Lecture given by Alasdair Stephen at inaugral Skye Commonweal meeting on Saturday the 22nd of April at An Crùbh, Duisdale, Sleat, Skye.
This is a photo taken of Ferindonald primary school in 1920. There are over forty children in this picture, my grandmother, her wee sister and her wee brother included.
Of the 40 children only three stayed on the island. They were told, “S’e faotainn air adhart, faotainn air falbh” – getting ahead is getting away.
They were also told this: ‘Dè feum sa Ghàidhlig? Chan fhaigh thu unnsa tombac’ aon uair gu ruig thu Mallaig leis a ‘Ghàidhlig’ – What use is Gaelic? You won’t get an ounce of tobacco as soon as you reach Mallaig with Gaelic.
Three years after this photo was taken one of my gran’s older brother’s, along with other young men in the community, waited down at Isle Ornsay pier to be taken out to the passenger ship the Metagama. Part of an assisted passage programme, the Empire Settlement Act, they were being paid to leave. Poverty and landlessness was what faced the Highlanders at home. The UK Government, suspicious of rebellious Red Scots and keen to bolster the British populations of their colonies, spent fortunes on this scheme. It was not spent on jobs in Scotland. One tenth of the Highland population left within a few years.
The emptying of the glens was political.
I was in my fourth year at Strathclyde University when Jonathan Charley arrived as a tutor. A revolutionary socialist and academic from Bristol, it was he who introduced this simple concept: architecture is politics. I had the chance to travel to Paris with my fellow students and design a museum or suchlike on an urban gap site. After being inspired by Jonathan I had other ideas. Instead, with my friend Michael, we persuaded the school that our time would be better spent on our own project. Mike’s mother’s family was from Gwedore in Donegal, my mother’s family from Skye. We undertook a comparative study of the housing conditions in both areas.
In Ireland, we found houses being built everywhere. The pubs were full and the villages appeared to be thriving. On Skye by contrast there was little sign of progress or prosperity. Old people were still living in houses with no running water or toilets. We met a shepherd who had lost his tied cottage when he retired. Now living in Archie Margaret’s caravan site in Breakish (for the homeless, not tourists) he showed us bin bags full of clothes so to keep them dry and described how his cutlery would freeze to the draining board in the morning.
However, it was after I graduated and I went to work at Cluanie Inn near Kintail that I had the real shock.
My view of the Highlands was my experience with my Skye grandparents. It was Gaelic spoken amongst friends, church on the Sabbath, broth and bonnach, fishing and exploring the moors and the shores, the grandfather clock ticking at grandpa’s cousins’ house; tea in china cups, Battenberg cake as the corncrake rasped outside. It was the Highlands of Crowdie and Cream.
At Cluanie the caravans out the back are not just for hotel workers. Next to my temporary home lived Johnny Stalker the local gamekeeper, his young wife and baby. Next to them a local girl who claimed her child had been taken into care because she was homeless. I was told how a nearby estate, recently bought by middle eastern investors, were knocking down houses.
Saddest though were some of the older local men. Many were in caravans or in appalling housing conditions. Most had been on the council house waiting list for decades with no prospect of success. Alcoholism was endemic. There was also the depressing and tragic stories of unnecessary deaths: drownings, drink driving, house fires, accidents on the hills. There was a real sense of a community dying, both culturally and socially.
That same year some of the Strathclyde students had organised a winter school. This was an international festival of architecture which attracted contributing architects and academics, as well as students, from around the world. I attended a panel discussion on rural architecture where, what I would call a Boswellian Scot, an Orkney-born architect who had made his money and reputation in London and was slightly embarrassed by his country of origin, was asked his views on rural housing in the Highlands.
The Highlanders, he pronounced, built such appalling kit houses because they were cultural philistines and saw no value in design. I stood up and challenged this, telling him of the traditions of Gaelic poetry, song, pìobaireachd, dance, shinty and language. The reason, I explained, that the Highlanders chose to build kit houses, was that architects had not offered anything better. His profession had failed.
Afterwards my brother complimented me on my intervention. He also pointed out that being architecture graduates ourselves we maybe had a responsibility to offer an alternative.
I had left university into a recession and like almost all my contemporaries had plans to move to London or abroad to gain architectural experience. Working in Cluainie was a means to make money so I could join my friends in Hong Kong. At some point I changed my mind and decided to learn Gaelic from my Grandmother on Skye.
I ended up attending the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, unsure as to whether I would return to architecture as a profession. Fate, and alcohol, determined that I would.
Domhnall Angaidh MacLennan from North Uist became a friend through Eilean Iarmain bar, where I worked and he drank. Domhnall was looking to build a small house for himself and had sent away for the usual Roy Home and Scot Frame brochures. I excitedly explained to him one evening that whilst at university I had undertaken a comparative study of housing conditions in Donegal and Skye. Donegal was thriving but the landscape had been spoiled with inappropriate housing. Skye needed many more houses so one of the outcomes of the project was a design for a modern blackhouse which could be used to repopulate the glens without ruining them. I had a model back at the house and would bring it in the next evening.
I knew there was little chance that Domhnall Angaidh would build a house designed by a student. When I presented the plasticine and cardboard model too him from behind the bar I did not expect a commission. However, at this precise moment, a vacationing contractor arrived at the bar to order his tenth whisky. “I’ll build that for £25,000, no problem” he said. The deal was done. Domhnall Angaidh the client, myself and my twin the architects, and Jim Cook the builder.
In Gaelic a hangover is called “ceann goirt ‘s aitherachas”, meaning a sore head and repentfulness. Most people will have experienced this, a feeling of guilt of having done something regretful or embarrassing the night before while drunk. In reality you have probably done nothing: In Jim’s case it would have dawned on him, draining his blood as it did, that he had agreed to build a bespoke house for £25,000.
As it transpired the house cost £35,000. It didn’t cost Domhnall Angaidh any more as this meant his grant increased. The government funded Rural Home Ownership Grant (RHOG), which was available to first time builders with limited funds, was designed on the basis that the applicant had to secure a mortgage of 2 ½ times their salary. The grant would make up the shortfall (within certain limits) of up to one third of the overall costs.
This was the beginning of myself and my brother’s business Dualchas. Over the next few years we were commissioned to design several RHOG houses, never quite sure whether it was our design skills that our clients were attracted to or our ability to maximise grant funding. Most were young and almost all still live in the area and have families.
I also built one for myself. Before Christmas I was out for dinner with Jim Cook and I asked him how much, with modern building regulations, my house would cost today. His response was the basis of a Facebook post and the reason I have been invited to give this talk tonight.
20 years ago, the land for my house was valued at £9,000. The construction cost was £35,000, the government grant £18,000. My contribution, 2 ½ times my salary, was £22,000.
The same house today? Land £80,000, construction cost £220,000, government grant £0, 2 ½ times typical 26 yr. old’s salary - £50,000. Funding shortfall; a quarter of a million pounds.
After my Facebook post went viral I was invited to write a column for the West Highland Free Press where I outlined some ideas for a solution.
My main argument was that vision and leadership was required. Firstly, from Government, but also from the local community.
When I arrived on Skye as a young graduate I knew it was unlikely I would find a job in architecture. To keep my hand in I undertook a project to survey the village of Borearig in Strath, cleared in 1853. Also cleared that day was the village of Suisnish, a couple of mile up the coast. My Grandfather’s people came from there. They ended up destitute, along with other families, camping on the moors above Breakish in appalling conditions. The crofters of Breakish petitioned Lord Macdonald that a portion of their common grazing be given over to these poor wretches, even thought this would have made themselves poorer. Lord MacDonald consented to this request and the 6 small crofts of Ashaig were created. In 1896, the Crofting Act gave security of tenure to crofters, allowing my great grandfather to build his house. This was a Department of Agriculture pattern book house design; a sheet of A4 paper with plans and elevations on one side and a simple specification on the other.
I tell this story as it is an example of crofters giving up common grazing for the greater good of the wider community. It is an example of a landowner – despite his previous crimes – consenting to this selfless request. It is an example of how Government, through acts of parliament and providing support, can create a framework where people can prosper. But it also an example of the perseverance and industry of individuals who survived to build their own homes, families and legacies.
Likewise, this amazing building, An Crùbh, in which we are tonight. This would not have been possible without the crofters agreeing to set aside common grazing for the wider community, the backing of the landowner, nor the Government through funding and other forms of support. But more than anything it is a testament to the vision and hard work of individuals, who became a team, who wanted to create an outstanding building and with it a more diverse and stronger cultural and social life.
Sleat is an incredible community. There is the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the crown jewel of the University of the Highlands; A Michelin star restaurant at Kinloch, a new distillery at Toravaig, a world class visitors centre at Clan Donald, the best pub in Scotland at Eilean Iarmain and many brilliant businesses such as Ragamuffin, Young Films and, dare I say it, Dualchas Architects. From being almost dead in the 1980s with less than 300 people left, the population of Sleat is now over a thousand. It is an example to the rest of rural Scotland.
But the jobs at An Crùbh cannot be filled because accommodation is not available. We have three members of staff at Dualchas who are facing homelessness. I know talented young people who have left Sleat because of a lack of housing and others who have secured jobs but cannot move here. There is no longer anyone from Sleat in the Sleat and Strath football team. Where are the young building their houses now as we did twenty years ago? The school roll is healthy but it could fall off a cliff. Houses that were available for long term rent a couple of years back are now advertised on Airbnb as the tourism sector rockets. And up the road, Archie Margaret’s caravan site is still there, and still full of homeless people.
There is so much more potential for success and wealth in Sleat and the Highlands. But if Sleat does not succeed, then nowhere will.
I am convinced that these housing problems can be overcome. Vision and ambition from Government, both national and local, is vital. There is a huge variety of policies that could help. But there also needs to be a willingness from the community itself to grow and thrive. A vision that is not imposed but one that government, landowners, crofters, businesses and everyone else can support and offers a framework where social housing providers, the private sector, community groups and individuals, can find solutions. What happened in Ashaig, and this building, proves what can be done as does the success of the RHOG scheme.
How to start? Well, ask the children in the local school. Look in their eyes and say, do you want to live, work and prosper in this community? Do you want the opportunity to stay in your own house, have a family, to love and grow old? Do you want the chance to have professional success, or start your own business, employ people, expand and not have to leave?
If they want that and you want that, then this is the beginning of a vision.
But the other person who needs to look into these children’s eyes is the politician. It is Nicola Sturgeon. It is a political decision if your children have the chance to stay, just as it was a political decision that those children one hundred years ago had to leave.
Look again at this picture from Ferindonald school. These kids, dressed in their best clothes for the school photo, but most with no shoes, were told that to get ahead they had to leave. They were told their language and culture had little worth.
Imagine, if they, and their contemporaries, had been told they could stay. That their talent and ingenuity could build a stronger, more prosperous community. That they were told this by their parents but also supported by their government. Imagine what Sleat would be and what sort of country Scotland could have been. Let’s not make the same mistake again.