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Scotland: Islands Abuzz with Land-Grab Plans

by James ArnoldBBC
November 13th, 2003

To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra: of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest.

They are strangers to the language and the manners, to the advantages and wants of the people, whose life they would model, and whose evils they would remedy.

Communications have improved since Samuel Johnson made his famous tour of the Western Isles in 1773, but a cultural divide still yawns.

For many in the islands - known alternatively as the Outer Hebrides - the mere mention of Glasgow or Edinburgh produces a derisive snort.

"Scotland? Yes, I think I went there once," sniffs one North Uist crofter.

Big ideas

But now Glasgow and Edinburgh are starting to pay very close attention to the Highlands and Islands.

Scotland's remotest rural regions are the testing ground for the most ambitious idea launched so far by the five-year-old devolved government. At the beginning of this year, the Scottish parliament finally passed a highly contentious bill on land reform - a piece of legislation that seeks to shake up the centuries-old structure of the rural economy.

The bill's dynamite provision is the "community right to buy", which - once certain financial and demographic criteria are met - gives tenants in thinly-populated areas first refusal on their landlords' estates.

The landlord is theoretically guaranteed a fair market price, but if he does not want to sell, the law can force him.

Its good faith established, a community only needs to raise about 6% of the purchase price - much of the rest will be topped up by a dedicated government fund.

Selling up

This notion of land reform goes back a decade, since crofters in North Assynt bought their land from a bankrupt Swedish property company.

Since then, a number of deals have trickled through, mainly in estates where the landlord was predisposed to cut a deal - in some cases, even handing over parts of the estates gratis.

But the bill, with its armoury of funding promises and legal muscle, is sure to increase the flow of deals.

Late last year, with the bill very much in mind, the community of North Harris completed the biggest buyout so far, the 4.5m amicable takeover of Jonathan Bulmer 's Amhuinnsuidhe Castle estate.

Making amends

More power to them, say many.

Scottish land ownership is peculiarly feudal, with more than half the land held by just over 300 people or agencies.

Many of these landlords are absentees, some are neglectful, some - horror! - are foreign. Returning land to co-operative ownership, proponents of reform say, will give those who work the land a stake in it, paving the way for the sort of investments that could improve quality and enrich the rural economy.

Nor must the symbolic value of reform be underestimated: for some of its more romantic supporters, the bill was a way of making amends for centuries of landlord oppression, bringing Scotland's medieval agriculture up to date.

'Silly romantic ideas'

Now, that logic is likely to be severely tested.

Discussions are currently under way over what would be the most ambitious buyout so far, the planned purchase of 93,000 acres - Scotland's 12th-largest estate - on Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay.

This time, opposition to a buyout is more organised, and some are already claiming that up to half the locals are firmly against it.

Opponents cover a wide spectrum: libertarians - plentiful in these free-thinking islands - say the land-reform rules are "quasi-communist"; crofters are furious that the process will be open to the entire community, fearing that their traditional pre-eminence will be trampled.

"If it had been a crofters' buyout, like at Assynt, I would have been all for it," says Angus MacDonald, who has a large croft near Benbecula airport.

"But when you let the others in, it gets dominated by people with silly romantic ideas, and the crofters get sidelined."

And many in the wider community are shocked at the suddenness of it all, reinforcing the impression - widely held - that land reform is yet another cock-eyed scheme foisted on them by the mainland.

Fantasy island

There are broader concerns. One is money.

All parties to a community land buyout can claim to be being ripped off, including taxpayers, who may resent funding a new class of property owners.

Many on Uist wonder how the community can finance a purchase that could top 10m, even with the government's generous funding assistance.

And if the trickle of deals turns into a flood, the coffers of the Scottish Land Fund, which has already spent half its 15m funding, could run dry within a couple of big buyouts.

Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell recently announced that land reform was to be expanded, raising the maximum allowed community population from the current 3,000 to 10,000 - a move that could see almost the whole of the Highlands, including many towns, become eligible.

The Land Fund admits that it has no idea how such an expansion could be financed.

On the up

Nor is it clear just what are the problems that land reform intends to solve.

Crofters may technically be tenants, but they have complete security of tenure, and the ability to pass their holdings down through their families.

And the economy of the Western Isles is no longer the basket case it may have seemed a decade or so ago. Average earnings - at just over 23,000 per household - are among the lowest in the country; the population has shrunk by 16% since 1981, and may shrink by the same amount again in the next 20 years.

But incomes have risen by almost one-third since 2000, one of the highest rates nationwide.

Councils and call centres

And today's Hebridean economy is becoming ever more diverse.

"Most crofters have another job," says Ena MacNeil, who has a croft on North Uist and who currently chairs the Scottish Crofting Foundation. "Very few live off the land these days."

Even those that do are not complaining too loudly, except at the mounting burden of bureaucracy - "My father used an envelope for all his paperwork," says Mrs MacNeil. "My son uses his garage."

Work is plentiful, especially since the creation of the Western Isles Council (the islands were previously split between mainland counties) in 1975. Fish-farming, along with associated processing industries, has become big business; there is a call centre in Stornoway, and even talk of hi-tech companies.

"In fact, try to get someone out to mend your wall, and you will have real difficulty," says Sheila Roderick, who works a croft on the little island of Scalpay, just off Harris.

'White settlers'

Incomers, although treated with cordial reserve mingled with suspicion, are helping make a difference, too.

"White settlers" are particularly keen on preserving and reinvigorating the islands' traditional crafts; Ms Roderick, a self-confessed Essex girl, is a trained Harris Tweed weaver and is applying the techniques to creating a new brand of linen.

Tourism has grown by 20% over the past three years, bringing in almost 40m in 2002.

Now, there is a debate on how to keep it growing, despite the constraints of expensive flights and ferries, scant hotels and wearying single-track roads.

"The last thing we want to do is create a Butlins-style environment," says Duncan MacPherson of Harris Development, a local economic agency.

Little danger of that, perhaps. But Mr MacPherson still detects an unusual buzz in the air.

"Lots of businesses are being set up, and people are starting to move into the area.

"The changes here aren't radical. But over time, I think we are going to see a big difference."





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