There is little more symbolic of the rural/urban divide in Scotland than what you are reading in this newspaper, this week. That The Herald’s Editor, Catherine Salmond, has taken the decision to produce the quarter-of-a-millennium-old newspaper outside Glasgow for the first time tells its own story.

Fort William, home for the week to The Herald’s team, is only 130 miles from where I sit in Edinburgh, but it feels half the world away in many ways (including the treacherous three-plus-hour drive up the A9 and over to the West Highlands).

I was there a couple of years ago with my wife and daughters, a crew of Hermoine Graingers ready to board the West Coast Railways Jacobite steam train - otherwise known as the Hogwarts Express. Running from Fort William over the Glenfinnan Viaduct to Mallaig, the service has sparked the wonderful opportunism, innovation and ingenuity which can often be associated with the people of rural Scotland.

We stayed at a local Fort William hotel the evening before, ate at a local restaurant and got carried away in Henry’s ice cream and fudge shop. The next day, arriving in Mallaig, and having failed to avoid the Harry Potter merchandise shop on the train, we found cafes and restaurants primed for the arrival of the Muggles, with their opening hours and staffing optimised around that golden hour or two before we all departed back to Fort William.

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We were lucky to get a table in what became a bustling port town but, having eaten and drunk and stopped for another harbour-side ice cream, our parental luck ran out when the children found Haggard Alley, the famous shop run by the same entrepreneurs as the micro version on board the train.

So successful was our visit (en route to Ullapool and the Western Isles) that our return journey had to be amended to travel back from Harris via Skye and onto the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig (another lunch), so that our girls could see the Hogwarts Express from the ground, under the viaduct at Glenfinnan, which has also prepared itself with a lovely new walking trail up to the viewing point, complete with cafe and visitor centre.

I am telling you this not as a tourist service for the West Highlands, but because this gem of rural Scotland, which keeps families happy and keeps local people in wealth and health, is at risk. Not at risk from lack of custom, but from a decision made by the Office of Road and Rail, far, far away, from its offices in London and Glasgow. The ORR has decided that because the Jacobite does not have central door locking it is no longer safe for travel. Unless the operator’s judicial review, to be adjudicated at the end of this month, is successful, the service, with all its wide and positive economic and social impact, will close, unable to afford the £7m cost of replacing the door locks which, by my reckoning, have so far caused zero deaths and zero injuries.

What decision, made by regulators in large cities, could be more totemic of the chasm between the urban and the rural?

Alas, it is not a surprise and it is not isolated. My week started in Stranraer, the capital of south-west Scotland. Like Fort William, Stranraer is a port town 130 miles from my Edinburgh home. No longer serviced by a rail line, my drive took nearly four hours, including a stop at one of ChargePlace Scotland’s "rapid" (the dictionary definition of a misnomer) EV chargers, down the A77, officially Scotland’s slowest trunk road with an average speed of less than 38mph.


I regularly spend time in and around Scotland’s islands and coasts, and in more inland, accessible rural areas. Nearly one in five Scots live in rural areas, with more than one in 20 living in the most inaccessible parts, but one would be forgiven for not recognising that.

The Scottish Government’s Cabinet consists of 10 MSPs. Two might be said to represent rural constituencies but, with one (Mairi McAllan’s Clydesdale) being a stone’s throw from Glasgow and the other (Mairi Gougeon’s Angus North and Mearns) having the A90 running through it, it is a stretch to consider them truly remote.

One might argue that it is laid bare in policy creation. The proposal to prohibit commercial activity in much of Scotland’s coastal waters (the threat of which has not entirely disappeared) left coastal communities oscillating between disbelief and rage. Disbelief and rage have morphed into black humour when it comes to the remarkable failure to deliver new ferries on lifeline routes.

The Herald: The Jacobite steam trainThe Jacobite steam train (Image: PA)

Royal Caribbean's Finnish-built Icon of the Seas - all 250,000 tonnes and 20 decks of it, ready to carry 10,000 people - was started and finished within two-and-a-half years, launching just last week. The Faroese built and opened an 11km subsea tunnel with a roundabout serving two remote islands in four years. Islanders on Arran only want to get to Ardrossan and back, but their new ferry, commissioned before the Icon of the Seas and the Eysturoyartunnilin, remains elusive.

And, unless you want an earful in response, best not ask one of the nearly one million Scots who live rurally what they think of transport and housing policy, or education and healthcare provision.

None of this is a particular criticism of the SNP Government - the rural/urban chasm predates them and they have simply continued the trend. However, the focus is now, rightly, sharper, and moreover we may be on the precipice of change.

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Throughout the rest of our lifetimes, and those of our children and grandchildren, it is likely that green energy will constitute the economic backbone of the country. Electricity from offshore wind, for domestic supply and, in the form of green hydrogen, for vast exports, is the energy supply which will keep giving as long as the wind keeps blowing.

Unlike the hydrocarbon industry - a wonderful Scottish success story, but one which largely bypasses rural communities - renewable energy is smack, bang in the middle of rural and coastal Scotland.

And they know it, too. Communities are experiencing the visual and physical impact of development. In other words, they feel the cost. However, with the combination of higher energy bills caused by colder weather and poorer insulation, and lower salaries than their urban countrymen, they do not feel the benefit.

How long will it be before they attach more strings to their consent? They’re onto us, folks!

In yesterday’s Scotland, the rural needed the support of the urban to survive. In tomorrow’s Scotland, we city-dwellers may find out that the tables have been turned.