Like many of our fellow islanders, we have been aware of the process started by the Scottish Government to create Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA) around Scotland. As a community land trust, the North Harris Trust has read the consultation documents and submitted an official response. We want to highlight that we wholeheartedly support the Government’s commitment to protecting our environment and maintaining rich, healthy seas. The ocean has been a part of our dùthchas in Harris for as long as people have lived in these islands, and it continues to play a great role in how identity, community, and economy are shaped here.
That being said, we do not welcome the proposed shape of this new policy. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Angus MacNeill MP, and others have already issued statements that the North Harris Trust fully supports. The HPMA proposal, if implemented around our islands, would shatter our local economy and destroy one of the last remnants of our way of life.
We in North Harris know the price of such policies too well. As often, they seem to be made without consideration for the reality of island and rural life. Scalpay used to be a prosperous island with several shops, a post office, and a well-attended school, until its herring fleet was decimated by Government policies. The latter led to the end of a local, sustainable industry, and with it the end of the prosperity of the island. Traditional indigenous knowledge was lost as fishermen left their boats. Today, no service remains on Scalpay, while those who truly damage our seas continue to prosper.
We would also like to remind the Government of its other commitments, namely to socio-economic equality and to Gaelic-speaking communities. Allowing leisure activities in HPMA while forbidding working people would be a clear message sent to less favoured socio-economic groups, which would be sacrificed for the enjoyment of better-off categories. And whatever tourism would still occur around HPMA may not even sustain our local economy: Harris is a wonderful place to visit, and many of our local businesses and activities rely on easy access to the sea.
Moreover, the Government has declared many times to be devoted to safeguarding and strengthening Gaelic-speaking communities in the Highlands and Islands. The economic fragility of our region is already weakening our language, culture, and way of life, and any further damage would signify the end of our indigenous culture. The sea here means more than just jobs. It is a vector of our identity, of our heritage, and of our history. Fishing is one of the last industries in which Gaelic is a normal, daily working language. Taking away our indigenous access to our sea would not only violate the Government’s commitment to Gaelic communities, but also our fundamental rights. We are not a threat to the environment: It has always been in our interest to sustainably use our marine resources and we will continue to do so as long as our people live in these islands.
We do not ask the Scottish Government to stop wanting to protect our seas. We ask the Scottish Government to consider the fact that these are not being damaged by our small, traditional economy. We ask the Scottish Government to draft policies that are made with an understanding of what island and rural life is truly about. Tha sinn ag iarraidh air Riaghaltas na h-Alba gun toir iad aire air na coimhearsnachdan Gàidhealach, tùsanach againn. Chan urrainn dhuinn a bhith beò air an talamh mura h-eil sinn beò air a’ mhuir.