By-passing local rights? It’s still a bad idea

It’s hard to avoid the admission that time is pushing on when you are called upon to recall events of half a century ago. That was my recent experience when asked to tell the story of the Amhuinnsuidhe by-pass for the BBC Alba programme, Trusadh.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 3rd September 2021, 9:14 am
Updated Friday, 3rd September 2021, 9:15 am
The Amhuinnsuidhe by-pass incident was symbolic of how landlords wielded power at local government level
The Amhuinnsuidhe by-pass incident was symbolic of how landlords wielded power at local government level

The story was, and remains, entertaining and revealing. However, it can also be seen as having wider significance – the last hurrah for a system of local government which, for more than a century, divided the Western Isles and contributed to huge disparities within them; the system of mainland rule by the old County Councils.

“Remote government” did not disappear with the changes in the early 1970s. Indeed, some would say it’s as pernicious as ever, through quangos which make decisions critical to the islands’ future, but are devoid of islands’ representation or consultation with communities affected. Fifty years ago, however, the emergence of a single-tier local authority was a major step in the right direction.

First though a brief resumé of the Amhuinnsuidhe story. At that time, the West Highland Free Press was in its early days and we could hardly believe our luck when this story emerged as it symbolised so much of what the paper was against, principally the power and influence of landlordism.

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North Harris Estate was owned by Sir Hereward Wake, which was a good starting point. Did such a name really exist, 900 years after the Norman Conquest? Indeed it did and Sir Hereward had acquired North Harris, complete with the folly built 100 years earlier for the Dunmores, in the mid-1960s.

Sir Hereward was only an occasional visitor and traffic passing in front of the castle, en route to Hushinish or Scarp, scarcely excessive. However, Sir Hereward had approached Inverness County Council to build a by-pass round the castle at a cost of £80,000 – close to a million in today’s money – to which he would contribute half with the remainder from the public purse.

In this enterprise, he had the wholehearted support of the chairman of Inverness County Council roads committee, Lord Burton of Dochfour, the irascible scion of a brewing dynasty. A little digging on my part revealed the priceless nuggets that both Hereward and Burton had been at Eton around the same time and both were members of Brooks’ Club in London.

This inspired my old mate Derek Cooper to pen such immortal lines as: “About this by-pass, Burton/ here’s something for the kitty/ a handsome cheque for forty thou’/ to help things through committee./ Floreat Etona! See you in Brooks’, old swell/ God helps those who helps themselves – and helps us jolly well!”

On Harris, there was uproar. The island’s single track roads were in a terrible condition. Neglect from the Inverness regime had contributed to a steady drain of depopulation and decline. Now they were going to spend money on an absurdly unnecessary by-pass so that the landlord and his guests were freed from the inconvenience of viewing the occasional passing vehicle.

Eventually, in the face of both local and national derision, the scheme petered out. The last elections for Inverness County Council were coming up and two of the three Harris councillors lost their seats. However the story lived on, as I recalled on the Trusadh programme.

At that time, I was helping John McGrath and the 7.84 company with material for ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’. In the hands of actors like Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett, the Amhuinnsuidhe story was gold-dust. “Sir Hereward Wake said for goodness sake…”. So when ‘The Cheviot’ reached a national TV audience, Amhuinnsuidhe was there and is in the script to this day. All great fun but very powerfully symbolic.

By the time Sir Hereward and Burton cooked up their deal, Inverness County Council and the local government system were already in their death throes. For reasons lost in the mists of time, the Long Island had been divided in two when local government was first legislated for in the mid-19th century. This persisted even after the Western Isles became a single Parliamentary constituency in 1919.

For local government purposes, Lewis remained part of Ross & Cromarty while Harris, Uist and Barra came under Inverness. As a burgh, Stornoway also had its own town council which took most of the local decisions and was represented on the County Council. Along with rural Lewis, there was enough political clout to make a reasonable impression in Dingwall.

Even so, there had been a long-running demand in Lewis for autonomy. In 1939, Provost Roderick Smith of Stornoway observed: “When it is recalled that some of the council conveners have not even been on Lewis, surely we have a case?” Shades indeed of HIAL and CMAL!

For those islands aligned to Inverness, which also included Skye, it was a much worse story; treated as outposts of empire by an authority dominated by landlords – the original “Monarchs of the Glens” who disbursed public money to the impoverished islands as if it was coming out their own ample sporrans.

As the late Father Calum MacLellan, who joined Inverness County Council in its death days, put it: “The big decisions were taken in the Highland Club while the rest of us were sent to the pub”. There was an Islands Committee of the Council and Calum became the first islander in decades to challenge the assumption that it would be chaired by the old Lord MacDonald of Sleat, one of the chief “monarchs”.

While the Amhuinnsuidhe story had its funny side, there was no such consolation from another event in 1972 which summed up the pitiful lack of amenities and their consequences under the aegis of Inverness County Council. On Vatersay, two children died in a fire because the hoses could not reach a supply. The issue had been raised repeatedly in Inverness but nothing happened, on grounds of affordability.

Father Calum MacLellan said at that time: “If we were to accept all the arguments about spending so much money for so few people, then we in the islands might as well pack up and go”. By then, Inverness County Council was even closer to extinction – but the legacy of parsimony and neglect would take decades to redress.

In 1967, a Royal Commission set up by Willie Ross, as Secretary of State for Scotland, reported on the reform of local government. The Wheatley Commission laid the foundations for a system of two-tier councils on the mainland but also recommended that the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland should become districts within Highland Region.

Two MPs on the Commission, Liberal Russell Johnston and Tory Betty Harvie-Anderson, dissented – including on the status of the islands. In Sandy Matheson’s recollection, this was crucial in bringing the islands’ issue into play and securing the eventual outcome.

The Tories won the General Election in 1970 and accepted most of the Wheatley recommendations, while also agreeing that Orkney and Shetland should become “special areas” – but not the Western Isles.

This led to an intensive period of lobbying of the Secretary of State, Gordon Campbell, spearheaded by Sandy Matheson, who was about to become the last Provost of Stornoway, and Father Calum, both wanting to see not only local autonomy but also the removal of divisions which had kept the islands unnaturally apart. By the end of 1971, they had succeeded.

It is worth noting that the reforms of local government that followed killed off the power of landlords in local government not just in the Highlands and Islands but throughout rural Scotland. It also created the big, powerful regions which were bound to be Labour run. Thus the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was an honourable example of a Tory government legislating against its own class and party interests.

It created what was, in my view, the best structure of governance that Scotland has enjoyed – regions big enough to take strategic decisions, districts with meaningful powers close to the communities they served and single-tier islands councils, well-funded in recognition of their particular needs – which, in the case of the Western Isles, included a prolonged need for “levelling-up” between Lewis and the former Inverness-shire islands.

Looking back on this period, Sandy Matheson says: “The best thing that happened in the Western Isles was the creation of Comhairle nan Eilean as a multi-purpose local authority.

"Not only did that give rise to a new and welcome ability for the islands to decide their own priorities, it had a tremendous psychological effect and gave the lie to those who in the past had imagined local government was best handled from the centre, anywhere but the islands themselves”.

Sandy adds wryly: “That is still a philosophy of the civil service mandarins to this day”. That philosophy is reflected in current controversies over air traffic control and ferries where it has been a matter of Scottish Government policy to keep islanders off the quango boards which rubber-stamp decisions with major impacts on island communities that these people may well never have set foot in.

Instead of fighting against cuts and erosion of powers to Edinburgh, there could be another direction of travel for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

As radical a review as the one produced by the Wheatley Commission in the 1960s might recommend Faroese status within Scotland and the UK for these island groups? Why not? It has worked for the Faroes to reverse depopulation, maintain the language and create prosperity – none of which has happened here.

How refreshing it would be if there was a forum in which such ideas could be debated and considered, rather than crushed at birth.

It is 50 years since the last great leap forward in how the Western Isles are governed. Maybe it’s time for another one?