On Tuesday 26th February, the Centre was delighted to welcome two very special Hebridean guests, Calum MacLeod and Agnes Rennie, who continued our Islands series with a fascinating and heartening discussion of the different aspects of contemporary island life. Both talks were concerned with community ownership of land, and the ways in which this can promote culture, heritage and renewal in Scotland’s island communities. Originally from Harris, but now based in Glasgow, Calum is a sustainable development consultant, and current Policy Director of Community Land Scotland, an organisation which promotes and supports more equitable land distribution, community land ownership, and sustainable community development. Notably, Calum was involved with the recent community buyout of Ulva, an island off the northwest coast of Mull. Agnes Rennie is a Director of the Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn (also known as the Galson Estate Trust), a community-owned estate of 56,000 acres in the northwest of Lewis. A resident of Galson, Agnes was deeply involved with the community buyout which took place in 2007. She is also currently the manager of Acair Books, a not-for-profit company dedicated to providing Gaelic language and bilingual books to aid education. Dr Andrew MacKillop introduced the speakers, and invited Calum MacLeod to begin proceedings.
A key theme of Calum’s presentation was that of rural repopulation and renewal, with a particular concern for the prospects these could offer Scotland’s island communities. He did, however, note that, while commentators (especially the Land Reform movement’s detractors) tend to present the Land Reform agenda as the preserve of the Highlands and Islands, it is indeed a Scotland-wide issue. According to some estimates, only 432 families own over half of the private land in the country. This is all the more concerning when we consider a recent report from The Scotsman, which suggests that, for many buyers, Scottish estates are considered ‘a luxury purchase, not unlike a superyacht or a Lamborghini’, a play-thing to be enjoyed in leisure time. Tying into this, purchasers have expressed little interest in sustaining or developing communities on their estates.
Calum Macleod drew on the history of his native Harris to illustrate the ways in which similar patterns (and cultures) of land ownership in Scotland have been, and still are detrimental to the fabric of community life. In the 1790s, for example, the MacLeod landlord carried out large-scale clearances of communities in the west of Harris, hoping that their re-location on the east coast would support a projected fisheries scheme there. Needless to say, this overhaul was executed with little meaningful consultation with the very communities that were uprooted. The belief appears to have been that the move was for the peoples’ own good, and that they should gratefully accept the new employment opportunities afforded to them by the growing fishing industry. As Calum pointed out, however, the land on which the people came to be settled wasn’t necessarily a place where they wanted to live, let alone raise their families.
Two centuries on, in the 1990s, communities in Harris were once again presented with such a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to local economic problems, this time in the shape of a planned gravel pit at Finsbay on the east side of Harris. Once again, the people were expected to accept with gratitude the opportunities afforded to them by outside investment. The problem, however, is that neither of these projects offer much agency to the communities that choose to build their lives in the area. Community land ownership, Calum argues, provides one way of addressing this issue. Research indicates that community ownership in very closely linked to land use. In other words, those who reside in a particular area are best equipped to make decisions which the support the long-term interests of the community. Furthermore, these communities are much more likely to adopt policies which prioritise the environment and sustainable economic growth. It is with this in mind that those involved with land reform advocate the expansion of community ownership. While land reform has been on the political agenda in recent years, Calum informs us that the heavy-lifting is far from over. The movement most continue to advocate for community buyouts and land reform to ensure it remains on the agenda.
Agnes Rennie’s presentation offered a close look at the day-to-day running of the community-owned state of Galson. In January 2001, residents in Lewis formed a steering group with the intention purchasing the Galson estate. In 2007 this became a reality. The estates had since been under the management of an elected Board of Directors, of which Agnes is the Chairperson. Similar to the experience of Harris, through the 1990s and 2000s, Galson had several offers to stimulate development by outside investors, through schemes such as a planned super quarry and the Lewis Wind Power’s plan to establish a large-scale onshore wind farm. As Agnes notes, however, these plans were not well-received by local community, and this served to spur on plans which culminated in the community buyout. Since the purchase, the community has continued to grow steadily, and in a way that pays the majority of dividends to resident rather than outside investors. For example, the board has made a point of employing members of the community when jobs arise, for example in administration. The trust has since set up a small scale wind-farm; starting with just one 900 kW turbine, there are now three in operation, providing a steady revenue stream for the estate. A community investment fund was set up to facilitate this, giving the people a stake and a say in the growth of the wind-farm.
Tragically, just over two weeks ago, the Galson Trust’s headquarters burned down. Although no one was injured, it evoked despair among those who had worked so hard to build this community. Nevertheless, Agnes reassures us that the response of the community to this setback only served to inspire optimism for the future. And looking to this future with confidence, Agnes gave us some idea of the aims and priorities of the Trust for the next 10-20 years. Care for the elderly is prominent of these. As Agnes points out, this is not as simple as building a care home. For example, who will staff a care home? Where will the workers live? How do they ensure that the elderly continue to play an active role in the community. These are issues for which there needs to be wider community involvement, in order to formulate a long-term solution that is of benefit to the wider community.
Agnes concluded by reiterating that the Galson Community Trust is not concerned with ‘preservation’, rather it is concerned with moving forward, building a stronger, happier and sustainable community for future generations to enjoy. This post has only touched on some of the admirable work of the Galson Estate Trust. For more info, please visit the website: https://www.galsontrust.com.