FORMER Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has criticised what she regards as profound levels of ignorance about the culture of the Highlands and Islands in Holyrood policy-making.

In her first significant interview since being narrowly defeated by Humza Yousaf in the SNP leadership contest, Ms Forbes says that national policies often fail to recognise “the specific and diverse needs of people who live in the Highlands”.

The MSP for Skye, Badenoch & Lochaber was speaking just days after the suspension of her friend and parliamentary colleague, Fergus Ewing, who was sanctioned for being critical of party policy. Ms Forbes stood with Mr Ewing after he emerged from the meeting of his parliamentary colleagues which voted to sanction him.

“Fergus is a living legend throughout the Highlands and Islands,” she said, “and mainly because he always puts the needs of these communities first. My concern was that he didn’t stand alone going in or leaving that room. Our parliamentary group is a family and you must have each other’s backs. And when you face difficult circumstances you need your troops around you.

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“If you asked any Highlander they’d view this place as an entity before they see Scotland as an entity,” she says. “For centuries, people here have been denied democratic representation because they lived in an area where land ownership and political power were one and the same.

“The situation in Mallaig is very different from that in Fort William. The needs of Dingwall and Glenfinnan are very different again.”

“Policies are never black and white and I’m talking specifically about the Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

“The irony of that policy is that every fisherman I’ve spoken with cares more about sustainable fishing than most politicians and civil servants. They don’t just see it as a job. They see it as a multi-generational way of life. If there are no fish then their kids don’t have a future.

“And that’s why the language particularly used by fishermen around the island of Tiree was to equate HPMAs with education. If you ban fishing and I lose my job, then we have to leave and the school closes.

“Once you lose a school you lose all the prospective families that might come to an area. If you’re trying to attract families to the local area the first question they’re asking is where the local school is. If there’s no school, they’re more likely to settle elsewhere.

“I think that’s why policy issues in the Highlands go straight to the heart perhaps faster than anywhere else. Education in other parts of Scotland may be more of an intellectual question. In the Highlands it’s about their future, it’s about community; it’s about families.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Forbes, who was attacked during the leadership contest for her opposition to gay marriage and saying having children outside of wedlock was 'wrong', also criticised what she regarded as a wrong-headed approach to reduce Scotland’s educational attainment gap.

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“There’s a voguish attitude which seems to think that you close the educational attainment gap by making it easier for everyone: for example by doing away with algebra and dismantling the exams system. But this can put working-class children at further disadvantage when they need to compete for jobs and university places.

“There’s no reason why children irrespective of their background can’t reach the same levels. I think there’s a risk in our public discourse about the attainment gap; about thinking we need to make education simpler and easier in order to ensure everyone is achieving the same.

“The opposite is true. Our education system should be about hard work and based on aspiration and ambition. It should realise that we are competing with India; with Japan; with Denmark. Until you do that, I don’t think you can close the attainment gap. It’s the only route out of poverty that works.”

“We have to move away from celebrating university graduation as a mark of the success of the education system. Post-Covid, the model of going to school and if you’re ‘successful’ going to university is over. In the Highlands the best paid workers are tradesmen because there’s such a shortage. The skills and knowledge they have is at a gold standard of excellence.”