The Scottish Parliament's think-tank

The Lights on in the Islands 

Girl looks out over lochPhoto by Gary Ellis on Unsplash

In this blog, Rhoda Meek, a crofter and businessman, looks at how the challenges of housing in the islands need to be addressed to protect and strengthen the community and the economy.

What’s the way forward for communities based in the islands where the lights go out in winter?

Thinking about the years ahead of us, that’s the main question for me. And it’s a difficult question. 

In my village 50% of the house are without lights in winter. Half of them. That is not good and I’m afraid that it signifies worse to come in the future unless we do something – fast.  

Housing and economic activity are two sides of the same coin. Without economic activity people can’t live, stay or move into a community. Without housing people can’t start up a business, employ folk or retain them. Without people who are still in employment, still healthy enough to do voluntary work, and who have children in school, there’s no way on earth we can keep healthy communities in our islands.  

And this is without even considering Gaelic – the culture that is such a part of it, and the local knowledge which we’ve lost, and are still losing.  

During Covid we’ve seen in a new way how fragile an economy is that’s based on income from tourism. We often see people buying houses in the islands just to escape the big smoke – and when they realise that life in the islands is quite hard, they put their house out for summer let and leg it back to the city. That has gotten worse altogether. Behind them they leave an empty house, a housing market where prices are much too high for the majority, and communities without suitable housing for those who are willing to live here and take part in community life. For others it’s just a chance to earn a few bucks – they buy five houses for summer lets without thinking too deeply about the consequences.   

That’s the truth. Many islands are just playgrounds. Playgrounds for people with money. And not enough of that money stays in the islands.  

If it’s just a game, there’s many an island playing it with gusto. New businesses are appearing all over the place. Tiree is a good example, with new community projects, new businesses everywhere and a strong community spirit still. But I’m afraid that that won’t be enough. Without housing, a workforce can’t be employed. We see that just now and the situation is not getting any better. Without a workforce, cafés and restaurants can’t open – and where do the tourists go then? 

There is no single answer, but a couple of things are certain. If we are to have healthy communities in places like Tiree in twenty years time, something has to change. 

I want to see housing that is built quickly, but well. I want to see a restriction on summer houses and “second homes”. I want to see more support for people living here and for those trying to do up old houses or build new houses.  

Photo by Katherine Anne Rose

Some people will be hopping mad if they’re prevented from earning from the island without living here. I don’t give damn. We haven’t time to be concerned. Time is pressing on us and matters are not getting better. The time for games is over.  

In another five years I hope islands will be fully supported to ensure that our communities are at the heart of matters relating to the place. There’s no “place” without community, there’s nothing but a wet desert. 

If we lose the community that’s there all year round, we’ll lose the community spirit and what’s left of the language and the culture. We’ll lose young people and our hopes accordingly. Such precious things, and we’ll never be able to find them ever again.  

Fortunately our islands are full of young, creative, strong lights, but they are fighting a broken system. I hope in the years ahead of us that we can keep the lights – to ensure that they are lit and visible throughout the islands, all year round. 

Rhoda Meek

Rhoda Meek is the founder of Isle Develop CIC, a social enterprise running digital projects with islanders at their heart. Current projects include and When she is not staring at a computer, she is a crofter, runs Tiree Tea and enjoys a game of Minecraft. She is based on the Isle of Tiree. 

To mark Seachdain na Gàidhlig (World Gaelic Week) in 2022, the Futures Forum asked several Gaelic speakers to share their views of the future. The project, run with support from the Scottish Parliament’s Gaelic Officers, aimed to contribute to a vision shared at a Futures Forum event on the future of Gaelic in 2019: a Scotland where “Gaelic is visible and audible in public life, with Gaelic routinely used for non-Gaelic issues”. 

Scotland’s Futures Forum exists to encourage debate on Scotland’s long-term future, and we aim to share a range of perspectives. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the Futures Forum’s views.