Skip to Content
Published: 23 Jul 2019

Western Horizons

Alan McCombes visits Lewis and Harris to meet community landowning trusts harnessing their natural assets to help reverse population decline


Defiant in the face of the elements, the coastal communities strung along Scotland’s north western fringes have to be tough to survive. In spring and early summer, when the sun sparkles on turquoise bays and wildflowers dance among the machair in the soft breeze, the Outer Hebrides are beguiling. But in the twilight of a winter afternoon, when the tourists have gone and the soft breezes have accelerated into raging storms, this ragged shoreline on the edge of the ocean might feel, to some people, unfit for human habitation.

But inhabited much of it is – and has been since time immemorial. The 5,000-year-old standing stones at Callanish are older than the pyramids of Egypt. But in contrast to neighbouring Skye and some other parts of the Highlands, the Western Isles – Eilean Siar – have suffered a long-term population haemorrhage. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of residents dropped by two thousand – the equivalent of a 300,000 population loss across Scotland and almost four million UK-wide.

Yet today a new-found confidence is galvanising the islands, for reasons that can be summed up in two words: community ownership. “The idea that geographically defined communities should take control of their land goes back a long way in the islands,” says Calum MacLeod, the Policy Director of Community Land Scotland. He explains that the first ever community buy-out took place in Glendale on Skye as far back as 1908, and that in 1923 Lord Leverhulme bequeathed 28,000 hectares around Stornoway to local residents, who have owned and managed that land ever since.

Today, after generations of inertia, the Western Isles is at the forefront of a new wave of land reform that has seen the geographical extent of community landownership grow four times over. While still at an embryonic stage in mainland Scotland, 75 per cent of the population of the Outer Hebrides now live on land that is collectively owned and managed by communities, covering half the 3000 square kilometre landmass of the islands.

Community spirit

In the blustery gloom of late November 2018, I travelled to the island of Lewis and Harris to meet four community land trusts which among them own and manage 57,000 hectares – an area of land one and half times larger than the Greater Glasgow conurbation. I came away from four days of conversation with staff and trustees of the North Harris Trust, West Harris Trust, Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn (Galson Estate Trust) and Urras Oighreachd Chàrlabhaigh (Carloway Estate Trust) impressed by the dynamism and creativity that community control has unleashed, and by the deep connection between local people and the landscape they inhabit.

In these areas, people are pulling together to create jobs, support local businesses, facilitate affordable housing for sale and rent, and reverse population decline. At the same time, this diverse population, which includes traditional crofters, fishermen and weavers as well as those working in construction, services and tourism, recognise that the landscape, the sea and the wildlife of the islands are precious assets that enrich the quality of life for local people and help to support economic regeneration.

North Harris Trust

The storm-lashed Atlantic coast of Scotland is never going to compete with the Greek Islands. In the Western Isles, even reports of severe traffic congestion and overcrowding from just across the water in Skye feel like despatches from a foreign land. “The situation here is very different because there’s a finite limit on tourism on this island,” says Calum MacKay, the Chair of North Harris Trust (NHT) since its foundation in 2003. “The Skye bridge is permanently open, but people can only come here by ferry or by plane – and in summer the ferries are full and accommodation providers are stretched to the maximum.”

We chatted in the conservatory of Calum’s home which gazes out across the indented seascape to the island of Taransay, the last stop before Newfoundland, and one of a hundred islands of the Outer Hebrides. A native of Harris, Calum is one of the pioneers of the community buy-out that was launched in 2002 when the mountainous estate was put on the market by its former owner, the cider millionaire Jonathan Bulmer.

From the start, the John Muir Trust supported the campaign for community ownership, both financially and by offering advice on land management. In the official history of the NHT, published in 2007, Janet Hunter recalls that “this encouraging relationship did much to boost morale for people who were under tremendous pressure”. In the autumn of 2002, the residents voted by a resounding two to one majority in favour of the buy-out. They have never looked back.

“From the beginning, the John Muir Trust has always been really supportive and in all that time we’ve never had any issues or disagreements,” says Calum Mackay. His sentiments are echoed by Gordon Cumming the Maanager of the NHT, who says: “We really appreciate the advice and practical land management support we get from the John Muir Trust. The work parties that Sandy Maxwell brings over for weeks at time are fantastic. The standard of work, the amount they do – every time they come over it’s a real eye-opener for us, and something we would love to expand on.”

The NHT’s logo – the silhouette of a soaring eagle against a background of mountain and sea – reflects the community’s intimate connection to the land, the ocean and the wildlife. “There’s a great natural asset here and we’ve chosen to go down the road of trying to manage that for the greater good,” says Gordon Cumming. “That means encouraging and improving access, and it means looking after the environment to support the local booming tourist industry here.”

North Harris Trust JMT work party

Visitor attractions

In recent years, the NHT has created an unstaffed visitor centre with shower and toilet facilities and camper van hook-ups at Huisinis, a tiny crofting settlement which clings tenaciously to life at the end of a long and winding – and occasionally precipitous – single-track road. The John Muir Trust works closely with the community to repair and maintain the footpath that twists across the hillside from the white sands and machair of Huisinis to the beautiful shoreline at Crabhadail beach on the other side of the peninsula.

Among the Harris hills, the NHT has also built an eagle observatory, which attracts thousands of visitors a year. The community ranger, Daryll Brown, conducts a free-of-charge guided walks programme including an eagle walk and a dolphin walk during the summer months, and a rutting deer walk in the autumn. All are incredibly popular, according to Daryll, not least because they have a near 100 per cent success rate in spotting these charismatic creatures.

The isles of the west, with their howling winds, waterlogged peat soils and salt spray from the sea are not well-suited to the kind of large-scale rewilding projects that seek to revive and revitalise native woodlands across extensive areas in places like the Cairngorms, the Southern Uplands, Glen Affric and Highland Perthshire.

“There’s no way Harris is going to become a wooded island,” says Gordon Cumming, “but there are sheltered glens where we could have quite extensive pockets of native woodland. If you go round the coastline and see some of the inaccessible cliffs and crags, there are remnants, of old woodland, relic trees, so if we can create areas that are not heavily grazed by deer, we might ultimately get to the stage where we start getting some natural regeneration of native woodlands. ” Over the past decade or so, the trust has established some small native plantations that include tree species such as oak, Scots pine and rowan.

West Harris Trust

Last year, the John Muir Trust signed a new memorandum of agreement with both the North Harris Trust and its neighbour, the West Harris Trust (WHT). In this part of the island, which includes some of Europe’s most scenic beaches such as Luskentyre and Seillebost, the topography of the Atlantic coastline is more gentle and the soil more fertile. Even under a granite-grey late November sky, this is a strikingly beautiful landscape, where sweeping expanses of white sand are fringed by the famous Hebridean machair while the mountains of North Harris brood silently in the distance.

Overlooking one of the numerous picturesque coastal strips of West Harris stands Talla na Mara – Hall by the Sea – the stylish headquarters of the WHT that also houses four creative business studios, a meeting place for local people and visitors, a music venue, a café/restaurant and a spectacularly pictuesque wedding venue. It sits adjacent to six brand new houses, built in partnership with the local housing. The small development may not seem much until you figure out that, pro-rata to the population, this equates to 220,000 new homes for rent across Scotland.

In 2010, when the community purchased the estate from the Scottish Government, 120 people lived in the area. WHT Director Neil Campbell says: “We set ourselves a target to grow the population by 50 per cent by 2020. So far we’ve reached 30 per cent.” Neil acknowledges that it’s easier to attract new blood to this part of the island, with its mesmerising colours and photogenic beaches than to the boulder-strewn grey landscape on the east coast. But the high proportion of holiday homes in West Harris means that affordable housing is at a premium.

Alongside its focus on jobs and housing, Linda Armstrong, the Commercial Manager, points out that one of the key aims of the WHT is “to advance environmental protection including preservation and conservation of the natural environment.” The organisation is appreciative of the regular John Muir Trust volunteer work parties that come over to support the community.

“They do some great work for us,” says Linda. “They’ve planted marram grass at the golf course to prevent erosion, repaired dry stone walls, cleaned beaches, laid some turf for us here at the centre, and planted 400 trees behind the buildings. And they recently built a lovely stone seating area.”

Galson Estate Trust (UOG)

Although they share the same island, it’s a 70-mile drive from Seillebost in West Harris to the Port of Ness, the most northerly point of the Outer Hebrides, closer to Iceland than to London and sitting at a higher latitude than parts of Alaska. Roughly the same size as North Harris, Galson has double the population, mainly living in 22 crofting townships strung along the coastal strip. This is one of the last great strongholds of Gaelic culture, reflected in the official name of the Galson Estate Trust – Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn (UOG).

Lisa MacLean, the Commercial Development Officer, is at the centre of a complex operation which involves overseeing more than 600 crofts, developing income streams, supporting local businesses, managing deer, restoring peatlands, relieving poverty, facilitating affordable housing, preserving Gaelic culture and heritage, and equipping local people with the skills and training they need to make a living.

Sadly, the UOG’s purpose-built office building, with its vivid yellow-striped exterior that had come to symbolise the power of community, has since burned to the ground. But the Gaelic-inscribed stone laid outside to commemorate the foundation of the trust in 2007 still stands.

“The estate has seen some pretty radical changes in that time,” says Lisa Maclean. “Before the buy-out the two estates here employed no-one. But we’ve since gone from zero jobs to 12 staff employed directly, and others that we’ve supported indirectly.”

Over a decade ago, local crofting communities in this part of Lewis mounted a sustained four-year campaign against an application by a multinational company for a 181-turbine windfarm on this land, which was then owned by several private estates. The proposed development, which would have ravaged the protected peatlands, landscape, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area, was finally thrown out by the Scottish Government in 2008. Today, an altogether more modest community-owned three-turbine wind farm, one third the height of the rejected development, spins furiously in the gale. And nobody is complaining.

“The wind turbines provide us with a crucial income stream,” says Lisa. “They help sustain the work of the UOG itself and have allowed us to fund 71 local projects since 2014 and distribute almost a quarter of a million pounds across the community. It has always been a key aspiration of the UOG to safeguard the land and protect the natural environment. But alongside that we want to improve the social and economic condition of the community – and the turbines have helped us do that.”

Mysterious moorland

The UOG’s strategic plan for the next 20 years pinpoints tourism as one of three key priorities, along with elderly care and crofting. Across the interior of northern Lewis sprawls hundreds of square kilometres of uninhabited bogs, marshes, fens, heath, scrub, rock and water. The second largest expanse of blanket peatland in the UK after the Flow Country, this mysterious moorland harbours an abundance of rare plants, mosses and birds, while the coastline is rich in archaeology, traditional culture and marine life alongside dramatic cliffs, rocky coves and hidden beaches.

Lindy Cameron Saunders, a former countryside ranger in South Lanarkshire who came to work for the UOG last year, along with local photographer and designer Fiona Rennie, is driving forward an ambitious plan to create a long-distance walking route right round winding 48 kilometres round the northern coastline.

“There’s a horrible route down to Tolsta on the east coast that’s kind of along an old peat road and then basically across the peatland till you’re up to your knees in the stuff,” says Lindy. “The route has been a bugbear of the community. But if you stick to the coastline, it’s absolutely breathtaking.”

Lindy and Fiona insist that the new trail will be sensitively planned. “No one wants big ugly vehicle tracks like you see when you’re driving down the A9,” says Lindy. “And there will be no built footpaths either because that would be unmanageable and unmaintainable. What’s needed is half a dozen bridges of varying sizes, and some gates, waymarkers and signposts in from the road. And really nice map packs with information about the natural history, built history, the heritage, the folklore. It will cost a fair bit of money to do it – however the lasting social impact of connecting up all these villages by foot along the shoreline and the economic benefit from tourism could be really substantial.”

Fiona explains that most crofts stretch right down to shoreline, so they’re now trying to get on board all the grazing committees before moving on to the next stage. As well and as bringing in contractors, they want to get local people – especially young people – involved in the physical work when it starts.

“We find a lot of 12 to 18-year olds have heard about the John Muir Award and would like to do it,” says Lindy. “It would be great if we could get a John Muir Award project to pick out a stretch of the route. Maybe they could even become path wardens and walk leaders.”

Carloway Estate Trust

Further down the west coast of Lewis, a relatively new community land trust established in 2015 has already been using the John Muir Award to help create a new walking route from the famous Callanish standing stones to the traditional crofting township of Carloway with its hill-top Iron Age broch, one of the best-preserved prehistoric structures in Scotland.

“Having such a rich cultural and natural heritage here, we believe tourism is the way forward,” says Sally Reynolds, Development Officer for Urras Oighreachd Chàrlabhaigh, the Carloway Estate Trust (UOC). “The initial plan for the estate was to install three wind turbines to form an income source, but that didn’t happen because of grid constraints and changes to the feed-in tariff. So, now we see tourism as the main income generator.

“The Bonnet Laird Walk, as the new trail is called, won’t bring us in direct income, but it will improve visitor experience and support local businesses. And it can maybe help us develop other income streams, for example from guided walks and a tourist hub. As a community landowner, we’ve taken care to develop this in a community-minded away, so every bit of work has been done by local people.”

Sally points out that the first wave of work involved secondary school students doing their John Muir Award. “One of their best days was early on, when they reached the top of a hill and discovered they could see the Flannnan Isles really clearly about 20 miles out in the Atlantic. They were flabbergasted. Then they found a crag no-one had climbed before, took a picture of it, told stories about it and shared these through local newsletters and magazines.”

“Later, as part of the conserve element of the John Muir Award, they worked with crofters and other older volunteers to build stiles as part of what we called an ‘intergenerational day’. And they’ve since a built an entire bridge and inscribed on its handrails place names they’ve chosen and in Gaelic and English. Last weekend they came to the AGM of the UOC with a song and a poem they’d written, and a map of the things they’d been doing along with a slide show. It was fantastic.”

Sally, one of five Scottish Land Commissioners, typifies a new breed of community land activists who are driving forward progress in the Western Isles. A crofter and native Gaelic speaker from Ness in the far north of Lewis, she is young, dynamic and determined to transform the prospects for young people on these islands while honouring the cultural and natural heritage that has forged this landscape and its people.

Another is Calum MacLeod of Community Land Scotland, who grew up in Finsbay on Harris, within sight of the proposed Lingerbay super-quarry which ignited a firestorm of controversy in the 1990s before the application was finally withdrawn. “The Holy Grail is to connect up social, economic, cultural and environmental dimensions,” he says. “There is scope to do that – of course there is. The John Muir Trust has been doing that with community organisations for decades.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of the John Muir Trust Journal. Become a member of the Trust to receive our quarterly publications.