Field Notes: Real people in a real place

Head of Development and Communications Kevin Lelland reports on a recent panel discussion in Edinburgh on community, people and nature

Speakersatedinburghlocalgathering detail

About 100 people found their way to the Augustine United Church on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh last weekend to attend the Trust's Edinburgh local members gathering. In doing so they were treated to several passionate and informative talks from a panel comprising Director of Carloway Estate Trust Sally Reynolds, Development Manager of Community Land Scotland Linsay Chalmers, author and pioneer on land reform issues Alastair McIntosh, and the Trust’s Public Affairs Adviser Alan McCombes (all pictured left to right above).

The panel subject matter; community, people and nature, was book ended by the vocal talents of Edinburgh lawyer and singer Andrew MacKenzie. He said his first choice of song - a Gaelic work written by Ian MacLeod, a land league campaigner for crofters rights - was: “an appeal to the King to give the people the shielings and the mountains.” The quality and clarity of Andrew’s voice set the scene for the subsequent presentations.

Linsay Chalmers introduced us to Community Land Scotland - established in 2010, at a time when the number of community land buy-outs were dropping. The organisation supports communities to buy land when they follow a model that is based on a democratic and open membership, takes on ownership of land or assets and is focused on revitalising communities. “It can be transformative for a community, unleashing confidence and energy,” she said.

Citing the example of the West Harris Trust, a community land trust which this past summer signed a renewed memorandum of understanding with the John Muir Trust, she said: “It has given hope for the future that the local community will be something more than a holiday resort in 20 years. For the first time the community is shaping its own future.”

She told us that the hard work of the West Harris Trust is having a positive effect with a population that was in decline having more recently moved from 119 to 150 people.

The Trust’s Alan McCombes spoke next; and started by thanking each of the other panel speakers for their efforts in travelling to Edinburgh to join the conversations. Speaking of his own recent visit to several community land trust’s in the Outer Hebrides and at Knoydart he said: “What strikes me is that these communities have dynamism and purpose. They have a collective will to make things better for themselves, their children and grandchildren that is coupled with a deep affinity for the natural environment.”

Mentioning the Trust’s long history of community-based conservation, he touched on both the opportunities and challenges of partnership working saying: “On some issues we have to agree to disagree. But we must be in discussion because in partnership we can look at the landscape from every angle, rather than just through a single lens.”

He expanded on this using the example of Wild Land Areas: the 42 areas of Scotland mapped by SNH for their wild qualities and afforded significant protection in Scotland’s planning policy saying: “The Wild Land Areas map has been an important constraint on land owners and energy companies, who can see landscape simply as a commodity to be exploited. But the communities closest to these areas can feel the designation has been foisted upon them by civil servants.”

Alan made it clear that the Trust feels strongly that wild land is not about excluding people saying: “We’re at early stages of work to commission fresh studies and mapping of the Wild Land Areas to expand understanding of which parts were historically settled, and where might be most suitable for rewilding and re-peopling. Places where the local economies and ecological restoration can work together.”

Alastair McIntosh, author of several books on community and land started his address by commending the John Muir Trust and thanked the members for "spreading the work of this great Trust.” He remarked that the first two speakers reminded him of the great and late Isle of Lewis poet Iain Crichton Smith who wrote of ‘real people in a real place’.

There was a need for “natural ecology and human ecology to come together”, he continued, telling us that while “I am not by any means a conservationist”, he believes that, “it’s only now in the 21th century, where we have our technology in danger of overtaking nature, that we need a view that moves us more towards nature.”

He relayed that in the past conservationists were seen as “the green welly brigade… interested in plants and animals, but not people.” Something that changed in the 1980’s helped by the publication in 1987 of an international study, the Brundtland Report, which introduced the concept of sustainable development and pushed the idea into wider consciousness that natural ecology and human ecology needed to be interwoven. He said: “like two strands of DNA, either weaving together to a Y shape, or overshooting into an X shape to once again see conversations and people go on different paths.”

To finish Alistair said: “The way forward is for a Trust such as The John Muir Trust to use its capital to invest as partners with communities. Then we will build a future of sustainable development, so that come what may, be that a climate crisis, we build a future for our children in which they are co-participants”.

The final speaker Sally Reynolds, told the audience she was “privileged to call the Outer Hebrides her home, with its wild and beautiful moorland and mountains.”

Yet, despite its world-renowned beauty, it’s also an island on the brink of a population disaster. Sally said: "Within my lifetime it is predicted we will not have a sustainable population. Back in the 1980s young people were expected to leave the island - at school I was told ‘you’re smart, you’ll leave’."

She explained how the work of her and others via the community buy-out she now leads at the Carloway Estate Trust was helping to turn around that population decline. Her Trust now employs five young staff to work on peatland restoration, climate change and community engagement projects. “We absolutely love the John Muir Award, we’ve done it twice now and are using the process to get pupils from the two schools on the island to know each other before they go off to the ‘big' school.”

Sally finished by saying her community land ownership is very much all about community, people and nature. A fitting final remark after four excellent talks on that very theme.


Image credit: Kevin Lelland

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