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The EU turned Scotland’s Highland region into a model of economic success – will Brexit reverse that?

Perched on the furthest, wildest reaches of northern Britain, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have historically been perceived as more economically backward than the rest of the country.

Framed as the “Highland problem” by policymakers, this stereotype led to the view that the north and west of Scotland was destined to remain in a state of underdevelopment. Despite a long history of economic intervention intended to ease poverty and build wealth in the region, it wasn’t until the 1980s that continued economic assistance and, more recently, migration from the European Union caused the population of the Highlands and Islands to grow significantly.

The northwest Highlands and Islands region of Scotland. Barryrob/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

This recent economic success has largely been the result of the injection of significant EU funds, and a willingness to use local knowledge and collaborate with local agencies.

A bleak history

Chronic population loss in the Highlands has traditionally been blamed on the era of estate restructuring, known as the Improvement Era (around 1750-1850). During this period, many landlords were keen to displace their tenants from fertile valleys to the margins of their estates to make way for livestock, leaving many Highlanders without their traditional land base.

Some people were evicted in this early period of the Highland Clearances, but many left of their own accord in search of opportunities elsewhere. They did so for a variety of reasons, such as looking for seasonal work in factories in the rapidly industrialising Lowlands or leaving in search of land and opportunities in North America.

Though many people – up to 23-25,000 people between 1760 and 1815 alone – left during this period, the population actually rose overall from 266,000 to around 420,000 due to a relative rise in the standard of living and the widespread reliance on successful cultivation of the potato, which helped sustain families on small crofts.

Golspie’s statue of the Duke of Sutherland, one of the most notorious proponents of the Highland Clearances that saw tenant farmers driven from their land and villages in the 18th century to make way for sheep. John Haslam/Wiki, CC BY-SA

Yet social commentators like Samuel Johnson gave the public the impression that there was an “epidemical fury of emigration”. In fact, there were efforts in this period by optimistic landlords to end poverty and prevent emigration through the provision of employment and infrastructure using private and government funds.

This led, for example, to the formation of the British Fisheries Society in the late 18th century, which laid the foundations for later success in the herring industry, and saw massive expansion of roads, bridges and canals.

But change did not come soon enough. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the economy of the Highlands collapsed. Britain’s war machine was the major market for the limited number of Highland products and employment (in this case, soldiers), and with its loss, the area plunged into economic despair and famine. Thousands of people were either evicted or emigrated. It was during the period of large-scale evictions that landlord-led economic intervention ended and chronic depopulation began.

By 1951, the Highlands had a population of only 309,000 and one of the highest unemployment rates in Britain. This caused Picture Post magazine to declare in 1953 that this was “Britain’s most gravely depressed area”.

Though intermittent government intervention from the late 19th century to the post-World War II period – such as the Crofter’s Act of 1886, various land settlement acts and the formation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 – may have increased access to land and bolstered salmon farming, energy and tourism, it was unable to stem population loss in the region, especially that of young people seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Boom time

But all this changed in the 1980s when the EU targeted the area for transitional support funding, designed to boost the economic prospects of an area “lagging behind”. Since then, sustained and customised assistance from the EU has led to huge advances in economic development, bringing unprecedented wealth to the region as innovative local industries, and in particular small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), have benefited from that support.

In particular, transport (roads and ferries), culture, biotech, tourism, life sciences, food and drink, financial and business services, resource extraction and energy investment have flourished through local partnerships and the transfer of local knowledge to international markets.

EU funding helped create a green and self-sufficient energy supply for the island of Eigg. YouTube.

Most notable was the EU’s support for the creation of the University of the Highlands and Islands in 2011, thanks to European funds invested in IT, research development, course development and delivery, and widening access to more remote communities.

As a result, there has been significant population growth and retention in recent years, especially of young people who, in former times, left in large numbers for universities and jobs in the south or abroad.

Forward or backward?

EU citizens migrating to the Highlands to fill the growing number of jobs in the region have boosted its population and its economy; in recent years, 62% of migrant workers to the Highlands have come from the EU.

In 2011, the population of the Highlands was 466,112 – the highest ever recorded – a figure that, at the current rate of increase was expected to rise to about half a million by around 2031. But with the announcement of Brexit in 2015, this is looking less certain. With 23% of small businesses currently employing EU nationals, there are fears over recruitment issues in the future.

Thanks to the EU, what was once considered to be a problem is now a model of economic success for similar developing regions. With Brexit on the horizon, an area enjoying some of the fastest growth in the UK is being directly threatened by the inevitable end to EU investment which will run out in 2020.

As the Highland region is still considered “transitional” by the EU, and therefore in need of support, it will rely heavily on the UK government’s pledge to continue “projects currently funded by the EU”.

It remains to be seen whether or not the UK government will invest in the future of the Highlands to the level the EU has done. If it doesn’t, it seems likely that many will leave in search of opportunities elsewhere – a scenario with a long and regrettable history in the Highlands.

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