March 2, 2021
Too little, too late
Colonsay is a beautiful island with an unusually large number of holiday homes (40% of the island’s housing stock). These are homes that had previously been rented locally but over time the island’s owner, Lord Strathcona, gradually transferred their use into more profitable holiday lets. The relationship between community and laird has never been easy, with community aspirations to develop their own housing and other enterprises rarely receiving better than a lukewarm response. Finally, a parcel of land has been purchased from the estate for new housing. Perhaps some light at the end of a very long tunnel.
In a small caravan rocked by westerly winds, with occasional frozen pipes and no internet, law student Caitlin McNeill settled down to write her law dissertation.
There was, she says, particular motivation to get it done.
“I was born here, and my father’s side have been here for generations,” she says, referring to Colonsay, the Hebridean island where her ancestor, John of the Ocean arrived from Barra in 1715.
“It’s demoralising that there’s this place where you’re born and know so well and are in love with, yet it feels like you can’t make a life here for yourself.
“I ended up being so scunnered with the housing situation that I left to study law thinking it might help me find a way to fix it.”
For visitors to the isle of Colonsay, it is a paradise of pristine sandy beaches and natural beauty, with abundant wildlife and peaceful way of life.
Yet few who stay in one of its holiday homes might associate the caravans dotted around the island with a housing crisis so bad that it is said to have brought Colonsay close to breaking point.
Such is the shortage of affordable homes that some lifelong islanders and others drawn to its peaceful way of life are either squashed into cramped caravans, bouncing between short-term lets or bunking own in friends’ or relatives’ homes.
Similar problems can be found in many west coast islands where property has become scarce at a time when demand for holiday accommodation from tourists is on the rise.
However, the issue is said to be particularly challenging on Colonsay, where more than 40% of properties are now used by tourists. Among them are Colonsay Estate properties which once provided homes for locals, and which are now holiday lets instead.
That plus an ageing population and the collapse seven years ago of a community bid to buy land for affordable homes, is blamed for leaving the Hebridean gem close to breaking point, with lifeline services at risk from a lack of working-age islanders.
Now, however, much to islanders’ relief, a talks involving third party go-betweens and £390,000 from the Scottish Land Fund has smoothed the way for land in Scalasaig to be sold for community use, some eight years after a similar deal collapsed.
And, nearly two decades after the island’s last affordable homes were built, islanders are at last excitedly planning nine community-backed homes which, once a second phase of 24 properties is complete, will help significantly boost the island’s population.
Buoyed by the breakthrough, Colonsay Community Development Company has launched a £25,000 Crowdfunder appeal to help with construction costs. Within days it has almost hit its half-way point.
All of which is a welcome leap forward considering the bitter disappointment after the collapse of 2013 negotiations which saw islanders and Colonsay’s Gordonstoun-educated owner, Alex Howard, fail to agree its price.
It’s just one issue which has upset the fine balance between owner and islanders down the years, including one in which the laird, nephew of the Queen’s longest serving lady in waiting Lady Susan Hussey, wrongly accused locals of stealing gravel from one of his beaches.
Relations were also strained after islanders’ bid to buy Colonsay’s only pub failed when the laird refused to lower his £545,000 price tag to meet their valuation.
While there was upset last summer over plans to re-open up to 15 holiday homes to visitors, resulting in a petition from islanders concerned over Covid-19 risks.
However, it’s the need for affordable housing which has challenged relations most.
“When I was younger, the estate of Colonsay provided a lot of private rented accommodation but a lot of family cottages were sold, and farmhouses became big 12-bed holiday lets,” says Caitlin, 27, a director of Colonsay Community Development Company and leader of the fundraising campaign “It has happened slowly, but surely.
“It’s scary when you set out to make your life here and there’s nowhere to stay. There’s a feeling of the ground moving underneath their feet.”
“Because there’s so few of us of standard working age, it feels like we are constantly having to do everything, from organising social events, running shops, catering for tourists.
“At some point you feel like you want something back, like somewhere decent to live.”
Of Colonsay’s population of 130, less than 30 are under 50, while only ten are between 18 and 30. Later this year the primary school roll will drop from eight to just four children.
The accommodation shortage has seen families quit the island, while one fish farm worker ended up living hundreds of miles away on the mainland and commuting back to Colonsay for work, staying for weeks at a time in temporary accommodation.
Nursing assistant Rosalind Jewell and her husband Chris, both 37, moved seven times in five years before finally finding more settled accommodation in time for the birth of their son, Ellis.
“At first we stayed in shared accommodation with another couple, then every year and a half we were having to move,” says Rosalind, Colonsay Community Development Company’s project co-ordinator. “At one point we had just six months in a property and really thought about leaving.
“There are a lot of people with second homes here. With the pandemic, you can see more starkly how there are homes but there’s no-one living in them.
“At the same time, you have people living in caravans and homes which aren’t suitable – some of the property here isn’t great.”
The land deal was struck with support from Communities Housing Trust, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Argyll and Bute Council and seafood giant MOWI, which will provide additional homes for its workers.
Work on the first community-backed properties will start in summer.
Colonsay owner Alex Howard, who prefers not to use his “old hat” Lord Strathcona title, says the land was “heavily discounted”, however, some islanders suggest it might have simply been handed over as a goodwill gesture instead.
“The island is treated as a business,” says one. “We understand that in some respects, but they could have done more not to rub people up the wrong way.
“I suspect they think that by selling the land they’ve done the island a huge favour, but they could have just given it to the community.”
The laird, meanwhile, whose ancestor Sir Donald A. Smith bought Colonsay in 1905 after rising from crofter’s son to become one of Canada’s richest men and famed for his philanthropy, dismisses suggestions that island landowners could do more to ease property problems.
“That’s a record played many times,” he says. “It’s too easy for people to point the finger at landowners, farmers or estates like ours and say it’s all their fault. It very seldom tends to be the case.
“We absolutely recognise the need for community and working with the community. However, it’s very complicated. You can’t click your fingers and say ‘you’ll have a lot of houses and a lot of jobs’. There are no guarantees in life these days.”
As for the loss of homes for holiday lets, he adds: “We would never ask someone to move out to redeploy buildings. Houses became empty because people left them, not because we asked them to leave.
“We haven’t taken houses out of residential letting and turned them to self-catering units in some 20 years.”
Meanwhile, Alastair Redman, Argyll and Bute councillor for the area, suggests the new homes can be a turning point for the island.
“With land ownership comes responsibility to islands and the community. Where a community group wants to develop land we should not be throwing up barriers, we should be making it easier for this to happen.
“It’s much better when landowners and estates work with local communities to find local solutions. We don’t want landowners at loggerheads with local communities.”