What future awaits the Scottish islands in 2050?

Dr Andrew Jennings, University of the Highlands and Islands
RSE Research Workshops awardee

Dr Andrew Jennings. Photograph: Ben Mullay Photography

With the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 and the current £100M Islands Growth Deal, Scottish society is becoming more aware of the importance of the Scottish islands. Nonetheless, the question remains: what future awaits them? This is the enquiry of Dr Andrew Jennings, Associate Professor in Island Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, through his RSE Research Workshop supported project: The Scottish Island Futures – 2050 and Beyond.

Dr Jennings’ project recognises that many new and future policies may need to be tailored and ‘island-proofed’ to meet local islander needs. He is therefore using his RSE award to facilitate four themed workshops that will imagine potential futures awaiting island communities: exploring their demographic challenges, large-scale renewable power generation projects, space centres, rich cultural heritages, and creative industries. Bringing together academic experts and island stakeholders, the workshops will address the following questions: how will vibrant, thriving island populations be maintained into the future; what level of autonomy will best serve the island communities going forward; how can the islanders best engage with the changing environment; how can islands become sustainable, and how can small island communities absorb large-scale developments?

The first workshop, The Future of Core Periphery Relationships, was held in February in Shetland and focused on island governance, with participants exploring the relationship between islands and the mainland – are there better governance models? Is island autonomy a goal to be strived for? The workshop was recorded, and a report was produced, which can be viewed here.

The second workshop, Speaking of the Future – the Role of Language, Culture and Heritage, was held in March in Lewis and examined the role of indigenous culture and languages in supporting vibrant communities – is there a future for Gaelic and the Northern Isles dialects? Again this workshop was recorded and can be viewed here.

The third workshop, Future Sustainable Communities – exploring the scope and scale of island development, was held this month in Orkney and focused on the optimum level of development for islands – ought they to be industrialised, or should the focus be on smaller scale development, such as support for the creative industries?

The final workshop, Networking for the Future – islands doing it for themselves, is due in the near future. This session will be held online and will focus on inter-island discourse and the creation of island focussed networks. Island communities can establish links with each other without involving the centre. This session will question: what will be the future for islands if this trend continues?

Dr Jennings said,

Without RSE support for travel and accommodation, it would have been impossible to bring the many participants together in the islands. Although each workshop is hybrid, the opportunity to meet and discuss island futures in person would have been lost.

These workshops are intended to directly impact Scottish island communities, bolstering islander agency, supporting islanders to make informed decisions and maximise their potential while minimising the effects of future threats, and helping them chart a course to a sustainable, vibrant future. They are also intended to impact policymakers and inform local and national Government policies.”

Looking to the future, Dr Jennings commented,

A successful future for the Scottish islands is best achieved by communities who are actively engaged in considering both low aspiration, negative futures to be avoided, and high aspiration, positive futures to be striven for. I intend to set up a forum for the network of islanders and island studies experts, which has been established with these workshops to meet regularly to address the challenges and opportunities coming in the next few decades. This will include an online presence, VC meetings, and further themed hybrid events.”

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