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March 23, 2011

Enlightened landowner’s remarkable offer

Absentee and neglectful landowners have long been the scourge of communities throughout the highlands and islands – often creating the impetus behind community buy outs. However, ‘neglectful’ is unlikely to be the word that any of the 300 strong community on Scalpay would use to describe the owner of their west coast island. The London based owner may often be absent but his remarkable offer to this island community suggests he has their interests very much at heart

Press and Journal

Islanders on Scalpay, Harris, have been offered their homeland as a free gift from the owner.

Londoner Fred Taylor proposes handing over the land to the 300-strong population, and if all goes well, it will be the biggest free transfer of land in Scotland.

He has arranged a public meeting in the local community centre for March 9 to outline his plans, and it is likely that a steering group will be established to progress the offer.

Mr Taylor discussed his plans with the community council and sought advice from the North Harris Trust.

The island’s factor, Simon Fraser, said: “Fred Taylor has a great affinity for the island – he’s been coming here all his life. He has been encouraged by the work of the North Harris Trust and sees this as a way forward.”
Many islanders have welcomed the offer, saying it could act as a catalyst to regenerate the island, create employment, retain the youth and stem depopulation.

Morag Macleod said: “This is marvellous and very generous. His father was a very good landlord and would do anything for us. Fred is the same. He’s got a strong feeling for the island.”

Former councillor Donald Macdonald said the Taylor family had always been helpful and popular locally.

He added: “When he died, John Taylor left money in his will for the Scalpay Community Association, to help the island. Fred is obviously following in his footsteps.”

Fisherman Donald Mackay, 78, hoped it would be a boost to revitalise the community.

He said: “We want young blood in here. We need more employment. The young folk go away and don’t stay here now.”

David Morrison said: “Anything that will help the island is fine by me. The island needs work and more people to come back.”

But one islander who declined to be named said: “I don’t think the ownership should change.”
Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said: “I am pleased with today’s news that Mr Taylor has written to all residents on Scalpay making this very public-spirited offer. Scalpay is clearly in need of jobs and development, and anything that can be done to put power in the hands of people on the island is to be welcomed. But the decision is one for the people in Scalpay themselves to make in the end. I am in touch today with a number of people on Scalpay offering any assistance I can in the process that lies ahead.”
“I note that Mr Taylor has outlined two possible scenarios – one where the island is owned by a trust based on the island, and another where it forms part of the larger North Harris Trust, which is itself community owned. These are decisions for people on Scalpay to make, but I believe that either option provides a great opportunity for people on the island to make decisions about the land they live on.”
The waiving of any purchase price is crucially important as, in practice, access to land buyout funding has effectively dried up.
Virtually all of the island is under crofting tenure which would not be adversely affect by any takeover. There is a multiple of feus and private sites but very little, if any, estate land.
Mr Taylor made his offer after observing the success of the neighbouring North Harris Trust (NHT) which staged a community buyout in 2003. Options to be considered by locals is taking the island under the umbrella of the NHT or setting up a separate trust.
Historically, both areas were united under one estate until the 1970s when they were broken up and Mr Taylor’s father, John, bought Scalpay. The Taylors have a family holiday home on the island and have been frequent visitors.
Scalpay was a very prosperous community in the 1970s with herring fishing the backbone of its economy. But there are only about seven boats left now, all working shellfish. The population is ageing as the youth depart to Stornoway or the mainland for employment. Despite a bridge link to mainland Harris, few return. The main shop shut a few years ago after the salmon factory closed.
A new family with young children has recently moved in but too late to save the single primary school which is closing.