Love nature ... love islands. While the mainland frets over empty shelves and energy prices, Scotland’s smaller islands are proving to be models of self-sufficiency and sustainability, as Ailsa Sheldon reveals.

Island communities are unique. They can appear fragile, vulnerable even, on the edge and cut off from the mainland. But those same circumstances can also foster resilience, community strength and self-sufficiency. In past centuries, island living was often thought to be behind the times compared to the mainland – but now the tables have turned and many island communities are leading the way in sustainability.

Living in a city, food appears in the shops and rubbish and recycling material magically disappear with the council lorries – it’s all very convenient. However this makes it easier to ignore all the players in the supply chains that bring goods to us, as well as the environmental impact of what we discard. Not so on islands.

When everything you buy arrives by ferry and rubbish has to leave the same way (or be buried or burned) it is perhaps not surprising that island communities are forging new, more environmentally friendly paths – with active sharing economies, clean energy and inspirational community initiatives.

For many Scottish islands a turning point has been community ownership. Across the country it has been shown communities able to take responsibility for managing their own assets make decisions that benefit and protect the land they steward. Islands Secretary Mairi Gougeon is keen to build on the sustainability successes of island communities in Scotland’s journey to net zero.

In a recent release she stated that: “We know that our islands are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but also have huge potential and natural capital that will help us meet our net zero ambition.

 “Island communities are already engaged and acting to cut emissions and our commitment to make at least three of our islands carbon neutral by 2040 will seek to build on work already underway.

“Supporting islands to become carbon neutral will help protect their unique heritage, culture and biodiversity, while also delivering on our commitment to support island communities to flourish economically and socially.”

 

ISLE OF EIGG

The Isle of Eigg led the way in community ownership and is now often visited by researchers from around the world aiming to learn from the successes of this independent island community.

The islanders bought their island in 1997 for £1.5 million from the eccentric German artist Professor Murama.

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Ten thousand members of the general public contributed to the buyout fund, which successfully placed the ownership of the island in the hands of The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust – a partnership between the residents of Eigg, The Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

In 2008 Eigg launched an off-grid electricity system powered by wind, water and solar – a world first.

The systems included four wind turbines, a hydro scheme on the Laig river and solar panels, replacing the noisy, polluting diesel generators that households previously relied on. Eigg Electric is community-owned, managed and maintained.

Eigg is also supported by conservation volunteers and, despite missing them this year, 17,500 trees were planted in early 2020.

HeraldScotland:

Eigg today is a dynamic and successful island. The population continues to rise, with many young people raised on the island choosing to return to start businesses and bring up families. There is an impressive creative ‘can-do’ spirit.

Undaunted by their small size or location the island hosts music festivals, artist residencies and there’s even a record company – Lost Map Records – run by Johnny Lynch – aka Pictish Trail.

HeraldScotland:

Eigg will soon be home to Scotland’s first co-operative brewery, after The Isle of Eigg Brewery raised £195,000 through a membership scheme.

Once operational 25% of the profits will also be dedicated to local small businesses start-ups and community initiatives.

For Eigg, community ownership has allowed the residents to shape the way they want to look after this beautiful island- they’ve built homes through a community construction firm, brought in speedy WiFi improving job prospects, banned visitor cars and welcomed new families to the island.

 

ISLE OF GIGHA

THE Isle of Gigha, off the west coast of Kintyre, was successfully bought by the community and handed over to the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust (IGHT) on March 15, 2002 – and just as on Eigg the handover anniversary is now a day of celebration.

The Scottish Land Fund and Highlands and Islands Enterprise helped raise the £4 million required. Despite some financially bumpy patches over the past 20 years, the island is now thriving with a growing population.

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IGHT oversees both Gigha Green Power and Gigha Renewable Energy, which both operate wind turbines on the island.

A Gigha Community Fund invests income from the renewable energy back into the community – funding initiatives to improve health, develop skills, relieve poverty and conserve the environment.

 

ISLE OF RUM

Neighbouring island to Eigg, Rum has been partially owned by the community since 2010. Previously Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) was responsible for the entire island, which meant most stable jobs were tied to the work of the organisation.

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Residents and the SNH agreed giving the community independence would lead to a more stable population on the island, with capacity for growth.

All 17 adults voted in favour of the transfer, and the Isle of Rum Community Trust (IRCT) took ownership of the village of Kinloch, including all of the homes, farm buildings and surrounding land.

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The IRCT aims to manage the community land for the benefit of the community, while protecting the natural environment of this wildlife-rich island. Four new IRCT homes have now been built and others refurbished, giving this island a more sustainable future.

 

ISLE OF ULVA

Ulva, off the west coast of Mull, is the newest island to achieve community ownership, completing the transfer in June 2018. The North West Mull Community Woodland Company now owns the island, a purchase helped by a grant from the Scottish Land Fund worth £4.3 million and following the approval of a Community Right to Buy application.

The immediate aims for Ulva are repopulation and improving the services on the island for residents and visitors. Much of the existing housing stock was extremely dilapidated; now six properties are currently being renovated as well as the pier. Green energy is part of the plan too – Ulva is collaborating with other small islands across Europe to bid for funding to undertake a clean energy transition, and is working with an energy consultant to identify appropriate strategies for the island.

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Two new electric vehicles are now in operation too. At the time of the buy out the population was only five people. However an appeal for new residents in 2019 prompted hundreds of people to apply to move to the island.

A couple from Edinburgh moved to re-open the island’s Boathouse café last spring, and many more potential islanders are ready to join them in future. In the 1800s Ulva was home to more than 600 people and, while a much slower population growth is planned now, it’s clear the future is brighter than ever on Ulva.