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'Cheap' clothes, Edinburgh being remote and tourism 'stomping' on locals – Emma Roddick talks about her early experience of being a Highlands and Islands MSP

By Scott Maclennan

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In an exclusive interview with political correspondent Scott Maclennan, SNP MSP Emma Roddick hits out at over-tourism and 'remote' central belt bias

MSP Emma Roddick.
MSP Emma Roddick.

Elected at the age of just 23, MSP Emma Roddick became known as one of Scotland’s youngest politicians representing the Highlands and Islands regional list.

In this exclusive interview with Highland News and Media, Ms Roddick – now 24 – speaks about her first months in the Scottish Parliament and the privilege of representing the north.

Ranging from describing Edinburgh as “remote” to tackling issues such as over-tourism and revealing how it felt when, at a meeting with the First Minister present, a fellow SNP politician said her clothes looked “cheap”.

Elected in May, it was not long before a single post online saw her embroiled in a spat that made national headlines about the short-term costs of becoming a Member of the Scottish Parliament.

Today she admits that “it was tough” but she stands by her view, saying: “I didn’t feel that what I had said was wrong.

“There were people who were getting in touch with me, who had maybe thought about becoming a councillor but couldn't because, in order to do it properly, you need to have some money behind you.

“And I think that is something that is worth talking about – you know, I wasn’t looking for extra money, folk did offer and I didn’t take them up on that, it was just a problem for me and, if not for Covid which meant that all of my hustings were virtual, then I wouldn't have been able to travel around the region at all – I wouldn’t be here.

“I think there are sometimes things that we need to have a conversation about because it was one of the first things that was said to me when I got into my first group meetings.”

But if anything, things behind the scenes were even worse than being pilloried by some opposition politicians online.

She said: “One of the more senior members of the party said, 'look, I have noticed that some of you are not dressing appropriately for parliament' and it wasn't, 'you're wearing shorts or jeans' it was 'your clothes look cheap'. And that was quite hard.

“Now, I'm quite annoyed about it. But at the time, it was my first group meeting. I'm in this meeting with Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney and I'm kind of trying to figure everything out – deer in the headlights moment. And I am being told you need to dress like you have money. How do I do that?

"Obviously I was a councillor, I didn’t wear jeans and T-shirt everywhere, but it felt like suddenly I wasn't in the right place, that I am not the right person, I am not supposed to be here, I don’t have somebody else’s dress sense.”

The parliament in Edinburgh is ‘remote’ from the Highlands and Islands, according to the SNP’s Emma Roddick.
The parliament in Edinburgh is ‘remote’ from the Highlands and Islands, according to the SNP’s Emma Roddick.

Things would improve after assured performances in parliament saw her repeatedly raise issues seen as vital to locals, including whether Highland Council needed to be broken up – and coming within four votes of triggering a ballot on the issue.

“I knew straight off, I wanted to get the first speech done because I thought once I have spoken it will be easier," she said. "But there's something about the chamber, the sound, it is really quiet in there because they've got sound posts and it absorbs the sound.

“So you feel a bit muted and just the lights, the size of it, the air, it feels really calming, so we didn't have the kind of overwhelming fear and all those feelings that I expected to have.”

The importance of her maiden speech in parliament for Ms Roddick was that could set the tone and to “write a letter” to her region, vowing to write “lots of letters about the issues that I want taken notice of”.

“I loved doing my first speech,” she said. “And because you can just kind of make it a letter to your region, it was helpful to me to set the tone that I am going to be here to talk about the Highlands and Islands. And I am going to write you lots of letters about the issues that I want taken notice of.”

One of those issues is to refocus national policy attention on the Highlands and Islands – but insisting that it is not the region that is far away from Edinburgh but Edinburgh that is “remote” from the Highlands.

“I initially wrote a Word document when I got elected for the staff that I would then hire, setting out what I wanted to focus on and what I expect them to do. In that document it says we do not call the Highlands and Islands remote.

“I think when people say that, when central belters say that, they don't just mean it's a long journey to get there – it helps them think that there is nothing here and it is far away from their minds when they are making policy.

“And that's what leads them to react to me in a strange way when I explain the extra challenges I'm facing in representing such a massive region while also having to come to Edinburgh.

“They say well you don’t have to travel around the region all the time, and I tell them that is not the problem – the problem is here. And it's having to flip that to get them to understand where I'm coming from because allowing folk to say the Highlands is remote is just allowing them to excuse all these challenges that we face.

“Exactly as I tell folk in the Parliament, the main problem I have is getting from my home to somewhere else in the region and then Edinburgh within two days – and I just don’t think it is possible.

“It's a real privilege to represent the whole region and I love that I've had this opportunity to represent Shetland and Inverness and Nairn and Fort William – it is amazing – but there is no way I could get to every island that I represent within the next five years if I went to one every week, because there'd be so much of the region I'd never see.”

That attempt is inspired partly by keeping her feet on the ground and alive to the issues affecting people in the Highlands and Islands and not allowing herself to get sucked into the Holyrood “bubble”.

Ms Roddick said: “You can get to a lot of places and speak to people and without doubt that is the best part of the job because the parliament is a different reality. I'm so aware of that but it still manages to suck you in regardless of how aware of it you are.

“But I still need to cling on to that fact but there are still people milling about up in the Highlands and Islands because otherwise you would end up thinking that the fact we've run out of macaroni pies is the biggest challenge facing Scotland today. It is just this bubble.”

Amid rising awareness about the impact of tourism, both good and bad, she argues too often it is “stomping on the needs of locals,” suggesting it is time we consider seriously what harm the industry does to the region – including the so-called success story of the NC500.

“I get that line a lot that tourism is important to the Highlands and, yes, it is, because we have allowed that to remain the case,” she said.

“And it dates back so far with the Highlands being a playground for gentry or people consider it to be a holiday park or something for them to come and enjoy the story a little bit and then leave.

“It is stomping on the needs of locals and it is making it a difficult place for folk to live. That is hard for me because that's where I've always lived and I don't have any intention of leaving but we have to recognise that, alongside tourism, over-tourism is a very real concept.

“And that has to apply to the North Coast 500 – there are short-term let owners who own multiple properties and towns where nobody can afford a house any more. That is over-tourism.”

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