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Case Study Eight:


Neil Sutherland

bulletEcological restoration
bulletDeveloping sustainable livelihoods
bulletA fourth business - alternative energy


For the past seven years a private partnership has managed 700 acres at Corrary near Glenelg in Lochalsh in pursuit of our aims of ecological restoration and community regeneration. These two main aims are inter-linked - human settlements cannot thrive on land that is ecologically dead.

The Glenelg area, which lies between Kintail to the north and Knoydart to the south, has a strongly maritime climate and is covered with large expanses of open heathland covering hills rising to 1,000 metres. The predominant soil type is peat on bedrock, except on the improved ground in the glens where fertile alluvial soils contrast with the acidic, infertile hill ground. Fragments of native woodland provide a reminder of the rich Atlantic-type oak-dominated mixed deciduous woodland which probably covered much of the lower ground until at least 400 years ago.

Corrary, which lies between Gleann Beag and Glen More and rises to 260 metres (850 feet), is a registered croft - once one of the largest in Scotland. It was run as a hill sheep farm by the previous owner who as tenant had exercised his right to buy under the 1976 Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act. In the late 1980s he decrofted about 500 acres and planned to plant sitka spruce under a Woodland Grant Scheme, with management by Fountain Forestry. The other 200 acres have remained in crofting tenure. The opposite side of the glen is covered in blanket sitka plantation which is owned by Forest Enterprise (FE).

The land includes around 30 acres of in-bye land, on the edge of which stand two brochs. These are two of the best-preserved brochs in Scotland and are roughly 2,000 years old. They are buildings of status, the products of an age when the glen supported a community which had the wealth, cohesion and social organisation required to build buildings of a social character using local materials and skills. Their maintenance is currently the responsibility of Historic Scotland.

The purchase of Corrary brought to an end a year of searching by a small group of friends for land on which to put into practice some of the ideas they had been developing about the relationship between land, livelihoods and community, and to begin practical work on three main objectives on which they agreed when they set up the partnership:

bulletto devise and maintain an ecologically sound land management strategy
bulletto investigate the re-inhabitation of the land and the development of community and economic viability particular to place
bulletto provide a working example of sustainable development appropriate to the Highlands of Scotland.

Acquiring Corrary provided us with opportunities to work on several related projects:

bulletrestoring the land to ecological health
bulletliving on the land in ways which are consistent with ecological restoration and which have a low impact on the land and the surrounding environment
bulletbasing our livelihoods, where possible, on the sustainable use of local resources and materials
bulletmaking best use of the full value of these materials in ways which benefit the wider local community
bulletrecreating community by gradually bringing people back to live in a place which has supported sizeable populations for hundreds of years, but only one household in recent times.

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 use.

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 owner’s recent attempt to break free of these trends by diversification involved the monoculture of an exotic species.

Ecological Restoration

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

Developing Sustainable Livelihoods

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 over-processed materials.

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 Trust’s 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.

Restoring Community

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 housing.

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, bracken-infested grazing.

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 Scotland’s 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 process.

A Fourth Business - Alternative Energy

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 housing.


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:

bulleterected hill fencing, riverside fencing for stock control and installed animal grids
bulletinitiated extensive reforestation, including two Woodland Grant Schemes, a proportion of which should produce good building timber in years to come
bulletachieved modest success in regeneration, which will now continue
bulletplanted strategic shelter belts and hedging
bulletdeveloped a tree nursery which proved financially viable
bulletestablished a productive organic garden and participated in a successful feasibility study of organic vegetable growing
bulletestablished timber-processing facilities - a timber-drying shed, a drying kiln and a workshop
bulletbuilt four new ‘low-impact’ buildings, which are working well
bullethad success in demonstrating the use of local timber in rural buildings
bulletrenovated the old farmhouse
bulletestablished workers’ accommodation in the form of a serviced residential caravan, and developed plans for the conversion of a redundant outbuilding to provide bothy accommodation
bulletestablished a renewable energy consultancy/wind-monitoring business - an example of the type of small-scale, low-impact economic enterprise which can only bring benefits to the local community and economy
bulletcarried out research into current legal options for land ownership and individual security
bulletcarried out research into aspects of crofting law and how this could affect us.

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 officialdom’s slowness to respond positively to proposals based on ideas which are now endorsed in official policy documents. We have frequently been disappointed by people’s 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 Office’s "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."


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