The £850,000 bet that paid off for Knoydart
A decade ago the residents of this Scottish outpost bought out their absentee landlords and took control of their own destiny. Their lives have been transformed. Jonathan Brown reports from Knoydart
Monday 13 April 2009
There is an easy way and an insanely difficult way to reach Knoydart to meet the inhabitants of Britain's most remote mainland community, although both require more than the average level of determination.
For the truly stout of heart, there is the 16-mile hike over punishing Highland terrain that eventually brings you to the tiny settlement of Inverie Bay. Those, like me, choosing the road more travelled, might instead prefer a comparatively breezy 14-hour train journey from London Euston – but pray it is not too late into the terminus at Mallaig to connect with the ferry departing across the haunting beauty of Loch Nevis. Miss this and the next one will be two days away.
Once there, however, there is little to disturb the sepulchral silence until the next boat bumps up to the jetty to take you back to the real world. Apart, that is, from an over-curious and frankly often aggressive peacock who stalks the path to the community bunkhouse, a collection of spartan and unusually snug beds, favoured by Munro baggers and peace-and-quiet junkies who flock to this Scottish Shangri-la where the trill of the mobile phone has yet to penetrate, and where everyone, quite literally, knows everyone else.
Though not an island, the peninsula feels like one. It is cut off from the rest of Britain, at least in terms of Tarmac, and proudly lays claim to being the nation's last wilderness.
For the 117 or so citizens (the exact figure is disputed) who call this place home, isolation has engendered a unique sense of community, breeding co-operative skills needed to survive and thrive since acquiring for themselves the 17,000 acres of rugged mountain and loch side after centuries of feudal ownership.
The people of Knoydart on the west coast of Scotland are celebrating the 10th anniversary of a buyout which is being hailed as both a success and role model for far-flung communities everywhere. Since raising the £850,000 needed to purchase the run-down former sporting estate from its absentee owners, locals have set about transforming with a remarkable tenacity the fortunes of a place once known simply and a little ominously as the Rough Bounds.
There was good reason to be suspicious of authority in Knoydart. At its height, some 2,000 people lived on the peninsula but by the mid-19th century most had been dispatched to Canada and elsewhere. Those that refused were eventually dragged to the shoreline by men sent by the widow of the last chief of Glengarry and forced aboard boats or had their homes put to the torch.
By the 20th century the population was down to just a few dozen, and the peninsula became the plaything of the very rich. Lord Brocket, grandfather of the I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! aristocrat of the same name, took over in the 1930s. An ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party, local legend has it that he saw the land as a staging post in the Third Reich's future invasion of Britain. It was his refusal to countenance a road link with the rest of the mainland that bequeathed Knoydart its current splendid isolation. His estate was confiscated for the duration of the war only for it to be returned on the outbreak of peace, after which Brocket battled against attempts, backed by a member of the local Catholic clergy, to return the land to the people.
In the 1980s the then-Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine toyed with the idea of turning the peninsula over into a giant military training area. In the end the community prevailed, raising the money with the help, among others, of the theatre impresario Sir Cameron Macintosh.
Since the buyout, the population of Knoydart has grown by 60 per cent. There are more pupils at the primary school, a new nursery has been built, most houses in the main Inverie Bay area are served with sustainable green energy and there are more jobs, more businesses and more homes.
Those who grew up here are choosing to return and set down their own roots. And to mark the latest landmark in what is otherwise a remarkably strange and violent history, Knoydart will next week play host to its first ever music festival later, with 500 visitors expected to cross the water or hike in to take part in the celebrations.
Angela Williams, of the Knoydart Foundation which administers the peninsula on behalf of the majority of the residents, said the community inherited a paradise lost to mismanagement and under-investment. "Some of the buildings were in a truly atrocious condition; the financial situation was extremely weak," she recalls. "Everything was working but only after a fashion, that is what we inherited. What we bought were liabilities rather than assets. We have made huge strides. But that is not to say it is always easy and we are not always living on a knife edge. Just because we are a community buyout we know we are not owed support."
Before the buyout, electricity was supplied by an antiquated hydro-electric scheme which was so erratic few dared to run computers, freezers or even cash registers from it. Today it pumps out green energy to most homes.
The environment is now managed in a sustainable way, with any surplus re-invested in community projects. The deer stalk is run by the Foundation and two new rangers are employed to guide tourists through the stunning landscape, pointing out freshly returned species such as the white-tailed eagles or otters which until 20 years ago were shot on sight.
Knoydart's last crofter Dave Smith arrived here from Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in the late Sixties and has been farming since 1977.
"The main change is that people don't come and go," he says. "We now have a stable community. In the past, every time the estate changed hands, whole families who worked for them would have to go. You never knew who would be here from one year to the next.
"There is more of a buzz about the place. You don't have the downsides of the laird system. When you had a good laird it was no problem but it doesn't always work out like that."
Sisters Isla and Rhona Miller were little girls when they came to Knoydart with their parents. Having studied ceramics at Glasgow University they have now set up their own pottery and tea room on the shores of the loch, partly funded by the Foundation. "I do love it here," explains Isla. "But I used to meet up with friends and they would look at you like you were a fool because you had come back to Knoydart. But I am really happy and doing what I have always wanted to do."
One of the reasons the community prides itself on its openness is because everyone, apart from the children born here, is an outsider. The oldest inhabitant, now in her eighties, arrived in the 1960s. Today the make-up is 40 per cent Scottish, 40 per cent English and the remainder South Africans, Polish, New Zealanders and Germans, predominantly.
But there appear to be limits to the future growth of this community. This financial year is the first that the Foundation, now self-supporting, has had to survive without vital start-up grants, much of which was provided by the National Lottery. Budgets have had to be tailored and trimmed to cope. But the great limitation is housing. With only 80 dwellings on the peninsula, nearly a quarter of which are holiday homes, up to eight people vie for each available premises. Newcomers beat a well-worn track, often bedding down on friends' sofas, or camping or sleeping in outbuildings until they can secure a place of their own.
The Foundation has been largely priced out of the open market by the long property boom. New building land is scarce and the process of constructing your own home, especially in the vital shared equity schemes, is grindingly slow, with some waiting up to four years to get the go-ahead.
The other big problem is jobs. Permanent ones are few and far between and those that do exist are often badly paid. Many residents take up two or three part-time roles to make ends meet. Ranger Tommy McManmon, for example, supplements his salary by working as the local postman. He also mans the mountain rescue team and the local fire brigade. Yet he still struggles to find a permanent home.
Not everyone of course welcomes the change, admits Isla Miller. When the community voted overwhelmingly in favour of the buyout, some opposed the move. "Those people see it as a case of them-and-us, but they are part of the Foundation," she says. "People who grew up on an estate were used to kowtowing to the rich landlord and some people said we would be better off with a landlord. But now we are making all our own decisions which is a lot better."
Sculptor Mark Rogers has been living on Knoydart for 11 years. He admits life in such an isolated community is not always easy but says he is happy to live here. "This is the most incredible social experiment," he says. "Most communities follow the same way of life but because we have such a diverse and cosmopolitan community we have people with very different views and moralities. It is quite intriguing. It has taken a while for us to understand each other but good efforts have been made."
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