Hebridean islanders seek new blood to halt decline

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The Independent Online

It was known as the forbidden isle where uninvited guests were kept away at the point of a gun.Now the Inner Hebridean island of Rum is preparing to welcome new residents because, with a population of just 25, it desperately needs to attract new blood if it is to survive as a sustainable community.

It was known as the forbidden isle where uninvited guests were kept away at the point of a gun.Now the Inner Hebridean island of Rum is preparing to welcome new residents because, with a population of just 25, it desperately needs to attract new blood if it is to survive as a sustainable community.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which has owned and run the island since 1957, has agreed to lease land around the village of Kinloch for much-needed housing and private development. The owners have been criticised for having a stranglehold on the community. SNH runs the island as a nature reserve and controls most of the houses and jobs.

As part of a plan for the future, the islanders want to see more than 20 houses built in Rum along a new café, shop, licensed tearoom, post office and a community office.

The residents also want to enhance the international profile of the 26,000-acre island as a world-class location for green tourism, with the emphasis on quality rather than quantity, and environmental research and education. Rum has one of the world's largest colonies of breeding Manx shearwaters, a flourishing population of white-tailed sea eagles and an enormous herd of red deer.

But it is the humans who have become endangered. By 1999 the population had fallen to 19 but rose to 43 in 2001 before dipping again. The island's community association, in conjunction with Highland Council and SNH, want to see the population rise to about 100 within the next 20 years.

One of the main problems was that as SNH owned all the properties, only employees of the organisation could find a home. If they lost their jobs they also lost their houses.

Charlie King, the councillor who represents the Small Isles, of which Rum is the largest, on Highland Council, said: "The blueprint is good news. Hopefully, it can be implemented as soon as possible. I would particularly like to see the shop development get under way to provide renewed faith and hope for the people who live here."

Lying off the west coast of Scotland, Rum measures eight miles from shore to shore, has no mains electricity or gas and the ferry service runs just four days a week. Crime is unheard of and the island currently attracts 8,000 visitors a year.

As some of the islanders strive to end their dependence on SNH, other business interest are being explored, including the possible restoration of the Victorian Kinloch Castle as a luxury hotel that also has self-catering facility for backpackers. The A-listed Tudor-style mansion, built by the textile magnate Sir George Bullough, needs about £5m spent on it if it is to survive. Highland Council expects to receive an application for planning permission soon.

There are already plans under way to establish a community-development trust to encourage other business ideas involving improved facilities for education and research and sport and leisure.

In the 19th century, the island was home to more than 400 people. It is also the earliest known settlement for Stone Age people in Britain who lived here more than 9,000 years ago.

The ownership of Rum passed through a succession of clans until, in 1845, it was sold to the second Marquis of Salisbury for £26,455. He transformed the island into a classic Victorian Highland estate, forcing many inhabitants to migrate to Canada, replacing them with sheep and red deer.

In 1870 Rum was sold to Farquhar Campbell and after his death was bought in 1888 by the Lancastrian textile mill owner John Bullough for £35,000. His family built Kinloch Castle as an exclusive retreat and gave the island its "forbidden" reputation by ordering their gamekeepers to shoot at passing boats to deter unauthorised landings.

The outbreak of the First World War saw the family's use of the estate dwindle until they sold it to the Nature Conservancy in 1957 for £23,000.

THAT'S A RUM SPELLING HOW A NAME CHANGED

It was the Victorians who started it. Although the name Rum has nothing to do with the drink of the same title, their romantic idea of the Highlands and desire for probity led to the island being referred to as Rhum in some literature.

The word rum is of pre-Celtic origin, meaning wide island or Isle of the Ridge, which considering that the remote idyll is probably the most important Scottish island for mountains outside Skye and Arran, is descriptively appropriate.

But the Bullough family, who bought the island in the 1880s, remodelled the spelling from Rum to Rhum under the impression that it made the island sound exotically Gaelic and less like an alcoholic drink. By the 1970s, 20 years after they relinquished control, the original spelling of Rum was once again in common parlance. In the mid 1990s it was officially revived.

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