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Highland Renewal -

A Highland Land Regeneration Project

Carol Riddell


Three great areas of challenge face the Highlands today. They are:

  1. the consequences of rural depopulation
  2. the impact of sheep farming on the landscape after depopulation
  3. the land ownership structure that has been consolidated in the Highlands.

Highland Renewal is involved in all three challenges, but it is the second which emerges as the most neglected, and perhaps the most underestimated, challenge for the Highlands.

1.    Rural Depopulation.

Everywhere in the Highlands are the ruins of buildings erected by a sizeable rural population, now gone, except in very few areas. The socio-economic life-style they represented was brought to an end with the Clearances. Many historians have concentrated on the human tragedy of these events. A pattern of life was simply truncated with no chance to develop its farming methods or dwelling patterns. The thriving Gaelic musical tradition, collective tenure, annual transmigration to the shielings, variegated agriculture and housing styles well suited to land and climate - all these basically ceased to exist. In vast areas no human population of any significance remained at all.

On Tireragan, the site of the Highland Renewal Pilot Project, 46 ruins have been discovered. Over 100 people lived there in the early 19th century, but since about 1853 the area had not been inhabited (except by a shepherd between 1886 and 1906).

2.    Sheep Farming.

The sheep became the dominant ‘tenant’, not only of the large farms and estates, but even those crofts which survived, replacing the Highland cow, to the very severe detriment of the land. The Isle of Mull was known in the seventeenth century as the ‘Green Island’. Then more than 10,000 Highland Cattle manured the soil from Beinn to Glen, grazed sedge and good grass alike, trampled young bracken, and broke the soil crust, encouraging seeding. Now it can only be called the ‘Brown Island’. In most places deer sedge and grasses are the dominant vegetation, while sheep nibble away at any more nutritious plants that try to establish themselves, compact the soil with their small feet, provide a poor quality dung, and, by overgrazing better soils, encourage bracken to spread. Mull has recently been called the ‘bracken capital of Europe’ by a researcher.

Such facts were pointed out more than 40 years ago by Frank Fraser Darling in his ‘West Highland Survey’, a major work ignored by the government which commissioned it. Why has the ubiquitous sheep not been challenged more often and more seriously as a destroyer of Highland land fertility? Perhaps because even poverty-stricken crofters came to depend on it for their livelihoods.

3.    Land Ownership

It is an extraordinary irony that one of the least populated regions of Europe should have such a rigid land ownership structure that it is often exorbitantly expensive and sometimes impossible to find even a corner on which to re-establish sites of population. Housing sites owned by the Duke of Argyll near the tiny village of Fionnphort are being offered for around 12,000 - boggy and rocky moorland worth a few pounds a hectare as agricultural land. A local self-build group has been totally unable to find a site to build a ‘clachan’ for its members anywhere on the Ross of Mull.

It was in response to such challenges that the Highland Renewal pilot project at Tireragan was conceived. As it develops, we find them constantly re-emerging in new forms.

Vision and Opportunity

The general vision of the project emerged in 1992 as a response to these challenges after some study of Highland history and its relevance to the local landscape and culture.

In the latter part of 1992 a short paper "A Dream of Knockvologan " was written. It envisaged the re-population of an area formerly known as "Tireragan" ("Tir Fhearagan, incorrectly, on modern maps). Proposals included the re-population of a ruined clachan, Cr Na B Glaise", the exclusion of sheep and deer in favour of Highland cattle, vegetable production, using pigs to clear ground, woodland planting, and the introduction of green tourism (walking and pony trekking) to allow visitors to appreciate the natural beauty of the area. This would be a pilot study in diversification of land use and re-population which might be relevant to other areas in the Highlands. Only one thing was lacking. Money.

The land, a 625 hectare farm created by purchase from the Duke of Argyll for soldiers returning from the First World War, had been up for sale for many months, as a result of the bankruptcy of the previous owner, and it was known that speculative buyers were interested. It comprised 617 hectares of hill, eight hectares of improved pasture and silage meadow, a modern three-bedroom bungalow and three large barns. There was an asking price of 140,000, but the land was long and narrow in shape, and there was a total lack of access, with no road, track or even path across two miles of hill to the main part of the land, so it was relatively unattractive to many potential buyers. (For a map see Appendix Three.)

The opportunity occurred when the Dutch owners of the nearby island of Erraid became intrigued with aspects of the vision, and offered to buy the land so that some of the proposed projects could be developed. It all happened within two months and seemed to be some sort of miracle. By the beginning of April 1993 three of us were living in the house, and there was a chance to develop the vision.

Making the Project Local

The current population of Mull is a mix of landowners, incomers and local people - rather few of the latter, sadly. The project was initiated by incomers and landowners, but it could not be run solely by them.

In the summer of 1993 we held a meeting which was attended by 19 people including the owners and interested local people. It set up an informal steering group which was the basis of the Board of Directors which was formed later. The meeting took several other decisions including the following:

bulletto call the project "Highland Renewal"
bulletto form a charity
bulletto make the project a locally based one.

It also adopted four aims for the work of the project:

  1. to treat the land with respect for its history and in an ecologically aware manner, appropriate to the nature of the land itself.
  2. to promote the creation of viable communities in the Highlands and Islands, using the current project and its aims as the pilot scheme
  3. to inform the public at large of the challenges and the progress of the project
  4. to fully involve members of surrounding local communities in the project.

The meeting also adopted the following statement, which appeared in Highland Renewal’s first brochure, produced later that year:

"It is intended to create an exemplary and viable Highland rural community according to holistic and ecological principles, embodying spiritual values and practice. While using modern methods, techniques and machinery, we will honour the best in past Highland communities with the aim of conserving natural resources and areas of outstanding natural beauty for the benefit of present and future generations.

"It is also intended to promote education, research and public awareness and understanding of the role of rural regeneration in the conservation of the natural resources of the Scottish Highlands."

Acquiring charitable status took longer and proved more complex than we had envisaged. The first attempt, via an accountant friend in Inverness, produced objections from the Inland Revenue in relation to our land development plans. On the recommendation of Argyll and Bute Countryside Trust, we changed to a lawyer In Glasgow who specialised in charity work and knew his way around the subject. He produced a Memorandum and Articles of Association for us. These were adopted in August 1994. Highland Renewal was registered as a Scottish Charity and Company limited by Guarantee (SCO22859, Company No. 152457) and we adopted amended Objects for legal purposes and to allow maximum flexibility in our operation (see Appendix One where the amended objects are listed).

The owners agreed to lease the land and buildings to the new company in two sections: the main part of the land on a 30 year lease; and the in-bye field (eight hectares), barns and house on a seven year lease. The 30 year lease allowed the directors to do much as they pleased with the larger part of the land. However the seven-year lease was a very weak one, and nothing could be done without the owners’ agreement. We were not required to pay rent on either lease. We agreed to this leasing structure because we thought at the time that almost all our activity would be on the main part of the land. As the project developed, however, it became clear that this idea was very mistaken.

The first ‘pro-tem’ directors’ meeting was held in August 1994. There have been only minor changes to the Board since then. It now has 12 members - the four owners who live in Holland; one non-resident director; and seven people living locally, who include the local postman, the owner of the local garage, the local bus-driver and a retired lady.

In addition we were able to find three supportive patrons - Tony Gibson, OBE, the creator of Planning for Real who has strong local connections; Professor Robin Webster, Professor of Architecture at Robert Gordon’s University, Aberdeen: Attie MacKechnie, a retired local man with historic roots in the community, who is one of Mill’s chef upholders of Gaelic culture and local history.

A small group of members started the project but this group has now more than 70 members, of whom over half live on Mull. The project is well known and widely supported in the small community of Fionnphort. In one case local residents intervened quite strongly to change the direction of the project (see below) The board has a policy of engaging local contractors wherever possible.

It was decided to develop local contact further by means of a bi-monthly newsletter Highland Renewal News", a two-sided A4 sheet, which has appeared, more or less regularly, ever since. 350 copies are distributed free to local people, members and others who have visited the project.

The Positive Achievement - Concentrating on Practical Work


In accordance with our aims, the first practical step was to understand the nature and history of the area. So in the first period, even before the charity was established, the project manager undertook to familiarise herself with the land, a strenuous task, and to make a study of the area. This latter task involved visits to Inverness, Glasgow, Lochgilphead and Inveraray (to consult the Duke of Argyll’s records) and took about a year.

As a result, we were able to publish a 12,000 word study, Tireragan, A Township on the Ross of Mull: A Study in Local History in an edition of 1,000 copies, now virtually sold out. We became aware that the introduction of sheep had drastically changed the land management systems to the detriment of the land and had negatively affected the entire land regime of the Highlands. Even the crofting population which succeeded the inhabitants of the townships of the past was overwhelmed with oviculture; the remaining woodlands were devastated; and bracken spread rapidly into the better drained land.

It became abundantly clear that the challenge for the Highlands was not just to repopulate cleared areas, but to replace sheep farming with mixed farming, including a major element of silviculture - replanting and extending native woodlands, for their own sake and also to compete with bracken and to improve soils. This is a difficult task, as it involves convincing crofters and farmers of the need to change from sheep-farming which at present they largely depend on.


We have set up three Woodland grant Schemes, as follows:

bulletWGS1 (1995) 70 hectares existing woodland, 100 hectares natural regeneration
bulletWGS2 (1996) 36 hectares new planting of native broadleaves
bulletWGS3 (1997) 100 hectares natural regeneration around the boundary of WCGS1

To establish these schemes we employed a local contractor to erect a deer-proof ring-fence 6.8 kilometres long, round the whole of the hill land. This was feasible as the fence reaches the shore at each end. The fence has enabled us to remove all stock, though there have been problems with the deer that were left within the fence and with a few which have been able to get round the south end of the fence at low tide. We have now built a deer ramp which we hope will get them out. The ring fence also allows regeneration in the many small patches of woodland outside the WGS areas.


Major plant surveys have been carried out for us by Dr Ben Averis, assisted by Clare Cummings, who mapped the woodland areas hectare by hectare, and by biology students from Manchester Metropolitan University, who use the area for field trips.

Historical Reconstruction

We have begun reconstruction of one of the five ruined houses and the ruined cattle pen at the Cr Na B Glaise clachan. The work, which is historically authentic, is being undertaken by Brian Wilson of Wildland Services. The 40 other ruins on the land will be left as they are. The area is excellent for on-site historical education and the rebuilt buildings will provide a focus. Two dry-stane dyking workshops have already been held at the cattle pen.

Access and Green Tourism

We have surveyed and constructed more than six kilometres of grass track and path, transporting materials for more than 70 lightweight bridges, including 40 tons of logs with our ATV bike and trailer. As a result, we were able in the spring of 1997 to open to the public three waymarked trials, one of which was a nature trail. We have also prepared two descriptive leaflets which are available free. The first 125 metres of the nature trail are of road standard and were constructed by an Army Military Aid to the Civilian Community (MACC) scheme, which had profound consequences for the future of the project (see below). In addition we used a local contractor to deep-ditch, near the start of the track, 300 yards of bog which had been a major obstacle. We have also provided a car park at the road with space for eight cars and the potential for more. We have had an enthusiastic response to these walks from the public who have given us several hundred pounds in donations in the first year the paths were open. In addition to tourists we have had a number of working guests who have visited us for a few days or longer, and we also frequently receive guest groups who have come for tours or study- or work-visits.


As funds became available, we upgraded our computing equipment, and now have a fast, modern computer, with scanning equipment and laser printing facility. We are also connected to the Internet. These facilities enable us to produce our bi-monthly A4 newsletter complete with pictures, and also to fax regular press releases to local and some national newspapers. We have also produced a 4-sided A4 leaflet, Highland Renewal at a Glance which provides introductory publicity and is regularly upgraded. We have won prizes in two national nature competitions, and we also help local organisations with leaflets and other publicity, including some graphic design work.


The project has been developed on a shoe-string, using voluntary labour for the most part. We pay no salaries, but the Secretary/Project Manager receives the use of the house and car gratis. Vegetables and fuel in the form of peat come from the garden and the bog respectively.

Our main expenditure has been on: deer fence construction; purchase of the ATV bike; tree planting; house restoration; track construction; computing equipment and publicity; and general maintenance costs, including food, car, household, tools, etc.

We have received income from donations (the owners have given more than 5,000), sales of books and donations for our walks. Our main source of income, however, has been our Woodland Grant Schemes. In addition we have received several grants: 6,000 from the Foundation for Gaia; 2,000 from the Findhorn Foundation and the Shell Better Britain Campaign: and smaller grants (under 500 each) from Scottish Natural Heritage, the Tourist Board, Nature’s Prize and the LEADER II Community Fund.

Detailed accounts are available at the project office (see Appendix Four). These are examined each year by accountants who prepare them for Companies House.

Challenges and Problems

We always thought there would be problems when we were working from scratch, with no one to advise about overall strategy. The problems we have worked on may be of interest to others.

As project manager and the only full-time worker, I have a perspective which may not be shared by others. In my view there have been four major problems or groups of problems in the project’s short history. They have not stopped our work, but they have caused obstacles which have meant changes of emphasis or even of direction and considerable frustration.


Highland Renewal was conceived as a holistic project - not just housing and jobs, not just agriculture, not just regeneration and the preservation of nature, but all three, combined. It seems people are just not used to that approach. Modern man is dissected and considers only separate parts. For instance, we had some difficulty getting charitable status. Were we a business or a charity? Some of our activities seemed to belong to one category, some to another. Funding bodies found, and still find, that while some aspects of the project fall into what they think of as their remit, others do not. We were told that historical reconstruction was not fundable, but making tracks was. Creating corncrake meadows is fundable, but preserving ruins is not. Thus one of the projects which is very exciting, the reconstruction of the clachan, is very difficult for us financially, while ‘general public access’ sends hands reaching for cheque books.

Ideally, we would like funders to consider the whole project, with its vision and its aims, worth supporting financially. Failing that, we would like to be able to choose to which aspect of the project funds should be allocated. I hope that projects just under way, such as Assynt, Eigg and Orbost, will have more success in this field. Funders must have a much greater awareness of the need to consider Highland land issues holistically.

Flaws in the Vision

Our initial view was that new, appropriate housing should be built at the clachan we are now reconstructing. However it gradually became clear that this was a mistake. The architecture students of one of our patrons produced designs for the ‘modern’ clachan, but we could not reconcile them with the site. Modern living is just too intrusive. Furthermore, we would have had to build a three kilometre asphalted access road to high standards in order to construct a new village. This would have been astronomically expensive. Moreover, the Royal Engineers’ work on 125 meters of track showed us the negative environmental impact such a road would have, and had the effect of mobilising local opinion against any modernisation of the clachan.

The result was that we made changes in the vision, deciding to bring the new housing close to the Knockvologan road and to reconstruct the old clachan as a historical monument and open-air study centre. Our ability to change our thinking was appreciated locally, but brought further problems for our Board.

The Challenge of Ownership

That Highland Renewal was able to start at all was due to an act of enlightened philanthropy by the Dutch people who bought the property. However, when we realised we had to amend the vision, especially in relation to new housing, the owners became a minority on the board, but one with the power of ownership behind them. We now wanted to build on the part of the land which had only a seven-year lease - which had little legal force. Only with the permission of the owners could anything happen, but they, for their own reasons, did not like the idea. We hoped that time would soften them, and after almost a year we put to them tentative proposals which we had prepared with the help of Professor Webster, our architecture specialist and patron, and the local self-build group. The owners rejected these out of hand and remained firm in their views despite a lively AGM attended by 26 local people.

This meant that all the new housing plans has to be shelved. The setback caused considerable confusion among the rest of the Board. Should we go on with the parts of the project where there was agreement - a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach? Should we try to find a totally new site and begin again? When we considered the achievements we had already made and our investment in the project up to that point, and also took into account the demoralising effect of the owners’ opposition and the difficulty of securing funding, we did not think it feasible to find a site for a new project. From this point on the overall vision of the project - as originally adopted - seemed to get lost.

With hindsight, I would propose that leasing arrangements are not suitable for projects of this scope. It is necessary to have clear ownership structures.

Diversity of Interests on the Board

Our Board of Directors is diverse in its membership: different directors have different interests in the project. As the project ran into the difficulties described above, differences of emphasis have appeared. The reconstruction of the clachan has been opposed by some., as has the development of a historical centre and open-air education on the site. The expansion of visitor access has not met with wholehearted approval. There is pressure to bring more and more proposed activities into the area of land where we have no adequate lease. Many of the original proposals, such as introducing Highland cattle, using pigs to clear bracken, developing pony trekking, are contested. These differences of opinion have made the position of the Project Manager untenable. We need a working Board of Directors with a unified vision supported by the local community to make the project manager’s job a viable one. It is not that the differences mentioned above are insurmountable or that the future of the project is necessarily bleak. It is early days and have a very good record of achievement so far. Fundamental changes are needed, however.

The Way Forward

Some of the original aims of Highland Renewal have been achieved (see Appendix Two for our list of achivements). Work on others is in progress, and has yet to start on still more. Some aims have been amended.

At a recent meeting of the Not-for-Profit Landowning Group, which has been a means of linking Highland Renewal with other rather similar projects in the Highlands, I became convinced that the Highland Renewal Project has three major needs:

bulletIt needs new leadership, with closer links with organisations of wider scope, such as Scottish Natural Heritage or Forest Enterprise (among others), which are potential members of partnerships which Highland Renewal may wish to establish.
bulletIt needs to develop a different relationship to the local community, linking the land to the community as an asset for the locality, e.g., a community woodland and recreation area (among the project’s other aspects).
bulletIt needs a properly drawn up and costed management plan for several years ahead. When Highland Renewal began, it seemed important to start with practical work on the ground in order to establish a presence and demonstrate progress. The directors have concluded, however, that a proper management plan and access to larger funding are essential if projects are to be developed further. The plan must have the approval of a majority of the Directors and must also be approved by the local community in public discussion. Once approved, such a plan could be submitted to major funding bodies like the National Lottery Fund or the Rural Challenge Fund, with the hope that we can cover the costs of paid staff and, if necessary, purchase land outright rather than have to lease it.

The need for action to meet these needs has coincided with my need to leave the project for personal reasons. A new management group is being formed, potentially one that can tackle these issues and meet the challenges outlined above.

The atmosphere in the Highlands has changed dramatically since Highland Renewal was conceived. Holistic land renewal schemes on much larger areas than ours are in their early stages in several localities, and public attitudes towards the whole range of problems stemming from the Clearances are becoming more sympathetic to changes in the status quo.

I hope that Highland Renewal can continue to be part of this process. In any event, I believe we have made a contribution to such changes, by our work and the publicity associated with it.

For Further Reading

Tireragan, A Township on the Ross of Mull: A Study in Local History, Highland Renewal, Fionnphort, 1996



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