Book review: From the Low Tide Of The Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops
Published on Saturday 21 April 2012 00:00
By Lesley Riddoch
SCOTLAND'S community buyouts have proved remote places can be viable and popular when leadership, belief and some investment replace absentee control and restrictive practices
Professor Jim Hunter's colourful and comprehensive new book proves this period in Scotland's recent history was remarkable – and is not over yet.
Scotland's 17 community land buyout trusts were the subject of a report last year by Dr Sarah Skerratt at the Scottish Agricultural College and her positive findings surprised no-one. Eigg, Assynt, Gigha, Knoydart and the rest have become demonstrably more resilient since communities took over control during the last two decades – as Assynt crofter Allan MacRae once put it: "Could we have done any worse?"
Hunter's Carnegie Trust-funded book seeks not to repeat the statistics but give them a human face and argue for more change at a time when money is scarce and politicians believe land reform largely "done."
It's bold, timely stuff and – with the popular touch that befits the first Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands – engaging and readable with stunning portrait and landscape photographs by Cailean MacLean.
The lengthy title is taken from a speech by one of the architects of change – the Stornoway solicitor Simon Fraser whose ability to sing 50-verse Gaelic songs at Eigg ceilidhs was matched only by his ability to weave through the legal minefields that beset the first buyout communities.
When the vast, beautiful North Harris Estate was handed over to locals in March 2003, Simon captured the scale, emotion and enormity of the moment with these words: "I hereby deliver into your hands, stone and earth of this land… from the low tide of the sea to the highest mountain tops."
The performance of the half million acres of Scotland under community control has been consistently, even suspiciously, good. School rolls have almost doubled in the oldest buyouts. Population has increased, energy supply systems have improved and local land ownership has prompted the construction of new affordable and sheltered homes. Now elderly members of buyout communities don't face the unpalatable choice between life in a local house with cold water or a lonely, heated room in some distant town. On Eigg, seasonally unemployed islanders who tackled the backlog in housing improvements are now sought after island-building experts. On Gigha, a canny partnership saw locals offer community-owned land to Loch Fyne Housing Association who built new private and publicly owned homes. The result has been ground-breaking and high quality – winning the Chartered Institute of Housing's Excellence in Regeneration Award 2011.
Life is better now. But many would ask, why should it not be?
As Hunter painstakingly shows, the private landowners of these (largely) west-coast estates varied from the well-meaning but incompetent or absent to the thoughtless and downright hostile. The first members of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust were non-islanders – like myself – so no locals would face eviction over this perceived act of defiance. How things have changed. Folk once too wary to attend a public meeting now cheerfully manage accounts containing millions of pounds. Confidence and capacity have been demonstrated by securing hard-to-win European funding for projects like Eiggtricity – the renewables-based local electricity grid. But, the doubtful always ask, how much did it cost the public purse?
Hunter observes all the community buyouts and subsequent improvement grants combined have probably cost the public purse £100 million – roughly equivalent to 8 weeks of agricultural subsidy.
Does the rest of Scotland really grudge that? Do many other public realm projects show such a healthy return on investment? And do we recall the pessimism that surrounded these buyouts when first mooted?
Each buyout story is beautifully told though inevitably some significant figures are omitted. On Eigg for example, my memory is full of people who became a near-constant presence – Angus the fiddler from Shooglenifty, Leo and Linda McCann, numerous musicians from neighbouring Glenuig, Tom Forsyth from Scoraig, Maxwell MacLeod from Edinburgh and a young teacher called Angus Brendan MacNeil. Even that roll-call is incomplete and subjective. There are probably as many personal highlights as there were visitors, ceilidhs, press conferences and campaign launches during those heady buyout years.
But make no mistake. The heavy lifting in the story of Scotland's community buyouts was done by locals.
The upside is that self-made communities now find heavy lifting relatively easy and natural. The downside is that because many politicians funded community buyouts through guilt (over political inaction) not belief (in the capacity of communities to transform themselves) the funds have now eased up. The guilt has gone and the political momentum for land reform has faltered.
As Hunter argues, eloquently, this can easily change. Alex Salmond could demonstrate interest by paying a high profile and long overdue visit to one of the community buyouts and announce the resumption of land transfers from government owned departments and quangos to communities – an enlightened policy begun by former Tory Scots Secretary Michael Forysth and resumed by (then) Environment Secretary Mike Russell on the Island of Rum in 2011.
Despite the Land Reform Act, Scotland still has one of the most concentrated patterns of land ownership in Europe. The force of history has not been undone and the legacy of paternalism lives on in the hearts and minds of many hesitant Scots.
People in similarly battered or isolated communities often survey the dauntingly successful people of Eigg, Assynt and Gigha and conclude they must belong to a different breed. Others could never achieve that degree of cohesive community rule. The Eiggachs would be the first to say – it wasn't always so. It's taken a decade for capacity and mutual trust to build. Jim Hunter's book plays a vital role in demystifying the buyouts – led by utterly normal, capable Scots.
But if anyone suggested these days that a distant, formal body like a council could run their land better, a loud collective snort would echo across the Minch. That's the sound of a real, full-blooded, empowered community. And these days the sound would not echo emptily across the glens.
• From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops
by James Hunter
Islands Book Trust, 204pp, £15