Richard Baynes

Professor Jim Hunter gazes down Strath Brora at the acres of turf and heather, gorse and bracken. It’s an empty place of rolling hills and crags, wide-open skies, silver water, green turf and lonely beauty. For Hunter, though, the emptiness of the strath, north of the Dornoch Firth in Sutherland’s east, is plain wrong. He points to the fields below us.

“You could live here if there was a house you could afford, next to the loch with a beautiful view,” he says. “The A9’s four miles away, so is the railway – this isn’t the back of beyond. If effort was put in, it could happen.”

He points again, to Carrol, a couple of cottages across Loch Brora. In 1820, months after the once-thriving township was cleared and its homes destroyed, the Countess of Sutherland came here, then wrote to her husband, the Marquess of Stafford, of her “melancholy” at the sight. The couple would later become the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, and were the most notorious proponents of the Clearances.

“I find it extraordinary,” says Hunter. “The countess writes about it almost as if it’s an act of God that the place was devastated and in ruins but it was that way because she and her husband had ordered to it to be.”

Hunter’s a historian and a Highlander, and has a deep knowledge of the dark blot on Scotland’s story when much of the population was removed from the land to make way for sheep but for him it’s much more than history: the Clearances are something which can at least in part be undone. Land such as this has only been deserted for 200 years after millennia of occupation, and to him that means it can and should be inhabited again, a process which has become known as “re-peopling.”

He is an influential figure: author of 13 books on the Highlands and islands, he was the first director of the University of the Highlands and Island Centre for History, and from 1998-2004 was chairman of government development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Now the idea of re-peopling is gaining traction, with substantial Scottish Government backing, and potential changes to planning rules.

But can people be brought back to stabilise fragile communities, re-inhabit deserted glens and islands, and bring them to life again?

As the crow flies it’s 140 miles from Brora to the island of Ulva, off the coast of Mull. What they have in common is near-emptiness, and what’s happening in Ulva is seen as a test case in re-peopling.

Rhuri Munro shows me the rented home he shares with his wife, Rebecca, and their children Matilda and Ross.

“The walls are starting to crumble, and there’s constant damp,” he says. The leaky roof brought the ceiling down in the children’s bedroom, and they were moved to the spare room, done up at the family’s expense.

They don’t need the Raeburn’s heat in summer but if they don’t run it condensation builds up. Rhuri stabs a finger at a flaking wooden window frame: “There’s no insulation. All the windows need replacing. You have to keep pumping your own money in and it got to the stage where we weren’t going to do that again.”

The only other inhabitant of Ulva, pensioner Barry George, lives in a cottage with its own maintenance problems. The Munros say other inhabitants left the island in recent years because of poor rented housing.

If the remainder had left it would have completed a process started in 1835. That was when Francis William Clark bought the island. In 50 years he reduced the population of 500 to 53. Roofs were burned to stop families returning; Clark carried out evictions in person, acquiring a reputation for callousness.

His family sold Ulva in 1946 to the Howards, and it was the Howards’ alleged failure to maintain homes, and lack of security of tenure, that made the Munros back a community buyout when Jamie Howard put it on the market in 2017. For the Munros it was simple: they feared being cleared out by a new owner, like their predecessors. Rebecca says: “We saw the buyout as our only real option of control.”

The Duchess, the Highland Clearances, the housekeeper ... and a story to make you weep

When, after a year of worry for the islanders, the Scottish Government’s Scottish Land Fund (SLF) made a £4.4m grant, the buyout could go ahead. On June 21, 2018, a couple of hundred people gathered on Ulva to celebrate its completion.

The grant put the island at the forefront of the re-peopling movement. The SLF, set up to help community buyouts, paid it to the North West Mull Community Woodland Company (NWMCWC), the organisation that actually made the purchase.

To get the grant it put forward a plan for a major increase in population. As well as proposing to reinhabit existing island houses, the plan says new crofts can be established, and self-builders can have plots, with a long-term target of 50 people living on the island.

One of the people who drew up the plan was community land consultant Calum Macleod, now policy officer for umbrella group Community Land Scotland, and a leading proponent of re-peopling.

For him, spending public money to let people live lives many urban dwellers would envy is a matter of maintaining important diversity, vital to stop the inexorable draw of towns and cities.

He believes Ulva is a test case: “It offers an opportunity to show where the potential can be realised for re-peopling and repopulating,” he says. “It’s not somewhere that is a wild area, there are existing houses, but it’s a good example of what can be done.”

Yorkshireman Ian Hepburn is one of the people charged with re-peopling Ulva. He’s a director of NWMCWC, which has forestry land and woodland crofts on Mull, and also chairs CLS. He lives at Dervaig on Mull, eight miles from Ulva.

Hepburn meets me at the Ulva jetty a few months after the buyout and we roar off on a quad-bike tour of empty properties the company now owns.

Plans to regenerate 'lost townships' decimated by the Highland Clearances

As well as cottages, there is the big house, with five main bedrooms plus “servants’ quarters”. It echoes and the decor’s tatty but the property is sound: one idea is to lease it as a small family-run hotel. The old Manse, last lived in eight years ago, is decaying but Ardalum House, used briefly as a tourist hostel, could almost open for business tomorrow.

Hepburn says more than 350 people have expresed interest in living on Ulva. “The reality and the ambition are not always in line but we will get people for sure wanting to live here when we get houses redeveloped.

“The key thing is they won’t be holiday homes, we want families in them, living and working. With modern telecommunications the location doesn’t make much difference to what you do for a living, so we’re confident we can end up with a functioning, living island relatively quickly.”

Many of the ideas for creating work here are tourism based, but crofts based on the productive land could each provide part of a living.

“We don’t want to be modern-day lairds,” Hepburn adds. “We want to create the potential for other people to run a business here to bring the life back.”

Back in Strath Brora, Jim Hunter points out that re-peopling has happened before, with the creation of crofts by the Government for former soldiers after the First World War, in Skye, the outer isles and elsewhere.

Hunter says Strath Brora’s farmland, neglected for two centuries could be revived, and like Hepburn, believes other work will follow, with internet links a major factor.

Pointing to a growing population on Skye, Hunter says when homes are available, people will come and then find or create work.

Up the strath at the remains of the former schoolhouse – two long, tumbled walls overgrown with bracken – Hunter looks south to a wind farm. That kind of development too can provide funds to underpin a community, “if it is owned by the community, the money stays here and doesn’t go to an outside company.”

Could more community buyouts, of the Ulva type, foster more re-peopling? The islands of Eigg and Gigha have seen populations grow by 50% in recent years, as has Knoydart: all three are community owned. On Eigg people who want to live there do find work: some incomers farm but others are journalists, run tourist accommodation, bike hire and craft businesses, recording studios, a brewery...

Hunter is a community land enthusiast but he acknowledges a problem with Ulva, Eigg, Gigha and Knoydart as templates for his ideas. “Community buyouts can only happen where there is a community, and in places that were comprehensively cleared there are no communities.

So, he says, while ownership is an issue, and a change can bring more people in, more fundamental is planning regulations.

“Our planning regime tends to the view that a locality such as this in Strath Brora where there is nobody living, should remain one where no-one is living, and houses and businesses are only to be encouraged where there are houses and businesses already.

“I can understand that but I think it’s not impossible to envisage these things happening in localities where people lived not all that long ago in historical terms

“If you look around us here there is no lack of land, there are millions of acres in the Highlands doing not an awful lot, producing not very much. When you think a very small plot where the planners have said you can build a house in many parts of the Highlands now would sell for £100,000, there is something completely bizarre about it when there is so much empty land.

“In any real sense that land’s real worth should be £200 to £300 ... We need to revise the planning system and make it easier for people to get house sites.”

He says to make it easier for people, especially young people, to live in the Highlands the Scottish Government must put together legal and planning frameworks to ensure housing can be built and the system gives priority to social and community need, not private gain.

“The mechanics are not rocket science. What’s required, but what sometimes seems to be in as short supply as affordable homes, is the political will.”

That political will is developing: amendments agreed to the Scottish Government’s proposed Planning Bill by Holyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee include giving Scottish Ministers a duty to take into account the importance of resettling rural Scotland, and of making land available for resettlement. Others, including one to let local councils include re-population as an aim in their planning blueprints, are still on the table.

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When I test Hunter’s ideas on Brora local history enthusiast Nick Lindsay, another student of the Clearances, he is sceptical about re-population, for Strath Brora at least. He says there are few jobs in the area, adding: “There would be a huge cost of infrastructure: I don’t see where the money would come from. It’s a romantic notion but I think the practicalities are too hard to overcome.”

He’s not the only sceptic: Ulva’s Jamie Howard, now a flat-dweller in Edinburgh, says of re-peopling: “It has become a bit of an obsession with the government and an exercise in flag-waving, with this willingness to wind the clock back to the Clearances. On Ulva, the SNP’s ideal would be an island full of people with the right accent, singing from the same hymn sheet.”

But Sarah Jane Laing, chief executive of landowners’ group Scottish Land and Estates, takes a conciliatory tone, saying her members are the biggest housing providers in the countryside and would be happy to see more homes: “We’ve got members all over the Highlands and Islands desperately trying to get planning permission for housing,” she says.

“Those of us working in land management and land reform are not that far apart – what we and Community Land Scotland wants is to have sustainable rural communities.”

Hunter says resettlement of now-wild areas can go hand-in-hand with better environmental stewardship, pointing to estate records showing wildlife was more varied and prolific when Strath Brora was heavily inhabited.

Perhaps surprisingly the John Muir Trust wild land charity broadly agrees, even though re-peopling could mean homes on “wild land”.

The Trust’s chief executive, Andrew Bachell, says truly remote areas are unlikely to be re-inhabited: “Most of what you would want to do to improve the ecology would involve having people there to manage it,” he says. “If we’re talking about more people in the north-west Highlands I don’t think there’s any conflict with that and the rewilding agenda, in fact wild land will be one of the reasons people want to live there.”

While sceptics will always question the level of Government spending on near-empty Ulva when there are other pressing needs, the people at the sharp end don’t doubt the difference the re-peopling project will make.

Rebecca Munro’s battered home on Ulva will be renovated as part of the drive to improve housing stock, and she can invest more in the Boathouse Restaurant next door that she runs with sister-in-law Emma McKie.

I catch the strength of emotion in Rebecca’s voice when she talks of a future with other children to play with hers in the evening after the ferry has stopped running. There’s emotion there too when she speaks of the buyout’s place in history.

One of her favourite places on the island is known as Starvation Point, where 19th-century residents cleared from their old homes and too old or too sick to leave were left to fend for themselves.

“It’s sad but it’s also a really inspirational place,” Rebecca says. “A couple of times when things got really difficult with the buyout process I went down there and I thought, ‘these people didn’t have any of these opportunities we’ve had, so just suck it up and get on with it, because you can do something and they couldn’t.’

“It’s very difficult not to get upset or angry about at what was done. The villages and townships are still very visible. When the Clearances happened those people had no rights and they had no comeback about what was happening, so there was definitely a bit of righting the wrongs that were done then, in our buyout.”

Where did the money come from?

The grant of £4.4 million by the Scottish Government to buy Ulva was a statement of intent about re-population. But how did it come about, and did connections between Government, grant-givers and the buyout group play a part?

After Ulva went on the market in 2017, the Government, unusually, put the sale on hold. Then, in October 2017, it allowed North West Mull Community Woodland Company (NWMCWC) to register an interest in the estate as a community buyout objective, to allow it a clear run at a deal. This is normally done before any suggestion of a sale.

A bid for £4.4m went to the Scottish Land Fund (SLF), which can give £10 million a year of Government cash to community buyouts. Its normal upper limit for single grants is £1m, but the fund backed the bid and referred it to ministers. It was approved in May 2018.

The chair of the SLF committee, which decides grants, is John Watt. He emphasises the SLF is run independently of government.

“We had to take quite a few things into consideration, the impact on the budget, the wider land reform policy, as well as the intrinsic merits of the case,” he says. “Our decision was that given all the factors and given our understanding of the policy context for Government objectives to diversify the land ownership pattern ... we should recommend that this should be approved.”

He says the fund was aware a huge grant for Ulva could hit worthy smaller projects, but the government indicated extra money would be available if Ulva went ahead.

In fact, the Scottish Government says, a £3m underspend on the SLF’s budget in 2017-18 was allowed to be carried over into 2018-19, to cover most of the Ulva cash.

Meanwhile those involved in the bid say they maintain a professional distance between different aspects of their work, and no undue influence was brought to bear on the Scottish Government or the SLF.

Calum MacLeod was a member of the Scottish Land Fund committee from its start in 2016 until March 2017. In July 2017 he was engaged as one of three consultants to write the feasibility study submitted to the fund by NWMCWC to support the Ulva bid.

Since then he has become part-time policy officer for Community Land Scotland (CLS), the prominent umbrella group that makes much of its income from work for the Scottish Government. He previously carried out projects for CLS, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Parliament. He says there is no suggestion his connections helped propel the Ulva grant application.

Duncan MacPherson, who has worked extensively with community buyouts and was another of the Ulva consultants, is a member of the SLF committee, and was when the Ulva application was submitted.

He declared an interest and took no part in discussions about Ulva, saying: “I went on the committee to make sure people with experience of the sector took part in decisions ... The committee met separately to discuss the Ulva bid and I wasn’t even in the building.”

Ian Hepburn, a director of NWMCWC, also chairs CLS.

Hepburn says: “In terms of did I take an active part in [the SLF grant application] or speak to anyone at the Scottish Government about it, I absolutely did not.”