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9 April 2003

Crofters plot course for island windfall

John Ross and Edward Black

The Scotsman, 19 March 2003

Reproduced from The Scotsman with permission

(Filed 9 April 2003)
©The Scotsman


IN THE 1920s, Lord Leverhulme offered the Galson Estate on the island of Lewis to the locals for free. They turned him down.

Now, the roles are spectacularly reversed; crofters on the island want the estate, but the current landowners aren’t selling.

Yet the modern-day crofters have a powerful new weapon at their disposal: Scotland’s Land Reform Bill. They believe they can use the legislation to push through the purchase of Galson from an unwilling vendor.

Critics of the bill feared it would come to this, a forced buy-out against the wishes of the landowner. Last night, the Scottish Landowners’ Federation said funding a disputed purchase was a poor use of public money. Those behind the buy-out plan conceded that the move was controversial but said they found it "exciting" to be involved in a potential landmark case.

There is certainly much at stake.

The 55,000-acre estate is the potential site of the largest wind farm in Europe and, with financial benefits likely to come to the landowner, some crofters are keen to push for a sale and reap the rewards for themselves.

More than 90 per cent of the land is in crofting tenure and it is felt ownership would give locals access to other assets, like mineral rights, plots for businesses and affordable housing.

Yesterday, leaflets were being sent to over 2,000 residents of the area to gauge support for a community-buy out. If a majority back the move, the residents could follow buy-outs in Eigg, Knoydart and Gigha, as well as their neighbours in North Harris, who will officially take over the estate of a cider millionaire, Jonathan Bulmer, on Friday after a £4.5 million deal.

The sale of Galson, with up to 94 per cent of the purchase price possibly coming from the lottery-backed Scottish Land Fund, would make it the first community takeover of land since the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform Bill.

The land has been in the hands of the Graham/Macrae family for the last 76 years, but none of the owners could be contacted for comment yesterday. However, in a statement, they said the estate has never been offered for sale: "From its inception, the estate has actively supported community ventures. If the wind-farm project goes ahead and turbines are erected on the estate, the owners, crofters and the community will share the revenues. This would provide additional income for the further development of community projects."

But James MacDonald, the chairman of a steering group investigating a buy-out, said there was broad interest in a buy-out, disputed or not.

He added: "If there is a majority in favour of a buy-out, we will go for it. At the moment, the signs are that there is interest, very much so.

"The feeling is if there is to be a wind farm on the land, the crofters should benefit. It’s been my opinion and the opinion of others all along that the estate should be in the hands of the community. There has been nothing put back into the estate. They have never been an obstacle but at the same time nobody knew who the landlords were. I am sure my parents never got to know who their landlords were, they just hid behind closed doors."

Mr MacDonald said he was aware the owners are not keen to sell, but said he is not concerned about possibly being the first to use the new legislation. "That would make it more exciting," he said. "I can see a lot of other communities buying their estates as well. And if there is the support we think there is, then I don’t think raising the money for a purchase will be a problem at all." The estate was bought from Lord Leverhulme in 1926. It has remained in the ownership of the Graham/Macrae family for three generations since.

It was in 1919 that Lord Leverhulme acquired the 700 square-mile estate on Lewis and became landlord to its 30,000 residents. He earned the widespread respect of locals for his attempts to create a prosperous base within the Hebrides so locals could benefit from the abundant fishing stocks.

Leverhulme realised that improvements in the island’s infrastructure were crucial to his development plans for Lewis and consequently embarked on ambitious plans to develop the island’s economy via the processing and marketing of fish.

Distance from the market-place and the perishable nature of fish had long been a problem for local merchants. Lord Leverhulme hoped to resolve this through improved transport systems, better harbour facilities and industrialisation.

He intended to acquire a number of refrigerated ships to carry fresh fish from Lewis to mainland markets. What fish he could not sell immediately would be canned on the island.

Lord Leverhulme envisaged producing up to 120,000 tins of fish per week which he estimated would realise about £25,000 net profit per annum. He said: "I want to interest the people in the locality where the industry will be carried on. The Stornoway people will have their company at Stornoway, but there will be another company with a canning factory at Port of Ness, and a third at Carloway, and so on, possibly a score of companies with canning factories all over the island." Unfortunately, his efforts to boost the local economy were doomed to failure and road and rail schemes and ice-making and canning factories were abandoned.

Although no figure has been mentioned for a Galson buy-out, this would be set by a district valuer. The potential benefits are huge with the energy company Amec planning to build up to 300 turbines in a £600 million development with landowners possibly earning about £1,000 a year in rental from each turbine.

Calum Ian MacLeod, a local councillor who supports a buy-out, said: "The catalysts for this have been the Land Reform Bill and talk of wind farms. People are saying, ‘If there are going to be benefits, why should we not get them all? Why should the landowner get half?

"There will have to be a ballot before anything happens and, if the crofting townships are not interested, then it will not happen."

He added: "I think it is a wonderful opportunity. There is money in the land fund and it’s the communities who show an interest and come up with viable business plans who will get the money.

But Katie Mary Mackenzie, another councillor, said: "There has been a lot more interest because of the wind farm but I am not sure that everyone would be in favour of a buy-out. There are a lot of unanswered questions about this. I also feel that the Galson Estate has been a very good landlord."

Maurice Hankey, a director of the Scottish Landowners’ Federation, said: "It’s not cut and dried in the sense that because the community wants to buy, it’s necessarily going to happen. There are issues about the process and where these things are going to be funded, which have to be addressed as we move down the road.

"There is a question that, if these communities are simply funded from public money, what are the policy priorities that allow the money to go here rather than anywhere else. We are crying out for a range of services in rural areas. Is that the best use of this money?"

Community buy-outs

SINCE the buy-out of Assynt ten years ago, more than 70 pieces of land have come into community ownership or management.

About 26,000 people in communities across the Highlands and Islands now own 3 per cent of the land, or about 300,000 acres. The deals include:

February, 1993 - North Assynt: The first community buy-out took place . Edmund Vestey sold 13 townships and 21,300 acres for £1 million to a Swedish land speculator who went into liquidation.

The Assynt Crofters’ Trust secured the land for £300,000.

Autumn 1995 - Hope and Melness: Michael Foljame gifted a third of the Hope and Melness estate, some 10,700 acres, to local crofters in what he called a piece of "social engineering". The crofters now use income from house rents, shooting leases, a peatland management project and a woodland grant scheme, to help run the estate.

June, 1997 - Eigg: The islanders finally took control of their own future when a £1.5 million bid was accepted by the creditors of the German artist Maruma to put the land back in community hands for the first time in 250 years.

March 1998 - Abriachan: The 140-strong population of Abriachan, overlooking Loch Ness, acquired 540 acres of woodland from the Forestry Commission for £150,000, giving them control of a major amenity and providing inspiration for a number of similar ventures.

July, 1999 - Knoydart: The 70-strong population in Knoydart led a bid to buy the estate from creditors of the private owner for £800,000. The deal was funded by the John Muir Trust, the Chris Brasher Trust, Highland Council, the Cameron Mackintosh foundation and an anonymous donor.

March 2002 - Gigha: The residents of Gigha raised £4 million to buy the island, rather than see it sold to another private landlord. Money from the National Lottery secured the island’s future after businessman Derek Holt decided to sell up.

March, 2003 - North Harris: Islanders celebrated the success the largest ever community buy-out of the 50,000-acre Amhuinnsuidhe Castle estate on North Harris from cider millionaire Johnathan Bulmer. A trust set up by the 800-strong Western Isles community helped raise the £4.5 million needed.

John Ross and Edward Black

© The Scotsman


Further Reading Recommended by Land-Care

Magnus Linklater (2003). Land law with head in the clouds. Scotland on Sunday, 26 January 2003.
(Filed 28 January 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

Magnus Linklater. From the Highlands to the Lowlands, in future it's going to be anybody's lands. The Times, 23 January 2003.
(Filed 23 January 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

Watson, Jeremy (2002). Scotland's first 'land grab' victim. Scotland on Sunday, 8 December 2002.
(Filed 9 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

Community buy-out possible on the Isle of Harris.
(Filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

Further Comment from Magnus Linklater on possible community buy-out on the Isle of Harris.
(Filed 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).