In particular Corrary offered scope for extensive reforestation on the hill ground,
horticulture and other intensive cultivation on the in-bye ground, and opportunities to
explore the use of local timber in the low-impact buildings we hoped to erect for our own
The fact that the in-bye land is dominated by the brochs seemed a fortuitous
coincidence. They are reminders of positive relationships between land, its productive
capacity, livelihoods and communities which we wished to re-establish in ways appropriate
to the needs of the area at the end of the twentieth century. The brochs have survived to
witness the logical conclusion of the trends which have dominated land use in much of the
Highlands for well over a century - the population of the glen reduced to one household,
and economic activity restricted to one enterprise - hill sheep farming, which has
degraded the local ecology. Even the previous owners recent attempt to break free of
these trends by diversification involved the monoculture of an exotic species.
Our first priority on gaining entry was to begin the work of ecological restoration
which meant undoing the effects of intensive grazing by sheep and deer and planning a
mixed woodland of native broad-leaves. A survey indicated that the remnants of the
Atlantic oak woodland had survived despite the grazing pressure, and that all the native
broad-leaved species were present with the exception of gean, which is rarely found on the
west coast at this latitude. However some species were present only in very small numbers:
there were in fact only six oak trees on the whole 700 acres.
As a first step we removed the sheep from the hill ground, retaining 65 Cheviot ewes
from a flock which had been as large as 600, and confining them to the in-bye land. To do
this we had to install two cattle grids on the road and additional fencing. The total cost
of excluding sheep from the ground which we wished to reforest came to about £30,000, a
large part of which was covered by grants from the Forestry Authority and the Scottish
Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department (SOAFD).
To protect the woodland remnants from further damage from other hill sheep, we erected
5.5 kilometres of new stock fence on the open hill, and with the help of Northwoods, who
acted as our consultants, made a successful application for a Woodland Grant Scheme (WGS)
of 100 hectares, roughly a third of the area. The scheme was unusual in that, although we
intended to plant up most of the ground with native broadleaves, we allocated 20 hectares
to conifers which will in due course produce good timber for building and construction
work. We hope to see in time a range of woodland cover from well-managed ash and gean (for
furniture) on part of the lower ground to wild willow and rowan on the tops. Initially
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) wished the scheme to be 100 per cent native broadleaves,
but we persuaded them of the importance of integrating conservation and the management of
a number of woodland types.
Two years later, in 1995, we made an application for a second grant under the WGS to
plant 60 hectares on the Glen More side of the hill. Again we were successful in obtaining
a grant, after protracted negotiations with SNH. On the initial scheme we suffered very
severe losses soon after a limited amount of planting, due to the number of deer finding
their way on to the ground as they moved west during the winter months - although we had
been advised by the Deer Commission that the number of deer in the area was not
significant. However we now know that even a relatively small number of deer finding their
way past inadequate fencing can take out thousands of young trees in a few days in winter.
These losses led to us making an amendment to the scheme for further work which will
involve raising the western boundary fence to exclude deer. This work is scheduled for the
spring of 2000 and will cost about £10,000
Establishing a Garden and a Tree Nursery
Our first season saw us establish our garden, including a poly-tunnel, which became a
symbol for us, and a tree nursery. We set up the tree nursery to produce seedlings with
guaranteed local provenance, and spent the autumn of 1992 collecting seed from local
trees, although it would have been very much easier to buy in oak seed from, say, Romania.
At the time there was no other way of ensuring local provenance, although now of course
commercial tree nurseries are selling seed with certified West Coast provenance (which may
have been collected anywhere between Oban and Ullapool).
Soon we were producing 5-10,000 seedlings a year, which enabled us to meet our own
needs and also to supply other reforestation projects. Thus we had created entirely by our
own efforts a successful small business where none had existed before.
In 1994 two of the partners were selected from 70 applicants to be one of four growers
participating in a trial horticulture project in Skye and Lochalsh sponsored by the
Highland EU LIFE programme between 1995 and 1998. Using part of the in-bye ground, they
successfully demonstrated that it is possible to grow organically a wide range of fruits
and vegetables in the West Highlands. The project also demonstrated that the constraints
on economic viability are not soil and climate, but such factors as distance from markets,
distribution systems, and price support systems.
Designing and Building Low Impact Housing Using Local Timber
One of our objectives in acquiring Corrary had been to put into practice ideas about
the use of local timber in the construction of houses and other buildings. One of the
first things we did when we arrived was to build a timber-drying store, drying kilns and a
workshop in which we installed basic three-phase woodworking machinery such as a planer
thicknesser. This enabled us to process locally-sourced timber which we used initially on
our own building projects.
Shortly after, we were commissioned by Glenelg Candles to design and build a new shop
in a style suited to the West Highlands today. We were asked to meet design criteria of
aesthetic quality, durability and low environmental impacts (through energy conservation,
solar gain, and ecological disposal of wastes) and use local materials wherever possible.
This commission was followed by another low-impact design-and-build project - Duntrodden
House, built on our own ground and completed in 1996 as short-let accommodation funded by
an agriculture diversification grant.
These two projects gave us an opportunity to research the use of local timber in a
practical way. Both buildings are examples of an unconventional construction method,
timber post and beam, which utilises local timber to a large extent. None of the timber
came from our own land, but eighty per cent of it came from logs sourced in the Highlands.
We were able to find, within a radius of 12 miles, very good Scots pine and European
larch. These timbers are very suitable for construction and flooring but would normally be
sold for low-grade use such as fencing and packaging.
Because these very valuable timbers are generally underused in Scotland today, we were
able to buy this wood relatively cheaply, for example Douglas fir for £40-50 a cubic
metre. After conversion and seasoning, this still compared very favourably with prices for
imported timber of a similar type.
We hired a mobile saw, converted the logs, seasoned the timbers by means of air-drying
in our purpose-built shed, and kiln-dried internal fit-out timber - for floors, built-in
furniture, stairs, work-tops, etc. (The kilns are a small de-humidifier type which are
ideal for small operations.).
We discovered that the Highlands grow fine Douglas fir, larch and Scots pine which is
as good as imported timber and which is more than adequate for high-quality buildings (for
the manufacture of high-performance windows, for example). There seems to be little
general awareness that Scottish-grown larch and Douglas fir can be superior in quality to
French-grown larch and Douglas fir, and that larch and Douglas fir are unavailable in the
rest of Northern Europe - there is none in Scandinavia, for instance. Yet we are not
growing and managing new stocks to meet future needs. There is no shortage of potentially
good Scots pine, but we could do with much more Douglas fir, larch and native hardwoods.
When finished, the buildings proved beyond doubt that it was possible to source good
quality timber, season it and use it to construct durable, high-performance buildings in
the Western Highlands. We drew on technologies which have been tried and tested in Norway,
for example external timber walls, and a proprietary Norwegian system for the grass roof
which has proved easy to install and which works well in the West Highland climate.
We had to go to Norway because unfortunately there is no recent Scottish tradition of
using timber, let alone Scottish or local timber, in housing in a way which blends with
the landscape and even improves with age. All we have is an imported system which uses
small timber sections and cheap panel construction with gang-nail trusses. We would like
to see a local building tradition evolving around such principles as using local timber
and local stone; conserving energy; reducing chemical inputs; blending with the landscape;
and being responsive to the needs of time and place, rather than relying on techniques and
practices which simply reflect market forces in their use of highly-processed or
Supplying Local Timber
The success of the first two buildings led us to supply, or co-ordinate the supply, of
timber to several building projects in the Highlands and Islands and beyond, which are now
well-known - another business from nothing. For example, we supplied 100 tonnes of
European larch for the new workshop project for the Stornoway Trust in order to
meet the Millennium Forest for Scotland Trusts desire to utilise more home-grown
timber on Lewis. The workshop is now complete - built entirely from larch sourced near
Glenelg and shipped to Lewis after initial conversion. If we had not been able to source
this larch, timber would have had to be imported from Canada or Scandinavia. We also sent
an articulated-lorry-load of Douglas fir and larch to Devon for a private house. We
believe there is considerable potential for the future export of timber building
components from the Highlands.
From the outset we had planned to divide the ground left in crofting tenure and create
six new crofts or holdings, but we had little idea in the early stages how difficult this
was going to be. Our plans had the continued support of the Crofters Commission, but
we could not go ahead without planning permission for a house on each of the new crofts.
We realised from our first discussions with planning officials that planning permission
would be difficult: Corrary was regarded as a beautiful, historical place rather than a
node for regenerating community and economic activity. However we made representations and
argued that the Local Plan, which was about to be revised, should include statements about
In this we were partly successful. The new Local Plan identifies Gleann Beag as a
suitable place for the development of new low-impact housing which would be occupied by
people engaged in suitably-sized business enterprises. However it states that there should
not be more than five new houses in the entire length of the glen which extends for some
four miles, most of which is outwith our ownership.
The full story of these discussions is too long and tortuous to be documented here.
Suffice it to say that just when, with the support of the Area Planning Committee, we
appeared to have succeeded in getting planning permission for two houses, Historic
Scotland effectively vetoed the agreement, on the grounds that they regarded the existing
landscape as desirable and that they were not prepared to have the visitor experience
altered by the building of any new housing. We did eventually succeed in negotiating
planning permission for one of the houses on a site not considered by Historic Scotland to
affect the backdrop to the brochs.
We felt that it would be in the wider community interest to have a public enquiry
rather than settle the matter behind closed doors. However we decided not to take the
route of a public enquiry in view of the costs - financial and otherwise - that this would
involve. Instead we tried a less confrontational course and arranged a meeting which was
attended by two Regional councillors, the Regional Archaeologist, representatives of
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), SNH, and Historic Scotland. Everyone present
expressed support for the planning application in the context of the project overall and
the wider benefits, except Historic Scotland which said it said not prepared to allow any
more housing or any other change close to the two brochs, or any changes in land use which
would affect the setting of the brochs, which are at present surrounded by degraded,
Negotiations dragged on for a further six months, at which point we decided to withdraw
the application, but in subsequent discussions the Area Planning Manager together with the
Regional Archaeologist agreed to support an application for one further house on an
alternative, apparently less controversial location.
It is interesting to reflect on Historic Scotlands approach to the issue. As a
statutory consultee it received details of our proposals prior to their being submitted to
the Planning Committee, but appeared to make no attempt to engage in discussions at a
relatively early stage, although invited to do so. Indeed it seemed that Historic Scotland
did not really participate in the process at all. When it did intervene, it did so at a
very late stage, although by then discussions had been going on for a period of three
months during which no formal objections had been received from any member of the local
community. Such apparent disregard for a consultation process which is intended to ensure
adequate consideration of all local interests threatens to undermine the local democratic
The failure to get planning permission to build several new houses is a serious
obstacle to our hopes of developing a small community of people living on the land and
developing economic enterprises which make use of local resources in a sustainable way.
However the consent for one more house which we negotiated with the Planning Committee
means we have been able to develop one more business on site. The house will be built by a
new partner who was attracted by the ethos of the partnership, but who would not have come
on board if housing had not been available.
With the help of a telephone, modem and computer, he has been successful in
establishing and running from Corrary a business - providing monitoring services to the
wind industry - which has a UK-wide clientele and is a leader in its field. He employs two
part-time workers and has been successful in attracting a grant to help build a new
workshop in our business development area. Together we intend in the spring of 2000 to use
the planning consent we do have to build a prototype house which will incorporate the
results of our latest research and which will have commercial relevance to low-impact
With the temporary withdrawal - due to increased professional commitments - of the two
initial partners who have been most active in developments at Corrary, leaving the
day-to-day management in the hands of another partner, this is a good time to take stock.
Corrary is a long-term project, if only because of the time scales involved in
restoring the land to ecological health, and in establishing a sustainable human community
on the basis of the appropriately managed natural community.
However the last seven years have seen a range of activities, all more or less directly
connected with potentially sustainable enterprises, in contrast to the previous management
system in which all economic activity was based on a flock of 600 sheep which continued
the long-established trend of ecological degradation and offered no prospects of new
economic or community regeneration. Our major achievements during this period, which
should be seen as the fruits of our overall strategy rather than as separate, isolated
achievements, include the following:
In working in these areas we have had to cope with obstacles which will be familiar to
many: lack of capital, the difficulties of obtaining financial assistance, for example,
and officialdoms slowness to respond positively to proposals based on ideas which
are now endorsed in official policy documents. We have frequently been disappointed by
peoples perceptions of our aspirations. Often we have felt open to ridicule for
allowing the land to become unproductive or wild both from those
members of the general public who fail to understand the extent of the abuse the land has
suffered and who fail to think long term, and also from representatives of public sector
agencies, who should know better.
Nevertheless, despite our failures, we have been able to test ideas in practice and so
demonstrate, we believe, the feasibility of locating in places like Corrary a diverse
range of sustainable enterprises - sustainable in the sense that they exploit in the best
sense local natural resources and can continue, if properly managed, to be productive and
support livelihoods without causing damage to the environment.
We hope the buildings we have constructed will convince people both of the benefits of
using local timber in construction and of the importance of growing more. Patterns of land
use in the UK and our reliance in the past on imported timber from colonial territories,
and more recently from commercial logging world-wide, mean that as a nation we are not
growing nearly enough of the species which provide the timbers which are most useful in
construction work. It is very important that we continue to grow commercially such species
as oak, European larch, western red cedar and Douglas fir, although of course it will take
time before our descendants can benefit from the timber crop which will result - 50-120
years in the case of oak, for example. What better way to invest in our collective future
in the Highlands?
At present as a nation we export low-grade timber and import high-grade timber. We hope
our success may help to convince people that the Highlands has the potential to reverse
this situation, and also help to stimulate more planting and better management of these
species and better knowledge of the potential of the timber they produce.
After seven intensive years during which we have established appropriate management
regimes and perhaps been ahead of our time in developing new ways of building in timber
appropriate to the West Highlands, we are entering a phase of consolidation in which the
project will move forward on a different scale and at a different pace. We have plans to
develop an office/studio and bothy accommodation as part of the infrastructure for future
businesses, but are now thinking of three domestic units rather than six.
The partners - the original three were joined by a fourth in 1998 - will continue to
take a long-term view of ecological restoration and give priority to protecting the place
from the abuses of short-termism. While the business initiatives will continue to be
driven - and funded - by the individual partners, we intend that the work of restoration
will continue to be a joint venture of the partnership financed by means of public grants
and borrowing. In order to do this we intend to formalise the partnership agreement and
are finalising the legal arrangements for adopting a company structure, probably that of a
Company Limited By Guarantee with Share Capital, with a constitution which will safeguard
our objectives beyond our lifetimes, ensure a suitable environment for development to
continue, and also allow for the transfer of shares between existing partners and any
possible future partners. We are fortunate that there exists the necessary good will to
work out the arrangements most likely to allow us to experience our vision and leave the
place better than we found it.
It is encouraging that much of our thinking is compatible with that set out in the
Scottish Offices "Towards a Development Strategy", and that we have
already begun to address issues - such as that of good-quality affordable housing -
identified in that document. Despite such policy statements we still desperately need
innovative examples of the way forward, as the brochs constantly remind us. In continuing
our efforts to provide these, we shall be guided by these words of Wendell Berry, the
American writer and farmer, taken from his "The Landscape of Harmony", published
by the Five Seasons Press, Madley, Hereford, in 1987:
"If we do not have an economy capable of valuing in particular terms the
durable good of localities and communities, then we are not going to be able to preserve
anything. We are going to have to see that, if we want our forests to last, then we must
make wood products that last, for our forests are more threatened by shoddy workmanship
than by clear-cutting or by fire. Good workmanship - that is, careful, considerate and
loving work - requires us to think considerately of the whole process, natural and
cultural, involved in the making of wooden artifacts, because the good worker does not
share the industrial contempt for raw material. The good worker loves the
board before it becomes a table, loves the forest before it gives up the tree. The good
worker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger
to its source. We could say, then, that good forestry begins with the respectful
husbanding of the forest that we call stewardship and ends with well-made tables and
chairs and houses, just as good agriculture begins with stewardship of the fields and ends
with good meals."