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Lydia Martens, Professor of Sociology, Keele University, UK.

Topic: Fragile livelihoods: the challenges and contradictions of tourism, conservation and fish farming in coastal crofting communities in North-West Scotland


The Scottish North-West coast is bordered to the West by the Minch and to the North by the Atlantic Ocean. The coast itself is demarcated by deep inland reaching sea lochs and hamlets of small islands. These parts of the Scottish Highlands are well known for crofting as the way in which people traditionally made their living. With the clearances of the 19th Century, the rural population was moved into coastal crofting communities where livelihoods were tougher, and where work on the land and the sea became intertwined. When listening into the livelihood narratives of coastal crofters today, one gets a sense of the challenges of maintaining a reasonable standard of living, and the shifts and changes that have been necessary in income generating activities over time in order to achieve this. Tourism, nature conservation, heritage and aquaculture feature in the mix of important contemporary sources of income pursued by the local population, whilst the story of fishing is one of decline.

In this paper, I consider the fragility of livelihoods in this coastal area from a human and more-than-human perspective and explore how these relate to the challenges and contradictions that are apparent in relation to this mix. I draw on research that was funded by the British Academy and that involved ethnographic immersion in a coastal holiday crofting community in North-West Scotland during the summers of 2012 and 2013. Talking with local people about the area following the recession that started in 2008, and that has seen the shrinking of budgets for regional development, there is a sense of decline expressed through the loss of families with young children in the locale. The school in a village about three miles away now educates only 40 children, when in times before the area started to become popular with summer visitors (from the 1950s onwards), the crofting community itself was able to maintain a local school with in excess of 100 children. These fragile local worlds stand in stark contrast to the worlds and realities of visitors, who are drawn to the location for its outstanding natural beauty and for the opportunity to pursue leisure activities that frequently connect the land with the sea. The decline in fishing, and indeed, the methods of modern high technology fishing that preceded it, along with contemporary trawler fishing in the North Atlantic and aquaculture, also give rise to conservation concerns of a more-than-human kind. During my research, concern about more-than-human fragility and decline was expressed especially through narratives of sea mammals and sea birds that was shared by nature conservationists, local people and visitors.

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