This article was published as part of our 16-page Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

THERE is something very insulting in using the word “problem” to describe a place and a people. The so-called “Irish problem” is of course nothing of the sort – it is simply another manifestation of the British problem, the long-term inability of a bigger country to keep its hands off smaller ones and the in-built exceptionalism that allowed it to do so.

The same is true of the “Highland problem”. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are not some desolate backwater always fated to be the poor relation. The area has, in fact, considerable natural and human wealth, but it has been constantly misapplied for the aggrandisement and enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

A potent symbol of that exploitative approach is the statue of George Granville Leveson-Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland, which has stood at the top of Beinn a’ Bhragaigh near Golspie since 1837. A debate about its continued existence in that spot, or any other, long pre-dated the current arguments about the cancel culture and will be revived I am sure at the indy-focused festival being held this weekend in its shadow.

This is a second weekend in a row that indy activists have chosen to get together to start to rebuild the campaigning strength of the movement which will be needed to take the current 50-50 polls into winning territory.

I was sorry to miss last weekend’s gathering in Aberdeen but after two years of avoiding Covid it mugged me with a vengeance last Friday.

I am profoundly glad I had all three jags before succumbing and I shall be waiting at my doctor’s door for the next booster given what I know now, personally, about its debilitating effect.

Aberdeen was a considerable success, by all accounts, and in focusing on how we all need to work constructively, positively and respectfully together it will have, I hope, laid the foundations for further collaboration across the country.

Process, policy and progress to Yes go together. The flow of new materials from the Scottish Government will, when it starts, help to draw hearts and minds to the detail of the post-Brexit, post-pandemic indy offering and build upon what has been published over the past few months by a range of organisations including the SNP, Believe in Scotland (which has contributed a great deal of really important campaign information) and The National itself.

In Golspie, discussions could usefully start with the issues that the statue presents and relate them to what indy has to offer which could never come from the Union.

Basic land reform does not in itself need independence but making land reform ever more radical and ever more real in its effect on ordinary people does need a range of fiscal and taxation powers which are either not currently available to the Scottish Parliament or can be second-guessed by new post-Brexit Westminster legislation.

When the Scottish Government starts consulting on its next land reform proposals, my own wishlist will be clear. Having very reluctantly agreed to voluntary action when on the committee of the last land reform bill in 2015, I now want to see legislative compulsion in terms of community agreement on land use, community benefit from any sale or investment and community control of the right-to-buy process.

It is simply not tenable for a modern society to allow vast tracts of the non-renewable resource called land to be owned by individuals operating outwith democratic scrutiny. We must also be particularly aware that greenwashing what is really just traditional greed cannot be allowed to perpetuate the long-suffered injustices that arise from Scotland’s continuing vast inequity in land ownership and control.

The vested interests of the Tories and the blindly anti-SNP stance of the LibDems and Labour mean that this will be a bitter battle and it can only take place within the context of full autonomy for Scotland’s Parliament. It will literally never be on offer from or through a dependent parliament, for the Tories look after their own and will move heaven and earth to keep their grip on privilege and power.

Succeeding in this area will also help the availability of rural housing and again it will be much harder to do that without the full resources of a normal state.

Kate Forbes’s spending review brought home a related inconvenient truth this week. Without independence, everything is going to be more difficult as continuing Brexit austerity, Brexit inflation and Westminster Tory deceit eats into the public finances of Scotland.

Commentators can harrumph about the cost of “welfare” from their padded seats on the sidelines but the reality is that a small, rich European nation should be able to do much more.

It is not the cost of welfare that is the problem but the cost of Westminster – and only with independence will the Highlands, and the rest of Scotland, be able to devote necessary resources to, for example, supporting citizens through the cost of living crisis, stabilising rural populations to prevent continued decline and equalising infrastructure (very much an EU priority but one seriously undermined by the UK with its pork-barrel approach to “levelling up”).

No doubt there will be those Union apologists who will contend that “we don’t need indy to solve the Highland problem” – just as Douglas Ross was shouting that we don’t need to spend money on an indyref to live in a better country.

They are wrong. In fact, we must have done with the very idea of a “Highland problem”.

The Highlands are an opportunity and a privilege, not a curse, and we need to ensure our citizens can flourish wherever they live.

That will never happen while the likes of Ross are still smearing all those who know that the only cure for the ills of Unionism – like the ills of the Highlands and Islands – is independence.

Nothing else or less.