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October 7, 2009

Getting community ownership back on track

Representatives from many of the largest community buy-outs met last week in Tarbet on Harris to discuss some of the thornier aspects of community land ownership. Historian and former chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Dr Jim Hunter gave a fascinating talk in which he set out a number of propositions which if acted upon, he argued, would go a long way to getting community land ownership back on track

Community Land Conference: Harris Hotel, Tarbert, Isle of Harris, 29 September 2009

Keynote address: James Hunter
Three propositions that were put to delegates by James Hunter during his speech:

1. That you urge the Scottish government to ensure, as recently accomplished on Rum, and as advocated by Michael Forsyth, that communities wishing to take ownership of Scottish-government-owned land, and able to demonstrate their capacity to make good use of this land, are provided with the land in question at nominal, or no, cost.
2. That you press the Scottish government to re-establish the Scottish Land Fund and to provide the Land Fund with some £3 million annually – this annual amount being rolled over for a maximum of, say, three years in order to accommodate vagaries in demand.
3. That you ask Scottish ministers to make clear to HIE and the public that ministers wish HIE to retain the CLU – ideally with administrative responsibilities in relation to a restored Scottish Land Fund – and that ministers further wish HIE to give a high priority to assisting in every way possible both with the development of land already in community ownership and with bringing more land into such ownership.

Full text of speech….can be viewed or downloaded as a podcast at

…or read on below.


During 1973 a play with song and music – a play that took the form of a ceilidh – was taken on tour in the Highlands and Islands.

This play came here to Tarbert. And to plenty other places of the sort you all know well.

Kinlochbervie, Lochinver, Achiltibuie, Dornie, Broadford, Stromness, Ullapool, Stornoway, Ness, Leverburgh, Lochmaddy, Benbecula, Rogart, Lochcarron, Poolewe.

In all those places, as in Scotland generally, this play received a rapturous reception.

Performed by the 7:84 Theatre Company, written by the late John McGrath, its title was The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

For all its entertaining format, McGrath’s play made a serious point. Whether by clearing lairds, by the absentee owners of sporting estates or by the multinational corporations then beginning to be involved with North Sea oil, the resident population of the Highlands and Islands, or so McGrath contended, had been denied any jurisdiction over their area’s natural assets – just as they’d been deprived, McGrath argued, of any substantial share of the profits and revenues deriving from the commercial exploitation of those assets.

This lack of local control, McGrath believed, was most evident in the case of the most basic of all our resources.

Which is why, when The Cheviot’s entire cast came on stage in the play’s closing scene, they spoke those two short sentences:

‘The people do not own the land. The people do not control the land.’

The people do not own the land. The people do not control the land.

Today that has changed and is changing.

Which is why it’s possible, as it wouldn’t have been in 1973, to hold a gathering like this – a gathering of representatives of a whole series of community ownership groups that are in charge, between them, of several hundred thousand acres.

Even in the Highlands and Islands of nearly 40 years ago, to be sure, there was land in community ownership:
At Glendale in Skye where, in the twentieth century’s first decade, crofters opted for owner-occupancy and where extensive hill grazings were – and are – owned and managed collectively.

More famously in Lewis where, in the 1920s, the island’s then proprietor, Lord Leverhulme, made over the 64,000 or so acres which have since been run by the Stornoway Trust.

But in 1973, when The Cheviot went on tour, those two instances of community ownership were little more than curiosities – exceptions to a landownership structure so long established, and so well entrenched, as to be thought unlikely to be altered.

At the heart of this structure was the private estate: usually extensive; often owned by someone living far away; its landlord seldom interested in – sometimes indeed obstructive of – developmental initiatives of the kind you and your colleagues have put in place or are looking to take forward.

To estate ownership by private interests, Glendale and Stornoway aside, there was, for much of the twentieth century, just one alternative – public ownership by government or its agencies.

The first such acquisitions consisted of the former sheep farms purchased on a large scale by government between 1900 and 1930 in order to facilitate land settlement – to make possible, in other words, the creation, often in places from which people had earlier been evicted, of many hundreds of new crofts.

Most of this land remains in public ownership. It’s administered today by the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate (SGRPID).

And it includes much of the Atlantic seaboard of South Harris – a locality of which I’ll have a little more to say.

I’ll have more to say, too, of land owned by the Forestry Commission which was established by government in 1919 and which has become our largest institutional landowner.

Much less significant in scale, but of relevance all the same, is state-owned land held by other public bodies – notably Scottish Natural Heritage and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

HIE and SNH will also get a later mention.

Back, meanwhile, to the 1970s and to the land-reforming message put into circulation by The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

A message given added force by other 1970s developments.

Like the anti-landlord campaigning of a then newly launched newspaper, the West Highland Free Press.

Like the publication in 1977 of the late John McEwan’s book, Who Owns Scotland?

Like the political furore generated, at that time, by growing overseas intervention in Scotland’s land market.

But if, as a result of all of this, there began to be talk to the effect that locally-based trust ownership of the Stornoway variety might be attempted elsewhere, little or nothing happened where it mattered – on the ground.

When, in the 1970s, MacNeill of Barra offered his estate to its residents, they turned down the opportunity.

The same thing happened when, at the end of the 1980s, a Conservative government tried to transfer its crofting estates on Skye and Raasay to locally-elected trusts.

An interest. I was then director of the Scottish Crofters Union (SCU), now the Scottish Crofting Foundation, and in this capacity I had something to do with suggesting to Conservative ministers that community ownership of croft land might be developmentally more productive than ownership by a government department – the one that’s now called SGRPID.

Crofters disagreed with this contention.

As a result, the government’s 1990 consultation paper, ‘Possible Disposal of the Secretary of State’s Crofting Estates to Community Ownership’, achieved nothing.

Except to the extent that it got people asking – not least inside the SCU – why, if community ownership was such a good idea, its extension, as government was now proposing, should be confined to land in the government’s own hands.

Which maybe had something to do with the fact that when, in 1992, its Swedish owners put the North Lochinver Estate on the market, the Assynt branch of the SCU called a meeting at which it was decided that the estate’s crofting tenants should mount their own bid for the property.

This was a revolutionary moment.

Glendale people became community owners of their grazings when the public agency which bought the estate sold it on to crofters by means of a 50-year purchase arrangement.

Residents of the Stornoway Trust estate were gifted it by Lord Leverhulme.

But not until a summer’s evening in Assynt in 1992 had anyone in the Highlands and Islands thought to take issue in the open market with what was formerly taken for granted – that private estates would forever be bought and sold without reference to, or interference from, the people living on them.

This Assynt initiative so caught the public imagination that – for all the many obstacles it faced – it proved unstoppable.

And so, in February 1993, the 21,300 acre North Lochinver Estate became the property of the Assynt Crofters Trust.

In the sixteen-and-a-half years since then, many other estates have followed North Lochinver into community ownership.

Among them: Bove and Annishadder in Skye; Melness in Sutherland; Eigg; a substantial chunk of Knoydart; Abriachan’s woodlands; Gigha; North Harris; the Glencanisp and Glenrunie Estates as acquired by the Assynt Foundation; Galson in Lewis; Eriskay, South Uist and much of Benbecula.

Today the sheer extent of community ownership is striking – not least here in the Outer Hebrides where half of the total land area is in such ownership and where more than two-thirds of the total population live now on community-owned land.

Still more impressive is what’s been achieved on such land.

Some of this is obvious and measurable: improvements in housing – including the provision of new homes; population growth; business formation; employment expansion; more environmentally sensitive management of a whole range of natural habitats; ambitious renewables ventures such as Gigha’s windfarm, Knoydart’s hydro scheme and the creation on Eigg of an island-wide electrical grid powered by an integrated and micro-scale mix of solar, hydro and wind energy.

Advances of this sort have been comprehensively catalogued, and favourably commented on, by the authors of numerous surveys and reports.

Equally stressed in such reports are less tangible, but hugely important, gains in the shape of the boost which community ownership gives to the self-esteem and self-confidence of everyone involved with it.

All this you know. And I don’t propose to dwell on it.

What I want to focus on instead is the public policy environment in which community ownership has taken off and prospered.

For while community ownership could not have succeeded in the absence of the tremendous efforts made by groups of the sort represented here, neither could it have succeeded without the support of government and its agencies.

It’s my belief – and many of you, I know, are of the same opinion – that, since the present Scottish government took office, this support, which grew steadily under previous administrations, has lessened very markedly.

In a moment, I’ll outline what government might do to change this.


First, a couple of preliminary points.

One, I have no wider quarrel with Scotland’s SNP administration – an administration which, for what it’s worth, I think is doing much good.

Two, in looking to re-engage government with the community ownership agenda, you’d be well advised, I think, to steer clear of party politics and to take as your starting point the fact that government and public agency backing for community ownership – this backing which is now diminishing – has never been the monopoly of any single party.

The beginnings of government interest in community ownership can be traced to Conservative administrations.

To the attempt to transfer the government’s crofting estates in Skye and Raasay to their residents.

To Conservative ministers having been supportive of the Assynt Crofters Trust getting financial help from HIE and SNH.

To the subsequent formation, with Tory ministerial blessing, of the Crofting Trust Advisory Service.

To the visit made to Assynt in 1995 by the then Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth.

To Mr Forsyth’s Transfer of Crofting Estates Act.

This Act became law in 1997 – just prior to the return of a Labour government which, as well as restoring Scotland’s parliament, took steps to ensure that the parliament made the further expansion of community landownership one of its early priorities.

Hence the instruction given to HIE by Scottish Office Minister, Brian Wilson, that the agency should set up a Community Land Unit with a view to providing assistance of the sort which, since 1997, the CLU has given to groups of the kind represented here today.

Hence the emergence of the Scottish Land Fund which, between 2001 and 2006, helped to take estate after estate into community ownership.

Hence the creation, by the late Donald Dewar, of the Land Reform Policy Group – source of the recommendations eventually embodied in the Scottish parliament’s Land Reform Act of 2003.

Widely seen as the restored parliament’s single most important measure, and backed by the SNP as well as by the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition then in charge of Scotland’s government, the Land Reform Act, a most unwieldy piece of legislation, is arguably less significant for what it makes possible than for the signal it sent out – this signal being that Scotland’s parliament was, and presumably still is, firmly in favour of more of Scotland’s land being in community control.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that the land reform momentum built up in the course of the 1990s, a momentum which reached its high point in 2003 and the years immediately thereafter, is today in danger of being lost.

To remedy this situation, the Scottish government and its agencies need to take action – action I hope you’ll press for – on three fronts.


First, government should make it easier for communities to take charge of land in public ownership.

As stated previously, this land is owned by SGRPID, the Forestry Commission, HIE and SNH.

As also stated, it includes three government-owned crofting estates on South Harris’s Atlantic coast – Borve, Luskentyre and Scarista Mhòr – where, in May last year, local residents voted heavily in favour of community ownership.

This area was cleared in the early nineteenth century when evicted families from places like Scarista found their way to the north shore of Cape Breton Island – where, as it happens, I’ve met and talked with some of their descendants.

In the 1920s, in response to a protest campaign that included illegal land seizures, Scarista Mhòr, Luskentyre and Borve, were taken over by the government agency then in charge of land settlement.

There followed the establishment of the crofting communities so well described in the writings of the late Finlay J Macdonald who himself grew up in one of them.

Like much of the rest of Harris, those communities have of late been on the slide – economically, demographically, every way.

Now people there are looking to boost their locality’s prospects by becoming its owners.

This would allow them, they say, to create six new crofts, build 10 affordable homes, establish a community-owned cafe, develop a small-scale hydro scheme.

It was to encourage exactly this sort of initiative that Michael Forsyth put in place his Transfer of Crofting Estates Act.

Announcing that legislation, Mr Forsyth said: ‘The aim … is to … allow [a] local crofting community to exploit potential development … And let me make one thing absolutely clear. We are not disposing of those estates in order to raise money for the Exchequer. We are opening this window of opportunity for the crofting communities because it is the right thing to do. It is a matter of principle … Such is our commitment to this cause that we are even prepared, if the circumstances justify it, to transfer certain crofts free of charge.’

So what were the West Harris people told when – last year – they attempted to make good this promise?

They were told that what a Tory Secretary of State was prepared to give them for nothing, an SNP administration would insist on selling at full market value – with various legal burdens over and above.

I find that depressing.

Not because the price in question would be high. It wouldn’t. But because of the principles involved.

The market value of Borve, Luskentyre and Scarista Mhòr is only £59,000.

But in Embo in Sutherland where a community group are similarly trying to acquire land from the Forestry Commission, and in Skye where residents of the Orbost Estate have asked HIE to transfer ownership to them, costs would be much, much higher – cripplingly so, in fact.

If the political will was there, those problems could be cracked this afternoon.

But political will is lacking.

As a result, officials in Edinburgh have been left to ponder the Harris impasse, to refer the matter to other officials in London and, finally, to take soundings from further officials in Brussels.

And the cost of all this to the taxpayer? I don’t know. But I’d bet it’s considerably greater than the £59,000 supposedly at issue.

Meanwhile, on Rum, not in a parallel universe but just across the Minch, where SNH has been the sole proprietor, a slice of government-owned land was speedily tranferred to islanders this year at next to no cost to them – something that seems to have happened mainly because the then relevant minister, Michael Russell, insisted that it should.

We need more such insistence.

And so to the first of my three propositions:

That you urge the Scottish government to ensure, as recently accomplished on Rum, and as advocated by Michael Forsyth, that communities wishing to take ownership of Scottish-government-owned land, and able to demonstrate their capacity to make good use of this land, are provided with the land in question at nominal, or no, cost.


Next, the issue of where communities are to obtain the financial help they’ll need if community ownership is to be a feasible option when future estates of, say, the Gigha sort come up for sale.

For several years, such help was given mainly, as in Gigha’s case, by the Scottish Land Fund – set up in 2001 and provided with £15 million from National Lottery sources.

In 2006 the Scottish Land Fund was wound up and its responsibilities transferred to the Big Lottery’s Growing Community Assets (GCA) programme – which duly helped with the purchase, for instance, of South Uist.

But this programme too is now closed. And nobody knows what, if anything, will take its place.

Well, I have a suggestion: a recreated Scottish Land Fund; this fund to be financed, not by the National Lottery, but from monies voted by the Scottish parliament.

After all, what’s the point of having supposedly flagship legislation in the shape of a Land Reform Act if you’re not prepared to back reform with hard cash?

Now I know – we all know – that public spending is under quite unprecedented pressure.

But politics remains, as politics has always been, a matter of priorities.

And to prioritise community land ownership by financing it at the level the Scottish Land Fund was financed would cost – in relation to total expenditure – the smallest of small change.

Take, for example, what’s spent on agricultural support or subsidy.

In Scotland the total is just under £600 million a year – the principal beneficiaries including private landowners who, from this source alone, have had far more money from the taxpayer than any community ownership group has had or is likely to have.

Just half of one per cent of that £600 million would keep a Scottish Land Fund going at the Land Fund’s previous rate of spending.

Hence my second proposition:

That you press the Scottish government to re-establish the Scottish Land Fund and to provide the Land Fund with some £3 million annually – this annual amount being rolled over for a maximum of, say, three years in order to accommodate vagaries in demand.


A new Land Fund is all the more essential because of what’s been happening at HIE.

Ever since Assynt crofters launched their purchase bid in 1992, and especially since the establishment of its Community Land Unit in 1997, HIE has provided essential backing for the community land movement.

This support has taken three key forms:

a) Help with land acquisition costs;
b) Invaluable advice and guidance of the kind all groups represented here have had from CLU staff – a very highly-motivated set of individuals;
c) Financial and other assistance with the post-acquisition developments which are the whole point of community ownership and without which no community trust or similar grouping could deliver what’s expected of it.

By many people, including some of you, HIE aid of those three types is said to be at risk – and is further said to be already much more difficult to get than once it was.

Because I’m a former chair of HIE, it’s not for me to comment on – let alone criticise – HIE policy.

I confine myself to three matters of fact.

One, HIE’s budget has been cut sharply by the Scottish government.

Two, government has refocussed HIE’s mission in such a way that projects with a community land dimension appear to be commanding proportionately less resource than formerly.

Three, although the Community Land Unit remains in place, and although its staff retain their role as administrators of the Growing Community Assets programme until that programme is wound up formally next June, it’s far from clear what the future holds, if anything, for the CLU. Because the Land Unit’s costs are presently picked up the Big Lottery, the ultimate owner of the Growing Community Assets programme, the CLU has not so far suffered unduly as a result either of budget cuts or policy shifts at HIE. But the Big Lottery’s involvement in these matters ends next summer. And nobody in authority, whether in Inverness or Edinburgh, has said what happens then.

So to my third proposition:

That you ask Scottish ministers to make clear to HIE and the public that ministers wish HIE to retain the CLU – ideally with administrative responsibilities in relation to a restored Scottish Land Fund – and that ministers further wish HIE to give a high priority to assisting in every way possible both with the development of land already in community ownership and with bringing more land into such ownership.


Scotland’s SNP government has demonstrated its commitment to localities like this one.

By introducing Road Equivalent Tariffs on west coast ferries; by helping finance the Arnish fabrication yard; by increasing support for Gaelic; by investing in Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Lews Castle College and UHI more generally; by planning a Year of Islands Culture.

And if, next week, an estate of the North Harris sort were to be put on the market, that estate’s residents, assuming interest on their part in a community buy-out, would be helped, I trust, by Scotland’s government and its agencies.

But I’d be more certain of this, to be honest, if, from Scottish ministers, we heard some words like these:

‘Imagine this. It is 2020 and communities … have been revitalised from within … Capable and confident, these communities are ready and willing to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the fast-paced modern world … In every locality a proportion of all public assets are in the ownership or management of sustainable and energetic community organisations.’

That’s an extract from the report of a recent UK government enquiry team, headed by Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham Borough Council. This team had the job of looking into prospects for community ownership – in England.

Welcomed warmly by Labour ministers, welcomed just as warmly by their Conservative opponents, the Quirk Review – when combined with still more ambitious moves in the same direction by the Welsh assembly government – is a pointer to the fact that here in Scotland we’re surrendering to London and Cardiff the lead we once had in the area of community ownership and community control.

That’s not what I, for one, expected of an SNP administration.


In conclusion, I return to The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Towards the end of their 1973 tour of the Highlands and Islands, playwright John McGrath and his cast got a telephone call from William Wolfe, then leader of the SNP.

Would he be prepared, Billy Wolfe asked McGrath, to mount a performance of his play at that year’s annual conference of the Scottish National Party?

Thus it came about that conference delegates first heard John McGrath’s powerful call for land reform and next responded to this call by giving his play and its performers a ten-minute-long ovation.

The SNP which applauded The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a party far from power.

Today the SNP is in government in Edinburgh, and could readily give both backing and leadership to communities where community ownership has been achieved as well as to communities where it has still to be accomplished.

So far this hasn’t happened.

It’s high time that it did.