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The Highland Line: could a trail-blazing town take over a working farm?

The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs Roseanna Cunningham took the time to meet the main players pursuing the community buy-out of the 11,400 acre Carloway Estate when the Scottish Cabinet met on Lewis this week.

The land surrounds, but does not include, the world famous Callanish Standing Stones which are the responsibility of Historic Scotland.

In February, residents living on the estate voted overwhelmingly, 254 people to 86, to proceed. They are pushing at an open door as the Galloway family which own the land are willing sellers. The land has been valued around £180,000 and the Scottish Land Fund will almost certainly provide for financial support.

Little wonder the minister was enthusiastic about the whole project. Ms Cunningham said:

"Land ownership is clearly a matter close to the hearts and minds of communities the length and breadth of Scotland. That is why the First Minister announced an ambitious target to place one million acres of land across Scotland into local ownership by 2020, empowering communities, sparking regeneration and driving renewal.

"By tapping into and using local knowledge, we are empowering rural communities and progressing the true needs of the land.

"It's heartening to see the affection that the people of Lewis have for the Carloway Estate and their commitment to nurture this area. The plans they have range from tourism opportunities to affordable housing, demonstrating just how wide the benefits of land ownership can be.

"It is local people who are best-placed to decide on the future of our land and that is why we are showing faith in local communities as the stewards of natural Scotland."

So Carloway will join the other community estates on Lewis. Indeed with all the publicity in the last 20 years on the likes of Assynt, Eigg and Gigha; it is often forgotten that community land ownership on the island stretches back to 1923.

That was when the Stornoway Trust was established to take ownership of the 70,000 acres gifted to the islanders by Lord Leverhulme, who had bought Lewis from the Matheson family, beneficiaries of the opium trade, in 1917.

As important an addition as Carloway would be to the 500,000 acres of Scottish land already under community ownership, there is a far smaller parcel of land far further south which could be more significant to the future direction of the community land movement.

Some residents of the Perthshire town of Blairgowrie, which sits on the Highland Line (the fault line that is not this blog but which takes its title from it), are exploring the possibility of purchasing the 850 acre Rosemount Farm. It lies on the town's south eastern periphery in the famed fruit growing region of Strathmore.

It is one of the 15 farms currently being sold by the Co-operative Group across Britain to address the £1.5 billion black hole in its accounts. A public meeting was held in Blairgowrie and a steering group was established. But the Co-op currently wants one purchaser for all its 15 farms including the five in Scotland.

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead has informed the Co-op of the potential community interest, and he is monitoring developments.

The local MSP is none other his cabinet colleague Finance Secretary John Swinney who was at the public meeting.

Perhaps understandably he is being rather guarded in what he is saying: "Clearly the farm at Rosemount is a valuable local asset and it makes a significant contribution to agricultural understanding, awareness and production locally.

"I was pleased to hear the interesting discussion points around the prospect of community ownership of this asset and the projected benefits which could accrue. I welcome that further consideration will be given to the possibility of community ownership and look forward to further developments towards this aim".

It would be a first for Scotland, a sizeable town taking over a working farm, and one on some of Scotland's richest agricultural land at that. Although many will shake their heads and mutter something about them being barking, why shouldn't a town own a farm? Nobody thinks it strange when an insurance company or an middle eastern magnate buys farms.

It wouldn't mean the headteacher would have to drive a tractor, but it could open the door to a range of opportunities for local schools. There could be agricultural apprenticeships. Local businesses could have a stake, as could environmental interests. There could be smaller tenancies.

A range of models should be explored, but here would be something exciting about the idea of a town in modern Scotland blazing a trail in this way.

However the biggest problem is the price. Values are mooted at anything between £6m and £16m although local intelligence holds that around £9m is the most likely. But that is what the Scottish Land Fund had in total to spend over four years and it has already spent quite a bit of it.

It would seem highly unlikely that the 10,000 residents of Blairgowrie and Rattray (the two are separated by the River Ericht but form one town) would be able to raise enough money by themselves. But their concern for the fate of this farm should not be ignored. The more so since the sellers are the heirs, however undeserving, to the co-operative ideal born in 19th century whereby as many members as possible would join a local society to use their combined buying power to mutual advantage.

It is still the largest "mutual" business in the UK, owned by its more than seven million customers and members. But the conduct of the Co-op Group's business affairs in recent years is seen by many as a betrayal of its roots. So perhaps community ownership of one of its farms has historical and philosophical justification.

If the townsfolk of Blairgowrie are determined to pursue a buyout, they should be helped. Other communities have been aided in their buyouts by partners joining their enterprise in such as Eigg, Knoydart and North Harris.

Historically many English counties have owned farmed and leased them out. Norfolk County Council's County Farms Estate for example currently extends to over 16,200 acres of farmland across the county of Norfolk and is let to over 145 tenants.

But Perth and Kinross Council certainly don't have £9m to spare.

So first and foremost the folk of Blairgowrie need time to get the money, or to find those who have it and are willing to invest. The Scottish Government should clarify whether a late registration of interest under the land reform legislation, could delay the sale of Rosemount. It may be difficult as it is part of a larger portfolio up for sale which extends both north and south of the border.

But it would be a starting point. Then ministers could think about what else they could do.

Contextual targeting label: 
Agriculture

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