Scotland's islands are special. They are beautiful and diverse, enjoying rich histories, healthy economies and immense prospects for future growth. And just as Scotland's islands have played a vital role in our history, it is our shared responsibility to ensure all our islands play an essential part in Scotland's future.
The blend of Gaelic, Scots and Nordic cultures is a unique combination which shapes our islands. It is one of the pillars of a strong sustainable tourism industry, along with our superb natural environment, and underpins a thriving creative industries sector. Our food and drink products, including many well-known brands, enjoy global success. Newer industries are growing here too, including financial and business services, and our islands are already making a significant contribution to Scotland's growing success in renewable energy, learning from their previous role in the development of Scotland's oil and gas industry, all nurtured by the island campuses of the University of the Highlands and Islands ( UHI).
On 18 September of this year, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to determine their country's future. This prospect of constitutional change brings with it an opportunity to renew democracy at all levels in Scotland. Indeed, the prospect of the extension of the powers of the Scottish Parliament creates a unique opportunity to consider the right level for decisions to be made in all parts of Scotland. But democracy is first and foremost about people and communities and not parliaments, councils or governments.
In Scotland's Future the Scottish Government has set out the opportunities independence can provide for individuals, for households and for business. Crucially independence will ensure that the decisions about Scotland are taken by those who care most about Scotland, that is, the people who live and work here.
The Scottish Government believes that independence will ensure that the people of Scotland will be in charge of our vast wealth and resources and that we can choose to use that wealth to create more jobs and build greater economic security by tailoring economic policy to ensure Scotlands needs are met.
The Scottish Government believes that with independence Scotland's islands can benefit from that same opportunity - the ability to take decisions about their future, to design policies locally and nationally that are in tune with island needs and crucially to access the wealth and resources of the islands to deliver them.
Devolution has helped to raise the profile of Scotland's islands. Since 1999 policies developed by the Scottish Parliament have demonstrated a greater understanding of island life and island economies whilst successive Scottish administrations have recognised Scotland's islands as having an important part to play in our national life.
The Scottish Government believes that with independence we will be able to empower not only island communities to make decisions about the issues that affect them, but the Scottish Parliament will be empowered to consider the needs of island communities in new areas of welfare, taxation, telecommunications, energy, immigration, and wider economic policy. Scotland will also be a full member of the European Union and will argue the case for Scotland's priorities in Brussels, many of which directly affect island communities.
Strong communities are essential to the continued wellbeing of our islands. Social and economic development is fundamental to achieving growth and employment opportunities, particularly in remote, sparsely-populated areas. Supporting communities to build dynamic, creative, sustainable places is integral to improving the wellbeing of people on the islands and to building fairer and wealthier communities. Building on their diverse range of resources, opportunities and skills, our ambition is to see every community across the islands reach its full potential.
The people who choose to live and work on our islands are a significant resource with skills and knowledge that we must respect, nourish and unlock to help deliver our shared ambitions for the islands. In empowering islands we must also enhance the consideration of islands needs in national policies. That principle applies to all Scotland's islands. However we also recognise that the three Islands Councils are unique in serving only island communities - each has its own circumstances which present uniquely distinctive challenges in the delivery of public services and of national priorities. Common to all is their remoteness, peripherality and, in comparison to most other local authorities in Scotland, their small population sizes.
Our Islands Our Future and the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council (Scotland's three Islands Councils) were quick to recognise the constitutional moment, and formed the Our Islands Our Future campaign to press the case for their islands in the context of the independence referendum. In June 2013 they set out their vision for the future of their three Island Areas. Our Islands Our Future  has been a bold campaign and has formed a key part of the debate over Scotland's future.
In July 2013 the First Minister, Alex Salmond, set out the Scottish Government's support for the empowerment of all of Scotland's islands in the Lerwick Declaration, stating " that the people who live and work in Scotland are the best placed to make decisions about our future - the essence of self-determination; therefore we support subsidiarity and local decision making."
The Scottish Government formed the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group together with the Our Islands Our Future leaders (see Appendix 1), to consider how a future Scottish Government, with the powers of independence, could recognise the needs of our unique and remote Island Areas and empower and continue to support our island communities.
Empowering Scotland's Island Communities
This prospectus is the culmination of the Group's work over the last ten months, and constitutes measures recommended jointly by Scottish Ministers and Islands Council Leaders.
The prospectus should be considered as a coherent package of measures. It does not attempt to describe or address every function or aspect of community development across our islands.
The proposals set out in Empowering Scotland's Island Communities have, however, been identified by the Group as reflecting the clearest opportunities available to the Island Areas at this time.
The principles and circumstances outlined above were at the heart of the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group's considerations. The consequences and implications of proposed changes needed to be properly explored and understood, with the optimal balance of responsibility for service delivery between central and local government needing to take account of what the communities who both use and finance public services desire. The agreed focus of the Group's actions is detailed in Appendix 1.
The work of the Group, the benefits of which will spread to all of Scotland's islands where appropriate, has had a strong platform to build on. The current arrangements for public service delivery in the islands have developed and evolved over many years, and continue to do so through the strong partnership approach between the Scottish Government, public bodies, local authorities, the third and independent sectors, and communities themselves.
As well as recent developments, our work was informed by the detailed work of the independent Montgomery Committee  , whose 1984 report on Islands Councils' functions contained a central recommendation that "there should be no reduction in the powers of the Islands Councils, and the opportunity should be taken whenever possible to consolidate, develop and extend these powers". The Committee also found that there may be circumstances where legislation should include a provision to vary their application to the Island Areas.
The Group endorses those findings, and has tested a number of areas to come up with proposals to enable a new phase of democratic renewal in our islands. At the time of the 2011 Census, Scotland had 103,702 people living across its 93 inhabited islands. The proposals in this prospectus are of interest for everyone in these island communities.
The Group developed these proposals based on three underpinning objectives:
- promoting islands voice;
- harnessing island resources; and
- enhancing islands wellbeing.
The package of proposals balances the risks and rewards that come with increased responsibility and opportunity. Many are also applicable to other comparable parts of Scotland - and, especially, nearly all are applicable to the other island communities within Highland, Argyll and Bute and North Ayrshire local authority areas. This reflects the outcome of Scottish Ministers' separate discussions with representatives of those three Councils, although the development of this prospectus primarily reflects the work of the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group.
This package of measures is based on the transfer of all powers to the Scottish Parliament with independence - it requires certain responsibilities to be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood before they can be transferred to the islands. The Scottish Government is committed to implement all the measures described in this prospectus upon the transfer of powers that independence would deliver, subject to formal consultation arrangements and, where legislation is required, the scrutiny and will of the Scottish Parliament.
This prospectus is by no means the final word on actions to come, but it does form a package that is both logical and bold, and which sets the course for further empowering Scotland's islands. The Scottish Government will continue to engage with the islands regarding opportunities for their communities.
Wider advantages of independence
As well as the specific advantages for islands described in this paper, the Scottish Government has set out the advantages and opportunities of independence for Scotland as a whole, from which our island communities will also benefit, in Scotland's Future:
- To create a more democratic Scotland. The Scottish Government believes that the people of Scotland are the ones who will do the best job of running our country. We will not get every decision right, but more often than not the choices we make for our economy and our society will be better for Scotland than those made at Westminster. With independence, Scotland will always get the governments we vote for. For half the time since 1945, Scotland has been ruled by Westminster governments with no majority in Scotland.
- To build a more prosperous country and boost employment. The key economic powers necessary to deliver growth and prosperity remain with Westminster. Scotland is blessed with a range of economic strengths and advantages: substantial natural resources, a strong international brand, world-class universities and research, and a range of world-leading industries including food and drink, life sciences, the creative industries, energy, tourism, insurance, wealth management and engineering. Despite all of Scotland's strengths, over the past 30 years our economic growth rate has been lower than the UK average and lower than that of comparable nations across Europe. Independence would make the Scottish Parliament and Government responsible for the full range of decisions on taxation and other economic policies, as well as employment law and all aspects of economic regulation, would be taken in Scotland and tailored to Scotland's needs.
- To become a fairer society. Within the UK, Scotland is part of an increasingly unequal society. With independence we can build a more equal and fairer Scotland, where the many benefits of a rich and active society are shared and where we work together to advance our nation as a whole.