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Barra and Vatersay islanders on path to ownership

It seemed like a pipe dream: the Outer Hebrides, from north to south, all owned by the people who live there.

SCENIC: Castlebay on the island of Barra.
SCENIC: Castlebay on the island of Barra.

But that day seems a little closer now.

After almost 10 years of land reform legislation and a few generous landowners, the islanders of Barra and Vatersay are taking their first steps on the road to community ownership.

If the takeover goes ahead, it would create community-owned land the length of the Outer Isles, although there would still be blanks, not least on North Uist.

Just over 1000 residents are in the middle of a series of meetings to assess public support for taking up an offer of land made eight years ago by the late Chief of Clan MacNeil and government ministers.

In 2003, Ian Macneil of Barra, whose family lines go back more than 1000 years on the island, said he had agreed to donate his crofting estate on Barra to the then Scottish Executive. However, if islanders wanted the 9000 acres, they were to be given the estate free of charge at a later date

Discussions are now under way to determine the future of the islands, the last inhabited in the south of the archipelago.

Barra councillor Donald Manford said he was sure there was local support for taking over the land. "There is a very clear view from many on Barra and Vatersay that they should take more control to engage in the development of important infrastructure on the islands. We can't depend on the local authority to do these things as they did historically. If we don't do it ourselves, nobody else will."

The development follows a long and often colourful struggle of land ownership in this part of Scotland.

In 1906, landless men from Barra took land on Vatersay, which is now connected by causeway, with the so-called "Vatersay Raiders" claiming an ancient law allowed a man to acquire land by building a wooden dwelling and lighting a fire on its hearth within a day.

However, landowner Lady Gordon Cathcart took them to court, and they were sentenced to two months in prison.

In 1909, the Congested Districts Board bought Vatersay, which was then divided into 58 crofts. It meant the combined publicly owned estates today cover almost all the land on the two islands, extending to 16,000 acres, with more than 440 croft tenancies and two working quarries.

When the Macneil transfer was completed in 2004, the then rural affairs minister said the government would manage the land until it was transferred "to community ownership".

While the Land Reform Act 2003 set up a new modernised agenda, the process of shifting ownership began almost 90 years ago when in 1923 when 70,000 acres of Lewis was gifted to the islanders by Lord Leverhulme.

In January 2007, the crofting community at Galson in the north of Lewis bought the 53,000-acre Galson Estate, bringing community ownership to more than half the island.

But since then there have been further moves. In 2010 the West Harris Trust completed its £59,000 purchase of more than 16,000 acres in the three government-owned crofting estates of Scaristavore, Borve and Luskentyre.

The following year, the community's bid to buy much of the 26,800-acre Pairc Estate on Lewis passed stage one in lottery application for financial support. But Barry Lomas , the Warwickshire-based accountant who owns the estate, does not want to sell. He claims the Land Reform Act breaches his human rights.

Meanwhile, the 320 residents of Scalpay are taking up the offer of the island from its owner Fred Taylor, a London restaurateur.

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