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Islanders begin study of Harris estate buy-out

A feasibility study into a possible community buy-out of the last large privately owned estate on the island of Harris is finally to get under way.

If given approval, the buyout of the near 30,000 acre Bays of Harris Estate would bring the vast bulk of Harris under community ownership, although there are still smaller private estates in the area.

The estate is effectively ­fragmented into three areas: much of the notoriously infertile and rocky east coast of the island from Tarbert south; Northton on the south west; and the island of Berneray across the Sound of Harris.

Harris has suffered from chronic depopulation, more than other islands.

In the four decades after the Second World War it lost more than 40 per cent of its population, and the haemorrhage continued between 1981 and 2001, with a 24 per cent decrease to 1984 ­residents. In 2011 it had just 1916, and deaths continue to outnumber births and new ­arrivals on the estate.

The feasibility study was voted for by nearly 700 residents two years ago, but it has been delayed until now by administrative and presentational problems.

Now funding has been secured and economist Steve Westbrook, who has carried out similar community feasibility work in the past, has been appointed to carry out the study.

The estate is owned by the Surrey-based Hitchcock family, who have agricultural businesses. They bought it for a reported £5000 after the death of Lord Leverhulme in 1925. The English industrialist, who founded Lever Brothers, was a major landowner on Harris.

The Hitchcocks have not commented about the buyout plans, but are now understood to be willing to discuss it with the islanders.

John Maher, the former ­drummer with the English punk band Buzzcocks, settled on the island 12 years ago. He now runs a specialist engineering business making high-performance air-cooled Volkswagen engines.

He is on the community ­steering group set up to examine the buyout option. He said "The current landlords don't live here. This study will let us know what the income and expenditure of the estate is. We have got to know whether it would be viable to take it over. But if there is profit, none of it is being invested here. It is going down to England. We just feel the community would be in a better position to use that money to help encourage people to stay here, or others to come and live in this part of Harris."

David Cameron, the Harris-based chairman of Community Land Scotland, the umbrella for Scotland's community buyouts, said it was excellent news that the Bays of Harris feasibility study would now proceed.

"This area has seen a severe decline in population, especially youngsters, and also reduction in services for many decades. Today wind turbines and business units are currently being constructed in the neighbouring community-owned North Harris, with similar proposals for the community of West Harris. If the people in the Bays decide that land ownership is also for them, I am sure that they too will create a better future for themselves."

The configuration of the estate is complicated. Although Berneray is far closer to the island of North Uist at just more than half a mile, and is now physically connected to it by a causeway, it was always know as "Berneray Harris".

This goes back to the days of the clans, when both islands were part of the Skye-based Macleod of Dunvegan's lands.

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