Assynt, Eigg and Other Local Heroes: Scottish History Is Made This Week as an Island Is Handed over to Its Inhabitants. but the Nation's Need for Land Reform Remains Urgent
Riddoch, Lesley, New Statesman (1996)
This week, within sight of the beach where Bill Forsyth filmed Local Hero, and after a five-year struggle that broke new ground in the politics of Scottish landownership, a bunch of Highlanders become owners of the island of Eigg.
But when the whisky has been drunk, and the guests and media have departed, the 65 inhabitants of Eigg will not be dwelling on the past, because the future of community control is a more daunting matter than anything. they've had to face in the long campaign to buy their island.
While one landowner was in charge, every islander was in roughly the same position. Now some are directors of the governing trust; others aren't. With few jobs on offer there wasn't much argument about who got them. Some will benefit directly from plans for development; others won't. While the islanders had no control there was no point in planning. Now there are bound to be different ideas about how the island should be managed. Without leases there was very often low rent; in future everyone will have to pay the going rate.
The Eigg islanders are prepared for changes and the tensions they are bound to create. These are the problems of success. But beyond the immediate management issues the long public battle to raise more than (pounds) 1.5 million to buy Eigg has sparked off a wider academic and political debate. Is it right that people can in effect be bought and sold as part of a land transaction? Should one person be able to shape lives as employer, landlord and landowner? Is there a way to prevent private neglect affecting the livelihoods of tenants and crofters - and will millions of pounds of public money have to be spent to put things right?
This latter question has been bubbling under for most of the decade since, in 1992, the Assynt crofters became the first group to reverse the tide of Scottish history and buy back land from a landowner. They had no blueprint and little support from the authorities. But they did have an opportunity - an estate already up for sale - and a joker card: the recently established right of crofters to buy out their landowners at 15 times their annual rent. The crofters' threat to perform a mass buyout, if their bid for an outright .purchase failed, was a bit of a bluff. But it was enough to deter other bidders and persuade the Swedish finance company that owned this parcel of Sutherland to sell to the people.
Land purchase will rarely be that straightforward again. Most of the Highland estates are not just full of crofters, but have a substantial number of owners and tenants as well. So the mass buyout threat will generally be an empty one. And that's why Eigg has been such an important model for change. Crofters, tenants, a few homeowners and those technically homeless, living in caravans - with different levels of security and legal protection - together managed to see off other bidders without any buyout jokers up their sleeves. Now they face the same challenge: how to run commercially, an island that up to now they have been able to share only socially.
Eigg makes another piece of history, because islanders opted to share their new-found control with other agencies that supported the buyout bid: Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. But can local authority and conservation resources gallop to the rescue every time a Highland community decides it has had enough of the lottery of private ownership ? Highland Council's head of policy, Nick Reiter, says not.
"I think it's quite reasonable for someone living in a city slum to look at Eigg and say, 'why doesn't someone help me buy my house ? Why should Highlanders get public handouts just because they had bad landlords?' In fact very little public money went into Eigg, and anyway there was absolutely no alternative in the timespan we were given. But in future,' the transfer of control will have to be done differently."
Which leaves two big questions. Is land use perhaps more important than land-ownership? …