Islanders plan buy-out of Highland estate

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The Independent Online

An island community numbering just a few thousand looks set to throw off the shackles of centuries of feudalism by engineering Scotland's largest community buy out.

An island community numbering just a few thousand looks set to throw off the shackles of centuries of feudalism by engineering Scotland's largest community buy out.

Residents on the 93,000 acre South Uist Estate in the Western Isles have been negotiating for more than a year to take over the estate of 850 crofts, which includes land on Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula.

Talks between the estate's 3,670 residents and the landlords - a nine-family syndicate - are continuing despite some opposition within the community that such a buy out would be too expensive.

However, residents are concerned that if the bid fails the estate could be vulnerable to asset strippers. As well as the 850 crofts, there are a number of fish farms, quarries and potentially lucrative shooting, mineral and fishing rights that together make the estate the 12th largest in Scotland.

The islanders' plans have just been boosted by an award of £7,534 from the Scottish Land Fund made to the South Uist Community Steering Group. This forms part of cash totalling almost £40,000 given by the fund to five rural communities in the Highlands and Islands which have embarked on similar projects.

"We are all delighted that we have got to this stage and are now able to look at valuations for this estate, which could be the first step in any potential community purchase," said Angus MacMillan, the steering group vice-chairman. "There's a long way to go but this valuation marks the real start of this process."

David Campbell, chairman of the National Lottery-backed Scottish Land Fund, which distributes money for community land initiatives, said: "These grants mean that these rural communities are able to move forward in developing their own plans for the future.

"Technical assistance grants are vital when a community is considering such a huge step as a land buy-out. Ensuring that communities can access professional advice means that they can make the right decisions as to what might be right for them in the future."

However, if the deal for the South Uist estate goes any further it is likely to cost the islanders in the region of £10m, which would involve a substantial deposit from the crofters and the community as a whole.

With a shrinking population and average earnings on the island at £23,000 per household, many of the islanders believe it is time they took control of their futures.

For them the Land Reform Bill, which was fuelled by concern over the disproportionate amount of land owned by less than 300 individuals or syndicates, has been the jewel in the crown of the Scottish Parliament.

By evoking their "community right to buy" contained in the Bill, crofters in sparsely populated areas can have first refusal over their landlords' land, or even force him to sell, if they can prove such a move would be for the good of the community and pave the way for investments.

It is believed that a number of the landlords are willing to sell, with others undecided. Whether the sale will be forced remains to be seen.

Residents have only to find about six per cent of the purchase price, with the majority of the rest available through dedicated government funds, for a sale to go through once a realistic price has been agree between the two parties.

If successful, the estate would be run as a Trust, with profits and maintenance paid from a central kitty.