A Hebridean fisherman has received a prestigious award at the annual Scottish traditional music awards gala for his song that criticises the proposed introduction of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) in Scotland. Donald Francis MacNeil, from the Isle of Vatersay, collaborated with the popular trad band Skipinnish to record ‘The Clearances Again’, a protest song that compares the potential impact of HPMAs on coastal communities to the Highland Clearances.
The song and its message
‘The Clearances Again’ was written by Angus MacPhail, the co-founder of Skipinnish, who said he wanted to give a voice to those who oppose the HPMAs and their implications for the fishing industry. The song is sung from the perspective of MacNeil, who has been a fisherman for his whole life and knows the waters around the islands of Barra and Mingulay intimately. MacNeil said he was honoured to be part of the song and to express his frustration at the plans that he believes would devastate his livelihood and his community.
The song lyrics describe the HPMAs as a “threat from the south” that would “banish us from our own seas” and “destroy our way of life”. The chorus repeats the phrase “the clearances again”, drawing a parallel between the historical forced evictions of Highlanders from their lands and the potential displacement of fishermen from their fishing grounds. The song also appeals to the Scottish Government to listen to the local people who have managed the marine resources sustainably for generations and to respect their rights and their culture.
The award and the reaction
The song was nominated for the Original Work of the Year award at the Na Trads, the annual celebration of Scottish traditional music and culture, which was held online on Saturday night. The song won the award, beating other contenders such as Karine Polwart’s ‘Women of the World’ and Rachel Newton’s ‘To the Awe’. MacNeil said he was delighted and surprised by the award and thanked Skipinnish and the public for their support. He also dedicated the award to his fellow fishermen and their families who are facing an uncertain future.
The award was announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, who congratulated the winners and praised the diversity and creativity of Scottish traditional music. However, some critics accused the Scottish Government of hypocrisy and double standards for celebrating a song that opposes one of its own policies. The public consultation on HPMAs, which would ban most human activities that could harm the marine environment in 10% of Scotland’s seas, ended on April 17 and has been met with strong opposition from the fishing sector and some coastal communities. The Scottish Government has said that it will consider all the responses and evidence before making a decision on whether to implement HPMAs.
The context and the controversy
HPMAs are a type of marine protected area (MPA) that offer the highest level of protection to marine habitats and species. They are recommended by the Benyon Review, an independent report commissioned by the UK Government, as a way to enhance biodiversity, support climate change adaptation and resilience, and deliver social and economic benefits. The report suggests that HPMAs could cover at least 30% of the UK’s waters by 2030, in line with the global target set by the Convention on Biological Diversity.
However, HPMAs are also controversial, as they would restrict or prohibit many activities that currently take place in the marine environment, such as fishing, aquaculture, oil and gas exploration, commercial seaweed harvesting, and offshore wind infrastructure. The fishing industry, in particular, has argued that HPMAs would have a negative impact on their income, employment, and food security, and that they are unnecessary and disproportionate, given the existing network of MPAs and other conservation measures in place. They have also claimed that HPMAs would undermine the devolved management of fisheries and the rights of local communities to access and use their marine resources.
The debate over HPMAs reflects the wider challenge of balancing the competing demands and interests of different stakeholders in the marine environment, as well as the need for evidence-based and participatory decision-making processes that take into account the ecological, social, and economic implications of marine conservation.