Most of us on my home island of Easdale had a good lockdown. As the fine weather of spring gave way to the even finer weather of early summer, Covid-free and protected by the ferry from all but the most necessary of visitors, we chatted happily at two metres apart. The term 'over-tourism' began to take on meaning as we became suddenly aware how much this phenomena had crept stealthily upon us over the years. How pleasant it was to come out of our winter hibernation into the unaccustomed peacefulness of our wee island paradise.
The air seemed fresher than ever. Distant Colonsay, only ever occasionally visible on the clearest of days, could be seen on the horizon almost every day. The drone of traffic from the mainland and from passing boats diminished, the remaining silence broken only once an hour by our ferry ploughing its short journey across the calm water of the Sound. This silence, lazy and languid in the warm sunshine, was filled with birdsong. And even the birds enjoyed this new and peaceful solitude. You could walk right up to them as if a new bond of trust had been formed.
Our local pub/restaurant/tearoom almost instantly reinvented itself, delivering daily rations of delicious freshly baked bread and cakes of every description. Food and family meals took on a new importance with time to enjoy them. All this is not to say that work didn't take place where and when it could. Home working continued apace but with a work-life balance unachievable when added to a daily commute. Parents home-schooled children and played with them as they had seldom played before.
Alas it could not continue. Lockdown ended and with it came our old friends the tourists on staycation. We cannot, of course, survive without them. They are our economic bread and butter.
But conversations continued in a remarkable consensus as we braced ourselves for the coming economic shock. Few wanted to go back to exactly as things were before. Was it wise to leave all our eggs in the one economic basket of tourism? Should we not seek economic diversity in order to achieve more resilience? Could we continue in this emerging spirit of localism that had seen us rally to the support of local businesses?
And in those conversations an emerging sense of what may be possible in the Highlands and Islands began to float to the top. Perhaps the rebirth of our ailing rural communities in a new found socio-economic success centred around local produce and localism?
The biggest problem facing our most rural areas is depopulation. Many communities are approaching cataclysmic tipping points, despite the good intentions of Scottish governments of various political hues, but perhaps the necessity of the post-pandemic economic recovery offers some rays of hope.
Just as my small community discovered afresh the pleasures of rural life during the lockdown, so city folk developed an antipathy towards life in what had become urban prisons. Local estate agents tell me about a huge surge of interest in buying rural properties. The success of home working, amply and so recently demonstrated, effectively frees up people to live wherever they like. Concerns have been expressed about the fate of locals already struggling in rural housing markets in which they cannot compete.
The solution is simple. When the problem is a shortage of houses, the answer is to build more houses. In building more houses, just as the 'homes for heroes' building boom rescued our economy after the last war, so we can rescue our economy now. Home working suggests that with less commuting, investment should be redirected from endlessly upgrading roads into providing good housing in places where people want to live.
Research suggests each new home built creates around four jobs. This is what Gordon Brown's much quoted 'post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory' is all about. The economic multipliers are obvious but in a new spirit of localism how much better if these homes are built by local folk rather than in factories elsewhere. The effect is better yet again if local materials, like locally-grown timber are used. Each pound that is kept within the local economy delivers its benefits many times over, in a virtuous circle that delivers prosperity for all, as builders spend their money in local shops, pubs and restaurants.
A significant constraint is lack of building land but, as Scotland has the second lowest population density in Europe, this should present no real problem. Our total developed footprint represents only 2% of our land area. We have land in plenty if we decide to use it to build a better country. Much has been talked about land ownership but that is only half the story. Our planning system effectively rations land by regulating its use in a way that is hopelessly out of date and out of step with our current needs.
Once again, the solutions are obvious and simple. When we face the biggest economic challenge we have known since the last war and the rules are barriers to overcoming this challenge, then the rules must be changed.
As winter approaches, I look across the wind-torn sea to the small primary school where my children got such a great start in life. In their time, there were between 50 and 60 children who got a similarly good start in that small school. Today, the school roll hovers around 14. This symbolises a community whose future existence hangs in a delicate balance.
I do hope we learn the lessons of this Covid crisis and that once again that small school is filled with children, because that is one of the important ways in which we begin to build a better Scotland.
Mike MacKenzie is a former SNP MSP for
Highlands and Islands region