Magazine article Geographical

A Storm in the Western Isles: The Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003 Granted Crofting Communities the Absolute Right to Buy the Land on Which They Live. but as the Scottish Executive Considers the First Applications, Rob Penn Discovers That Plans to Build Wind Farms on the Land Have Seen Local Tensions Reach Boiling Point

Magazine article Geographical

A Storm in the Western Isles: The Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003 Granted Crofting Communities the Absolute Right to Buy the Land on Which They Live. but as the Scottish Executive Considers the First Applications, Rob Penn Discovers That Plans to Build Wind Farms on the Land Have Seen Local Tensions Reach Boiling Point

Article excerpt

The Blackhouse in the village of Arnol on the northwest coast of Lewis is an intriguing museum. This reconstruction of a traditional Highland dwelling, which the inhabitants would have shared with their livestock, provides an architectural link to the nation's ancient past. The layout, the mortared stone and the thatched roof date back through the Middle Ages and the Viking period to the homes of Scotland's earliest inhabitants 5,000 years ago. Yet, the villagers of Arnol lived in houses like this during the 1970s.

Change happens slowly in the Western Isles. In the Blackhouse Museum, in the aged landscapes that surround it, in the sough of the Gaelic that's spoken here, in the everlasting swell of the Atlantic Ocean and in the faces of the islanders, there is a powerful sense of history being slowed down.

The Isle of Lewis, then, is an unlikely place to initiate social upheaval. But a few miles along the windswept coast from Arnol, in the village of Galson, a very 21st-century social revolution is taking place. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act, which became law in May 2003, granted crofting communities the absolute right to buy the land on which they live. And it's the crofters on the Galson estate who've made legal history by submitting the first application to the Scottish Executive to apply this controversial law. The outcome of the actions of this group of hardy islanders, who've banded together to form the Galson Estate Trust, could change who owns Scotland forever.

"Oh, these crofters know what they are doing," says Alistair Sutton, the trust's executive officer, looking up from a map-covered table in his small, high-tech office in the village hall. "They can see the big picture alright."

Angry old order

There have been community land buyouts in Scotland before: Knoydart, Eigg, Gigha, and more recently in the Western Isles, the North Harris estate, have all been successfully acquired by the people, for the people. The legislation, however, has added a new dimension to land reform by giving crofting communities the right to buy when the landlord doesn't want to sell. The world of the hostile city takeover has come to the outermost reaches of rural Scotland.

As the wind drives another rain squall against the window, Sutton explains that completing the application was far from straightforward. "The crofters can't just say, 'I fancy that land' and then buy it," he says. "Here on the Galson estate, we have gone through the lengthy and, at times, nightmarish procedure in order to submit our application for a community purchase. It's taken months. We had to map the land--a hugely complex process in itself--and carry out a feasibility study on the viability of the purchase."

He explains that in order for the application to succeed, the trust must prove that the purchase is in the public interest and that the estate will be managed according to the principles of sustainable development. "The estate is 56,000 acres," he continues. "That's a large piece of Lewis and this isn't a facile procedure. The burden is on the trust to get the application right and it has taken great commitment to get this far."

The Galson Estate Trust submitted its application to the Scottish Executive on 23 May. Copies of the application will soon be sent to the landowners and neighbours for comment. Then the Scottish minister for land reform must deem the application competent and appoint a valuer. Assuming nothing is challenged, the community will then have to raise the funds. The Scottish Land Fund (lottery funded) and the Community Land Unit of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (funded by the Scottish Executive) will assist with a substantial portion of the purchase price; the community must raise the remainder. Finally, solicitors will be instructed to proceed with the conveyance.

"We may be the first, but it'll take its time alright," says Donald McKay, a crofter trustee of the Galson bid. …

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