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Revealing the Vision Of Caithness Index Education Culture And Sport - Index

Education Culture & Sport
Highland Council - Caithness

Revealing the Vision of Caithness
An Arts Development Study of Caithness

3.4      The nature of Caithness, its population and catchment areas

3.4.1        People live in places, not organisational entities. While Caithness is part of the Highland Council area, it has a strong identity of its own. Geography defines it, beyond the hills and mountains of the Highlands, a triangular peninsula with the sea on two sides. It is a long way to the nearest larger towns and cities, over 100 miles to Inverness from Wick and Thurso. The roads do not help, steadily deteriorating in standard the further north. This provides an obstacle both ways: to people coming to Caithness to enjoy its unique character; to Caithness residents wanting access to provision not available in Caithness.

3.4.2        The strong Caithnessian identity is not simply a matter of geography, however. Much was said during the Study about the particular nature of the history of Caithness and its continuing effect on the identity of its communities. There is perception among several informants, for example, of a difference between Caithness and rest of the Highland Council area, because they did not see Caithness as having been a Gaelic speaking area. In fact, the historical evidence is quite clear, not least from place-name analysis that, while the most easterly regions of Caithness came, on the arrival of the Norse settlers, to have place-names which are Norse in derivation, some three-fifths of the area shows evidence of Norse and Gaelic co-existence. In any case, to define an identity on the basis of historical derivation can involve the danger of losing sight of the complexities not only of historic, but contemporary communities. Certainly, a simple equation of Caithness with other formerly Norse areas of Scotland like Orkney and Shetland should not be allowed to reduce the complexity of the historical communities of Caithness and of the complex interaction of Norse and Gael in the region. Such complex interaction is found in differing ratios, for example, in Lewis and Skye, where both heritages are recognised and celebrated.

3.4.3        It is important, then, that in properly seeking to ensure the integrity of a historical identity -- and Caithness has been an identifiable unit of government for a very long time -- that a simplification and, so, reduction of historical identity is not allowed to destroy the rich complexity of a heritage. Indeed, one of the effects of the Highland Clearances was to reinforce the presence of Gaelic speakers in Caithness in the nineteenth century and this heritage is as important a part of the experience of Caithness as any earlier heritage. Finally, Caithness has a modern population enrichment through the development of Dounreay. Such input will always raise the danger of friction and even resentment between the indigenous and new populations. But Scottish society has always, certainly in the last two millennia, to go no further back, been a society in flux, attracting and retaining migrants who become, like the families of Wallace and Bruce, central figures in the identity of the nation. Caithness is no different in this and there is a real danger that, in insisting on its difference within the Highland Council region, Caithness may do disservice to its own rich identity. Its own individuality certainly makes it a clearly discernible region within the Highland Council area, but it also has many elements in common with the rest of the Highland Council region that are worthy of celebration and sharing and must not be understated out of a desire to assert difference.

3.4.4        Notwithstanding these important considerations, the nature of arts activity in Caithness is to a significant extent shaped by its particular geography. Caithness was described many times during the preparation of this study as an island. By this was meant that the topography of the far north of Scotland is such that the main inhabited areas of the Caithness peninsula are to the north of the county. These are cut off from the south, except for the main coastal road, which uses narrow passes, by the peatland of the Flow Country. The analogy made by Caithnessians frequently is with the Orkney Islands whose population is similar in number to that of Caithness. It is felt that the community of Caithness finds its coherence within the boundaries defined by the Flow country, the Pentland Firth and North Sea as much as any island community more obviously defined by surrounding water. The ‘island’ of Caithness is further defined by its relative remoteness at one of the extremes of the Scottish mainland and of the Highland Council region. This ‘island’ effect is not merely fanciful. The map of the population per postcode sector at paragraph 3.4.11 makes quite clear the extent to which the most inhabited areas of Caithness (and adjoining northern Sutherland) are separated from the south. The related map of potential arts attenders at 4.1.4 further demonstrates this point.

3.4.5        Understandably, there is a strong view amongst residents that provision in Caithness should be appropriate to their location, physical remoteness and size of resident population. The 2001 census identified 25,195 residents of Caithness, a 4.5% decline since 1991, significant because overall the Highlands’ population increased by 2.4%. At the same time, however, its population is not comparatively low being, for example, roughly twice that of Sutherland, the next mainland area, and more than twice that of Skye and Lochalsh, the Island of Skye itself having a population of 10,306. While 25,000 is a healthy population size if distributed around and focussed on one centre, in Caithness the district is divided in distribution and focus between two towns (and many villages) with Wick and Thurso 21 miles apart on the opposite coasts. Thurso to the west has a population of 8,635 and Wick to the east has a population of 8,383. Rather than having a comparatively small population distributed in a number of small communities as in neighbouring Sutherland, therefore, Caithness is characterised by being relatively highly urbanised for a rural community. Further, in the words of one informant, each of the two towns is too big to be a small community and too small to be a big town

3.4.6        Sharing its population in three roughly equal groupings of between 8,000 and 9,000 between Thurso and Wick and the landward area, Caithness raises a range of very specific issues that will be addressed later in terms of appropriate provision. The demography and circumstances of the two towns, however, raise four major immediate challenges:

·         The first challenge is quite simply that half of the catchment area of each town is the sea. This, therefore, doubles the distance necessary to encompass similar population numbers in comparison with a town that is not on the coast.

·         The second challenge is that both Wick and Thurso are below the ‘magic’ 12,000 population which for much arts provision in the UK seems to define the size of town in which a full range of arts provision can be made (at typical levels of financial support). Yet, the urban population of Caithness is well above that magic figure.

·         The third challenge is that the total resident population within reach of these towns, allowing for a typical 25-mile radius catchment area, still encompasses modest numbers because of the low population density rural areas, even if the population from Sutherland outside the district is counted. (See Map of the Caithness Population per Postcode Sector with radius circles at 25 miles centred on Wick and Thurso town centres at paragraph 3.4.11.)

·         The fourth challenge is that these town centres are, at 21 miles apart, almost at the point where one cannot be conceived as effectively serving the other, even if there were ideal provision of public transport.

3.4.7        Wick achieves a catchment area population of about 20,000 people and Thurso about 27,000 at 25 miles radius, the latter larger mainly because of reaching into north Sutherland. Neither these radii nor related drive time statistics are particularly helpful in defining the accessible population for provision in these two centres, since time of day and such local factors as roads and weather are additional significant elements in affecting perceptions of the acceptability of a journey. 25 miles, however, is accepted as, for most practical purposes, the realistic catchment area extent for most arts provision.

3.4.8        Socio-economically there are some challenges in the character of the population. Given the location, available public transport and distributed population, it is surprising that 29% of households do not have a car, emphasising the need for accessible provision in the towns. Also, a significant proportion of the population is either under 15 or over 75, when reliance on transport by others is required. Unemployment is low, however, although the full effect of the plans to close the Caithness Glass factory at Wick will have a damaging effect on these figures. At a time when the UK unemployment rate is at its lowest ever - 4.9% - the level in Caithness is even lower at 4.4%, subject to the effect of the Caithness Glass factory closure, though a significant 5.6% of the population are economically inactive through permanent illness or disability. Levels of educational attainment in the resident population are below those for the Highlands as a whole. There is, in particular, a lower proportion of those with degrees or professional qualifications, tending to support the local view that qualified people leave to seek employment elsewhere.

3.4.9        Further, in common with the rest of Britain, the population is showing a structure with larger proportions than previously in the older age bands, a trend that will continue. Caithness has a slightly older profile than Scotland as a whole, with the exception of a ‘bulge’ in the 5 to 15 year olds. Over recent years, nonetheless, there has been a 15-20% decline in the school population. Overall, the major problem facing Caithness demographically is of an ageing and declining population (although, given the disposable income available to significant sections of the older generation, there is a countervailing mid-term opportunity for arts development focused on the needs of the older population):

3.4.10  In common with the rest of Scotland the average number of births is falling and family size therefore reducing, with increasing numbers of childless women and single households. These population projections, together with outward migration, without factoring in the Study’s proposals related to economic development through the arts and any consequent population enhancement, suggest that the population of Caithness will continue to fall in the future, and experience a greatly increased proportion of the population aged 65 and over. In terms of arts provision, this raises many issues about the local accessibility of events and activities.

3.4.11   As already noted, many people in Caithness discuss their identity and the ways in which Caithness feels a bond with its surrounding cultures. The census offers some firm evidence against which to evaluate perceptions. The population is slightly more Scottish than the Highlands as a whole (86.4%) and significantly less Gaelic speaking or knowledgeable (under 2.2%). As we have noted, many people feel a stronger bond to the Orkneys and Norway than to the rest of the Highlands. As we have also noted, while this adds to the area’s unique character, when it leads to a sense of difference and even of being misunderstood, it can militate against positive co-operation and shared vocabulary between community and local authority, to the advantage of no one.

It has already been noted that there is considerable artistic activity in Caithness and that a substantial proportion of the population engages as either spectators or participants or both. It is clear from the evidence presented in this section of the Study that this activity and the related sense of Caithnessian identity has a foundation in a very distinct cultural context in Caithness, This implies the need for specific, rather than general, solutions. The challenge of this context appears to be how the needs of Caithness might be met in suitable buildings and marketed and promoted on a coherent and consistent basis.