Image: The Coigach Flag
I am delighted to host a guest blog by Julia Campbell from Coigach. Julia works for the Coigach Community Development Company but the views she expresses here are her personal views. They were submitted as evidence to the Land Reform Review Group. Further details and other evidence can be found here.
I work for Coigach Community Development Company which was set up in 2010 to tackle some the many problems facing our fragile, remote community on the Coigach Peninsula in the North West highlands. Most of our difficulties stem from the continuing fall in the population. In the 19th century and until the beginning of the 20th the area supported five schools – now there is one with a current roll of 19 (it was nearly 40 in the 1990’s), which will fall to 13 next year, and to 8 by 2017 – unless we can find a way for more families to move here.
The land is currently owned by two main landowners: Ben Mor Estate by Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), and Badentarbet Estate is in private ownership. Most of the cultivated land is under crofting tenure and development is sparse in traditional crofting style.
I carried out an informal census recently (I just drove round and made notes from what I know about each house and its inhabitants) and counted 246 habitable houses – of which 126 are lived in. The rest are second or holiday homes. There are 19 local authority homes, built over 30 years ago since when they have been more or less fully occupied and there are three households living in caravans. These council houses were built cheek by jowl, with tiny gardens, minimal parking and no room for sheds or workshops – difficult as many people here have practical jobs and businesses that need all these things. And strange in a landscape of traditional crofting township format.
When houses do come on the market, they go for high prices and increasingly more and more are snapped up by more affluent people from elsewhere as holiday homes. For people on modest income who want to live here it is very difficult to find a home: it’s widely acknowledged that chances of getting a council house are so slim many people don’t even bother putting themselves on the seemingly never-ending waiting list, and there seems to be no mechanism for getting a croft unless you are lucky enough to know someone who is willing to assign one. We have seen various young people and families who would like to live here simply give up and move away and as a result the population shrinks and so the services available to those of us still here.
It became apparent some years ago that the local authority was not going to do anything to resolve the housing situation so the Development Company has set about it. We are planning to put up a community wind turbine to generate an income so we can (amongst other things) build some community housing to attract families to the area. My feeling is that people moving to areas like Coigach also want a bit of land – especially when there appears to be so much of it around here! One of the many attractions about living in this part of the world is the degree of self-sufficiency that is possible with access to land. People want to grow vegetables, keep hens, build sheds: anyone moving to this area more or less has to bring their own job with them and they need space to do that.
Places like Coigach attract enterprising people that somehow make a living and are fairly open-minded about how they do it. Most people have several little jobs and are self-employed, and practical skills are greatly valued. With modern communications and access to the internet, theoretically all sorts of remote working is possible though broadband speed and access remains an issue. Whatever you choose to do you need somewhere to live and somewhere to work.
Once we have our turbine income we’ll have more options, however, we are a small organisation with a board of voluntary directors (who are already stretched trying to make their own livings and most are involved in other local services run by volunteers) with two part-time employees so our capacity is limited. We hope to have the support of SWT for access to land (as we often point out, school age children are one of the area’s most endangered species), but doing anything on Badentarbet Estate has proved to be impossible to others who have tried in the past.
The owners do not want development of any sort and have objected and therefore prevented previous initiatives which included modest plans for workshop units for local use in the past. It remains their land of course, and to so with as they please – and we remain at their mercy.
We got very close to a community buy-out of some land last year: enough to build some community houses and workshop units. We jumped through all the hoops of the Community Right to Buy process and raised the necessary funding. The community ballot was strongly in favour and then the owners pulled out at the last minute as they did not like the valuation given – which was all we would be able to raise in funding. So six months work ended with nothing – but some useful experience.
I’d like to see more crofts available to new (or returning people) and the availability of land at affordable prices so ordinary people can build and make life for themselves here. Most of the world, including the south of Britain seems to be struggling with over-population: we are having the opposite problem but I feel sure given the chance, there are many people who would like to live in the Highlands.
They would enjoy the many benefits that life here has to offer, and in turn help us sustain our lives here. Unless something happens to reverse the decline in population here, it looks like many remote, Highland communities could disappear and all that remains are exclusive holiday retreats.
Very well written Julia.
Most of this applies to Applecross too, with similar proportions for holiday homes, but an even lower number of households (around 100) and only 9 pupils in the school, and down to 7 after the summer holidays. And yet Applecross and Coigach, and other places like them are such great places to bring up children.
The lack of affordable housing and housing sites and affordable workspaces and land is causing a crisis in remote rural communities, yet when you look round there is so much unused land. Why?
Very frustrating that our communities have able, willing people putting their own time and talents in to tackle these issues, and yet there are so many challenges standing in the way of progress, unco-operative landlords and their agents being just one.
But I know that CCDC will get that wind turbine up and running sooner rather than later and that will make an enormous difference, as well as serving as an inspiring role model for other small communities.
We have just had some very good news: our bid to the Scottish Land Fund has been successful and so we have 95% of the purchase price (£110k) of the former Achilitbuie Smokehouse and funding so we can appoint a project officer to drive redevelopment and put us back on the map.
Must dash – I have my sheep to feed, hens to tend and away to join my mother to enjoy some of the beans, peas, cabbage, cauliflower, pak choi, spinach, tomatoes, onions, shallots, leeks, courgettes, early potatoes, herbs, blackcurrants, raspberries, strawberries, apples, plums, damsons we grow on the croft . And then it will be time to light the stove with logs from the trees we’ve been growing for years. The joys of diversification on the croft.
A great celebratory dinner has been enjoyed at the posh Ceilidh Place in Ullapool!
By whom? It wasn’t me though I had my tea there – which hardly constitutes a posh celebratory dinner. But flattered that you are interested enough to spy on me.
Who talks about you?
What were you celebrating Reiner?
We always celebrate at the Ceileidh Place, Alison, whatever the occasion. It’s such a great place, wonderful atmosphere, good food, good wines. To be recommenmded to everybody. I suppose this blog has quite a few readers, so now you know where to go when in Ullapool.
I agree, the Ceilidh Place is indeed a good place to have a night out and pleased to hear you had something to celebrate!
Thanks Alison – we’re bashing on. My great aunt Jessie used to say how much she enjoyed her childhood here – even without the modern comforts we enjoy: there were so many other children round about to play with. If only it were so for my son!
Enjoyed reading your blog Julia. I googled Coigach and this fascinating diary/blog came up which encapsulates Coigach change over the years. http://lifeontheweemadroad.blogspot.co.uk/
Thanks Daye – the Wee Mad Road was written by the Maloneys – and American couple who stayed here for a year or so in the 1980s. I think they thought the whole place was a bit mad when they first arrived but they grew to love it!
What a wonderful blog and insight into a ‘remote’ community, only one of many in Scotland in a similar position.
It would be interesting to know what support you receive from the Scottish Government and other organisations. Has the external support or inner determination increased in recent years or has this always remained?
I have read about isles of Eigg and Gigha but you wonder why the media don’t regularly highlight and in a sense promote the community causes that are ongoing in our remotest communities.
When you mention about ‘holiday homes’ or second homes, how many of these are open for public rental and how many are for personal family use? I ask because I have the opinion (rather than expertise) that ‘holiday homes’ will attract tourism and generate local income, although possibly seasonal, whereas second homes would be empty for most of the year and most likely not subject to the same local tax as occupied housing.
I think it is wonderful that as a community you are looking forward to generating income and inward investment with your Community Wind Turbine. Your plans to reinvest in the community is inspiring and I will be interested in following your progress.
We are ever grateful to HIE and the Scottish Govermnent and Europoean LEADER programme for their support – and in particular for funding our LDO jobs. We are one part of HIE’s Community Account Management programme and receive help and encouragement as part of that.
As for holiday homes – yes indeed they contribute significantly to the local economy and have been part of life here for a long time. Some are old family homes – and here I have to admit to being an owner of one) where the original occupants followed a common path to the city or abroad in search of work and education, but the house has remained in the family – who now visit regularly and/or let the house out to visitors. Many of the folk who own houses here have a very strong link to the place, are our friends and family, and take an active interest in the community and support from a distance. We welcome visitors and it’s great living somewhere that’s so attractive people want to spend their holidays here! There are many local people who let houses for holidays and that brings visitors who spend locally, and the rental they pay stays more or less in the local economy. So far so good – it’s just that increasingly the balance has shifted – there used to be some holiday houses – but now it’s creeping over 50% and that isn’t so good. It’s competition for those of us that live locally and derive a significant part of our income from tourism and we are reaching saturation level. Increasingly, the rental income is going to an owner hundreds of miles away and that doesn’t do anything for the local shop etc. And then there are those that are barely here – my “neighbour” uses his large house for approximately two weeks every year. Whatever, it’s a lot of dark windows in the winter!
Dear Melanie, if you’d see where the CCDC want to put up their 77 metre wind turbine your heart would sink. It’s a matter of money before beauty.
Thanks for sharing your interesting insights and thoughts Julia – I really enjoyed reading your blog. SWT is keen on working collaboratively with Coigach Community Development Trust to hopefully overcome some of the issues you mention. Important also to say we see the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape programme ( coigach-assynt.org ) as very much a long term initiative, rather than the more typical 3 year projects which come and go so quickly, not always leaving much of a legacy. SWT remains a staunchly ‘pro sustainable development’ organisation, dedicated to working with communities across Scotland on mutually shared goals.
And we are very happy working with SWT. In fact we have just been out on the hill with Mark Foxwell of SWT discussing potential projects and the way forward.
Just a thought re: difficulties of funding housing. Have you come accross the Lammas initiative in Wales? this is the first of (of hopefully several developments) with people building their own houses in accordance with the sustainable development policies of the Welsh Assembly. It occurs to me that such a development would mean the new residents build (and therefore fund) their own houses. I don’t know if it is possible to do anything similar in Scotlynd but it was a thought.
I have – yes – met the Welsh Environment Minister to discuss their TAN6 Planning Policy. Nothing like it has been taken forward in Scotland – there’s a lack of lobbying capacity for alternative land regimes
Just got a message from up the road from a reader of Julia’s blog: “Crofter Campbell maybe was still walking on the hill with Mark Foxley, the pair of them deciding what the working active crofters should be doing, when the Achiltibuie common grazings had a very good meeting last night with the real crofters and they are starting another tree planting scheme on the estate which will complement the very successful one we did with Tilhill. Things do happen if the right people are involved. The CCDC talk the talk but do absolutely nothing about anything in the area apart from cause upset and unrest. Can’t wait to hear all her proposals for the common grazings. Julia had better get herself some sheep or a cow to look like the real thing…”
Reiner, you are absolutely priceless. I was one of the ‘real crofters’ at that meeting and indeed we would like to explore a tree plantation scheme. There aren’t even minutes out on that one but in these parts good (and bad) news travels fast! I am also very proud of CCDC and what they have achieved by way of the Smokehouse land and building buy out and securing a graduate placement for next year. All good news stories! You really should desist from trying to undermine any of the good work going on in the area and put your porridge spurtle back in the drawer. I can also tell you that I have had a veritable feast from the produce from Julia’s croft (that’s if we are trying to out-crofter one and other)….I’m told your organic lamb is very good as well but I’ve not tried it.
Hi Julia, you’ve propably heard that there is a big hooha about the shooting rights on Raasay. What I do not understand is why you malign the landowners of Badentarbet Estate who actually gave the shooting rights over their estate to a local crofter, whereas you have only good things to say about the Edinburgh based Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT)that lets their deer stalking to a gentleman from Inverness. Can you enlighten me?
I’ve lived in Coigach since 1978, raised a family of four and now see two of my grandchildren grow up nearby. In those 35 years I haven’t noticed a decline of population, quite the opposite. The difference is, just about every family had four children then. Now they have one, or perhaps two.
In those 35 years I have also seen a remarkable increase in prosperity. This is borne out by the Scottish governments neighbourhood deprivation index which places Coigach on rank 3677 out of the 6505 Scottish neighborhoods, with number 1 as the most deprived (some area in Paisley), and number 6505 as the least deprived neighborhood (it is in Edinburgh).
If you look at these statistics in detail you will find that of the litany of deprivation that Julia lists only one is factual. In terms of access, Coigach is on number 9. In terms of income however, Coigach’s rank is 4236, in employment 5074, in health 5648, in education 6099 (just 500 below the top!), and in crime 4334. Only in housing it falls somewhat low at rank 2146. But that’s not just due to holiday homes but also to some locals who have more than one house but don’t utilize them.
It’s true, there are fewer children – but only slightly fewer than the Scottish average: 15.5 vs 17.5
percent of the population. The working population is just about the same as the average, 60.9 vs 62.6. These statistics square fully with what I see with my own eyes (I’m a bit older than Julia).
It is also not true that Badentarbet Estate prevents any development. We started a business worth over 700.000 pounds. The landowner didn’t put anything in our way, however quite a few neighbours did, locals and holiday home owners alike. The community council was anything but helpful.
The true situation with the CCDC is that it is inimical to private development (we didn’t receive any public money) and fixated on public funds. I find it hard to understand why taxpayers in, say, Paisley, where there are overwhelming social and economical problems, should be compelled to support a very comfortable lifestyle of us folks in Coigach. I chose to live here, Julia chose to live here. That’s fine. But one shouldn’t expect anyone else to subsidize this choice.
“My feeling is that people moving to areas like Coigach also want a bit of land… One of the many attractions about living in this part of the world is the degree of self-sufficiency that is possible with access to land. People want to grow vegetables, keep hens, build sheds: anyone moving to this area more or less has to bring their own job with them and they need space to do that.”
This describes our family. I’m currently getting a three year apprentceship in carpentry in Germany and I’ve also some training and experience in small scale agriculture and a degree in storytelling/theatre. Our goal is to be part of a small community like Cogaich, invest and work there, maybe even do some storytelling with people. I don’t know if we will be able to come back to the UK to do this or if we will end up staying in Germany, partly because of our visa situation (I’m British and my wife is Japanese and you would not believe how hard it is to get the UK immigration service to let her in) or because it may be easier to get access to land. In this Germany has one massive advantage in Germany: the big estates were all broken up after the war.
One major goal on our list is to own our home: we give far too much money to our already wealthy landlady each month just to live here. If we can reduce that cost, then it’s much easier for us to live on a carpenters salary.
Andy from Germany – sounds like there’s a ticket to Coigach with you name on it! Come and visit – I have a feeling you would like it here.
Very interesting post, Julia (and thanks also to Andy for hosting it and the subsequent thread of comments).
The message I got loud and clear is that the central problem is lack of affordable housing and premises for small businesses etc. And that, at least as far as north Coigach is concerned, you lay the blame for that squarely at the door of Badentarbet Estate for refusing to release sites.
However, it’s important other people reading this realise that the estate is not the only landowner as your post implied. There must be (I’m just guessing) at least 10-20 crofters controlling between them 100-150 hectares. Moreover, theirs is the most suitable land for development on the estate. The same is true of many other estates in the west Highlands (e.g. Applecross of recent high profile memory).
It said in the CCDC minutes for Dec 2010: “It was decided to write to all local landowners and common grazings committees to investigate if they would consider setting aside some land for housing. This is a model employed successfully elsewhere – each crofting township in a community providing land for community-owned housing so no single landowner or common grazings is carrying the burden for the whole community.” I didn’t see any follow up to that so did none of the crofters respond positively? Are you not therefore equally as much “at the mercy” of the crofters on the Estate as its owners?
Be that as it may, if I were Coigach LDO for a day faced with your problems, the following scheme would be turning over in my mind: At a suitable point on the common grazings, mark out as many new crofts as there is perceived demand for – say ten. These can be of sizes varying between (say) 0.25ha and 1.5ha so (say) a land take of 10ha.
Then, use Part 3 of the Land Reform Act 2003 to force Badentarbet Estate to sell you that 10ha (if they don’t agree by negotiation, of course). Crucially, don’t attempt to buy the whole estate which would be too much of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and altogether too much grief, just the 10ha you actually need. Considering Pt 3 has now passed the human rights hurdle in the Pairc case, I can’t see the Scot Gov. refusing. Nor could I see the Crofting Commission refusing to designate the new crofts.
You’d need to resume the land from the common grazings, of course, but I can’t see the Land Court refusing that either. And also compensate the grazers at 50% of OMV but I expect the Scottish Land Fund would step up for that. (One thing I can’t think of a statutory mechanism for is how to integrate common grazings attached to the new crofts into the existing cg’s. Seems a bit excessive to have to resume space for the new cg’s as well but that’s something for the Project Officer to ponder on!)
Anyway, as I understand it, Highland Council has a positive planning policy towards new crofting townships (or extensions to existing ones) so that would give a fair planning wind to the houses on the new crofts. The crofters allocated the tenancies could then get crofting grants for the houses (and perhaps other funding as well?), thereby lessening the demands on CCDC’s resources out of the renewables income.
Sorted! All you have to do then is name the new settlement. With a proper sense of Highland history, it ought to be named after the landlord’s wife/daughter (as in Jeantown, Barbaraville, Port Charlotte etc.). Either that or something like of Newton of Badentarbet. But I expect political correctness will prevail over heritage and it will have to be Baile Ur a Bhaid an Tairbeart (but don’t rely on my gaelic as I’m not a speaker).
The difficulties of access to land for sites are more complex than just the estate owner – we have actually followed up with talking to crofters and in fact there has been a positive response from many. Early days yet but there are possibilities and opportunities that can benefit us all. Thanks for you comments – always interesting to hear from a different perspective. And if you every fancy being that LDO for a day – just say the word!
Blaming everything on landlords as convenient scapegoats for the problems facing fragile communities is an agenda pursued by some people. So thanks Julia for clarifying that (contrary to the impression given by your post, with respect) issues of release of land on crofting estates are in reality far more complex.
Thanks, but I’ll pass on that offer of being LDO – even for a day! I doubt if I’d have the necessary diplomatic skills!
I see similar problems on the Isle of Mull. When I moved here I had accommodation (very basic) provided with my job (seasonal) but for the last 3 years I’ve been staying in ‘winter let’ holiday homes. Affordable housing is an issue here too, I’ve sold my own house but as income is low here I can’t get the size of mortgage I need to even buy a small cottage!!! I’m a basket maker and I’m desperate to find a permanent home with space for a workshop and to grow some willow. I’m coming to the painfull and sad conclusion I might have to leave Mull to find somewhere I can afford.
This blogpost is now closed to comments and I have deleted the most recent one which is not relevant to Coigach and risks restarting old arguments of a decade ago.