IT’S not often a piece of news makes you sit down and weep. But having just read the prediction that a quarter of Scotland’s remote population will disappear within 30 years, I feel profoundly sad – and angry. How can it be that on our watch, in our times, with our knowledge, under a devolved government capable of lifting the oppressive load that’s bedevilled Scotland since the clearances, parts of Scotland are still dying?

Oh, it’s because they are “remote” of course. And in a centralised society like ours there is no more automatic death knell. Since wealth, decision-making, choice, education and services are most easily found in the central belt and associated shires, it stands to reason that the Hebrides, Highlands, Argyll and Borders are on their collective uppers. Empty is so normal in Scotland, tourists have come to love the lonesome look and Scots have come to expect tragic but picturesque decline. Except it absolutely doesn’t have to be like this. And well-meaning but gloomy reports, attracting knee-jerk, hand-wringing media coverage don’t help.

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Let’s get real. Truly remote is what our Nordic neighbours experience and they have taken steps to distribute power, control, energy production, top jobs and government departments. In return, their remote areas produce the world’s most successful fisheries, the largest relative supplies of hydro electricity (Norway) and geothermal power (Iceland) and maintain the livelihoods of the indigenous Sami people. With independence we can do the same – that’s the only way Scotland will ever gain control over vital resources and finally shrug off the deep-seated belief that our land is too poor to sustain life. It isn’t.

The James Hutton Institute report focuses on “sparsely populated areas” (SPA) – places where fewer than 10,000 people can be reached within 30 minutes of travel. This is almost half of Scotland, with just 2.6 per cent of the population and a plummeting number of children, suggesting economic and social meltdown is imminent.

Well, of course it is, if you don’t ask why.

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Interestingly, 30 minutes’ travel distance is also meaningful in remote Norway. That’s the maximum anyone should travel to get to the HQ of their local council. If our councils (average population 170k) were Norwegian sized (15k) and collected all income tax as they do in Sweden, we’d have more sizeable, vigorous towns in remote areas as well.

Scotland’s population was 70 per cent greater than Norway in 1800. In 1900, it was 50 per cent bigger. Today the two populations are almost the same. That is one vivid measure of our rural stagnation.

Meanwhile Finland has overtaken Norway to become the happiest nation on Earth, according to a UN report last week. The top four places are taken by Nordic nations, with Finland followed by Norway, Denmark and Iceland. All countries score highly on income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity as well as perceptions of corruption, generosity and freedom. According to Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark: “GDP per capita in Finland is lower than its neighbouring Nordic countries but the Finns are good at converting wealth into wellbeing.”

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No wonder. As the most remote economic region in the EU they are used to being creative and self-reliant.

So let’s recognise that market failure and reserved policies have left remote communities disconnected and impoverished and start to build belief and viable communities which desperately need straight-talking and bold, urgent action.

First, energy. For 20 years SSE have been humming and hawing about building subsea connectors to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Twenty long years during which these islands have experienced crippling fuel poverty, despite also having the greatest wind and marine potential of almost anywhere in northern Europe. Brian Wilson and Alistair Carmichael had the audacity to claim that a Yes vote would decimate island renewables. Instead, thanks to Westminster rules, they have never been able to throw six to start. Meanwhile tiny islands like Danish Samso – with a fraction of Shetland’s wind resource – has two one-gigawatt cables to the mainland and a growing population. That can happen the second Scotland gains control over energy policy, which is currently reserved to Westminster. An independent Scotland could finally approve the infrastructure needed to connect energy-rich islands to an upgraded mainland grid, or indeed change the system so that grid connection isn’t the only way to be paid, and smart local grids (a Scottish speciality) could encourage renewable electricity to be used where it’s created. That could mean a growth of small-scale industry in remote areas and the Western Isles could use that income to cancel all domestic fuel bills. Defeating the dead hand of clearance and centralisation needs acts of game-changing boldness. Providing free energy in energy-rich remote areas would be one.

Secondly, land ownership. Yes, you cannae get away from it because who owns the land, reaps the subsidies. In Argyll, one of the SAC areas facing decline, former Tory MSP and landowner Jamie McGrigor was set to earn £8 million over 20 years for owning the land under a wind farm. One man – £8million. In the hands of a community or bunch of locals, that would be game-changing. But since Scots didn’t sort our shameful, quasi-feudal patterns of land-ownership before distributing cash for turbines and trees, each new development tends to benefit just one man and his family, not the community or hundreds of local people. Furthermore, as the stramash on Buccleuch land demonstrates, locals can actually be forced out to let landowners cash in. The Scottish Government still hasn’t explained how it’s going to stop that happening. A tenant farmer’s right to buy with a 60-year repayment period (as Irish farmers got in 1903) – would let these precarious Borders farmers plant new forestry and run small-scale renewable energy projects themselves – something Norwegians have been able to do since a new law in 1723 required anyone selling a farm to offer it to sitting tenants first. Meanwhile, the Scottish Land Commission is examining the case for a land tax. Once its findings are published, let’s do it.

Third, housing. Land scarcity means that a tiny plot in the middle of dense Highland bog can still go for £100,000. Only the rich, crofters and folk in social housing can afford to live in remote Scotland. Of course there are clumps of affordable housing under construction. But all too often they are relatively expensive and built cheek-by-jowl in towns – not amidst the scenic splendour that makes remote Scotland so attractive to tourists.

The James Hutton folk pick this up as an issue: “Evolving settlement patterns, and population redistribution, seem to favour small towns and accessible rural areas at the expense of sparsely populated areas.”

Well yes. Planning still favours the “empty glen” and SEPA makes stand-alone properties almost impossible to connect to water and sewerage. With land shortages, no wonder folk end up in villages and towns. But is that all we can imagine? Is that ideal? A game-changing move would be for buyout communities to follow Eigg and offer plots free to young folk working together to build their own homes (only paying the cost of land if they ever sell their homes on the open market). Eigg’s young self-builders have acquired the skills to use native wood, thus knocking out higher costs for materials and housing construction workers. On Eigg, a two-bedroom house costs £40k not £120k. The same could be happening across Scotland tomorrow.

Should we ban second homes? Why not change the rules so a modest cabin is possible for every family? Local councils in Norway have created two separate housing markets by designating each house as a permanent first or second home. That way, farmhouses can only be sold to folk intending to live there permanently. And thousands of purpose-built wooden huts and cabins are built within mature forests, near towns. Why not here?

Fourthly, broadband. Let’s get Faroese Telecom in to connect the remote areas not yet reached by fibre-optic cables. In four months they provided the world’s fastest mobile 4G coverage to their own 18 islands, their entire fishing fleet and the helicopters that service the fleet. Meanwhile, BT is subsidised to let remote Scotland be connected at some future unspecified date. That isn’t good enough.

Finally, Community Land Scotland wants to repopulate glens that have been empty since the Highland and Lowland clearances centuries back – easily the most exciting proposal I’ve heard since the Eiggachs bought their island 20 years ago. But such a game-changing proposal will never be taken seriously while gloom-laden reports suggest remote Scotland is terminally ill and managing decline is the only game in town. Why can’t academics quantify the damage and stagnation caused by centuries of market failure and calculate what’s needed to put things right instead?

Better still, conduct a poll asking how many young Scots would move to remote Scotland given half a chance. I humbly suggest we would all be impressed.