IT has long been fashionable to see the islands as some form of penitentiary. In Columba’s time, wayward monks were sent to Tiree to serve penance. Some things have moved on since then, but the concept of the islands as a prison has not.

Last week, new archive papers were published. They revealed that in 2003, in the search for “even more ­radical ­ideas” to address immigration, the ­attorney ­general’s office suggested to Tony Blair that a camp in the Isle of Mull was worth ­considering.

In 2020, Priti Patel suggested that the ­Scottish islands would be a good ­destination for asylum seekers to be ­detained. ­Ultimately, she went with ­Rwanda instead.

In the summer of 2023, the idea was ­revived again, although denied by the “New Conservatives” group who had reportedly floated it.

The National:

In November, Lee Anderson (above) MP ­proposed that asylum seekers be sent to Orkney “... if people are genuinely ­escaping war or persecution then a nice Scottish island with a few outbuildings would be suitable”. Presumably, he couldn’t think of a worse fate.

What is it about our islands that makes them the punch line? On one hand, the politicians are bang on. Many asylum seekers have found refuge, built lives and businesses, and integrated far more ­successfully into island communities than Lee Anderson ever could.

Sadly, it’s unlikely that the UK ­Government has such good intentions. A concern for people, decency, and ­community resilience is not why the ­suggestion is made, more’s the pity.

The truth is much uglier. These types of proposals – whether in 2003 or in 2023 – show nothing but contempt for both ­islands and individuals.

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When politicians airily wave this type of idea around, they are implicitly ­signalling two things. Firstly, they are saying that they see islands as little more than empty watery wastelands – places that are only suitable for those they would otherwise put on barges filled with legionella. These watery wastelands, devoid of anything the great and the good recognise as valuable, are ideal for putting the things that they don’t want to deal with.

Secondly, they are saying that the ­asylum seekers they want to detain are ­deserving of nothing more than ­wastelands surrounded by sea. Both things are contemptible.

Interestingly, where the UK Government sees the islands as a place to ­essentially punish immigrants for ­wanting a better life, the Scottish ­Government seems to think that migration is the ­answer to our issues with depopulation.

The motives each Government has for sending migrants to the islands are ­starkly different, but the failure to understand rural and island Scotland is startlingly similar.

Over the Christmas break, the ­Scottish Government’s Rural Twitter account tweeted an image giving the appearance of a report titled Proposals To Address Rural And Island Depopulation. The tweet read: “Independence would give Scotland control over migration policy, helping to grow our population and better meet the needs of rural and island communities.”

It didn’t raise much immediate ­interest, but those who did pick up on it were ­united in their frustration that the root of the issue is not a lack of people ­wanting to live in rural and island areas. Instead, the root of the problem lies in the ­ongoing failure to maintain and develop ­suitable infrastructure, the galloping housing ­crisis and an ageing population, ­rendering it almost impossible to move to the ­islands unless you have a trust fund or a relative dies, freeing up a house.

On closer inspection, the “­proposals” turned out to relate to paper six in the Building A New Scotland series – a set of papers outlining what an independent Scotland would look like. The paper in question is titled Migration To Scotland After ­Independence.

The proposals there are fair and ­progressive – in stark contrast to the ­attitude exuding from Downing Street ­recently. The point is made that many of our rural and island communities face specific challenges. That population growth is uneven across communities and many local authority areas, and that ­Scotland’s islands are expected to ­experience even greater population decline over the next 25 years.

It highlights that the presence of ­migrants in rural areas not only contributes to the demographic and economic sustainability of these regions, but the presence of new families coming in is a crucial factor in maintaining key services, like schools.

There's nothing controversial there. All of these things are true. But as those of us who live and work in these places keep saying, throwing warm bodies at the islands is not the correct first step to solving depopulation. (See: Island Bonds).

We do indeed need people. To keep our rural and island communities thriving, we desperately need young people ­staying, to maintain our fragile culture we need ­people returning, and we need new ­people arriving and bringing their skills with them.

Most communities would ­welcome new permanent residents with open arms. The problem is that first, you have to pull a house out of a hat.

And once they have a house, we need the people who arrive to also stay. If ­people can’t buy houses, it stands to ­reason that the birth rate falls.

If ­people can’t rent houses, they are less likely to move to the ­islands for work. If they can’t travel when they want to or need to, they ­probably won’t stay long. If they can’t get a ­reliable ­broadband ­connection or a phone ­signal, or a ­guarantee that the school will stay open, they might not feel confident enough to build a future.

To offer a solid future for new and ­returning residents, we first need the ­investment. And we need our politicians to have the courage to stand up and ­address some of the many elephants in the room. Namely, the number of second homes, the house prices pushed up by the better off, mainly retired, migrants we currently see flocking from the south, and both Governments’ collective ignorance about the islands.

Even in Edinburgh, the islands seem to be shrouded in a mysterious fog. ­Peering through it – assuming civil ­servants and their ministers can see through the ­rewilding opportunities and past the tourism cash cow – they spy an apparently inexplicable depopulation problem to which the apparently obvious answer is more people.

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When it comes to Governments, islands, and migration, one approach is contemptible, and the other is incompetent. Both are frustrating, and come around with grinding regularity. Every single time, in relation to both approaches, our communities have to stand up and explain again, slowly, that they are not racist, they are simply realistic. That we would welcome new arrivals, it’s just that there are no houses for the people already here.

At the same time as suggesting that ­migration is the solution – for which we need houses – we are continuing to ­permit the purchase of holiday houses. And the rest of the population is either blind to the problem or simply doesn’t care – because they keep buying them. (And this issue is seen country-wide.) Double council tax isn’t going to register a blip for the people still able to buy up their piece of paradise. Their pockets are deep.

We shouldn’t be surprised. When you have Scottish ministers with island ­holiday houses, you are already on a ­hiding to nothing. That alone speaks ­volumes about the hypocrisy in ­Holyrood.

We are not penitentiaries and we are not playgrounds. And our islands are ­definitely not a weapon for punishing new arrivals to Britain. The existing ­residents are being punished enough already. We are places filled with people who deserve better – regardless of where we come from.