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February 7, 2023

Where is the community in rewilding? 

A previous edition touched on a proposal from Highlands Rewilding to purchase the Tayvallich estate through a ‘mass ownership’ model. What seems to be a mix of crowdfunding and larger investments from financial institutions, this unusual  model of ownership is described on its website as ‘enabling nature recovery and community prosperity through rewilding.’ Since a community bid to purchase the estate fell through, many locals view Highlands Rewilding’s offer as the preferred alternative to a private landowner. Alastair McIntosh, land reformer and long term advocate of community ownership, shares his thoughts. It’s a long read, but worth it.

Alastair McIntosh

Last week the solar energy entrepreneur, Jeremy Leggett, published a blog titled Highlands Rewilding: governance and land colonialism on his Highlands Rewilding website. An accompanying tweet explained that it was an attempt “to address the thought that Highlands Rewilding might be just another form of land colonial[ism],” and it ended: “V interested in your thoughts @alastairmci et al.”. 

I appreciate his courtesy, and recognise it as responding to my tweet reply of 22nd January that said: “Unless it has, say, a windfarm or asset strips/speculates, I’ve yet to hear of a Highland estate that returns 5% + dividends. But to me, the big question will be governance structures. ‘Rewilding’ must grant local communities power to the point of veto, or it’s land colonisation.”

In giving Jeremy my response here, and in having consulted some half dozen others who are well-informed both on the ground locally and around the wider “rewilding” debate in Scotland, this article is my reply to him. It tackles some of the background to the “rewilding” debate as it has come in to Scotland, my own locus for agency, legitimacy and invitation in engaging here, Jeremy’s business model and two of the affected communities (Bunloit and Tayvallich), insights from Eigg in the 1990s around community empowerment and veto; and the tensions between a capital-driven “rewilding” model and a politically-driven one that predicates community. Finally, I will bring it back to the question Jeremy raises, as to what would differentiate “rewilding” from being “just another form of land colonialism”.  I have thus far placed “rewilding” in scare quotes. This is to acknowledge that it is a contested concept as it has recently evolved in Scotland. Henceforth here, and out of respect for Jeremy’s position, I will drop this practice except where I explicitly wish to highlight contestation. 

Some Background to “Rewilding” in Scotland

In May 2017, Edinburgh University’s Geography Department hosted the crofting historian, James Hunter, to deliver a public lecture called “Wild Land, Rewilding and Repeopling.” For Scotland, rewilding was the new kid on the block. South of the border, “rewilding” might readily invoke the MAMBA image of “miles and miles of bugger all”, a sheep-devastated bygone wilderness where hardly anybody lives. North of the border, we have our own perceptions on that take, and so the event drew in a full house. Many of us were wondering what to make of what felt like a parachuted-in term, perhaps the latest fad to freshly plough compacted ground. Hunter anchored its popularisation to George Monbiot’s 2013 book, Feral, which he called “a rewilding manifesto”. However, in cautiously treading around the concept, he warmed his audience by likening Monbiot’s vision to that of the Highlands-based ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling who, in the mid-20th century, had described Scotland’s depleted landscapes as “a wet desert”.  

To Hunter, and most if not all of us present, there was no question about the imperative to rectify such ecological impoverishment. Organisations like Reforesting Scotland and Trees for Life have long been held in the highest public regard. However, it is largely because of sporting estate management practices, said Hunter, in his bluntest academic language, that “so much of our terrain, wild land included, is ecologically knackered.” As such, he broadly welcomed rewilding; but with a key caveat. To the people of a place, or those who were of a place prior to their forebears’ eviction in the Highland (and earlier Lowland) Clearances, land is more than just a “wild” blank slate. Put equally bluntly: “To them the place was home. Just that.” As Fraser MacDonald (one of the geographers who had helped Hamish Kallin to organise the lecture) later wrote in the London Review of Books, “Land can be owned; places are more complicated.” Consistent with such a confluence of natural ecology with its human ecology, Professor Hunter closed his lecture with in cautious affirmation. A big yes, for Scotland’s land to be, “put right ecologically. And socially and culturally as well.” 

Landlordism as Rewilding’s Baggage 

Over the past five years since that lecture, rewilding has pushed its way rapidly into public discourse. However, in Scotland the emphasis has been on how emergent narratives sit with Hunter’s final sentence. First, however, let me emphasise that the quite work of tree planting, and more importantly, caring for what has already been planted out or left naturally to regenerate, has continued at community grassroots. I have on my desk three issues of Reforesting Scotland magazine that I’d saved for future reference. Issue 55 from summer 2019 is a bumper edition “Land Revival” tour of community projects.  Issue 64 from winter 2021 is on “A living from the land”. And the current Issue 66 of winter 2022, “Urban greening”. 

Let me give an example. The Carrifran Wildwood of the Borders Forest Trust was set up by local residents in the 1990s, substantially driven by the vision of the Zoologist and human ecologist Philip Ashmole and his wife, Myrtle. Go walking there, as my wife and I did this past New Year, and you find a small but welcoming car park, thoughtfully constructed trails, discreet educational signage, and a most wonderful, house-high mixed forest that breathes new life and joy. Not only that, but the trees have been planted in a patchwork that has been sensitive to features of the cultural landscape, such as old walls and what appeared to be a high dry-stone-built stock enclosure. 

We came away exhilarated. What was more, everybody that we had the chance to ask in the surrounding community spoke of the venture with the warmest and grateful enthusiasm. But the FAQs on its website are revealing. One asks: “Why don’t you often mention Rewilding?” To which, the reply: “We prefer to speak of ecological restoration, or reviving a natural ecosystem, because rewilding is a word carrying so much baggage, meaning different things to different people.”

What baggage? Fraser MacDonald, who has ancestral roots just a few miles away from Bunloit by the shores of Loch Ness, summed it up in a tweeted thread of July 2020: “So @JimHunter22 has already said this, but we need to talk about how landlordism is again being held up as an ideal for ecological restoration.” 

Many rewilders don’t realise the extent to which big private landlordism has been socially delegitimised in Scotland over the past thirty years. Whether it’s books like Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community or Andy Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers¸ landlordism has been called out for what it usually is. Rentier extractivism and often, neglect. The hard-earned Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, twenty years old this year, has confirmed our historical right to roam and granted rights of pre-emptive purchase to communities, with additional enhanced rights for land under crofting tenure. More recent reforms saw the Scottish Parliament bring in a very active Scottish Land Commission, of which the 2019 report, Investigation into the Issues Associated with Large scale & Concentrated Landownership in Scotland included such findings as: 

“Perhaps most worrying however, was the fear of repercussions from “going against the landowner” expressed by some people. This fear was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish. Such fear is a clear impediment to innovation and sustainable development and has no place in a progressive and inclusive Scotland.”

In short, Scotland is not England. Our bioregions, our history, our laws and our cultural norms differ. It is in such contexts that Dr MacDonald’s remark would find broad affirmation from “the body of the kirk”. Such is the social context in which the debate around “rewilding” in Scotland is situated. 

Dialogue with Jeremy Leggett

My involvement in land reform in Scotland, my legitimacy for agency, dates back especially to 1991 and when I was one of the four founders of the original Isle of Eigg Trust. This progressively transferred itself to the community, raising £1.6 million to bring the island into community landholding (a term that I prefer to landownership in such contexts), and reconstituting for this purpose in 1997 as the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, being a partnership with Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. In addition to writing Soil and Soul (2001) that documented the process, I have written two books on climate change, Hell and High Water (2008) and Riders on the Storm (2020), the latter with a concluding focus on the part that can be played community land trusts and the deepening of our shared humanity. 

I say this to set some context for Jeremy’s engagement with me. But that context goes further. Bunloit in Inverness-shire, and Beldorney in Aberdeenshire, are the first two in ownership of perhaps an eventual twenty estates that Highlands Rewilding hopes to acquire. A third, Tayvallich in Argyll, is currently the subject of fundraising, with the seller having provided a window of opportunity that closes on 28th February. 

A Twitter debate around this was picked up on by an old friend of mine, Ian Callaghan. Ian had worked with me and others in the 1990s on the campaign that stopped the proposed Isle of Harris super-quarry in a National Scenic Area. A former merchant banker who’d worked on the financial engineering of the Channel Tunnel, Ian now works with green investment. On seeing the Twitter exchange he dropped a line and asked if I’d be up for a Zoom discussion with Jeremy. This went ahead on 18th August 2020. Prior to it, Jeremy shared with me a working document that aimed towards “a final masterplan for execution of the mission.” 

We spent what felt to me a slightly awkward hour in discussion. I could see that here was a visionary social entrepreneur. He had been the scientific director of Greenpeace International, campaigning on climate change in the 1990. Through his companies and charitable outreach, he had helped to make solar electricity affordable, profitable, and brought to bear on grassroots community needs in Africa. He was a whirl of can-do, must-do, energy; determined to give this part of his life to tackling climate change on a large scale and to do so, profitably, by drawing in financial institutions. 

Why the awkwardness? It was just that: the masterplan. Here was a recipe for more concentrated land ownership. Here was a plan, top down, controlled by a hand-picked board of provenance mainly if not entirely from the privileged social echelons of British society. I had one set of questions that I kept pushing. “What is the local community’s view of this? Do you have their explicit consent?  And what will be their latitude for agency if it proceeds?” 

Within the bounds of “Chatham House Rule” confidentiality, suffice to say that Jeremy pitched to me the imperative of bringing private capital to the rescue of nature and climate change amelioration. I tried to urge him towards a deeper understanding of Scottish land history, politics, social class dynamics and the imperative of community empowerment as the basis from which to build a nation. I pressed him to seek out the local community council as a starting point in consultation, and that, as a stepping stone to meaningful participation. However, I was left with a sense that he had little knowledge or interest in the role of community councils. It was added humbug, for which he had little time that he could offer. We left our Zoom discussion there. We left it cordially, but perhaps a little coolly; or perhaps I misjudged, and it was just pensiveness on his behalf. Certainly, in what I read of his writings now, community is much more emphasised. But has it traction on the ground?

Highlands Rewilding’s Investment Model

Our next engagement was again on Twitter. On 2nd December last year, Tony Juniper, the chair of the government agency, Natural England, tweeted a Guardian article about “Citizen rewilders” being invited to buy shares in Highlands Rewilding. He asked: “Is citizen-funded & profitable Nature recovery about to take off? I certainly hope so. No-one better to lead the charge than @JeremyLeggett & @Highlandsrewild.” 

In response to one of the tweets that followed I wrote, “But my question to Jeremy from the outset, has been: ‘Does this have the sanction & participation of the local community?’ … because, ‘Nothing about us without us is for us.’”

What followed became a highly fragmented owing to a frequent inadvertent use of quote tweets. He replied the next day: “Yes Alastair, full engagement … a long story, mostly positive but not all….” He ended it suggesting that the two of us might have another call. It was at this point I was contacted in a direct mail message by a Bunloit resident. They said that they didn’t want to start a Twitter spat, but there was a lot of local disquiet. I have since been given to understand, from more than just this source, that both the Glen Urquhart Community Council and the Glen Urquhart Community Rural Association have felt marginalised, and that when Jeremy talks of teaming up with “local community leaders” he mainly means “local business leaders”. 

On seeing the suggestion that he and I have a call, an Alison Kidd @ecofunkytravel replied to the thread, saying: “It would be great to hear a recorded conversation between the two of you on this important & complex topic in the light of the shareholder issue.” This refers to Highlands Rewilding’s business model of selling £10 shares that it hopes will realise a 5% rate of return per year “annualised” (or spread out) over a ten-year investment window. Most of the investors are expected to be institutional. The invitation to invest offers local community members the chance to participate. This, however, will not be on a one-member-one vote basis as with a company limited by guarantee charitable structure. Rather, it will be on a normal limited company basis of one-share-one vote. 

Jeremy replied to Alison in a fresh quote tweet, 3rd December, saying, “Yes, that would be useful, I imagine and I would be happy to do so.” I replied the next day and suggested a Zoom with Ian Callaghan chairing. As a basis for the discussion, I shared a screenshot from Community Land Scotland’s “Position Paper on Rewilding, 2022”. It sets out three conditions to render “rewilding” acceptable: 

  • Firstly, we are strongly of the view that ‘rewilding’ initiatives should complement the policy objective of repeopling areas of rural Scotland rather than subverting it, and vice versa.
  • Secondly, financial and related economic benefits arising from ‘rewilding’ initiatives should be retained by communities living within places generating such benefits, rather than being extracted from these communities, in accordance with the principles of community wealth building. 
  • Thirdly, communities’ voices should be to the fore in shaping the parameters of ‘rewilding’ initiatives within their localities, ideally facilitated through community ownership of land.

I must commend Jeremy’s openness in discussing this. He responded, 5th December: “Yes, happy to do that. Highland Re’s purpose is ‘nature recovery and community prosperity through rewilding’. So we won’t disagree on some of the CLS criteria. But prob. not the part of our model that shoots for external capital under mass ownership in accord with the purpose….”

In other words, to make this work with institutional investors, it has to be an extractive model, albeit hopefully hand-in-hand with a participative one. Moreover, explicitly hinging on the available of “natural capital” in Scotland, the model will rely on social capital built up by communities to add up. There are plenty of places in Scotland where ecological regeneration can take place just by putting up a deer fence (to simplify). The regeneration of Scots pines on seen from the road and train from Glasgow, just before Crianlarich, is a case in point. But for a model like Jeremy’s to work requires social infrastructure, and this is why the voices of communities becomes so important, and legitimate.  

I replied that I’d consult with Ian Callaghan and ask if he’d chair a public debate, as he’d introduced us to each other in the first place. Ian agreed, albeit wary of the gender balance, but this was just how the history of the matter had brought us together, and what was needed to keep it as a dialogue rather than a panel event.

Enter, Tayvallich

We were about to set a date for after Christmas, when I received an email from a resident of Tayvallich, on the shores of Loch Sween in Argyll. This correspondent explained that their community had originally hoped to mount a community buyout. That would have been their best option. But with an asking price in the region of £10 million (the same as the Scottish Government’s entire annual Land Fund) it hadn’t got off the ground. They were faced with either the second-best option of Jeremy’s proposal (he seeming willing if he could find sufficient funding to go some way towards the community needs, mainly for affordable housing plots), or the worst option: namely that Highlands Rewilding might fall short of its target, and Tayvallich would be back on the market, with the estate’s tenanted houses likely to be sold as holiday homes, thereby eroding the community.

Jeremy was due to hold a public meeting on 9th January in Tayvallich Community Hall. I therefore held back on setting a date for the public Zoom. By all accounts, the public meeting went well. As Jeremy tweeted the next day: “An evening with the local community at Tayvallich mulling over what we would do together if Highlands Rewilding is lucky enough to raise the capital we need to purchase the estate by 28th Feb deadline. Well over 100 came. I left humbled and determined.” 

In private conversation with some of the community gatekeepers from both Tayvallich and Bunloit, it was decided best to hold off the public Zoom while Tayvallich was at a sensitive stage. I was about to communicate so to Jeremy, when Highlands Rewilding (and I’d imagine, quite possibly, Jeremy himself!) tweeted, 22nd January: “What happened to the proposed online debate between your good self and Jeremy?” 

I replied that, following consultation, it seemed best to hold back to avoid the risk of pushing the debate or its proponents into corners. I can be a feisty land reformer. There are times when that energy can be helpful, others when it is best held back! My reply comprised a 3-part tweet. It also explained a key happening that transformed the Eigg Trust over the period from its inception in 1991 to the community buyout in 1997. 

Eigg, and its Community Veto Model

The original Isle of Eigg Trust of 1991 – so-called to differentiate it from the eventual Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust set up in 1997 to receive possession of the island – had been started by four of us who were resident on the mainland. In some respects, but without having access to financial institutions or the expectation of a return, we were like the board of Highlands Rewilding. We had not earned legitimacy. Why should the community on Eigg have trusted us? Why were residents not in the driving seat from the outset? What was the succession plan? All manner of valid questions were flying around. I discuss our painful wrestling with them in the chapter, “Too Rough to Go Slow”, of Soil and Soul. Above all, it was difficult because we were divided amongst ourselves. Once held, it can be difficult for Frodo to drop the Ring back down the Cracks of Doom. 

Very quickly, our position in my view became untenable. The island was not yet in a position to lead the challenge to landed power. Yet at the same time, they were fast becoming sufficiently frustrated with how they’d been treated for too long that the need to take control of their own destiny was becoming more and more apparent. What we came up with, was a middle way. We would continue to run the trust and bring the island under community tenure. But we’d do so, by surrendering control of what we did to Residents’ Association. On the honour of our reputations, we’d offer them the power of veto over our decisions. That way, we’d work in partnership and alleviate fears, but with it being us, and not vulnerable tenants, in the firing line of landed wrath.  

The Residents’ Association put this to a secret ballot in November 1991. It retuned a 73% vote of confidence on a 100% turnout. This granted us consent, if not yet quite the full blessing. That part followed in 1994, when in another momentous decision the islanders took over the full running of the “trust in waiting”, and held an election that appointed their own board. The rest is history. Indeed, that history can be heard unpacked in a podcast, “The Power of the Eigg Story”, that was released last November, convened by the island’s historian Camille Dressler and taking place between Lesley Riddoch, Andy Wightman and me, with the former Western Isles Labour MP, Calum MacDonald, in the chair. 

Given this, then, as a “pattern and example” – a way of doing something and a case study of it being done – the question that I popped by Twitter to Jeremy and Highlands Rewilding, 22nd January, was whether they would consider a similar approach?  With the communities into whose heritage they were buying and on whose social infrastructure they would in part be relying, would they also seek explicit consent, even blessing? I put it to Jeremy that this could this “a win-win, both for ecological restoration *and* community empowerment”, adding that it was “a question of how power is held, of governance.” It was why I had said earlier the same day – “‘Rewilding’ must grant local communities power to the point of veto, or it’s land colonisation” – this being the tweet that appears to have sparked, or at least informed, Jeremy’s governance blog with its opening volley: 

“So if you are a Highlands resident much motivated by the iniquitous inequalities built up over 400 years in this region, it is easy to understand why you might listen to that and say: OK, fine, become a charity dedicated to both things, and let local communities run it. Or if not run it, then have an absolute veto over what it does. And if you don’t, you are nothing more than a new variant of the land colonialists that have long abused us.”

My answer to that is plain. If you presume to walk into any Scottish community without consent, seeking a steep rate of return as such ventures go and with a governance board devoid of locally elected representatives, then yes: you are just the latest “green laird” variant of land colonisers. “Rewilding” must grant local communities power to the point of veto, or its land colonisation. It may be that climate change justifies that, but if so, let it be by democratic mandate and not corporate shareholding.

But it doesn’t have to be as sharp-edged that. If the underlying driver is carbon capture through ecological restoration, look at what is being achieved in Eigg with both woodland management and its own world-leading renewable energy grid. Look at land trusts like the North Harris Estates with a major new woodland plan, that will employ as many as four local nurseries just in raising the saplings. Consider that the first of these has the Scottish Wildlife Trust as an integral working partner, and the second, the John Muir Trust. They work together, and it works because, as David Cameron of the North Harris Trust, Community Land Scotland and proprietor of the garage in Tarbert, Harris, puts it: there is “community desire”! 

I would therefore put to Jeremy and his board the question: might not a binding pledge of community empowerment and control provide the means by which (as he put it last week in both his Scotsman interview and the video embedded in his blog) to release, “the full fighting force of the local community”? Might not such be a means by which rewilding and repeopling can walk hand in hand, with consent and even, blessing? Such words might seem quaint and even, “unrealistic”. But I put it that such as Eigg and Harris are showing what can happen when the inward gates of a community are able to open, and restore the flow of life back into the world.

Financial Institutional Expectations

The weakness of my testimony, as Jeremy will be quick to see and, probably, sorry to have to point out, has already been named in his blog. As he puts it: “Both financial institutions and local communities will require governance of the company in a form they can trust,” and that for the institutions, “trust will centre on world-class business experience among the board of directors.” But as his blog also acknowledges, investors like his ideas in the way that he has packaged them “because it would give them a degree of social license that they don’t have if they buy land in Scotland and try to manage it from afar.” 

That’s progress, if it’s a social license to operate based on authentic local agency, but it also raises distinction between a capital-driven vision of land use and its impact on natural ecology, and a politically-driven driven vision that might more fully integrate the natural ecology with human ecology. Carbon credits or other business developments add up to what Jeremy calls a “land management reward system”, tipping the scales at 5% plus dividends. Such is straight out of the textbook of “natural capital” markets. Indeed, such is the expertise of the two directors whom he mentions based at SRUC, Scotland’s rural college. As the college’s web page for this aspect of its work explains: “Our goal is to research and build ecosystem markets to meet net-zero targets and reverse the biodiversity decline.” In other words, justified or otherwise, such is another form of land commodification. Indeed, as one scholarly paper just published and focussed on Scotland puts it: it is so on a “glocal” or global-local basis, whereby “questions around power and distribution of benefits arise as woodland expansion increasingly becomes part of green investment portfolios, environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) commitments…”.    

My distinction between visions for the future that are capital-driven and politically-driven thereby comes into touch. This goes deeper than party politics. Rather, this concerns politics as the business of the polis, thereby of the body-politic, of the people; who in Scottish constitutional theory as well as by popular acclaim, “are sovereign”. Lest we forget, land reform was a driving force behind the creation of the restored Scottish Parliament in 1999. Land reform became its flagship legislation. The Land Commission exists because political options are on the table. For example, I would like to see land value taxation, exempt to community-accountable bodies, with the proceeds funding land buy-outs and the capital value of land being challenged in the process. 

Such, however, is a personal view, and one not likely to come to pass before Tayvallich’s 28th February deadline.  We must all be realists as well as idealists in this. What might that mean? And what, specifically, for a community such as Tayvallich? For here, the option seems to be either having some control with Highlands Rewilding, which has signified a responsiveness to the need for social housing and employment. Or alternatively, perhaps no control, if the institutional and other fundraising fails and the estate is thrown back onto the open market and to interests whose sole qualification to own land is, perhaps, their wealth? My locus for agency here is that I was approached by gatekeepers within both Bunloit and Tayvallich. With the latter, it is my clear impression that they would not want to damage the better for want of the best.

Openings of the Way?

In this essay I have suggested that an opening of the way might be a veto – perhaps exercised by each initiative’s local governing body that Highland Rewilding has in mind, provided that such bodies are at least in part democratically elected rather than appointed. Again, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust has been an interesting model, with four of its board members locally elected, two appointed by Highland Council and two by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. An independent chairperson has the casting vote, though matters rarely if ever have to go to vote.

But there is another source of light in this tunnel. In a BBC radio interview last September, Jeremy said: “After my lifetime, the land is coming back to the people, there’ll be a trust dominated by Scots and Highlanders…” If by this he’s thinking in the longer term not just of £10 shareholders with Plutocratic voting rights, but of individuals, the residents of local communities regenerating alongside nature, then possibilities might open for staged models of ownership. 

In the course of my taking soundings around earlier drafts of this essay, and asking if I’d missed anything, Ian Callaghan pitched in with the following, and with an email emphasising the “if”:

“My only suggested addition would be a question maybe at the end for the readership: If we agree that the sums involved are such that institutional investors are going to have to be involved, and that they can’t / won’t adopt co-operative style governance models, is there a new / third way of framing such governance? This would involve splitting the ownership of economic returns (for a defined period) from ownership of the land, which would be vested in a Trust or whatever. Once the defined return to investors had been achieved (including the repayment of capital), economic rights would also revert to the Trust. During the first period of joint Trust / investor ownership, the Trust would need to have rights to approve land management strategies and plans / budgets, based on an understanding of the need to deliver to the fullest extent possible the expected returns, but with a right to veto should the achievement of such returns only be possible by abandonment of the overarching objective of regeneration-with-people (which would need to be defined at the outset). Under this model, investors would sign up on the basis of accepting the overarching objective (which is in any case part of their own ‘return’) and at the same time would have the protection of knowing that, during the ‘returns period’ reasonable ways of achieving such returns couldn’t / wouldn’t be interfered with.”

Let me go no further than Ian suggested, leaving it as a question to readers; indeed, to affected communities in dialogue with Highlands Rewilding. My orientation is more towards political solutions to land reform, but we live in a pluralistic society and, once again, not squeezing out the better for holding out for the best.

Jeremy Leggett is under pressure to come up with the resources for Tayvallich in a month’s time. My sense, is that if lessons can be learned from Bunloit, and if he’s good to the impression that he left people with at the community meeting in Tayvallich, the wind might be behind him. The ball is in Jeremy’s and Highlands Rewilding’s court, but as they will see it, the ball will also be in the court of institutional investors who will be watching this debate unfold as they move towards their decisions. Another of my consultees, one from the Highlands and Islands but not one of the communities under discussion, concluded his email with an ecological metaphor:

“Leggett’s model is far from perfect. But he does seem to be honestly committed to what he is doing, and that commitment seems to be economically enabled, but ecologically, not economically, motivated. He’s loud, but then so is the corncrake though it is just a little bird. Other fish might be in the pond of green lairds and rewilding the Highlands, silent predators who know that making money can be done quietly. What might be their model and motivation? Do we risk forgetting about the worse?”

The bottom-line boils down to a community’s options, to the governance structures that might be agreed, to consent and ideally even, to invitation. Could it be that, were a mutually satisfactory governance structure to be agreed between Tayvallich and Highlands Rewilding early in February, a way forward might open out that would also satisfy financial backers? Might the community’s representatives then find themselves in a situation where they might assume control of their predicament by actively inviting Highland Rewilding? This, because their legitimate interests will, as reasonably as the situation can currently allow, have been secured? 

Such is not for me to determine. But what I can say is that when the “inward gates” opened with Eigg during its six-year-long process towards community empowerment, at the end things moved with lightning speed. In community dynamics, as in nature itself, goodness and goodwill can release hidden powers. For as Hugh MacDiarmid put it in his poem, On a Raised Beach: “The inward gates of a bird are always open…. That is the secret of its song.”