Scalpay is an island off the coast of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. With 1,600 acres (650ha) and a population of 320, it's much bigger than Out Skerries. It's also more accessible from its parent archipelago in that it's connected to neighbouring Harris by a bridge. What Scalpay does share with Skerries, though, is that it's almost entirely subject to crofting tenure and its landlord is planning to dispose of the island. Unlike Skerries' landlord, however, he is planning to gift Scalpay to its residents. This is not an excess of generosity but rather a reflection of the realities of being the landlord of croft land.
|Scalpay in 1805 - an extract from William Bald's map of Harris|
|North Harbour, Scalpay in the 1960s - photo credit Harrisman|
|The bridge seen looking from Scalpay north west to Harris - photo credit JimC|
|The north west corner of Scalpay showing the village clustered around the sheltered harbour. The bridge to Harris and fish/net washing factory of variable fortunes is conspicuous along the north coast.|
|Photo credit Allan MacIver|
In the last 15 years in Scotland, it's become axiomatic that taking land out of private hands and into community ownership is "a good thing". That's partly due to the success of the transformation on the islands of Gigha and Eigg. It's also due to the fact there's public and lottery funding available to community owners for investment in infrastructure which is not available to private owners so you're not really comparing like with like. But crucially, Gigha and Eigg are not entirely subject to crofting tenure. Their owners do actually own assets like houses and farms which can be improved or developed in the hands of a community owner by receipt of a slug of public/lottery money not available to a private owner.
|Photo credit Donald Mackinnon|
To test my theory, let's look at the Feasability Study commissioned by the Scalpay Land Transfer Steering Group. You can download that here. The priorities for development of the island this identifies are:-
- purchase the school from the Council for conversion to small business premises;
- lay moorings and a pontoon for yachtsmen; showers and laundry for yotties to be provided in the school;
- community wind turbine;
|Photo credit Helgoland|
On Scalpay, it doesn't matter because the owner is proposing to donate the island (although £13,000 is being requested from public/lottery funds for the legal costs of the acquisition). But on other estates it matters a lot. On Pairc (pronounced "Park"), a crofting estate on Lewis, the owner is, understandably, expecting quite a lot of compensation for the loss of his share of a prospective commercial wind farm on the common grazings. Like Scalpay, the community's development plan (not currently available on Pairc Trust's website) requires only a few hectares for affordable housing, a campervan park, a community turbine etc. There's no conflict between these legitimate aspirations and the wind farm on the rest of the common grazings so the move to acquire them boils down to a straight "We want public/lottery money to take that from you and give it to us" tussle.
|Artist's impression of the Scalpay community wind turbine|
"It needs substantial investment. It needs more people living there and needs to increase the school roll. As long as this vast area of land is owned by a tiny number of people who don't even live there and come to visit to do a bit of shooting, I don't think the prospects are very good."
That's all very rousing stuff but what more could the estate do to fill the school? Is that an estate's responsibility anyway? Is it sensible to spend scarce public/lottery funds buying "vast areas" when a more focussed policy of buying really quite small areas would deliver the community's aspirations without burdening them with the responsibilities of becoming a large scale landlord?
I'm hoping to find some or all of the answers to these questions in James Hunter's latest book, From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops: Community Ownership of Land in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland which I shall be buying with my Christmas money this year. Professor Hunter made his name as a writer with the seminal and - as important - eminently readable The Making of the Crofting Community which is required reading for anybody interested in the history of crofting.
Meanwhile, I leave you with a photo I took in 1990 in Tarbert, Harris before the bridge to Scalpay had been built. I was quite chuffed that the Scalpay Community Land Steering Group chose it as one of the banner photographs for their website
POSTSCRIPT - Since I started writing this post (ages ago!), I learn from the excellent Arnish Lighthouse blog that the people of Scalpay have voted by an overwhelming majority (197 for, 8 against) to accept the gift of the island and also - though by a much slimmer majority (110 for, 96 against) - to become part of the neighbouring North Harris Trust community owned estate. That seems like an excellent middle course whereby the hassle of acquiring and owning the island can be minimised by drawing on the expertise in that regard already held by NHT and allowing a more uncluttered focus on delivering the priorities for Scalpay.