DANIEL CULLEN documents his own experiences of housing issues in Skye, and reflects on a series of conversations with local young people which would inspire a stage play….
In my job as a theatre-maker, I spent the last three years working with various community groups and individuals who work and live in Skye and Lochalsh for a project based, among other themes, around rural housing problems
The project was funded by Creative Scotland’s Culture Collective, produced by SEALL and led to me writing the play ‘The Chariot, the Flag and the Empty, Empty Houses’.
My personal background is important to where the project ended up so I’ll share a little now.
At the beginning of the project, I had just been allocated a one bedroom flat in Portree, where I am from, by the Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association.
I was delighted to have somewhere to call home after spending close to two years on the housing list after the flat I’d been renting privately became too expensive for me to afford – an increasingly common scenario.
Those two years were actually a shorter wait than they might have been because I was registered as legally homeless, giving me a higher number of housing points.
Social housing is allocated on a points-based system, with those identified as being in most need of the extremely limited housing stock receiving the highest score and advancing in the queue.
My points tally grew every month I remained homeless.
I spent those two years working and contributing as well as I could to my local community, while sleeping in spare rooms, with my parents, on my friends’ couches (and once in my car).
My experiences are by no means uncommon, nor are they the worst circumstances anybody has had to endure when they have no fixed abode.
I am reminded of a quote from Darren McGarvey’s book, The Social Distance Between Us, when someone who has been experiencing homelessness tells him about walking into a job interview, looking more dishevelled than he otherwise would have as he’d been forced to sleep in his car.
He received harsh judgement rather than help: “If a stray dog had wandered in, they’d have helped it. I’m better than a dog”, he said.
Our ability to block out the troubles those around us face is striking and perhaps necessary given the sheer volume of worrying information we now consume on a daily basis, from foreign wars to apparent local crime rises.
Last week I read about a newborn baby being found in a carrier bag on a London street.
It’s a lot for our hunter-gatherer-wired brains to deal with.
One participant on the project I’d been working on, a Glasgow-Gael, told me a story which highlighted the issue: “I was walking through town with my family and I saw someone begging, presumably homeless and/or rough sleeping.
“I was so overwhelmed that I began to cry while my family just walked ahead. I think it was at that point I realised I wasn’t okay.”
Particularly on visits to the city, I certainly have the ability to do the very same thing as that person’s family.
But perhaps the empathy they showed towards a person in need was perfectly natural.
Maybe it is us who choose to walk on by who are ‘not okay’.
Here I think we come to the central problem of the polarised housing debate – those with no experience, or at least no recent experience, of the difficulties that come with having nowhere to live cannot find the empathy required to bring the opposing sides closer together.
We seem to have a remarkable capacity for ignoring those who are comparatively less comfortable than ourselves. And there are few more comfortable than the landowner.
There are a number of people living in our area, and indeed across the world, who would happily spend all their days campaigning to save a particular animal or plant, but are less inclined to stand up for people’s needs – a view filled with beautiful wildlife will enhance a house’s price more than a housing scheme.
This is unlikely to be a coincidence and it is my view that conversations around rewilding – so often discussed in places far away from where any rewilding is suggested – should never take place without also considering how we re-people much of the north of Scotland.
The mindset of putting people before landscape can be highlighted by looking at how English and Gaelic have named the area where we live; ‘The Highlands’ describes the scenery while, ‘The Gàidhealtachd’ describes the land of the (Gaelic) people.
Population decline (particularly among the younger working-age demographic) is a real concern, as highlighted by a recent Highland Council report.
To combat this, whether a Gaelic speaker or not, we must once again value our part of the world as one filled with people.
As the Gàidhealtachd, a living, breathing culture – rather than the Highlands, a mountainous, empty landscape.
The picture is more complicated than simply a population decline in every area, but there are alarm bells that we have been ignoring.
I visited Elgol Primary School when researching my project over a period of several months, supported by Feisean nan Gaidheal, in what would turn out to be the school’s final year before it was mothballed.
The young people I worked with there and the young people I have worked with in general, are passionate, in touch with their area and inspire hope for the future.
In order to stay open, it is my understanding that Elgol Primary School would only have needed a handful of primary-school-aged children in their large catchment area – but that not even that number could be mustered begs the question, who is living in all of their houses?
Certainly not young families who can contribute to the area for the years to come.
Some of our mothballed and closed schools had been in existence for over a century – we’re a richer society now than we have ever been and yet we are told there is no money to keep them open.
I do not doubt that the councils don’t have the money – but we must ask ourselves where the money has gone, and where have the children gone?
Another contributor to the project was a football and shinty player, who works as a tradesperson in Skye.
We both grew up together in Portree and as we discussed the issues facing young people buying or renting houses, a particular house – which was for sale at the time – came up.
It was on the market at a cost well above average and as it turned out, this particular contributor had helped build it.
“Daniel, we build these houses, but we could never afford to live in them”, he said.
We have labour shortages in just about every sector in the area with almost every business owner, care home operator or hotelier, as well as our emergency services, explaining that accommodation is at least among the biggest reasons for this.
If we continue to exclude local people from the housing market (both private and social) and prevent new housing stock being built by gatekeeping land then they will continue to have no choice but to leave.
Where will we be after that? Our part of the world, seemingly busier than ever, will be a desert, having had its people and soul ripped out.
The culture that has survived through the ages – that arguably draws in so many of the tourists – will be dead.
Even in practical terms, if we continue to lose the people who make this place work, what are we left with?
There will certainly be nobody to plant the seeds needed for future rewilding projects or to manage the holiday changeovers.
I heard one argument in favour of making Skye a National Park National Park argument go something like this: “We’re busy enough, there are plenty of people here already, we need money for new facilities, we can try to stop exploitative foreign companies building wind farms and use NP money generated for the local area and to promote culture.”
It’s a sound enough argument until you consider the fact that there are still fewer than half the people living in Skye than there were before the Highland clearances.
Through a National Park we might attract £10 million a year, but it might as well be £10 billion if it’s not going to serve the people of the area, who definitely don’t need more signage, toilet blocks or car parks.
They need houses, community spaces they can access, space to grow both physically and metaphorically and about 10 million other things before they need new brown signs pointing out where to find ‘attractions’ with recently fabricated back stories.
If the money generated by potential NP status goes to projects that put visitors first, relentlessly the case as it is, then there is no community benefit and no chance of the embattled local culture of the Gael surviving.
In order for it to survive, we need above all else to re-people our land.
I don’t suggest the best way to do this is to offer people who don’t live here £80,000 to move, as though they were doing us a favour, but by retaining some of the people we lose every year.
Provide ample housing, opportunity and the prospect of a good quality of life for the future and they will stay.
“I wanted to stay, but my parents, my teachers, everybody, told me I wasn’t allowed”, this I was heartbreakingly told by a 17-year-old school leaver.
There is still, to this day, a bred-to-leave atmosphere in which young people feel they have failed if they haven’t headed south after school.
This attitude is more damaging than cars parked at the side of the road and has seen us lose multiple generations that followed those who were forcibly removed.
It is in our young people that a healthier future exists for the Gàidhealtachd. We must get better at listening to them and to support them to shape and achieve their future.