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Community Land Scotland

Alastair McIntosh blog on Riders on the Storm

    In his new book, Riders on the Storm: Climate Change and the Survival of Being, the Isle of Lewis raised author, Alastair McIntosh, sums up the science of climate change science that will lead into the United Nations conference of world leaders, COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.

    But what might be Scotland’s distinctive contribution?

    In this adapted extract, Alastair highlights the importance of land and local development trusts. He tells how he took a group of village leaders from West Papua Province of New Guinea on a study tour of Lewis and Harris. It drew out a sense of vision, hope and action that can be proudly shared across the world.


    With the Papuans that week in April 2019, we visited a variety of land trusts. On the Isle of Harris they’ve created two new villages, and didn’t need to buy the land because they owned it.

    Neil and Rhoda Campbell at the West Harris Trust told us how their community had been dying. Before the buyout in 2010, the population had declined to 119 and 35 per cent of its houses were either second homes or holiday rentals. Now, with six new affordable and ecologically designed homes being built, the resident population has risen to 151 and the children in preschool has multiplied from one to seven. They provide the greater part of their own energy with a third of a megawatt capacity from wind, solar and hydro power. The tourists remain welcome, but they now come to a revitalising community and a state-of-the-art visitor centre.

    Meanwhile, the existence of the neighbouring North Harris Trust helped to draw in private investment that set up a gin and whisky distillery. Such sustainable development now employs over three dozen full-time and more people seasonally. When the COVID-19 virus hit and there was no hand sanitiser on the island, the distillery diverted its production from whisky and gin. Together with a couple of other local businesses, they manufactured the product to WHO specifications and, through a volunteer network, gave it out to the elderly and vulnerable.

    There we see community resilience in action, restored from the bottom up. Not for nothing does the Isle of Harris Distillery describe itself as ‘the world’s first social distillery’, though that may be a slight exaggeration. Before 1846, when its population of more than 300 was evicted in the Clearances, some resettling as far away as Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, the neighbouring Isle of Pabbay had quite a reputation too – with four stills running when the excise man wasn’t looking.

    We went to the Pairc Trust that had been established in 2003 and, after a long battle, finally acquired its 25,000 acres from a reluctant private landlord in 2015. Its community of eleven villages and 400 residents had just completed building their first two affordable homes. Like with many of these trusts, women feature strongly in the governance. ‘It may be only two houses that we’ve built so far,’ said Fiona Stokes, the manager whom the elected board employs, ‘but we’d rather take it at our own pace. Two homes where people stay for twenty years is better than twenty homes where people stay for only two years.’ This is what sustainable development can look like on the ground. Ishbel MacLennan, a board member, added: ‘People want big solutions to the community’s problems, but there are no big solutions. Big solutions don’t work. It’s the little things that make the difference.’

    We introduced the Papuans to Community Land Scotland, the umbrella group that advises how to undertake such buyouts and networks shared experience. Here, David Cameron, a businessman who owns the local garage, said that to turn around a community, four elements are needed:

    1. Political will at local and national government levels;
    2. Technical support to cover any initial gaps in a community;
    3. Financial support to get things going in the early days;

    His handout had the latter in block capitals. ‘We can do it – nothing is off limits,’ his handout concluded. And by the time he’d fired up all the Papuans, because he was so fired up by them, I just wrote across the page: Wow!