Community landowners are gathering today (Monday 27 March) at the beginning of a week in ‘community land central’ in Lewis and Harris.
Community Land Scotland and Community Land Outer Hebrides have organised the week-long factfinding tour, bringing to the islands what they call a ‘supergroup’ formed of those who have acquired and now manage their local land and assets, along with some who are trying to follow in their footsteps.
Community landowners from the Northern Isles to Dumfries and Galloway will spend this week in Lewis and Harris, visiting the Outer Hebrides heartland of land reform, where just over 50% of the landmass is now community owned.
The visitors include representatives of the island of Gigha, which came into community ownership in 2002, the island of Ulva (2018) and relative newcomers at Langholm (2020/22), at 10,500 acres the biggest buyout in the south of Scotland.
North Lanarkshire will also be represented by the group that, in 2020, completed the purchase of 171 acres beside the M8, the biggest buyout to date of urban land in Scotland.
And possibly furthest travelled is Stuart Williams, who will complete six ferry crossings to get here and back to his home on the Orkney island of Rousay, where he has only been in post as manager of the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Development Trust for a little over a month.
The object of the week is for community trusts to learn from each other because, although there have been more land and estates coming under community control in recent years, they are spread throughout Scotland.
Topics of common interest will be discussed among the 10 different groups – from green income ideas to tourism, sustainable finance to community engagement and woodland management to housing.
Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan has welcomed the visiting community bodies, but is calling for more legal muscle in the forthcoming land reform bill to ensure that communities like Great Bernera can buy their land from absentee landowners.
Representatives will meet the community landowners of the 56,000-acre Galson Estate, where nearly 2,000 residents live in 800 households across 22 crofting townships.
Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn (UOG) has won praise for the way they protected vulnerable residents during the Covid pandemic and accompanying lockdowns and for their initiatives when the cost-of-living crisis hit in past months.
Children’s activities and sports are being subsidised, as are lunches for the elderly, while everyone over 80 or medically challenged got a heated blanket.
Chair Agnes Rennie says she, too, is looking to learn from others this week. She said: “One of the really interesting things for us will be to see what we have done through the eyes of the visiting communities.
“It will give us a chance to learn from communities that are so very different, from the Borders to urban settlements to Orkney. We all exist to make the land or assets work for our local communities, not just for today, but for the future. Development opportunities don’t stand still. We have got to keep refreshing our thinking.”
Delegates will also visit the North Harris Trust (NHT), which manages 64,000 acres of croft land, common grazings, and open hill ground including An Cliseam, the highest peak in the Western Isles.
NHT has four natural heritage designations which have to be protected and maintains a challenging network of pathways. Their main income comes from commercial leases for telephone masts and fishfarms, with deer herds providing income from shooting and tourism increasing in importance.
NHT director and Community Land Scotland board member David Cameron said: “Knowledge exchange between community landowners was one of the founding reasons for the establishment of Community Land Scotland in 2010.”
Successes in parts of the islands form a contrast to the frustration of residents of the island of Great Bernera, who have been trying for a decade to mount their own community buyout.
It is more frustrating that the islanders can look across a narrow stretch of water to the 11,500 acre Carloway Estate, which has been in community ownership since 2015.
Alasdair Allan said: “More needs to be done. It’s simply not right that, in 2023, the ambitions of a community like Bernera have been indefinitely vetoed by an absentee landlord. If we want the right to buy to be a proper right for crofting communities, it does now need more legal muscle behind it.”
But he is proud of what has been achieved by local communities: He said: “The Western Isles has gone from an area where land ownership has historically been concentrated in the hands of a few to the centre of community land ownership in Scotland.
“More than 75% of people in the Western Isles today live on community-owned land. This has empowered many communities to take control of their own futures and ensure that the land and resources that sustain them are managed in a way that benefits the community as a whole.”
The Hebridean gathering is being funded through the Scottish Community Alliance’s Community Learning Exchange and through Community Land Scotland funding from the Scottish Government.
The pictures show children’s activities subsidies by Urras Oighreachd Ghabsainn (UOG) and tree-planting in Harris (North Harris Trust).