It is a puzzle why the undoubted success of 20 community buy-outs of land in the Highlands and islands over the past 20 years has attracted so little political support. In his book From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops Jim Hunter recalls that only one Scottish First Minister has ever visited a buyout (Jack McConnell, Assynt in 2002). Despite a supposed commitment to land reform, the SNP has done little to advance the cause during six years in power.
Yet the movement has many advantages. It has removed some very unpleasant absentee landlords from the scene – chief among them Malcolm Potier, one-time laird of Gigha, now serving a jail sentence in Australia. It has also fostered self-reliance and confidence, enabled investment in employment, living standards and sustainability in previously fragile communities and reduced their dependence on benefits and other state handouts.
Hunter estimates the public cost of supporting these initiatives as £30 million over two decades, a not insignificant sum, but terrific value when you think that the same amount will buy just 600 yards of the Edinburgh tramline, a third of a mile of Glasgow motorway or provide subsidies for Britain’s farmers for only three or four days.
The movement has achieved a lot, but real political weight behind it could take it much further, enabling estates and holdings now in state ownership to move into community control for example. The stumbling block there are the Treasury rules which say that the state must be paid a market price for the land, but as Hunter points out, that is a political barrier and could dismantled by a political solution if the will was there to make it happen.
Hunter’s book gives inspiring examples from many communities, including Gigha, Eigg, Knoydrart, West Harris and Assynt. I’m pleased to have played a very small part in the success of some of the communities when, during my six years as chair of Social Investment Scotland, we lent money to Gigha and Assynt to construct their first renewable energy schemes. We would liked to have lent Gigha more to finance their third turbine – but by then their financial track record was so strong that the commercial banks crowded us out.
From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops is available from The Islands Book Trust or good bookshops. It is beautifully illustrated with pictures by Skye photographer Cailean Maclean, some of which I reproduce here.