In the Western Isles

Niki Seth-Smith

View full image

As the referendum on independence approaches, another movement for self-determination in Scotland is gaining momentum. At the end of last year, David Cameron (no relation) gave me a tour of the Isle of Harris, which is at the heart of a drive to buy back the land from private landowners. Cameron is the chair of Community Land Scotland, which encourages communities to buy the land they live on and place it in the hands of democratically elected trusts. Around half a million acres of Scottish land is now community owned. A decade ago, the North Harris estate was bought from Jonathan Bulmer (heir to the cidermaking fortune). West Harris followed suit in 2010. Now East Harris and its 10,000 acres of crofts, hills and moorlands may be up for sale: the Hitchcock family, who have owned the land since the 1920s, recently agreed to discuss the purchase. If they sell, almost all of Harris will be community owned.

Cameron told me he had ‘nothing against private landlords per se, but very few really get involved in development’. The decline began two hundred years ago with the Highland Clearances, more than enough reason for animosity towards private landowners. The rocky coast of East Harris was the refuge of islanders pushed off fertile land to make way for the wool industry.

Last summer, Alex Salmond announced on Skye that the SNP intended to double the amount of land under community ownership to a million acres by 2020. The ineffective 2003 Land Reform Act is under review, with many hoping that the right to buy it is supposed to uphold will be given real teeth. Yet there was no mention of community ownership or land reform in the SNP’s blueprint for independence. Fewer than 500 people own half of Scotland: proof that reform is necessary, but also a concentration of wealth and influence that the SNP will be wary of messing with.

The evidence of regeneration, however, may be hard to ignore. In the decade since North Harris was bought, the trust has built affordable housing, a recycling centre and several wind turbines. It’s planning six new business units and looking into hydroelectric power. The initial investment comes from government and European funding, including money from the National Lottery. Of course it takes time to turn a profit. South Uist is held up as a model, having raised the asset value of the land from £4.6 million to £24 million between the buy-out seven years ago and May 2013.

Most of the people I talked to on Harris were cautiously positive about the buy-outs. Of course there are pitfalls. On South Uist there have been disputes between residents and the trust. Trust members often don’t have the expertise needed for big infrastructure projects. Many of the crofters on Harris will still respond with a shake of the head: ‘Better the devil you know.’ John Maher, the former Buzzcocks drummer, is the one ‘incomer’ on the East Harris buy-out group. ‘Get a grip,’ he says, ‘take it over, make a few cock ups and learn from your mistakes.’