Last night I attended a launch event at the House of Commons for what must surely be the most beautiful book ever produced by our movement.
It is called “From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops” and by means of storytelling and photography of the highest order, it tells the extraordinary tale of the community land buy-outs in Scotland.
Today in Scotland there are half a million acres in community ownership, an area the size of West Yorkshire. In places like the Outer Hebrides, over half the population now live in areas under community ownership.
As the book’s author, Professor James (Jim) Hunter said last night, the decline and dereliction produced by generations of absentee landowners is finally being reversed, and the results are there to see: new homes, new businesses, a rising population and “greatly enhanced self-confidence”.
It is not quite a new story. Back in 1923 the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme offered to make a gift of the island of Lewis to the local population. But the impoverished crofters of the day, deeply suspicious of his motives, fearing they would be taking on an impossible liability, and with government refusing to provide any assistance, rejected the offer. Except that is, for the Stornaway Trust which took over 70,000 acres, and which continues to this day.
But the real and astonishing breakthrough came in 1992 when the crofters of Assynt, a parish in Sutherland, raised £300,000 to buy the North Lochinver Estate, after its Swedish owner went bankrupt. This, in a place where centuries-old memories of the forcible evictions in the Highland Clearances still persist, was a sensational achievement. It was followed by further successes, notably in the islands of Eigg in 1997 and Gigha in 2002, where the first chairman of the Trust was the wonderfully named Willie McSporran.
When in 2003 the North Harris estate was handed over to its community, they performed the ancient ceremony of Sasine where stone and earth was presented to the new owner: “I hereby deliver into your hands stone and earth of this land, and in so doing give unto the North Harris Trust true and lawful sasine of these whole lands of North Harris, from the low tide of the sea to the highest mountain tops, a coelo usque ad centrum, to be held on behalf of the people of North Harris in all time coming.”
In subsequent years the process accelerated, driven forwards by these initial achievements, by symbolic (if practically unworkable) community ‘right to buy’ legislation, by funding from the Lottery, by practical assistance from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, by support from the Carnegie Trust, DTA Scotland, and many others.
A notable feature of these community buy-outs was their entrepreneurial drive, rekindling local economies, producing fruitful joint ventures with private investors, and resulting for example in a series of community energy initiatives: a hydro electricity plant at Assynt, a Green Energy Grid on Eigg, wind turbines (the “dancing ladies”) on Gigha.
As Jim Hunter said last night, reflecting on the current Westminster government’s desire to see citizens taking over libraries and saving money through the use of volunteers, by itself that won’t get far. “People”, he said, “should be given a chance to take on assets with real developmental opportunity”.
That’s quite right, and must be the guiding principle for us here in England, as we too take pride from our own successes to date, and seek to build on them as they have in Scotland. And if in five or ten years’ time we can produce a book as beautiful as Jim’s, then we will know we really are getting somewhere.