Com­mu­nity is se­cret to West­ern isles’ suc­cess

The Oban Times - - News - MON­ICA GIBSON eforbes@oban­

TEN years of progress will be fol­lowed by an­other 10 years of growth, if He­bridean land­lords have their way.

Fol­low­ing the open­ing of the com­mu­nity land fund in 2001, the peo­ple of South Uist ‘ bought back’ their land in 2006.

Once owned by chiefs and lairds, the ac­cord marked the largest com­mu­nity buy- out of crofter es­tate in Scot­land – a record which stands to this day.

As the deal was made, Stòras Uib­hist was set up and now man­ages 93,000 acres of land cov­er­ing al­most the whole of Ben­bec­ula, Eriskay and South Uist, as well as a num­ber of other small is­lands.

In April, the com­mu­nity com­pany held a spe­cial con­fer­ence to cel­e­brate its 10th an­niver­sary.

Min­is­ter for Trans­port and the Is­lands Humza Yousaf MSP, who was among the in­vited guests, dis­cussed trans­port links and is­land is­sues.

Char­lotte Wright from High­lands and Is­lands En­ter­prises, Ste­wart Wil­son from Tigh­nean Innse Gall and An­gus MacMi­lan chair­man of Stòras Uib­hist de­liv­ered pre­sen­ta­tions cov­er­ing topics such as de­vel­op­ment, hous­ing and pop­u­la­tion as well as plans for the future.

A spe­cial video was also cu­rated for the oc­ca­sion; it showed be­fore and af­ter images of the is­lands where im­prove­ments had been made to drainage and in­fra­struc­ture.

The mes­sage through­out was that over the last 10 years Storas Uib­hist has con­cen­trated on grow­ing a stronger future through com­mu­nity, hous­ing, com­mer­cial activities, cul­ture and her­itage and tourism.

Some of the main projects have in­cluded the de­vel­op­ment of Lochcar­nan Com­mu­nity Wind Farm, pic­tured above.

The farm was con­nected to the grid in March 2003 and as of De­cem­ber 2016 had gen­er­ated 85,234 MW hours.

The money from the farm is rein­vested lo­cally to the Seal­ladhna Beinne Moire Com­mu­nity Fund. More than half a mil­lion pounds have been al­lo­cated to var­i­ous lo­cal projects as a re­sult.

Ren­o­va­tion of Grog­a­rry Lodge has also taken place. The ac­com­mo­da­tion now at­tracts guests from around the world and hosts cul­ture, com­mu­nity and cor­po­rate events through­out the year. Stora Uibi­hist pur­chased the es­tate for £ 4.6 mil­lion pounds and af­ter all the hard work and in­ge­nu­ity, the bal­ance sheet stands at £ 35 mil­lion.

The com­pany plans to build a new dis­tillery with mi­cro brew­ery and has en­ter­pris­ing ideas to boost sales of is­land food prod­ucts.

Lochbois­dale is set to be fur­ther de­vel­oped to ac­com­mo­date a new ferry ter­mi­nal for the next gen­er­a­tion of ‘deep water ves­sels’.

Faye MacLeod, an ac­coun­tant based in Portree and Ben­bec­ula who has been in­volved with Storas Uib­hist since the buy­out, de­scribed de­vel­op­ment in South Uist as a prime ex­am­ple of lo­cal peo­ple tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for lo­cal is­sues. She said the trig­ger for the buy­out stemmed from is­sues such as de­pop­u­la­tion, un­em­ploy­ment and age­ing pop­u­la­tion which can have acute im­pact on is­land com­mu­ni­ties, adding: ‘ For a pop­u­la­tion of now 3,500, the de­vel­op­ment has been in­spir­ing’.

Ms MacLeod said there had been a domino ef­fect of ‘peo­ple power’ in the He­brides, with one vil­lage fol­low­ing the next vil­lage af­ter com­mu­ni­ties have seen that the ben­e­fits out­weigh the costs.

She said 75 per cent of the West­ern Isles was now un­der com­mu­nity own­er­ship, a trend she de­scribed as a ‘new phe­nom­e­non’.

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