People face unique challenges in rural Scotland. Illustration: Edward Tuckwell
Rural communities in Scotland have faced battles for decades: isolation, dismal transport, unaffordable housing and few jobs. Mental health struggles are rampant but stigmatised. And now people living in remote communities are facing unique challenges when it comes to the cost of living.
Poverty affects around 170,000 people in rural Scotland. One in three are living in fuel poverty and forced to pay extortionate energy bills.
“The problem with rural poverty is the stigma attached,” says Muriel Cockburn, a councillor for Badenoch and Strathspey in the Highlands. “We have a high incidence of mental health issues and young suicide. These are challenging times.”
Cockburn says the cost of living crisis is making people’s mental health worse, and it is particularly bad in the most rural parts where people are using old-fashioned storage heaters to warm their homes.
“I know people that have one room with an electric fire, and that’s all they’ve got for heating. For people who have heating systems, it’s oil, and we know the price of oil. It’s very tough. We should not be freezing people. Warm houses and cheaper energy would go a long way to alleviating poverty.”
I was stressed and depressed. I had a breakdown
Shaun, who struggled to cope in Orkney
Around 72 per cent of households in the Highlands have no access to mains gas, the cheapest way to heat a home. The islands are not on the grid either. These households are not protected by the energy price cap and are subjected to higher costs. The irony is these areas of Scotland have been at the heart of Britain’s oil and gas industry for decades.
Catriona Mallows, campaigns officer at Scottish Rural Action, explains most homes rely on electricity – but that is expensive and has increased exponentially.
Charity ALIEnergy, which supports people living in fuel poverty in Argyll, Lomond and the Islands, is seeing a “significant increase in clients asking for help who have never needed help before”.
“Living in a cold, damp home can really have a terrible impact on people’s physical and mental health,” the charity’s Dr Lynda Mitchell says. “You can imagine just how miserable it is. People are suffering from respiratory problems, circulatory problems and all sorts of health issues.”
It is having an impact on people’s mental health too. “People who live in remote and rural communities already have a challenging time,” says Nick Ward, the chief executive at charity Change Mental Health. “They may be living in poverty and unlikely to have access to as many services and support as those in urban centres.
One young man, Shaun, faced this personally. He felt suffocated by loneliness in rural Scotland, with only his cat for company. A joiner by trade and not suited to the rush of city life, Shaun had moved to Orkney for work only to find himself battling severe depression and unable to leave the house.
“I didn’t have transport to get to places,” he says. “I was stressed and depressed. I couldn’t get out of the house. There was a bus service but I didn’t know the times and they kept changing. I’m not confident. I had a breakdown.”
Shaun was supported by his friend and her partner, who he is now living with in the Highlands, and he is doing better. He had help from Change Mental Health and has just started a computer course and is looking to regain his independence. But many others are trapped in deprivation.
“It’s a pretty stark issue and one that needs a variety of solutions,” Mallows adds. “These solutions must have rural and island communities centred within them. They can’t just be an add-on for urban policymaking.”
Research by the Scottish government in 2021 found the cost of living in remote rural areas was between 15 and 30 per cent higher than other parts of the UK. Mallows believes it is far greater now.
“We pay the highest electricity rates in the UK,” Kristopher Leask, the councillor for the Green Party in Orkney, remarks, “even though we produce well above our needs in renewable energy.”
Everyone keeps saying next winter is going to be worse. How can it be worse?
Jenny Milne, Scottish Rural and Islands Transport Community
Elizabeth Kraft, a councillor in Inverness, agrees. “It is hard to watch the energy we produce being fed into the national grid, to then be sold to private companies who sell it back at unaffordable prices. Many of my constituents ask why they are looking at oil rigs and wind farms yet they cannot afford to keep warm.”
The Scottish government is starting to take steps to alleviate the burden on rural communities. More than 180 projects across rural Scotland will receive grants of up to £100,000 to support local people through the cost of living crisis. But local people say support is not going far enough.
“I feel like they don’t listen and that they’re pretending nothing’s happening. And that there’s a lot of money going into things that aren’t a priority now. That is a personal view,” Carrie Kirkegaard says.
She runs a community project New Connections in Lochaber – offering a “warm, open space where people can come and they can feel safe and they can make connections”. Every day, she speaks to people who are struggling.
“My concern is that we come across a lot of people who do not have the capacity to try to deal with energy companies and banks, to get on the phone on hold for endless amounts of time and be batted off and be disregarded.”
Kirkegaard, who is from Glasgow but now lives in Lochaber with her husband, says she is feeling the pinch with the cost of living crisis. “We don’t treat ourselves. We haven’t been on holiday for quite a long time. Visiting my husband’s family isn’t really in the question cost-wise.
“We’re not struggling but we’re not having the best time either. There’s a lot of: ‘Well, that’s just how things are and we just have to get on with it.’ That’s not how it should be. People need to be content and happy and safe and warm and settling for anything less isn’t acceptable.”
Another issue faced in rural areas is insufficient access to transport, which the cost of living crisis is making worse. Minibuses in rural communities can be a “lifeline” but drivers are struggling to provide these services.
“It’s because of fuel costs increasing and just generally things increasing across the board – electricity bills, garage bills going up,” Mallows says. “There’s a ripple effect. We’ve also seen the cost of public transport increase dramatically while the service has also been reduced.”
Jenny Milne, the founder and director of Scottish Rural and Islands Transport Community, adds: “It affects people’s lifestyles. It affects accessibility and it affects their sociability and also their mental health and wellbeing because these are the lifeline services that then get just taken away from them.”
“When is this going to end?” Milne says. “Everybody keeps saying next winter is going to be worse. But how can it be worse?” She explains volunteer drivers are only given a “measly” 45p per mile by the government to cover fuel costs.
“It means you’re really counting your pennies. If you can’t afford to help somebody get to their hospital appointment, you’re feeling bad but at the same time your own family comes first.”
Milne wants the governments in Scotland and the UK to have “more of an understanding and grasp of what goes on in rural areas because many of those involved in trying to roll out strategies about rural issues don’t actually come from rural areas, and so they don’t know the problems first hand”.
Chair Pete Wishart says the “perfect storm” is hitting Scotland in the cost of living crisis. “From larger homes leaking heat, to being ‘off-grid’ with the costs of heating fuel not being covered by the energy price guarantee, we need to make sure that rural communities are not left behind in cost of living support.”
Tamala Collier, an SNP councillor for Cromarty Firth says the town of Ivergordon is being left behind. After the aluminium smelter was closed without warning in 1981, the town started to deteriorate and locals are still struggling today.
There are few job opportunities in rural areas, Collier says. People can apply for jobs in cities but, without reliable public transport, they have limited options. “But people here are very capable and they want to find work,” she adds. “We are a lovely bunch.”
Cockburn says Badenoch and Strathspey are facing similar problems. “We have all the trappings of a vibrant tourism industry behind a low-wage economy,” she says. The hospitality and social care industries are “crying out for people” but these are low-paying roles and require people to travel to get to them. And without jobs, people can’t afford to stay in the area.
“It’s very difficult for young people to stay locally because there is no affordable housing,” Cockburn says. “We need to get on with building houses and make sure there is affordable renting and quality housing.”
Housing development is rarely a large-scale operation in rural areas. In 2021, the average property price was £198,908 in remote rural areas and £228,556 in accessible rural areas, compared to £171,362 in the rest of Scotland.
Leask adds that Orkney has “some of the most unhealthy homes in Scotland”. Properties not only need to be affordable, but they need to be energy efficient so people’s homes are not leaking energy.
“We’re always calling for more localised democracy and more appropriate policymaking in rural and island areas,” Mallows, representing Scottish Rural Action, says. “It’s not only about getting funding.
“It’s about making legislative changes so communities have more ownership over their local resources or they have more ability to take control of their area and they can support their own resilience.”
There are fears many more will fall behind as the cost of living crisis continues to spiral. “The cost of living crisis was not created by Scottish people,” Collier says.
“I want the government to speak to people and get to know actual people’s lives. I don’t think they understand what struggling families need and what it means to be struggling every single day to make sure that your children are fed and make sure that your houses are warm. I would like a human touch from the government.”
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