Coigach is one of the most remote places in Scotland. A peninsula in the northwest Highlands, as far from anywhere as it gets. A 15-mile single track road winds its way along steep precipices above a series of deep lochs. Half-way, one passes the crags of Stac Pollaidh. Further out toward the sea, the road forms a 10-mile loop with a couple of turn-offs. Eight small townships are strung out along them. They form a community that outsiders, if they know it at all, call Achiltibuie, after the name of its postal village.
There is a group of inhabitants who fear for the survival of the place due to, as they don't tire to highlight, a dwindling school roll, lack of affordable housing, decreasing levels of health provision, an ageing population, and an absence of publicly-funded workshops and industrial units. A few years ago, they formed a Community Development Company (CCDC) that is meant to reverse the decline. They are supported in their endeavors by the Scottish government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council, the European Fund for Rural Development, the Scottish Rural Network, and by the biggest local landowner, the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT).
Presently, there is great excitement about a multi-million initiative dreamed up by the SWT unter the heading Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape (CALL), 'one of the largest landscape restoration projects in Europe, aiming to benefit the land, the people and the local economy'. Other charities are jumping on the bandwagon with the aim 'to improve life for those most in need'. CALL mushrooms into a 'partnership' that employs a virtual army of local bureaucrats as development managers, scheme managers, local development officers, jobsharers and assistants. Their main task appears to be writing new applications for further funding.
Fair enough, isn't it? The legacy of the Highland Clearances has to be dealt with once and for all. Scotland's deprived crofting communities deserve a break, don't they?
There is just a little fly in the ointment, a dirty little secret. Coigach is not poor at all. The story of rural poverty, of 'fragile' communities hanging on by their fingertips at the edge, is a myth. Since 2006, the Scottish government has adopted a groundbreaking scheme, originally begun in England, that measures social need objectively with a so-called Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). It divides Scotland into 6,976 neighbourhoods with, on average, 760 people. The Coigach data zone contains a population of just 473 inhabitants. Eight parameters place each area exactly in the national context, visualised on a map with five shades of blue and five shades of red.
Not surprisingly, Coigach hits rock bottom for 'geographic access deprivation'. But for health provision? Comfortably in the top 10%, rank 6,478. Education slightly lower at 6,271, just out of the top 10%. Employment and income level, shown in a lighter shade of blue, are still way above the national average. In fact, cutting out the remoteness score, Coigach's supposedly struggling community is placed well within the most prosperous third of Scotland.
What's going on here? Is it a case of lies, damn lies and statistics? Not really. The British indices, originally developed by Oxford University, appear by all accounts to be world-leading; other European countries are beginning to emulate them. The truth is that the self-presentation of Coigach and many places like it is totally at odds with reality. I am saying this as an inhabitant of Coigach.
There is a new middle-class living in the crofting counties, partly indigenous but mostly incomers. Quite a few of them have acquired crofts and, accordingly, call themselves crofters. In legal terms, they may be right, but their lifestyle betrays a different story. Mostly educated to degree level, some are grey-bearded retirees, ex-hippies with a natural expectation that society owes them special favours. They are dedicated to create for themselves a picture-perfect world in a picture-perfect environment. Ownership of land by others, they resent. The best internet connection in the country is deemed by them to be an inalienable right. If their iPhones don't pick up a signal anywhere in the wilderness, they perceive it as an affront. They demand public services second to none.
And they get them. They know how to make themselves heard. They are experts at milking for all that it is worth the outdated perception of hardship connected with life on the fringes of Scotland. These new lairds of the west and their charitable backers receive not just ever-more funding but also increasing power in areas where they have little expertise and understanding, from agriculture to crofting and deer management.
Highland Council gives preferential treatment to planning applications put forward by their organisations. A researcher at Edinburgh University found that in the case of Coigach's CCDC and the neighbouring Assynt Foundation, notions of a shared community identity that are given as the rationale for their pampering, have at the same time become a source of exclusion of those who do not submit to their definition of community interest.
But never mind that. Compare the treatment of these supposedly fragile communities with areas like Merkinch in Inverness and you will understand what I am on about. Six of the eight parameters in the SIMD show that part of the Highlands' capital in darkest red. A full two-thirds of its population is unemployed or 'income deprived'. Merkinch has, by now, such a reputation that nobody with local knowledge ventures into the area unless absolutely necessary. It is one of Scotland's worst slums. While the Highlands overall have improved their score since 2012, Merkinch remains rock bottom.
The controversial author Ian Mitchell raised the question of spending bias many years ago in his book 'The Isles of the West', long before multiple deprivation indices came into use. In 1996, he went to the Isle of Eigg and interviewed Maggie Fyffe, a kind of mother-figure to the local community and instigator of a widely praised community buy-out. Judging by his verbatim protocol, he subjected her to a style of questioning with which she, who was more used to public adulation, could not quite cope. Mitchell wanted to know how she justified the use of millions of pounds of Big Lottery Funds to support what she termed herself as a 'lifestyle', while the majority of the punters who delivered the cash are not being asked for their consent and often suffer abject deprivation in dismal housing estates. Unsurprisingly, she had no answer.
Twenty years later, Mitchell sees grant-aided 'community development' not just as a waste of public funds but as positively destructive. He says, 'in trying to achieve consensus in communities before they hand out cash, the grant-giving bodies are in practice shouldering off the road all those who disagree with the consensus they are trying to promote. Scotland used to be famous for its thrawn individualists, often robustly self-educated, who read the Guid Buke, and many other books besides, in a spirit of private critical assessment of public policy. Such people are no longer welcome in the political world. What the flood of free money is actually achieving is the slow death of traditional Scottish intellectual freedom as applied to the subject of practical politics.'
I discussed these questions recently with a protagonist of the land reform and community empowerment elite of the Western Highlands, Topher Dawson, a Green candidate in the forthcoming local government elections. I put it to him that those of us lucky enough to live in the supposedly 'fragile' areas of the west should take heed of the data presented in the deprivation index. His answer was that there are deprived people living in every ward; it would be complacent of us to forget them.
Which may well be so. But it doesn't answer the question why, 10 years after its introduction, the SIMD has made no perceptible impact on local funding. On the contrary, the Heritage Lottery Fund keeps pouring money into the SWT's Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape project, by the latest account £2.9 million. An examination of the accounts of six west coast and island community buy-outs by land consultants Anthony Torrance and Andrew Hamilton revealed that their main sources of income continue to be grants from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), i.e. ongoing subsidies funded by the taxpayer. In the last five years, Assynt Foundation, the Isle of Eigg Trust, Knoydart Estate, the Isle of Gigha, North Harris Estate and South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay received a total subsidy of £5,319,215. Without it, most community-owned estates would face financial collapse.
Not that this would hurt any of their inhabitants. None of them has a financial stake in them. The only thing that would dissolve into thin air would be the political capital invested in the land reform and community empowerment movement by nearly all political parties. Judiciously administered, £5 million could, however, have made a huge difference to the 700 inhabitants of Merkinch where life expectancy is still just 66 years, compared with more than 80 years in the Highlands overall.