"Smart Islands through Exchange and Collaboration" was the theme of our penultimate LEADER funded exchange between Scotland and Ireland before Brexit kicks in.
Through the European Small Islands Federation, the Scottish Islands Federation has been a signatory of the Smart Islands Initiative which was launched at the EU parliament in Brussels in 2016. And for the last couple of years, we have concentrated on energy issues through the Clean Energy For EU Islands secretariat and 4 island groupings within our Federation ( the Scottish Off grid islands and the Orkney Energy Forum, the Aran islands and Kokar in the Aaland islands are now closely involved with the Clean Energy transition Agenda and receiving special support to implement their plans.
However the Smart Islands initiative aims at looking at more than energy: the circular economy, sustainable tourism, organisational capacity building and utilising natural and cultural assets to further the islands' economic well-being are all part of the equation.
Our LEADER funded exchange thus brought together islanders from small islands of comparable population and size to the key areas that concerned them most: myself and Larraine from the island of EIgg (pop 105) and Iseabail from neighbouring Canna (pop 17) went over to county Mayo to visit Clare island (pop 160) where Steve from Inish Turk ( pop 80) joined us for 2 days of intense discussions and exchange and site visits. We were also joined by Frank, S.I.F.'s treasurer whose ancestors came from Clare.
What impressed us most was the enterprising spirit of the Clare islanders and the strong feeling of community which we recognised straightaway as being a common strength between all of our islands. Both Clare and Inish Turk have capitalised extremely well on the Wild Atlantic Way which is the most successful tourism initiative in Ireland to date. All the restaurants and pubs are branded with its very easily recognised brand, and this has brought welcome numbers of visitors to both islands. Culture, including Gaelic music and dance traditions is a strong feature on Clare which has sought to prolong the visitors season with sporting events for singles and a very well received film festival.
Another interesting innovation is the way unemployed islanders are supported by a community scheme that provides them with extra income per week, provided that they work for and in the community, with access to training and qualifications that can build up to enable those that are interested to take up extra paid employment or work on the side which unlike in the UK, they are permitted to do to boost their income. For the islanders, the scheme is extended to three years, whilst on the mainland, it last for a year and then people have to re-apply. Marie-Agnes who administers the scheme pointed out the social aspects of the scheme which addresses issues of isolation and lack of confidence particularly for island women and how much this had made a difference to the island by providing extra pairs of hands to providing the island with fresh blooms from the community polytunnel for the local flower beds to keeping the campsite tidy, help for the elderly and pre-school children.
Particularly impressive is the way the Island lighthouse has been converted in a fantastically atmospheric high-end accommodation which attract a varied clientele, who also patronise the organic vegetarian cafe in a converted byre nearby, as it offers the most wonderful freshly grown food! Between the weaving workshops offering a sought after apprentice scheme and the mindful yoga retreats, complete with horse whispering, the Clare islanders have made the most of their resources in an impressive way! They are now looking forward to develop a sustainable energy plan, and we will be delighted to help them with the expertise we have acquired in Scotland: following on form the Eigg example, the Canna folks, all 17 of them, have recently completed their renewable energy grid, which take a bit of doing with such a small - but fiercely determined - population!!
Our next and final Scottish -Irish LEADER exchange will take place next month on the island of Uist in the Hebrides with a visit to the Aran islands in November. We will try to keep you updated!
Scottish Islands Federation