Progress will be evaluated against 13 strategic objectives and more than 100 specific measures to address population decline, tackle climate change and improve transport, housing, the delivery of public services and digital connectivity.

The 81-page document begins by identifying Scotland’s islands as key to the nation’s identity and future prosperity, saying: “Our islands are synonymous with Scotland and the nation we are. In particular, they help define how international audiences see Scotland and contribute hugely to our national identity while also preserving and promoting strong local identities. 

“Island people on the 93 inhabited islands in Scotland – whether by birth or choice – are key to this. Islanders enjoy a strong sense of community, freedom and safety that contributes positively to living on islands in Scotland. 

“Add to that their important economic role, their spectacular natural environment and rich cultural heritage, and you can see why people from all around the world visit and have a special affection for Scotland’s islands.”

The plan also pays tribute to the work of the joint ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ project in which Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, with Orkney and Shetland councils, put forward a joint position statement on the issues facing islands and the ways in which they should be tackled. 

The top three issues which emerged from public consultation ahead of the plan were transport, economic development and depopulation. The Scottish Government also identified a specific threat to island communities from Brexit – analysis showed that many of the communities most vulnerable to Brexit are on the islands. 

In the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar local authority region there are nearly 14,000 people living in the most Brexit-vulnerable datazones in Scotland, with specific risks such as high proportions of the island workforce being employed in Brexit-sensitive industries. 

Many of these issues were vividly illustrated by research contributions during summer 2019. One Lewis-based respondent told researchers: “Having lived away for a few years and maybe wanting to come back with my boyfriend later on, we would have to realistically consider what it would do to our careers to have no opportunity for growth in a job – or to maybe not even get a job in that field.”

Some of the objectives listed in the plan to address depopulation include attracting and retaining Gaelic-speakers to live within Gaelic-speaking communities and helping island crofters to develop their crofts and sustain their businesses.

The importance of creative and craft industries is also recognised – since 2018 the Outer Hebrides has been recognised as a World Craft City for Harris Tweed by World Crafts Council (Europe). The Outer Hebrides, with its unique tradition of weaving and Harris Tweed, is the second European region to be recognised with this accolade, and the first in the UK. 

Among other critical issues identified in the plan, integrated and effective transport systems are mentioned. The plan undertakes that the Scottish Government will produce a long-term plan and investment programme for new ferries and development at ports to improve resilience, reliability and capacity. They aim to “give confidence to island communities on our ongoing commitment.”

Digital connectivity is also still an issue. One North Uist respondent said during the consultation: “Fibre broadband roll-out has been quite a success, but there is still a lot to do here. I think that the island plan should include the ambition to make this rollout as good as that of electricity.”

The percentage of Western Isles households with superfast broadband has jumped from 1.3% in 2013 to 76.5% in 2019.

Despite content which most islanders would agree with, the test of the new Islands Plan will come in five years, when meaningful progress against the objectives comes to be measured. Until then, most will continue to wait and see how Scotland’s Islands fare in a post-Brexit economy.

The full report can be accessed at https://www.gov.scot/publications/national-plan-scotlands-islands/