In January 2014 Charles Moore shared his insights on Scottish land reform via a mercifully short Spectator blog. Its hackneyed title – How is Alex Salmond like Robert Mugabe? – suggested that Mr Moore was less than enamoured with the prospect of communities owning the land on which they live. Quite the opposite in fact because according to him:
“Without philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen pouring cash in to maintain these difficult places, their communities, and so the environment, would suffer. You can see this happening already in the islands where crofters’ rights have been exercised”.
It’s not immediately clear which Fantasy Islands were populating Moore’s imagination in his portrayal of benevolent private lairds gallantly stepping in to protect otherwise enfeebled and helpless communities with their limitless largesse. They can’t possibly have included the Western Isles where I come from and where I spent a couple of days earlier this week working with the communities of Great Bernera and Barvas in Lewis, each of which are investigating the feasibility of buying the privately-owned estates they call home.
Now in one sense it’s perfectly plausible to call the Western Isles’ “difficult” in terms of distinctive challenges their remote-rural geography present. Some of these challenges are demographic and relate to aging and declining populations in parts of the islands, leading to social exclusion and pressure on essential services. Others relate to key infrastructure gaps such as the dearth of decent broadband and the absence of an interconnector to the National Grid to enable the islands to fully tap into their formidable renewable energy generation potential. Life is hardly made any easier by energy surcharges faced by islanders (and Highlanders) for the privilege of electricity supply. Then there is the scandalous disgrace of 71% of Western Isles householders languishing in fuel poverty (the comparable figure for Scotland as a whole is 27%).
All of these challenges are writ large in Fionnsbhagh (Finsbay) in the bays of the eastern seaboard of Harris where I grew up. As with many settlements along that seaboard, the township evolved under the shadow of the Clearances. Fionnsbhagh and the surrounding areas were mainly first settled in the 1790s as part of the fishery schemes set up by Captain Alexander MacLeod of Bearnaraigh, who had bought Harris in 1779. The Captain died in 1790 but as Harris historian and genealogist, Bill Lawson, recounts, by the late 1830s the estate factor Donald Stewart and his successors, working on behalf of the Captain’s son, (also called Alexander), “had cleared the crofters out of every piece of worthwhile land in Harris, and sent them to Cape Breton in Canada, or among the fishing villages that the Captain had set up along the East Coast Bays of Harris”.
Not a great deal of philanthropy in evidence there.
Let’s be clear that while the islands have been no strangers to the odd serious sportsman and occasional megalomaniac, the philanthropic input of the lairds who have owned great swathes of the Western Isles has been pretty negligible ever since Captain MacLeod’s ill-fated fisheries experiment. You might want to argue that Lord Leverhulme’s ownership of Lewis and Harris in the aftermath of World War 1 provides an historical exception to that rule but that’s another story; one brilliantly told by Roger Hutchinson in The Soap Man, his account of Leverhulme’s slightly surreal time in Lewis and Harris.
On the whole, however, the pattern of private landownership in the Western Isles might most charitably be described as one of benign neglect. Many of these Lairds may have been perfectly affable but they’ve tended to run their estates as private playgrounds rather than the alternative localised welfare system Mr Moore and his ilk would have us believe. There’s a big difference between passive ownership and proactively ensuring that an estate meets its full development potential for the benefit of the community. The latter is in essence the case for community land ownership.
Let’s be equally clear that despite the pressing socio-economic challenges outlined above, the Western Isles has enormous assets in terms of culture, environment and quality of life with which to build a sustainable future. Significantly, community land ownership is already playing a major part in helping to build that future.
As long ago as 1923 the Stornoway Trust became the first community landlord in the Western Isles. It has been joined by many others; all of them committed to improving the sustainability of their communities in various ways. On the west coast of Lewis the Galson Estate Trust oversees distribution of income generated by the estate’s wind turbines via its newly launched community investment programme. In the North Harris estate the community landlord has facilitated much needed affordable housing near Tarbert and operates a community recycling facility in partnership with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Affordable housing, repopulation and renewable energy also feature heavily in the plans of the West Harris Trust further along the machair coast of Harris from where over 200 years ago the tenantry made their unwilling way over the hills to the lunar landscape of the island’s eastern side. Meanwhile, Stòras Uibhist, the community landlord for Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist is taking the leading role in the multi-million pound, multi-partner Lochboisdale regeneration project amongst many other activities.
Other communities in the Western Isles seem eager to follow suit or at least explore the possibility of doing so. The Carloway estate on the west coast of Lewis is currently being transferred into community ownership. That increasingly well trodden path may soon be followed by the Barvas, Great Bernera and the Bays of Harris estates when their feasibility studies regarding community buyouts are completed. It’s a privilege to be able to provide assistance to some of these communities as they decide whether to take a leading role in shaping their own destinies.
None of the above is to suggest that community land ownership is a panacea for all the development challenges facing the Western Isles or anywhere else in Scotland for that matter. At least some of the infrastructure gaps referred to above are in the gift of Government to address if there is the political will to do so. How can it be politically or socially acceptable that in the 21st century 71% of the inhabitants in one of Scotland’s local authority areas are experiencing fuel poverty?
There will also be situations where communities in Scotland are perfectly satisfied with existing landlord arrangements, whether their landlord is of the private or public variety. In such cases, any attempts to foist alternative arrangements on such communities would most likely prove counter-productive.
That said, if most of Scotland’s political parties are as committed to genuine community empowerment in the public interest as they claim, then their vision for land reform following publication of the Land Reform Review Group’s report on ‘The Land of Scotland and the Common Good’ must be bold. In the apparently restless brave new dawn of Scotland’s post-referendum politics anything less would seem dispiritingly like business as usual.