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June 18, 2008

Rum to be handed back to islanders

On one single day in July 1826, the Island of Rum was “cleared” of its entire population of 350 people, shipped out to Nova Scotia by its debt-ridden owner, to be replaced by 8,000 sheep. Since 1957 the island has been owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. Last week the decision was been taken by Scottish Ministers that ownership and control of the island’s only village should be handed back to its community.

The Times

It is one of the most romantic of all the islands of the Hebrides – but also one of the saddest. On one single day in July 1826, the Island of Rum was “cleared” of its entire population of 350 people, shipped out to Nova Scotia by its debt-ridden owner, to be replaced by 8,000 sheep.

One contemporary account said that the howling of its people could be heard from one side of the island to the other. Even today it is still known locally as “the forbidden island”.

Later this week, however, in a dramatic intervention by the Scottish government, the island’s only village, which has since 1957 been managed by a conservation quango, is to be handed back to its community. The plan is to establish a locally-run trust which will reintroduce traditional crofting settlements to the land around Kinloch village, so that it can once again be occupied by its own inhabitants. The Scottish Environment Minister Michael Russell is to visit Rum on Friday, when he will announce the most radical change in the fortunes of the island since its people were forced to leave 182 years ago.

There is, however, one small catch to this 21st century exercise in land reform. There is no native community left in Rum. The present inhabitants, numbering some 35 and vastly outnumbered by an estimated deer population of close on 1,000, are mainly employees of Scottish Natural Heritage, a government-run body whose principal task is to monitor the wildlife of the island. It is they, rather than descendants of the original crofters, who will take over the running of the island and begin planning its regeneration.

Despite that, there is enthusiasm on the island over the new move. A local activist behind the move, English-born Fliss Hough, who has been a resident for nine years and is an SNH employee, said: “It will be wonderful for me to say to my eight-year-old daughter that she will not have to leave the island [where] she was brought up when I retire.”

The BBC Scotland broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch, who has been advising the minister on the handover, added: “The handover of Kinloch village will let the community give Rum the kiss of life. The transfer is long overdue and will let the people pour their hope and energy into a place they want to live in.”

Although the transfer has been described as a community buyout, it is, in fact, a government-imposed solution to the future running of the island. The effect of the change, which took most of the island’s inhabitants by surprise, will be to hand over the keys of the village to the community trust, with full legal deeds to follow. Kinloch is the only fertile part of the otherwise mountainous island which lies just to the south of Skye and has no harbour, a high rainfall and notoriously vicious midges.

The 40-square-mile island, which was bought in 1888 by the Bullough family who built the eccentric Kinloch Castle, which will not be part of the deal, has been owned by the nation since 1957. Six months ago Mr Russell appointed Ms Riddoch to head up a committee for proactive change on the island. Known as the Rum Task Force, the committee has brought forward its radical proposals sooner than anticipated.

No mention has been made as yet of how much the government is prepared to invest in its new venture, but Ms Riddoch, who was involved in a community buyout on the nearby Island of Eigg, said: “I think co-operative island communities freed of red tape can be pioneers for new ways of working. Rum has a huge potential for exploring community initiatives.”

Since it has been in the ownership of SNH, the island has been used primarily as a research centre with work concentrating on deer evaluation, the last count suggesting numbers of more than 900 animals.

To facilitate this research, the government scientists were charged with the task of also managing the island’s buildings and small parcel of agricultural land, which they did primarily to provide accommodation for their own staff. This created a situation in which it was almost impossible to live on the island unless you worked for the government, and even those who did so would have to leave once their contracts were up. It is this task of building and land management that will now pass to the new Community Trust, whose members are further charged with seeking new settlers and establishing three to five new crofts.

However, the move has not been entirely supported. Ian Mitchell, whose bestselling book Isles of the West made strong attacks on the management systems on Rum, observed: “I am sceptical because I think it is better that land is owned rather than crofted. Today crofters are too much under the control of government. It would be healthier if the fertile areas of Rum were sold off to people prepared to work the ground independently rather than let out to crofters who in the end will always be beholden to the Lairds – Scottish Natural Heritage.”