The 'Little England' over the water: 'White settlers' make up 15% of Skye's population

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The Independent Online
SOME OF THE English settlers on Skye reacted with surprise last week to the discovery that they now account for 15 per cent of the Scottish island's population. 'I thought we were more than that,' said George Woods, a Liverpudlian, who runs an art shop. 'It has to be more than that,' echoed 'Spike' Manwaring-Spencer, another Liverpudlian, who runs a farm machinery museum.

But other 'white settlers', as they are called by locals, expressed trepidation.

Ron and Judith Shapland fled England's 'overcrowded' Lake District four years ago to settle in Camus Croise, in the south-east of Skye. They are nervous about media attention. 'It's back to the good life here, but I'm not keen to talk about it, having just come here,' Mrs Shapland said.

'We have been accepted,' her husband said.

'No, keep careful track of your words. You mean you have integrated.'

'Well, I have been welcomed. I have not been abused.'

This exchange continued for some time, suggesting a degree of paranoia among the 'white settlers'. Is it justified?

Mr and Mrs Shapland (whose respective careers were in forestry and physical education) were part of what Scottish Watch - a Scotland-for-the-Scots group recently formed to campaign against the growing rate of 'incomers' from the south - calls an English 'tidal wave' into Scotland which began at the end of the Eighties. According to a study published last week by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (formerly Development Board), English migration has helped raise the population of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland for the first time in decades. On Skye, English numbers nearly doubled to 1,768.

Virtually every 'white settler' I approached had decided that Skye was 'paradise'. They were not quite as elegiac as Sorley MacLean, the great Skye bard who still lives on the island and who wrote of the 'Great Island, Island of my desire,/Island of my heart and wound.' But, with the exception of a few holiday home owners, they were there to stay.

Some of the islanders have a sense of foreboding about the impact of the English. Fraser MacDonald, a Free Presbyterian minister who has seen his Portree congregation fall from 300 to 100 in 28 years, said: 'The Sabbath means nothing to them. They are hedonists. When you turn on the radio here in Skye you hear their lah-de-dah voices.'

Mr MacDonald supposed 'there are some nice English people' - 'but you won't mind if I quote the Bible at you: 'They mixed with the Heathen and learned of them their way'.'

The Heathen may be found all over the island. They are less dominant than the Cuillins, the awesome range of tall mountains which attract climbers from all over the world, but they have made their mark nevertheless. Property prices, for instance, have risen sharply: 'What we require here is affordable housing for the local first-time buyer,' said Murdo MacSween, an estate agent. In his office in Portree, the island's chief town, one L-shaped cottage with views over the Minch to the Outer Hebrides is on offer for pounds 73,500.

Among those who have moved to Skye are Eddie and Shirley Spears from Croydon, who run a very successful cottage restaurant in Colbost, on the road from Dunvegan to Glendale. 'There is no turning back,' she said. 'This is my life now.'

In Glendale itself the Heathen abounds. It is a north-western area known generally as 'Little England', and to Mr MacDonald as 'a fasach', or spiritual wilderness. Mr Woods and Mr Manwaring-Spencer claim to live there in a state of bliss.

Mr Woods, an artist, was working on a seascape in his small rented gallery next door to a cafe (English-owned) and grocery (ditto). There is also a painting of Neist Point lighthouse, 'owned by an Essex man called Roy, who rents it out'.

Mr Woods used to make a living 'working in pubs and drawing cartoons' in Liverpool and Glasgow. In his croft, he is 'happier than at any time in my life. I've a cousin who came to work on a fish-farm. Others try to start their own little enterprises, and their wives get seasonal work in the hotels, or go winkling'.

Does he mix with the locals? 'I even tried learning Gaelic,' he said. 'but the teacher left Glendale. Some of the sounds are difficult. I go to a lot of funerals. Most of them are of locals.' His only regret was being unable to 'put a bet on a horse now and then'.

His friend Spike Manwaring-Spencer is, by any reckoning, an eccentric. Mr Manwaring-Spencer moved from Lancashire to a remote part of Glendale 10 years ago with his wife, Audrey, and three children. Eight years ago, they had a fourth child: Princess Dulcima Rosetta. The Scottish Office refused to register the child as 'Princess'. The Manwaring-Spencers wrote to the Queen and had the ruling overturned.

Mr Manwaring-Spencer ('describe me as a crofter-stroke-curator') exhibits old farm equipment, ancient looms, Hebridean pack-saddles, butter churns and dried rats (found in a piece of old furniture).

The Manwaring-Spencers have no television. They regard themselves as being close to nature and Christianity: 'The people of Skye have a more Christian attitude in their desire to help others; they have time for me,' Spike said. He wants his children to speak Gaelic fluently and to be 'religious'. 'I used to be High C of E,' he said. 'But my Church is no more. It has women priests.'

Princess Dulcima Rosetta attends a nearby Free Presbyterian Sunday School. Her eldest sister, Melanie, a graduate of St Andrew's University, is taking business studies through the medium of Gaelic at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig (Gaelic College) on Skye's Sleat peninsula.

The college is run by Norman Gillis, a gentle native who is encouraged by 'the dramatic growth in the population (though its 11,870 is still less than half the total before the 19th-century Highland clearances). 'No one has quantified it in socio-economic terms, but we see a younger group coming in. It's a Highland-wide thing,' he said.

Mr Gillis acknowldges that the island has much catching-up to do. The Gaelic language, spoken by 40 per cent of the islanders, is being modernised, bringing some curious concoctions, such as coimpuitar for computer and, on a roadside advertisement, Cuir Tigear na do thank] ('Put a Tiger in your tank]'). He does not feel threatened by headlines about 'English invaders', and is tactful in his assessment of them. 'I think there is a variety of English,' he said. Nor does he fear that a new bridge between the Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin will make progress unmanageable.

The bridge, which will probably wipe out the car ferry that plies between these points 24 hours a day, is due to open by the end of next year. Fraser MacDonald fears it will speed up the rush to hedonism, and in this he is supported by some 'white settlers' who glory in their insular remoteness. But, according to Mr Gillis, they remain 'a vocal minority'.

The fact that he and Murdo MacSween are 'optimistic' that the bridge will not facilitate the flow of unwelcome visitors, does not entirely reduce Judith Shapland's fears.

When I told her I would also be talking to native islanders, she consulted a local woman by phone. 'I have two people here who look like Jehovah's Witnesses,' she said enticingly to Betty Robertson. The consultaton over, she said: 'My oracle says we can talk to you if we're not cocky.' She then opened her diary. 'I've been keeping a weather record. It never rains on Skye.'

For the rest of the day - and the next - it did.

(Photograph omitted)