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EANN SINCLAIR: Small world has shared experiences for rural areas like ours

By Eann Sinclair

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Like many Highlanders I have relatives in the global diaspora of those who left these shores for better lives.

Canada and Argentina are the two destinations that resonate in my family tree – my two great uncles Nicol and John Oman (and their dogs) left Caithness to become shepherds in Patagonia in the early years of the 20th century, establishing an Argentinian bloodline we are still in touch with.

Nicol (left) and John Oman.
Nicol (left) and John Oman.

And another great uncle, Alexander Sinclair, left Caithness for Canada around the same time, eventually becoming a founding father of the small town of Eston on the vast prairies of Saskatchewan.

So it was interesting to pick up a recent social media post from Eston’s community economic development officer (see, there was a point to all this!) talking about her recent experiences, and her reflections on some wider community concerns for the future.

Why mention a settlement of around one thousand people located almost four thousand miles away?

As I said in my reply to the online piece, I could have deleted the word “Eston” from the post, and inserted the name of most towns or villages in our area, and the sentiments would have still held true. Local businesses, pharmacy closing, key services under threat, reluctance to have to travel to access services – each resonates in the north of Scotland.

Alexander Sinclair's grandson Wayne on a visit to Caithness in 2013 with the front page of a 1906 Caithness Courier which featured adverts for shipping lines and interest in people going out to Canada.
Alexander Sinclair's grandson Wayne on a visit to Caithness in 2013 with the front page of a 1906 Caithness Courier which featured adverts for shipping lines and interest in people going out to Canada.

Recently we’ve seen and heard of the need to continue encouraging people to make use the Public Service Obligation air service from Wick to Aberdeen, or the fragile far north rail line and commercial coach service to and from Inverness. We are keen to hear more about the ongoing redesign of health care in Caithness, and we are concerned about declining and ageing populations. Our roads infrastructure is generally agreed to need significant investment.

On that latter point my cousins in Patagonia recently posted outraged photos of potholed roads in their town, and I wondered what our friends Ian Leith and Donald McDonald made of them on their recent trip back out there from Caithness!

More seriously, what we all have in common (Caithness, Saskatchewan, Patagonia) are the challenges of living in rural areas that are distant from larger centres of population. My three great uncles experienced the harsh realities of economic migration more than a century ago and, whilst the geographic challenges in the latter two areas are on a huge scale compared to the north of Scotland, our own latter-day challenges are not to be ignored.

Last week I gave evidence to the Scottish parliament’s local government, housing and planning committee, who (under the chair of Ariane Burgess MSP) are conducting an inquiry into community planning. Responding to questions from MSPs, I and others such as Scottish Enterprise, South of Scotland Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland outlined how work to tackle inequalities has progressed in the past few years, and what lessons can be learned from major events such as the Covid pandemic.

The discussions reminded me again of the number of common issues affecting people, businesses and communities across Scotland – and how our challenges in the Highlands and Islands are not unique.

Housing continues to be a key enabler for many communities, and also featured strongly at last week’s Focus North advisory board, so it is good to see exciting development plans coming together on the north coast that might offer a model for how future housing could be taken forward, reinforcing that our area can be a demonstrator for how to solve tough challenges.

Indeed that was a point clearly picked up and reflected on by STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer last week during her visit to Caithness following an invite from Thurso and Wick Trades Council.

Back in Eston, the plea of the community economic development officer was – “I can’t do this alone: come and help me!” – and I think this is something we do very well here.

We pull together in pursuit of a goal we can all agree on. Moving from a mindset of “we need more services, but nobody wants to come here because we have no services” to one where we have a clear forward plan with actions to deliver is one I think most of us would get behind.

Eann Sinclair. Picture: John Davidson
Eann Sinclair. Picture: John Davidson
  • Eann Sinclair is area manager, Caithness and Sutherland at Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

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