NO question. The island of Skye at this time of year is impossibly dramatic and awe-inspiringly beautiful. Whether it’s the long views across blue seas to white snow-capped peaks in Torridon or puffs of cloud hanging mysteriously over the shattered cliff-face of the Quiraing. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll know the terrain. Britain’s largest landslip has been used as an other-worldly backdrop in a string of Hollywood blockbusters like Stardust, 47 Ronin, Snow White and the Huntsman and the BFG.

So it’s no surprise Skye has become a Mecca for tourists – so much so that coach tour operator Timberbush announced a £1.2 million investment in new vehicles last week to gear up for increased frequency on its Outlander and Skye excursions.

Of course, more tourist traffic creates capacity problems. Earlier this month, CNN advised tens of millions of viewers in 200 countries to avoid overcrowded places in the world including Venice, the Taj Mahal, Barcelona …. and Skye, observing that last year “residents said enough was enough after complaints of noise, overcrowding and even visitors urinating in public.”

Now to be clear, most Skye residents welcome visitors. They just want more investment in roads, parking facilities and public toilets – many of which were closed recently by cash-strapped Highland Council.

But there is a far, far more important consequence of the tourist boom on Skye. Local people simply cannot afford to live there.

I met a thirty-something lass called Katie en route to a Yes meeting in the stunning Flodigarry Hotel in North Skye earlier this week. She moved to the island from the central belt in 2014 with her partner and set up a small restaurant near Portree – they lived in a small rented house nearby. It was hard work, but the business thrived. Then the couple split up, leaving Katie without a partner or chef. She somehow managed to keep her head above water and the café open.

After borrowing money from her parents she made the decision to buy the café building. But a couple of weeks later, her landlord evicted her from the house saying he needed it for a relative. Of course, these things do happen, especially in a country that offers almost no protection to tenants. But in overheated Skye, eviction means homelessness – even if you are working and have an income.

There are no long-term lets any more. If someone has a cottage, flat, room or sofa to rent, it’s on a short-term letting site. Unbelievably, there are 200 properties listed on one website alone in tiny Portree -- and in a way it’s hard to blame folk who have few other ways to earn cash. But it means there are effectively no housing options for local workers.

Buying a static caravan is impossible – any vans put up for sale are snapped up by locals aiming to decant from their own houses and make them available to visitors. And there’s another big problem -- no land on which to site a caravan because most of Skye is in crofting tenure. In any case, planners might object because random caravans apparently spoil the view for tourists.

So what about buying a house? The average home on the Isle of Skye Property Centre website is around £185k – higher than almost everywhere else in rural Scotland and totally beyond the reach of folk like Katie. Skye has a disproportionate number of young tourism workers who are self-employed or on minimum wage, zero hour contracts. They have no chance of getting a mortgage – ever.

Katie’ situation is just the tip of the iceberg. Accommodation problems are so bad, that attempts to fill midwife vacancies at Broadford hospital – which led to the suspension of maternity services in November -- were stymied by lack of housing. According to NHS Highland’s website; “A recently-appointed highly-qualified midwife was very close to withdrawing from the post because she struggled to find suitable accommodation for herself and her dog. This was despite her making considerable efforts … and being extremely flexible over the choice of location.”

Happily, that problem was solved with local help. But the housing dilemma for public sector employers like the council, education authority and health board doesn’t stop. According to NHS Highland: “We are interviewing for an advanced nurse practitioner next week and accommodation is, again, likely to be an issue.”

After that NHS Highland will be advertising for home worker posts, a hotel services assistant manager post; supporting independent living in the community (SILC) posts; as well as an occupational therapist, a social worker and practice nurse positions they cannot fill. Without a sudden source of housing, those posts may stay vacant for months, even years – and it doesn’t take a genius to see how the lack of public service staff will restrict the viability of living on Skye.

This is beyond difficult – this is an emergency.

Katie has been declared homeless and is now sofa-surfing. She tried sleeping in the café, but well-meaning neighbours reported that and the police broke in to make sure she was alright. So that avenue is now closed. How long will she have to wait for accommodation? Probably a year. What else can she do? A local adviser suggested she keep an eye on Aye right.

So what’s the answer? Local MSP Kate Forbes says: “I think rural homelessness, like rural poverty, largely goes unnoticed and is considered an urban problem. Yet, in the rural Highlands, the number one issue is lack of housing. House prices are higher than average, driven by low supply of land, holiday homes and increased construction costs.

“At the same time, average incomes are lower than the Scottish average. That means there is a greater affordability gap here.

“The simple solution is to build more affordable housing on Skye, and in Lochaber, where a tenth of Fort William’s population are on the waiting list, and in Strathspey where local residents effectively can’t stay at home. We have to build more -- all other policies are a sticking plaster until we have enough affordable and suitably-sized homes on Skye.”

There are projects to build pockets of housing across the island, mostly centred on Portree. The Self Build Loan Fund, administered through the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust has been extended and the £25million rural housing fund has also kick-started building projects. Communities like Staffin Community Trust are exploring how to build their own but initially ran up against objections from SNH that housing might obscure views of the Trotternish Ridge.

But even when such institutional short-sightedness is overcome, these projects are few and far between and they will take time.

There are some quicker ways for the Scottish Government to help, though. 52,869 hectares of Skye are owned by the Scottish Government’s Crofting Estates – more than half of its total landholdings in Scotland. Of course, there are crofters on most of the land – 617 to be precise on Skye. But some remaining land could be transferred immediately to local development trusts.

That was a proposal by the Scottish Land Reform Review Group (SLRRG) in 2014 which suggested that “crofting trusts or crofting community owners should be able to purchase Scottish Government crofting estates at less than open market value and … ministers should direct the Scottish Government to make provision for this to happen.”

So far, it hasn’t.

Of course there would be difficulties with such a move. But according to historian, land reform campaigner, former head of HIE and former SLRRG member Jim Hunter; “Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth suggested transferring these estates in 1997 for nothing. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of Government to arrange it now.

“Of course, there is active crofting on the Government’s land. But it doesn’t take much to build houses.”


Green MSP Andy Wightman has another proposed solution.

He wants councils to have the powers to buy land at current use value and then build houses. He’s having discussions with other parties to introduce a measure like this by amending the current Planning Bill in June. He also wants councils to have the power to require planning consent if a dwelling’s used for anything other than living in it as a main home. Such ideas need debate and cross party support. But any new housing will probably come too late for Katie, attracted by the beauty of Skye’s landscape but effectively made homeless by its considerable visitor appeal.

If Scotland’s most beautiful places are to have local people and not just tourists, something needs to change -- urgently.