Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto

Fellowship Title:

A Road For Rhenigidale

Alma Guillermoprieto
November 10, 1985

Fellowship Year

The village sits on the westernmost reaches of Europe, perched at the mouth of a loch (or fjord) on one of Scotland’s smaller islands; the Isle of Harris. The island is bleak, brown, chill and windy. In the village itself there are no stores, movie theaters, coffee shops, swimable beaches, famous artists or local crafts, and yet Rhenigidale attracts a small but steady trickle of post-hippie visitors lured by its most outstanding characteristic; the one the villagers themselves are most desperately trying to change. The village has no road.

In the waning years of the century of the automobile the only way to reach this tiny village is still by means of what the locals describe as a “sturdy hike.” But after many years of lobbying, petitioning and pleading, Rhenigidlians are about to get their road thanks to an experimental program set up by the European Economic Community, or EEC, aimed at finding new avenues of regional development.

For the EEC, the $750,000 road project is a mere speck on the budget, much as the village appears on the map of Europe. But for the designers of the Integrated Development Program, or IDP, which has authorized the funds for the road, much is at stake. The IDP has a small budget–$30 million–and a mere five-year life span in which to bring fundamental change to Rhenigidale and all the other towns and settlements in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. If the IDP succeeds, the Outer Hebrides will have–in addition to the Rhenigidale road–a new source of income from IDP-financed shellfish and salmon farms, a significant acreage of drained bogland suitable for agriculture and a greatly improved communications network. For its part, the EEC might have a blueprint for development: a possible alternative to the costly and anachronic program of agricultural subsidies known as the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP.

The future of the EEC’s agricultural policy is the future of the rural population, now about 8 million strong. The Community and its ten member governments must devise ways to keep people from leaving the rural areas or come up with useful and satisfying employment once they leave for the cities. The EEC must also guarantee the preservation of the rural ecology and social fabric. A dwindling population means less services, jobs and meaningful leisure activity for those that get left behind. An agriculture dominated by industrial forms of production means an end to the wonderful diversity of foodstuffs and products cherished as an integral part of European civilization. But by focusing primarily on production goals rather than human resources, the CAP has failed to provide a balance between profitable agriculture and adequate protection of the rural way of life. The policy is mired in production surpluses, and the cost of paying guaranteed prices to the farmers who produce them is threatening to sink the entire EEC budget. EEC officials now also agree that the program has brought prosperity, but not equality, to the countryside. Already prosperous farmers have benefited far more from the subsidies program than smaller, more struggling ones in undeveloped areas of Europe. As the IDP’s proponents see it, the only possible solution to this range of problems is a return to small-scale thinking.

“The 1960’s was a time of spending vast amounts of CAP money on blockbuster schemes,” says Frank Lawrie, of the Scottish Office’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, which channels IDP funds into the Western Isles. “These broad-brush measures solved a lot of problems, but the prevailing prosperity hid the many other problems they created. Today we can see that moving away from centralism is a much more cost-effective way of doing things. There are umpteen little problems to deal with in each European region, and they all differ one from the other. They must be addressed individually. We like to think that (with the IDP) we’re helping to wean the EEC away from centralist measures.” The road towards a new concept of regional planning appears to lead through Rhenigidale.

The footpath from Tarbert to Rhenigidale ascends steeply to a breathtaking view of a quiet inlet, pitches down again just as sharply and then climbs and falls once more along the ocean cliffs before arriving at the tiny cove that shelters the village. A fence around the village keeps stray sheep out, but a gate latched with a piece of string allows human access. On a late summer afternoon this year even the rain clouds parted for a few hours to enhance the scene. Beyond the fence, a villager was hoeing his garden. Fragrant peat smoke puffed gently out of the chimney of one of the nine child’s-drawing houses. Sheep nibbled buttercups, hens scrambled over the emerald grass on the common green. A pregnant white cat bounded through the iris banks chasing a butterfly. Behind the small spoon-shaped valley, fern and heather-covered hills curved softly. At the other end, the sea cradled the rocky shore. No detail–the homely clothes waving on the clothesline, the sun breaking through the clouds–marred the idyll.

Just outside the first house inside the fence a bright red Royal Mail box called attention to itself. “Collection: 7:45 am daily,” the sign on it read. Technically this is correct. Every morning for the last 20 years Kenny MacKay has crossed his front yard, checked the box, and brought any waiting mail in to his house. In addition three times a week the 50 year-old postman has put on his galoshes and set off on the knee-wrenching 12-mile round-trip hike to the Tarbert post office. MacKay is Rhenigidale’s most ardent road lobbyist. “I used to compose letters about it in my head on the really bad weather days while I was walking,” he said recently.

For MacKay, the road is a promise not only of surcease from strain but from overwhelming social and economic isolation. “We’re hoping more people will want to settle here after the road comes,” he said almost dreamily. “And we’d like for the village to have a shop.” We were sitting in a motorboat with Morag, MacKay’s wife, and Duncan, their three-year old son, taking advantage of a break in the weather to travel by sea to the nearest village with a road, where the family keeps a car. Supplies reach the village by motorboat, and there is no landing slip to accommodate larger craft. Two of the women in the village are over 65, and cannot leave it except by sea. Medical emergencies pose dramatic problems.

“I have had to take my seriously ill nephew of six months in a small open boat to the doctor at Tarbert, and also…ferry a visitor to the village who had fallen and fractured his skull…I again had to ferry out the battered remains of a visitor who had missed the footpath…and fallen 60 feet to his death…” MacKay wrote in 1979, in one of his stream of letters to the local council.

These difficulties explain Rhenigidale’s present minute population, down from a high of about one hundred in the 1920’s. The village was not more isolated or backward than its neighbors then, but shared the Western Isles’ overwhelming problem: a critical shortage of arable land. When the British government broke up an immense estate on the nearby island of Skye and parceled it out to local farmers, most of the families in Rhenigidale left to take advantage of the offer. Subsequent population loss was gradual, as the young people left for jobs on the mainland or in the fishing industry and their elders moved out to join them when they could no longer hike across the hills. Today only three people have “jobs;” the MacKays, and an elderly man who runs a highly primitive–and equally popular–hostel. Everyone else lives off sheep farming.

MacKay remembers sharing the one-room schoolhouse with 15 or 16 other children when he was growing up.

Today Morag MacKay, who met her husband when she came out from the mainland to teach in the school, has only one pupil. “When Fiona is 10 next year she’ll be moving on to Tarbert for the rest of her schooling,” Morag MacKay said. That is, until her own child reaches school age, she’ll be put out of a job. New settlers, new children, new customers for a potential shop. For the MacKays, the road holds the promise of growth, and with it, survival.

But for the local and international agencies who are putting up money for the road’s construction, a blacktop road to a dead-end village with a tiny and aging population did not immediately appear as a priority amid the Western Isles’ multiple and pressing needs.

Scotland has a clear hierarchy of underdevelopment. It is far less industrialized than the rest of the United Kingdom. Within Scotland, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, a semi-autonomous agency, works closely with the representative of the central government, the Scottish Office, to bring development to the north and western parts of the country. In the Northwest, the islands suffer most from unemployment, poor living conditions and lack of adequate communications and industry. And of the islands, none are more barren, under-populated and poor than the Western Isles: Lewis and Harris (technically a single island), Benbecula, North and South Uise and Barra, also known collectively as the Outer Hebrides.

An inventory taker for the Hebridean landscape would have an easy task. For one thing, there are no trees to speak of: the constant Atlantic winds have left hills bare of tall growth. There are virtually no crops, other than what grows on heavily-fertilized garden plots. Centuries of rain have washed away the islands’ topsoil. The 30,000 inhabitants share the vast moorlands with 150,000 sheep, and little else. A system of aging ferryboats and one-lane highways connects the capital of Stornoway (pop. 8,000) with every town and settlement except Rhenigidale. Other than the traditional home-weaving industry of Harris tweeds and a couple of fish-processing plants, there is almost no manufacture. Even the sheep stock is badly in need of genetic improvement. A decrepit fishing fleet fails to exploit the Isles’ one outstanding natural resource; a rich variety of commercial species. In those circumstances, is it justified to spend precious development money on a road that will serve 15 people, many of whom could die or move away in the next five years?

By most standards of practicality, the answer is probably no. But one of the IDP’s more important aims is to stop what European planners call the “desertification” of the countryside. MacKay says that if the road had not been approved, he and his wife would have moved out as soon as they could find work elsewhere, and the village’s only other young couple, MacKay’s sister and brother-in-law, would not have moved back home from the mainland. Ronnie Cramond, who is widely credited with having ‘invented’ the IDPs, or at least with selling the idea to Brussels, says the Rhenigidale road is only an “anecdote” in the IDP’s overall plan. But he provided a hardheaded justification for it nevertheless. “It simply doesn’t make sense, having invested over the years in school, housing, roads, electricity, postal services and so on, to abandon it all if the economy of rural areas collapses due to the centripetal structure of contemporary democracies.” Cramond is currently deputy chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which together with the Scottish Office oversees disbursements for the IDP.

The question facing Cramond and other IDP project officials when the IDP started was “what kind of planning?” It was not the first time that the islands had been the object of ambitious schemes aimed at hauling them into the modern economic sphere. In the mid-19th century James Matheson, a millionaire merchant from the mainland, purchased the entire Isle of Lewis. Matheson’s fortune funded land reclamation, road building, cattle breeding and improvement, emergency food aid, and, as his plans failed to bear fruit and the century’s potato famine took hold in Scotland, subsidies for Lewis natives willing to emigrate to Nova Scotia.

In 1918, Lord Leverhulme, of Lever Brothers soap fame, bought Lewis from the Matheson family and launched a second grandiose development scheme aimed at building up the island’s vast fishing potential. His scheme collapsed less than a decade later, leaving a wake of unemployment and permanent distrust of outsiders with good intentions. Like Matheson, Leverhulme had failed to take account of the islanders’ fundamental hunger for land. They were and remain “crofters”–that is, renters of land from the huge estates owned by mainlanders. Insecurity of tenure was to them as painful a burden as poverty, and while Lord Leverhulme was willing to pay far greater salaries than the income crofters could hope to gain from their rented parcels, he was unwilling to give up the land.

Leverhulme was hounded off Lewis, and had only slightly greater success in Harris. The IDP planners were determined not to repeat this experience. Modern legislation assures crofters virtually permanent control of the move out permanently,” he said. “There’s no one there now.” This may yet happen in Rhenigidale, but the villagers have proved with their stubbornness that the land they rent for a small fee from owners–corporations, wealthy aristocrats and Arab oilmen–who use the land as tax write-offs. Responding to popular demand, the IDP has spent most of its funds on crofters who wish to fence, drain and fertilize their pasture land.

“In retrospect we probably overdid it on the fences,” says Richard Dunsmore, an HIDB economist. “But nothing would have killed the IDP more quickly than a high turn-down rate for the first requests that came in.” Scotland’s sister IDP programs in Belgium and France have reportedly failed to spend the amount of money assigned because of lack of popular interest, and Scottish officials speculate that the fault lies with an authoritarian approach to planning.

Kenny MacKay’s motorboat puttered slowly up Loch Seaforth on its way from Rhenigidale to Maaurig. Overhead, storm clouds were regrouping, but the ocean was still as grey and flat as a sheet of polished steel. In front of a tiny cove a row of orange buoys marked the boundaries of his family’s incipient mussel farm. Small-scale fish-farming is the IDP’s star venture, and it is the result of the islanders’ stubborn conviction that they can take on the transnational companies that now control sea farming and carve a profitable niche for themselves. When the road is finished, MacKay will be able to request an IDP loan to expand the farm and enter a local marketing partnership which flies the fish to pricey restaurants in Paris and London.

On the shore just beyond the shellfish farm a couple of bulldozers were carving a thin strip of grey onto the peat-brown hills. This is the first stage of the Rhenigidale road, which is scheduled to connect the village to Maaurig in 1987. MacKay squinted and measured the road’s inching growth. “Aye, they’ve made progress,” he finally declared.

In Stornoway, IDP project team leader Bill Lawson harbors some doubts still about the ultimate wisdom of the Rhenigidale road program. He mentioned another equally small village that has prospered since it got its road a few years back, and then another which got a land bridge in the 1960’s. “The villagers used the road to want to make that decision for themselves.” And to their credit, the IDP planners in Edinburgh and far-off Brussels are willing to give them the chance to do so.

©1986 Alma Guillermoprieto

Alma Guillermoprieto, a reporter on leave from The Washington Post, is chronicling changes in rural life under the policies of the European Economic Community.

Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto