ON a recent ski-touring trip to Lyngen in arctic Norway, I was struck by the similarities between the remote islands and peninsulas of that region, and the islands of Scotland.
Often described as being ‘like Scotland on steroids’, the fjords, bare mountains and scrubby birch forests of north Norway do remind one strongly of parts of the West Highlands or north Skye.
But beyond their striking resemblance in topography and landscape, the two regions offer interesting parallels in their human life and experience.
Settlements are strung out along the fjords, sheep farms hunker down under brooding mountains and the ferries which cross the many sea lochs and sounds are a lifeline to the people who live here. Away from the main hubs like Tromso and Narvik, human settlement is sparse, services and facilities in the remote villages are limited, and communities are getting older and fewer.
Conversations in the sauna with our ski-guide (an American-Norwegian whose years spent living both in US and Norway had given him an interesting inside/outside perspective on life in arctic Norway) revealed that many of the social and economic woes which afflict Scottish islands are well-known in Lyngen.
They are all too familiar: young people leaving for the bright lights and ‘better’ economic opportunities of the cities; a lack of affordable housing, with house prices being pushed up by the demand for holiday homes in these stunning landscapes; and an ageing demographic.
So far, so the Scottish Highlands.
What is less obvious to the casual visitor is the way in which the country has responded to these seemingly intractable social and economic issues.
Norway has a strategic interest in retaining a viable population in its remote regions inside the Artic Circle – Tromso lies 700 miles from Oslo, but only 300 from the Russian city of Murmansk. As a result, it has purposefully supported life in these remote areas, through government policy.
The most obvious manifestation of this national commitment is the level of investment in the region’s infrastructure: new roads and tunnels under fjords and mountains; frequent ferry services, with automatic number plate billing (no fumbling with reams of paper tickets in a force nine gale); and superb mobile phone connectivity (a strong signal even on the top of a mountain).
Norway also makes use of a full range of fiscal mechanisms to support its remote regions, and make them more attractive to both new and existing residents.
For instance, shops and supermarket chains are subsidised to ensure parity of food and grocery pricing across the region – an orange will cost you the same on Arnoy island as it does in Tromso.
For instance, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the further away you are from the big cities, the cheaper it is to fill your car with fuel – progressively, less fuel duty is charged the remoter the area, leading to the slightly bizarre image of Tromso residents filling up at remote petrol stations before heading home after a weekend ski-trip.
For instance, residents of the remote areas get a 30 per cent reduction on their income tax and social insurance payments, to encourage economically-active people to live and move there.
For instance, employers in the remote areas pay no National Insurance contribution on staff posts, to encourage them to create jobs.
The Scottish Government is now waking up to the need for specific interventions to keep the lights on in Scotland’s remote islands.
Its National Islands Plan (here) will make a difference, especially the additional funding that is expected to flow from it.
There’s lots to be done. It’s a mammoth undertaking.
However, Norway demonstrates it’s not an impossible one.
Andrew Prendergast is a rural development practitioner, working on Skye and the Small Isles, with a particular interest in community-led housing. He is currently convener of Cohousing Scotland.
Picture credit: the author
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