Residents on one of Scotland’s most remote islands have pleaded for extra support after its school, the smallest in the UK, was mothballed when its only pupil left.
Islanders of North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney islands, warn that the island is slowly dying because it has been starved of crucial investment in ferry and air services and lacks sufficient affordable housing.
The plight of North Ronaldsay was highlighted by the departure of the only child left at its tiny primary school. Teigan Scott, 12, will start secondary school on mainland Orkney next month. She has been its only pupil for the past two years and the school will be mothballed until other children arrive or are old enough to attend.
Tiegan, who has one sibling already at high school in Kirkwall, said she enjoyed being the only child at her primary school, although for two days a week she flew to Orkney’s mainland to join a much larger class at St Andrew’s primary.
She enjoyed doing special projects with her teacher, Sarah Work, who commuted by plane to teach her three days a week. They covered the sinking of the Titanic, the first and second world wars, and the Vikings, who played a large part in Orkney history.
She said she got used to being the only pupil, with one-to-one tuition: “I liked it; it was enjoyable.”
Teigan’s mother, Maureen Johnstone, said the school closure was a big loss to the island but that her daughter would know many of the pupils at her new school. “She is our youngest, so it will be a bit quiet around the house.”
Orkney council said the primary class was housed in a building with numerous community facilities, and the room would still be used for other learning activities by the community association.
“The classroom will be kept on standby from August onwards and would be used as a school room again if a family or families with primary age children move to the island,” a council spokesman said.
North Ronaldsay has only one pre-school child, a one-year-old. Councillor Kevin Woodbridge, the island’s retired doctor, said this highlighted a steep and worrying decline in its population.
He said the island’s plight, which mirrors the depopulation threatening other remote communities across Scotland’s islands and isolated crofting areas, was due to its very poor ferry and air services.
North Ronaldsay “has been withering away on the northern corner of Orkney because it just lacks services”, Woodbridge said. When he arrived to become the local GP in 1977, there were 160 residents, but only about 50 remain.
Unlike other comparable islands in Orkney and Shetland, he said, the council and Scottish government had refused to build a ferry terminal able to take roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ferries or fund a regular ro-ro service.
The island had to rely on a tidal pier that was heavily affected by poor weather, which left it with two ferry services a week in the summer and one in winter. The journey from Kirkwall took three hours, which had a huge impact on tourism, businesses and islanders.
Woodbridge said three of the four special tourist excursions from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay had been cancelled this summer due to poor weather. “I have been raising this for years,” he said. Each time North Ronaldsay was promised ferry investment, it was cancelled through cost-cutting. “It keeps falling off the bottom of the list,” he said.
The leader of Orkney Islands council, James Stockan, said it was pressing the Scottish government to help fund more lifeline ferry services. “Our key priority is to make sure that none of our isles communities are disadvantaged when compared to other remote communities in Scotland where transport services are fully funded by the Scottish government,” he said.
“We continue to engage with the government on this, arguing strongly for funding parity for Orkney for the vital transport links that sustain our isles communities. We have a strong case for increased government investment to bring us into line with other areas of Scotland.”
Some things are improving on North Ronaldsay, Woodbridge said. The island’s internet connection, currently running at 500kb, is due to be upgraded next year to 25mb.
However, Johnstone said the island’s air link was inadequate and housing was in short supply. Her partner, David Scott, is the island’s airport coordinator and firefighter, as well as running the pier and maintaining the island’s roads. The family moved to North Ronaldsay in 2010 after Orkney housing association made affordable homes available.
The island is served by a small plane with only seven seats, shared with other islands, and was too small to take much freight, she said. “The highest priority for the island is housing,” she said. “People can’t come to the island and envisage a life here if there isn’t a place for them to stay.”