Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Scotland Votes: Highlands and Islands Part 1: The Islands

This post looks at the Islands seats of the Highlands and Islands region. The Highlands seats can be found here. The list seats can be seen here.

The Highlands and Islands are a slightly oddball region. In such a rural, Northerly place, London is remote enough, but even Edinburgh can seem pretty distant. The British state doesn’t penetrate far here and local politics and identities can be more important. The Highlands and Islands councils are all controlled by independents, with the exception of the Highlands Council, which is governed by a coalition of independents and the SNP. As a result the Lib Dems have always been strong here and this area was once one of the last bastions of Liberalism before the Liberal Party started its slow climb back to relevancy. The region has been home to Liberal heavyweights like Jo Grimond, Charles Kennedy and Danny Alexander. That said, in Scottish Parliamentary elections the region has tended to demonstrate much less support for the party in general, in line with the general trend in Scottish Parliamentary elections towards a multi-party system. In particular, the SNP do well in the region, and in fact, factoring in regional seats, the SNP is the largest party in the region.

We’re going to kick off our Scottish election coverage with a look at the three island constituencies in this region. The islands are particularly independent and have strong local identities and cultures, Shetland and Orkney do not even necessarily consider themselves to be Scottish.



Notional Majority

Swing Required

First Elected

Na h-Eileanan An Iar

Alasdair Allan




Too close


Liam McArthur





LD Safe


Tavish Scott




LD Safe

Na h-Eileanan An Iar is usually known in English as the Western Isles or the Outer Hebrides, and, as you may suspect, lie to the West of the Scottish mainland. Like all three Scottish island seats Na h-Eileanan An Iar has a strong local identity, though it is ‘more Scottish’ than Orkney or Shetland. The islands were the strongest Scottish Gaelic speaking region in Scotland in the 2001 census, with 59.3% of residents speaking the language. The area is also unusually Christian, with the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (the ‘Wee Frees’) particularly strong here. Unusually for the region the seat tends to swing between SNP and Labour.

All that may slightly explain the incumbent MSP, the SNP’s Alasdair Allan, who holds a PhD in Scots Language, and is former Gaelic language journalist. He has also previously worked as a senior media relations officer for the Church of Scotland. A google search for him throws up a rather caustic blog which purports to be written by Allan. It’s hard to know who writes this blog, but it criticises him for such things as not living in the constituency, being too closely aligned to his party, and not doing enough to help the local community. It’s difficult to tell how widely read it is on the islands, but the hit counter puts the hits at almost 18,000, which in a constituency of less than 27,000 people may mean a decent readership on the islands, though it’s impossible to be sure.

On a uniform swing recent polling would show this seat as extremely close, some with the SNP winning and some with Labour winning, on paper it is Labour’s 10th highest target. Labour’s candidate is Donald Crichton, an area manager for the Scottish Health Council in the Highlands and Islands region who previously contested Charles Kennedy’s Ross, Skye and Inverness West constituency for Labour in the 2001 Westminster election, finishing second, but losing 11.8% of the vote in the process. To be fair Kennedy had just become Lib Dem leader and party leaders always experience a good result, indeed all four major parties lost significant numbers of votes. To me, this one looks too close to call.

Orkney is a bit more straightforward. At Westminster, Orkney and Shetland is the safest Lib Dem seat in Britain, by far, and it’s been held by Lib Dems, and previously Liberals since 1950. Indeed, since 1830 Shetland and Orkney has had only two MPs who did not come from the Liberal tradition. That said, Orkney is the less solid of the Orkney and Shetland constituencies, and times are not good to be a Lib Dem. Incumbent MSP Liam McArthur grew up in the constituency and was then the researcher of the seat’s MP, Jim Wallace. Wallace became Scottish Lib Dem leader and then Deputy First Minister in the first Scottish Executive and MacArthur was appointed as a Special Adviser to him, taking over his seat when Wallace became a Lord. What opposition to McArthur there is, is highly fragmented with the SNP just 0.06% ahead of the Conservatives and Labour only five points behind that. The SNP have selected Donna Heddle, lecturer in Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, whereas the Conservatives have selected Jamie Halcro-Johnson, who quit the Edinburgh North and Leith seat, where he’d been selected, to stand here as a favour to his party after they couldn’t find anybody to stand. Suffice to say Heddle looks like the stronger candidate to me. Nonetheless, while I would not be surprised to see a strong swing against McArthur I would be absolutely shocked to see his 28.6% majority overturned. A Lib Dem safe seat me thinks.

If Orkney was safe then Shetland is safe as safe can be. Shetland is the seat of Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott who got 66.7% of the vote in 2007. As the leader of his party with such a whopping great majority I really cannot see anyone but Scott winning. For what it’s worth the SNP have nominated Jean Urquhart, a councillor on the Highlands Council. In a seat like this if you want to challenge then you need a local candidate, and I doubt she’ll perform impressively. Safe as houses.


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