Putting power closer to Highland communities in an independent Scotland could halt the ‘population emergency’, SNP MSP Kate Forbes has said.

She described Highland Council as "far too big" and said devolving local authority control to areas including Lochaber and Caithness would help ensure that policy is tailored to local needs.

The MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch said Inverness could feel as "as distant as London" to someone living in Glencoe.

For the region to flourish, she said people need access to "decent roads, decent hospitals and ferries that run".

A report by Highland Council after last year's Census shows that between 2003 and 2020 areas of the Highlands including Caithness and Sutherland have experienced significant decline with numbers falling by 18% in Mallaig and 17% in Kinlochleven.

The Herald: Kinlochleven has suffered a 17% drop in its population Kinlochleven has suffered a 17% drop in its population (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

The attractiveness of the Highlands as a retirement destination, coupled with an ageing population has led to a 60.6% increase in the 75-plus age group.

Meanwhile, secondary school roll projections are forecasting a 12.8% decline across the Highlands over the next 15 years. In some areas it is far higher with Ullapool facing 37.1% drop. A primary school in Duror, in Lochaber, will close this year.

"I really dislike the use of Highland clearances to describe anything that is happening in modern-day Scotland," said the MSP and former finance minister.

The Herald: 'The Highlands is facing a population emergency' 'The Highlands is facing a population emergency' (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"But having said that we are going to see a continued decline of the working population in parts of the Highlands unless there is very serious action.

"If you look at any forecast, it's a tale of two parts. It's a tale of continuing growth in our cities and in our coastal and rural areas up to a 16% fall over the next 40 years.

'Highlanders are not the problem on Scotland's conscience'

"And if you unpick that further, those figures are masked by the demographics - it's the older population that's growing and the working age is declining.

"Every elected representative and official that is tasked with delivering for the Highlands needs to wake and smell the coffee."

Experts say the true picture of population decline is likely to be far worse because slight growth in the region as a whole masks significant regional disparities.

The Herald: 'Highland Council is far too big' 'Highland Council is far too big' (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"Highlanders are resilient, they are entrepreneurial, they are not the problem on Scotland's conscience as of course the Secretary of State, Willie Ross, said,” said Ms Forbes.

"But we need the basic universal provision of infrastructure - decent roads, decent hospitals, decent schools and ferries that run and then we can thrive."

Interviewed by The Herald in the village of Fort Augustus, around 40 miles from her home in Dingwall, she said housing was the single biggest issue the Highlands was facing but said most of the debate around it was "overly simplistic."

The Herald: Kate Forbes MSP with Herald reporter Caroline WilsonKate Forbes MSP with Herald reporter Caroline Wilson (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

The SNP government has attempted to curb second home ownership with a controversial licensing scheme as well as giving councils the power to double council tax on second homes.

There is a feeling among some in the Highlands that the scheme was created because of problems in cities and a more nuanced approach is required for rural areas. The cost and bureaucracy involved is said to have led to some B&Bs closing.


"I think the focus should always have been on empty second homes, not functioning businesses," said the MSP. "I am very sympathetic to the concerns that B&Bs in particular are raising.

She said 300 new homes were being built on one site alone in Fort William and other sites are being developed "but that not go anywhere near touching the sides of the challenge".

The Herald: Kate Forbes said housing was the single biggest issue hampering population growth in the Highlands Kate Forbes said housing was the single biggest issue hampering population growth in the Highlands (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) offers an outdoor adventure degree that attracts 150-plus students to the Lochaber area every year "many of whom want to stay but can’t due to accommodation" according to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

"Building more can't solve the problem alone," said the MSP. "It's about finding out how many are sitting empty.

"The Scottish Government has announced the possibility of being able to charge council tax on empty homes. Great but it's got to be a toolbox that includes building more homes."

Responding to criticism from some Highlanders that tourism is prioritised over local needs she said: "Whether we like it or not, tourism is the thread that runs through the tapestry of the Highland economy.

"What about the plumber, the electrician, the taxi driver, the nurse who is married to someone who runs a B&B."

She said concerns that Edinburgh politicians don't get the Highlands is "borne of disenfranchising, a sense of feeling forgotten. She added: "I certainly haven't forgotten my constituents".

Asked if she believed many of the problems leading to depopulation in the Highlands could be solved by Scottish independence she said: "Well that's always been my dream.

The Herald: Kate Forbes pictured in tourism hotspot Fort Augustus Kate Forbes pictured in tourism hotspot Fort Augustus (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

"The Highlands needs to have powers as close to the people as possible. Inverness can feel as distant as London and the same goes for Edinburgh.

"Independence is not a package holiday, it's not that you sign up for it and it's automatic what happens. It just means putting power in the hands of the people who are here.

"I think Highland Council is far too big, if you asked anyone in Glencoe how much they feel they are represented in Inverness, they might raise their eyebrows.

"I think we should be talking about Lochaber, Skye, Caithness and Sutherland."

She said a desire to ensure that the Highlands flourish was the reason she got into politics. 

"My forebears all hailed from the Applecross peninsula," said the MSP "When I was growing up it felt empty [but[ granny could talk about how busy it was. 

The Herald: The Applecross peninsula The Applecross peninsula (Image: Getty)

"In the 1870s my great-great grandfather appealed to the Napier Commission and said there is a population of 400, there are three schools, we are a bustling community but we need a road - can you build us a road?

"He said they would build it ourselves but they needed permission from the landlords. 

"The landlords declined to give permission. Then in the 1960s the road gets built by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) because they have a site just off the peninsula. By that point people had left," she said.

Highland Council say efforts are being made to address depopulation and increase job opportunities with the proposed Inverness and Cromarty Firth Freeport and a masterplan for Fort William.

The MSP claimed the town was "bucking the trend" for employment opportunities.

The Herald: Fort William is 'bucking the trend' for employment opportunities according to SNP MSP Kate ForbesFort William is 'bucking the trend' for employment opportunities according to SNP MSP Kate Forbes (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

She said: "You have a number of major employers that are completely independent of tourism, which are year-round and which nearly all of whom are seeking to grow and develop.

"[You have] one of the biggest sawmills, the last aluminium smelter, decommissioning happening with Ferguson's lorries and a number of other opportunities in terms of Nevis Range.

"I met with a group of them last Summer and all of them would say it's not the lack of opportunity to grow that is restricting us, it is the infrastructure.

"Unlike elsewhere which is predominantly dependent on tourism in Fort William you have, what you want to see across Scotland - you've got an industrial base.

"Give me another area of Scotland which has such a high dependence on industry.

"There is far more optimism and enthusiasm about the Fort William and Lochaber wider economy but they are tearing their hair out because it's the road and the congestion and the state of the road and the state of West Highland railways and the lack of housing.

"That's a different conversation than the lack of jobs, which I might have elsewhere in the Highlands.

"Maybe there is a conversation there about diversifying further. The University of the Highlands and Islands is still on a journey."