|A view of Raasay, from the deck of Mv Hallaig, last week|
For my Daily Record column
This is a dispatch from the edge about the death of a National Health Service in Scotland.
As you might expect from me, it is set on an island community, but lessons can be drawn for any rural area and ought to be heard by a government purporting to put Scotland first.
So, let’s begin our trip to Raasay, the long strip of an island next to Skye. It’s about the same size and shape as Manhattan, but with less traffic, as fewer than 200 people live there.
You approach Raasay on a 25 minute ferry crossing aboard a new Mv Hallaig, a diesel-electric hybrid ferry project in which the Scottish government invested £20 million.
You arrive at the equally modern £12 million ferry terminal, and walk up past Raasay House Outdoor Centre, fully restored with £4 million grant funding.
Next door copper stills are being installed in the new Raasay distillery, a multi-million investment with public backing which could provide 12 full-time jobs.
Along the road is an award-winning community hall, a magnificent building attracting over £1 million of public money.
With that investment in a half-mile strip, perhaps £50 million, you would think little Raasay is on the cusp of something big.
But this focus of the economy of things, as I call it - buildings, piers and utilities that politicians can cut ribbons on - overlooks a negligence to invest in the most basic service people rely on, the NHS.
Highland Health Board is pulling the rug from under Raasay’s future by withdrawing the island’s full-time nursing cover.
After the resident nurse retired six years ago a rota of three full-time nurses was slowly wound down to nine to five, weekday coverage.
One nurse went off sick about the same time as two others were promoted off the island. For the first month they missed a few nights, then only covered every second weekend.Since the start of the year the rota wound down to nine-to-five, weekday coverage.
Fall ill on Raasay anytime after 5pm, fall down in your home on the weekend, and you face the prospect of being evacuated by helicopter or lifeboat to get primary health care.
One pensioner did just that, sat at the bottom of the stair until dawn, rather than face the palaver of an emergency dash.
The island community council is fighting a rearguard but the high-handed attitude of NHS Highland bureaucrats has alienated people.
NHS Highland have had few volunteers to hold neighbour’s lives in their hands while waiting for a nighttime helicopter landing. Basically, the NHS want to leave health care with well-meaning amateurs, says Anne Gillies the community council chairwoman.
Needless to say lifeboat and coastguard crews are peeved at being cast as first responders to NHS failure.
The board claim they find recruitment hard. Yet an island Facebook appeal drew 26 responses worldwide from people willing to work an island nursing parish.
Naturally, everyone wants a hospital at the end of their street and rural communities always accept compromise.
Thirty years ago people feared school closures would signal the end of the line for some villages.
But these people are resilient. The secondary pupils of Raasay go down the slipway to the ferry and bus to Portree each morning on one of the most daunting school-runs in Britain.
But take away the security of primary health care and their parents start thinking twice about staying, or about setting up home in remote communities.
The plight of Raasay is emblematic of what is happening across the west coast. Coigach, Lismore, Eigg are in the same situation.
Out of hours GP services are earmarked to be withdrawn from Lochaline, Glenelg, Applecross, Lochinver,Tongue and Armadale.
This is the fraying edge of the NHS in Scotland.
There was a nurse on Raasay 80 years ago, before the NHS was founded. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, there is no NHS on Raasay for most of the time.
Pull at the thread long enough and the whole blanket will unravel.
Remove health cover from places like Raasay and ferries, piers, whisky stills and the sprung wooden floor in the community hall, it will all be for the tourists.
The jobs will be commuter-fed, workers departing the island on the last ferry of the day, as the nurse does now.
Nicola Sturgeon launched that ferry, the ill-named Mv Hallaig, with some ceremony.
Hallaig, of course, is the cleared, abandoned Raasay village made famous by the poet Sorley MacLean.
Perhaps having the First Minister as the naming patron was an omen in itself. On her watch, does Nicola Sturgeon want her ferry sailing to an emptying island?