Highlands and Islands - Region Overview

The Highlands and Islands Region is a geographic behemoth, covering around half of Scotland’s land area. It includes all of the three Islands Councils – Orkney, Shetland and Western – and Highland, plus most of Argyll and Bute (the Lomond area is missing) and Moray (missing the area around Buckie).

Despite that tremendous geographic extent, this is by far the smallest region in terms of population. That isn’t a mere reflection of rurality, but rather partly down to the infamous Highland Clearances where landlords deliberately destroyed communities which had existed for centuries, sending them to the Lowlands or overseas to make way for sheep farming. This was not without strong resistance from many of the residents, with Land Reform becoming the key political priority by the late 19th century.

That the Liberals adopted that policy as their own would gain them long-lasting support, especially amongst crofters. They would also find strong support in the Northern Isles, although the Norse-descended, Scots speaking peoples of those islands differed greatly from the Gaels of the Highlands and Western Isles. Even at their lowest ebb in the 50’s when they had just 6 MPs across the UK, one of those was Orkney and Shetland. As they began to revive in the 60’s, this was first seen in Highland seats, and by the 90’s the freshly merged Liberal Democrats had become dominant in western and northern Highlands.

At the same time, the SNP tended to be very strong in Moray. They also had enough support across the region that, during the First Past the Post era of European Elections, their solitary MEP Winnie Ewing represented the region. Labour had pockets of support in Caithness, Sutherland and Inverness, and the two parties regularly battled it out for the Western Isles. Even when various strands of Liberalism were the strongest force in the Highlands, the region was often more politically diverse than the Central Lowlands.

In line with general Westminster patterns, the first election saw the Lib Dems sweep to victory in most consituencies, winning both Northern Isles seats plus three of the five covering the mainland. The SNP took the other two, holding Moray and wresting the Inverness seat from Labour, compared to the 1997 UK General Election, though Labour won the Western Isles. Interestingly enough, the Lib Dems came third in the proportional list vote, with the SNP leading and Labour second. That meant those two parties won the lion’s share of list seats, leaving the remaining two for the conservatives.


5 Liberal Democrat (all Constituency)
4 SNP (2 Constituency, 2 Regional)
4 Labour (3 Regional, 1 Constituency)
2 Conservative (all Regional)

In terms of MSPs elected, the Highlands and Islands were actually tied for the least diverse, against historic trend. There were no changes to constituencies and the SNP managed to hold on better than elsewhere, so it was Labour who lost a list seat, whilst the difference was made up by a Green MSP.


5 Liberal Democrat (all Constituency)
4 SNP (2 Constituency, 2 Regional)
3 Labour (2 Regional, 1 Constituency)
2 Conservative (all Regional)
1 Green (Regional)

As the rainbow faded in 2007, the region went back to the four Westminster parties. Growth for the SNP saw them gain the Western Isles from Labour and Argyll and Bute from the Lib Dems, giving them a lead in seats for the first time despite it being their third lead in votes.


6 SNP (4 Constituency, 2 Regional)
4 Liberal Democrat (all Constituency)
3 Labour (all Regional)
2 Conservative (all Regional)

As part of the SNP’s surprise 2011 majority, the complete collapse of the Lib Dems saw them lose all of their mainland constituencies, only holding onto the two Northern Isles seats. With Labour dropping a seat, the Conservatives remaining relatively weak, and no Green breakthrough, the SNP also won three of the list seats, giving them a commanding nine out of fifteen seats overall.


9 SNP (6 Constituency, 3 Regional)
2 Liberal Democrat (all Constituency)
2 Labour (all Regional)
2 Conservative (all Regional)

Though they held all of their constituencies, this region saw one of the SNP’s steepest drops in terms of the list vote, and thus the loss of two seats. A near doubling of the Conservative vote handed them an additional seat, whilst SNP MSP-turned-Green John Finnie held his seat under that new banner.


7 SNP (6 Constituency, 1 Regional)
3 Conservative (all Regional)
2 Liberal Democrat (all Constituency)
2 Labour (all Regional)
1 Green (Regional)

With the SNP riding high in the polls and the Lib Dems being immovable objects in the Northern Isles, it may seem unlikely that there will be any changes to constituencies. However, shifting voting patterns since 2016 may still have two constituencies in play.

The Conservatives won the UK Parliament’s Moray constituency in 2017, and held it with a narrow majority in 2019. With slightly better polling or a strong local campaign, they may pull it off. It’s a similar story for the Lib Dems in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, who hold the roughly equivalent Westminster seat of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

We’re still more likely to see changes via the regional list seats, however. Labour are at serious risk of dropping to a single MSP in the region. If the SNP continue to poll strongly they could benefit, but they’ll be facing off against the Lib Dems who aren’t a million miles off winning a third seat in the region. By contrast, both the Conservatives and Greens are at relative “sweet spots” where unless there’s a much bigger shift in polling they should neither gain nor lose seats.

Highlands and Islands - Overall Regional Results

Total MSPs Elected 2016


7 SNP (6 Constituency, 1 Regional)
3 Conservative (all Regional)
2 Liberal Democrat (all Constituency)
2 Labour (all Regional)
1 Green (Regional)

Changes to MSPs since 2016


Conservative Regional MSP Douglas Ross resigned after being elected as MP for Moray in June 2017. He was replaced by Jamie Halcro Johnston .

Liberal Democrat Shetland Constituency MSP Tavish Scott resigned to take up a new post in June 2019. The Lib Dem candidate Beatrice Wishart held the seat at the resulting by election.

Regional List MSPs Elected 2016


#1: Conservative - Douglas Ross
#2: Labour - Rhoda Grant
#3: Conservative - Edward Mountain
#4: Conservative - Donald Cameron
#5: Green - John Finnie
#6: SNP - Maree Todd
#7: Labour - David Stewart

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Regional List Candidates 2021

Argyll and Bute

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


SNP: Mike Russell
Majority: 5978 (20.3%)
Turnout: 60.9%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


SNP: Gail Ross
Majority: 3913 (12.1%)
Turnout: 58.5%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Na h-Eileanan an Iar

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


SNP: Alasdair Allan
Majority: 3496 (26.5%)
Turnout: 61.0%

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Note: “CHR” is the Scottish Christian Party. In most cases I’ve parties that didn’t contest every region in an “Other” column at the end, but given the remarkably strong support in this constituency it seemed sensible to specifically highlight the party.

Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Inverness and Nairn

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


SNP: Fergus Ewing
Majority: 10857 (28.3%)
Turnout: 57.8%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Moray

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


SNP: Richard Lochhead
Majority: 2875 (8.6%)
Turnout: 54.0%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Orkney

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


Liberal Democrat: Liam McArthur
Majority: 4534 (43.0%)
Turnout: 62.0%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Shetland

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


Liberal Democrat: Tavish Scott
Majority: 4895 (44.3%)
Turnout: 62.3%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC

Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch

Constituency MSP Elected 2016, Majority and Turnout


SNP: Kate Forbes
Majority: 9043 (25.6%)
Turnout: 61.5%

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Constituency Candidates 2021

TBC