South of Scotland one of the fastest growing areas for community land ownership

“The past 5 years has seen the south of Scotland become one of the fastest growing areas for community land ownership. Communities all across the South are taking advantage of the rights and funding available to buy land and buildings that are important to the development of their community,” says Ailsa Raeburn, chair of Community Land Scotland (CLS) in a new report by David Ross.

In Our Hands: Community Ownership in the South of Scotland

         

All these efforts are creating long term transformational change – helping to reverse long standing depopulation and the loss of young people, and building community confidence and resilience.    From the Mull of Galloway to Eyemouth communities are coming together to take charge of what needs to change in their local area, and working with partners to develop local projects.

“This is all hard work and takes time and effort. It also requires support from agencies and local authorities working in partnership with local people to make better places.  Communities have shown they have the ambition, tenacity and skills, but they can’t make the changes the South of Scotland needs on their own,” she continues.

The first community owned woodland in the United Kingdom was established in 1987 between Lauder and Galashiels. The 50 acres Wooplaw Community woodlands celebrates its 35th anniversary of community ownership this year.   It was purchased six years before Assynt crofters took control of their land inspiring the modern community land movement, 10 years before the isle of Eigg followed suit (celebrating its 25th anniversary this month) and 11 years before the Knoydart buyout in the Highlands. And all this 13 years before the Scottish Land Fund was established to help such local groups buy their land.

Wooplaw may have been the first, but there are now a multitude of community owned woodlands in Scotland. One of these is owned by Carsphairn Community Trust in Dumfries and Galloway, who purchased 120 acres of the Muirdrochwood Forest for the community in 2021 with funding from Scottish Land Fund, Carsphairn Community Energy Fund and Forestry and Land Scotland. The project has created new jobs and is developing a sustainable woodland for the local community to enjoy. In turn this improves wildlife and biodiversity and in the longer term support the creation of a local wood fuel enterprise and rural skills training centre.

With many community buyouts, there are often one or two people who create a spark that ignites wider community action. At Wooplaw, it was the late Tim Stead the famous wood sculptor and furniture maker who created that spark. He wanted to try to replenish the stocks of elm, oak and ash he had used in his work.

Crucially he wanted the community to be at heart of it all, as owners and guardians of the woodlands. Following a public meeting over 300 people joined the cause and Tim raised seed capital by making and selling wooden axe heads from various hardwoods. Each one was different.  This was his “Axes for Trees” project.

Financial support also came from the old Countryside Commission, WWF, donations and local fundraising. Tim died in 2000 aged 48 and he is buried in the forest.    His legacy lives on amongst the conifers and hardwoods growing on the hills between Stow, Lauder, Earlston and Galashiels. The community forest is run entirely by volunteers and owned by the community, providing education, training, recreation, and sustainable production of forest products.

Those early beginnings at Wooplaw have been replicated by so many communities across Scotland.

Back in 2016, Community Land Scotland (CLS) held its first events in South Scotland – “turnout was high – the room was so packed at an event held in Newton Stewart that people struggled to make their way past other attendees to get to the coffee and tea!  The main subjects everyone wanted to talk about were depopulation and the decline of local towns,” says Linsay Chalmers development manager for Community Land Scotland.

Coincidentally, both of the Community Land Scotland staff at the time hailed from the south and were really keen to see communities in the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway experience the same benefits that community land ownership had delivered successfully in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  Since 2016, the South of Scotland has been a priority area for Community Land Scotland, and in 2017 two directors joined the board from the area.

“People in the South of Scotland have a deep connection with the land – that connection is reflected in the work of writers such as Hugh Macdiarmid, James Hogg, Samuel Rutherford Crockett, James Barke and in the Border Ballads – but people haven’t always asked who owns the land and who benefits from that ownership.  It has been inspiring to see both how quickly that is starting to change and that communities in the South are starting to develop their own models and solutions to the challenges they face,” continues Linsay Chalmers. She grew up in the Scottish Borders.

No one could have imagined the growth in community ownership that was to come. That the south would lead the way on community led regeneration of town centres, or that one of the largest landowners in Scotland, Buccleuch estates, would take a proactive approach to selling land to communities. The initial 5,200 acres sold to the Langholm Initiative resulted in the new Tarras Valley Nature Reserve now owned and managed by the local community. Members of Langholm Initiative, set up in 1994, saw the potential of owning the land not only to help regenerate the local economy but also to preserve and protect the landscape for future generations.  It is home to important sites for rare species such as hen harriers and merlin and preserves ancient woodlands and peatlands. A purchase of a further 5,300 acres is in the planning stages.

It has become very difficult for communities to pursue large land acquisitions anywhere in Scotland not least because of the arrival of “Green Lairds” much written about in the Scottish press. The average price of a Scottish estate rose by 87% in 2021 to £8.8m according to Strutt & Parker last month. So, communities need more support if they are to continue to be involved in buying and developing key local land and buildings to make their local areas better places to live.

Other assets which are remarkable in south Scotland include Nith Valley LEAF Trust which addressed the urgent need for affordable, energy efficient housing in Closeburn, Dumfries & Galloway, by an asset transfer with support from Scottish Land Fund converting one, then building 3 new homes for rent.

“A Heart for Duns” completed a successful buy out of the local community hall in Duns which was threatened with closure. As an independent project, community ownership means they can set their own priorities for events and activities. Their focus has been on combating isolation – including in that the setting up of a Men’s Shed; and a focus on culture and developing local partnerships.

Other significant projects of note in South Scotland include The Mull of Galloway Trust’s acquisition of a lighthouse, foghorn and associated land and holiday cottages, the RSPB visitor centre and the former engine room which is now an exhibition area.  The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson and first lit in 1830.   The foghorn is the only working foghorn on Scottish mainland. Some of the revenue generated from these projects is re-distributed to other organisations within the community and has for example funded the costs of transport for the local primary school, the heating in the community hall, benches for the bowling green and the local flower show and fishing competitions which also encourage visitors and tourist revenue for the area.

And a shop serving 300 homes in New Galloway in Kircudbrightshire was saved from closure by New Galloway Community Enterprises. With over £800,000 of grant funding from the Big Lottery Development Fund and a local community shares offer which raised £24,000 from the community, NGCE successfully purchased the building including two flats above which generate revenue from holiday lets. The funds also enabled the recruitment of a Community Engagement Worker for five years to foster social and economic wellbeing in the local community.

“It might feel like the start of a process in the South, in communities starting to take control of their local areas. What this report shows however is, it has been going on quietly and without much fanfare for a long time, and in some cases predating some of the very famous Highlands and Islands buyouts, such as Eigg and Gigha. What’s also very exciting is the sense of the scale of the ambition and vision in so many communities – they see what needs to change and want to be an active part in leading that change. Whether that’s bringing young people and jobs back or saving key local services and facilities or creating new woodlands and places for nature – there can be no doubt that community ownership is here to stay in the South.  And when it’s properly supported by SOSE and local authorities, it can hugely contribute to the change many people want to see.  There is much more to come,” concludes Ailsa Raeburn.