The SNP Constituency candidates have all now been chosen and the Regional List selection procedures are well underway throughout the country. Up here in the Highlands, Fergus Ewing was reselected to stand for Inverness & Nairn with Orkney’s Professor Donna Heddle from the UHI’s Centre of Nordic Studies standing against LibDem Liam McArthur for her home seat.
We are sadly losing two well respected and experienced parliamentarians as they retire – Dave Thompson, the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and Rob Gibson, MSP for Caithness, Sutherland & Ross although their successors look likely to be a popular choice for the electorate. Replacing Dave is a young activist from Dingwall, Katie Forbes and I am personally delighted that our own Weeker, Councillor Gail Ross, was selected as Rob’s replacement in my constituency. Gail has worked for Rob for many years, is a committed and popular Highland Councillor representing her home town of Wick and is also the Caithness Civic Leader.
Our constituency is large stretching from Evanton which is slightly north of Inverness, up to John O’ Groats, over to Cape Wrath in the opposite corner and down as far as Applecross. The Highlands and Islands region is even larger covering an area the size of Belgium. It consists of eight constituencies from Shetland & Orkney in the north, Na h-Eileanan an Iar in the west, Moray in the east and the mainland Highlands all the way down to Argyll & Bute in the south. Where then to hold the hustings to allow as many members to hear the candidates or indeed for the candidates to reach the members?
Each corner of my constituency is unique with its own landscape and people and it just about encompasses the North Coast 500 route. Accompanying Gail to the four hustings that had been organised during the constituency selection procedure, we marvelled in the beauty that we encountered on our long travels. Apart from the stunning scenery that we are lucky enough to live amongst up here, you are also struck by the isolation that surrounds you. Miles pass without encountering another person and yet, you are surrounded by signs that this was not always the case. Ruins of crofts, of shielings, of churches, of entire townships scar the landscape and remind you that the North Highlands were once bustling and thriving communities.
History tells us what happened to many of these families during the Clearances and others have left in search of employment in recent years. This is an ongoing problem here because as the local youth leave, the school closes, the village shop closes, the local bus service no longer calls. Due to the rurality of much of the area, the nearest facilities are often many miles away in a larger town. As the general population falls, the facilities in these towns are withdrawn as local authorities no longer have the population or ﬁnancial means to sustain these. When villages consist solely of housing, or the nearest hospital is a two hour drive away, what is there to encourage young families into the area to repopulate it?
Swathes of this area are covered in Estates, vast hunting grounds and holiday homes for a few wealthy landlords. We are in a sorry position when in the words of Rob Gibson MSP, there are more pairs of breeding birds than breeding humans in parts of our constituency. The Community Empowerment and Land Reform Bills go some way to addressing some of our issues and are a welcome start.
During the hustings, amongst the local concerns that were raised, the question of another Independence Referendum was brought up at each one. Members had opposing views on this and lively discussions were had but everybody was of the same opinion in that the issues of currency and pensions were where we had failed to convince people and until a more convincing argument on these two issues had been established, we would never win.
We go into the Holyrood elections next May in an incredible position and whilst there is a lot of hard work to come, I am wholeheartedly looking forward to the challenge and to see all our northern representatives taking their places in the Scottish Parliament.