Crofters on the scenic coast of south west Harris are set to take over three crofting estates from the Scottish Government Monday 25 January.
MSP Roseanna Cunningham, Minister for Environment, will make a keynote speech at Seilebost School and officially transfer areas in excess of 6,500 hectares of land into ownership of the local population.
The West Harris Crofting Trust is the first group to buy land owned by the Scottish Government under proposals first introduced a decade ago. The land is made up of three estates covering the townships of Scaristavore, Borve and Luskentyre.
The trust has a development plan and intends to build affordable houses and create new crofts on the land to encourage more young people to settle there. The trust also hopes projects to create jobs and develop small scale renewable projects will reverse the trend of depopulation. There have been fears for its long term prospects unless new people are attracted into the community of West Harris which currently has a population of 123, with only one child under school age.
Around 60 people will attend tonight's celebrations. Among them will be Director of Strengthening Communities at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), John Watt who said: “HIE has worked closely with the trust for some time and we believe that community ownership is the key to growing the population and enhancing the area. HIE is very supportive of this aspiring social enterprise and we look forward to the benefits that community ownership and a dynamic development plan can deliver.”
To acquire the land and to enable the trust's project plans to get underway, the Community Land Unit at HIE has provided £23,600. In addition, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) has approved £15,000 towards the plans and the trust has also secured a loan of £20,000 from Tighean Innse Gall. The BIG Lottery Fund supported the trust by giving them £10,000 from their Investing in Ideas fund to carry out initial feasibility studies and consultation with the community.
Convener of CnES, Alex MacDonald, said: “I very much welcome the news that the West Harris Estate will now be in the hands of the community and this is another historic milestone for the Western Isles. After three years of efforts, the buyout will hopefully secure the future of the area and reverse the decline in population as well as improving economic activity. The Board of Directors are to be praised for their hard work in securing the buyout and I wish them every success for the future.”
Murdo Mackay, chairman of the West Harris Crofting Trust has a tenancy of a croft in Luskentyre with a small number of Highland cattle and runs a self-catering accommodation along with his wife Isobel. He said: “We want to promote Harris as a great place to live and work and we hope to get more families into the area and create new crofts and bring currently underused land into production.
“We are very excited about the fact that control of our own land will breathe new life into the community and encourage people to set up homes and raise families. Also, we have broadband links through the Connected Communities network and many people already use it to work from home. We are delighted with the funding from CnES, HIE, and TIG towards the £59,000 needed to purchase the entire estate.”
MSP Roseanna Cunningham, Minister for Environment attends the West Harris crofting transfer event which coincides with her visit to the Future of Crofting Conference which takes place in Stornoway on Tuesday 26, organised by CnES.
David Blaney, chair of TIG said: “It is very appropriate, as we near celebrations for our own 20th anniversary, that we are able to make a loan of £22,000 available to West Harris Crofting Trust for the community buyout of West Harris from the Scottish Government.
“We are pleased to assist the communities of West Harris in achieving their aim of a community buy out which will place control of their destiny in their own hands. Tighean Innse Gall believes that West Harris will be a major success and we look forward to working with the community in assisting them to delivery affordable housing in the area for local people. Tighean Innse Gall has the expertise and a proven track record to assist bodies such as West Harris Crofting Trust in realising those objectives.”
The trust's board has members from each of the townships involved and have been encouraged by events in the north of Harris, where locals succeeded in a buy out of the North Harris Estate in 2003.