People power fuels rebirth of God's island

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The Independent Online

With its clean sandy beaches and breathtaking views to the neighbouring islands of Islay and Jura, Gigha has always been a place of windswept beauty.

With its clean sandy beaches and breathtaking views to the neighbouring islands of Islay and Jura, Gigha has always been a place of windswept beauty.

Yet for 700 years, life for the 100 or so residents of this craggy island off Scotland's western coast was ruled by the whims and orders of feudal landlords.

Two years ago, though, the islanders managed to throw off the legacy of the lairds. They obtained a £3.5m grant from a lottery-backed public body and bought the seven-mile long island, nicknamed 'God's island', for £4m.

The story of Gigha in the 26 months since is an uplifting testimony to the power of a community working together to improve its future.

A long population decline has been halted, new businesses have been started, new houses built, even special whisky marketed. Now Gigha will once again lead the way when islanders become the proprietors of Scotland's first community-owned wind farm.

Three 100ft-high turbines on the south of the island are expected to be whirring by October - powering two-thirds of the island's electricity and generating up to £90,000 a year.

It was so different under the lairds. Prior to the buyout, Gigha was suffering one of the worst cases of decline of any Hebridean island. The population, which once stood at 200 in the early 1970s, was down to just 98.

Since the "revolution" on the island, the population has grown from 98 to 121 and the school roll has risen from six to 14.

For Lorna MacAllister, the school's headteacher, the turn around in fortunes could not have come too soon. When she first arrived on the island 23 years ago the school had 28 pupils.

"It was quite worrying when we were down to single figures on the school roll but things are looking up now," she said. "I will start next term with 14 pupils ranging from five to 12.

"I get a lot of satisfaction of seeing youngsters I taught years ago now coming back to the island. In the past once they left for higher education that was it, there were no opportunities for them here."

The local economy, which had not seen the creation of any new small businesses for more than five years, is once again on the upturn.

Six new privately owned houses are being built, with 18 rental homes planned for later this year. A renovation project on all the estate properties begins next week. Seven new businesses have been started - including a publishing company, a tea room and a catering firm - while two others have relocated, one from the south of England. Four of the island's farms have been reorganised and rented out.

The "revolution" took place in 2002 when the islanders borrowed £3.5m from the Scottish Land Fund and a further £500,000 from the Highlands and Islands Enterprise to acquire the island from its former owner, the businessman Derek Holt. To date most of the money raised by the islanders to pay off their debts has been through the sale of Achamore House.

Once the main residence on the island, it was home to a string of often absentee lairds who held sway over the estate's white beaches, nine-hole golf course, 37 cottages, shop, pub, and private airstrip. An American businessman, Don Dennis, paid £640,000 for the property, along with another £25,000 for some additional land. He has moved his company, International Flower Essence Repertoire, from Sussex - creating several jobs with more promised.

The islanders have begun marketing a Gigha whisky for up to £500 a bottle and created a Gigha tartan. There are plans to start making and marketing Isle of Gigha fudge.

Money-spinning activities including a series of pantomimes, sponsored balloon races, coffee mornings and ceilidhs have raised £200,000 and the people of Gigha have now paid back £1m to the Scottish Land Fund. "In terms of regeneration it has been a great success," said Alan Hobbett, development manager for the Gigha Heritage Trust. "There is no greater responsibility for the community as a whole than having only ourselves to blame for the success or failure of the island.

"There is no big bad laird to blame now. The buck stops with us."

The latest project is the wind farm. Situated on the Gigha on Cnoc na Sgine, "the hill of the fairies", the three 40-metre turbines, will be run by Gigha Renewable Energy.

Willie McSporran, chairman of the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust, admits the past two years have been a challenge for the island. "It has been a difficult couple of years but it will be worth it, not so much for me but for the younger generation who will have a future on the island," said Mr McSporran, who was recently awarded the MBE.

"Nobody can realise what a community like this had to suffer through bad lairdship. But whatever happens now, the island can never be sold again. Children living on the island can be secure that a laird will not come along and sell off their homes for profit."