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The Isle Martin Trust - A community-based charitable trust

Roy Osborne

bulletBackground
bulletCreation of the Isle Martin Trust Steering Group
bulletThe work of the Steering Group
bulletInterim Executive Board
bulletThe Launch of the Trust
bulletImproving Access
bulletFinal Steps toward the Handover
bulletProgress so far and Future Plans
bulletConclusion

Background

Isle Martin, presently uninhabited, is situated at the mouth of Loch Broom some three miles north-west of Ullapool, Wester Ross. It lies in sheltered waters, close to the mainland at Ardmair and close to the Pictish remains of Dun Canna. The island is relatively inaccessible, because of its location and attempts to restrict access in the past. Nevertheless it is a much admired and substantial element of local heritage.

There is little in the way of documented history of Isle Martin prior to the late eighteenth century, although the island must have been an important place for many years prior to that. It is probable that the island has been inhabited off and on for several thousand years, but no archaeological survey has been undertaken. The only specific, but anecdotal, references are to a Saint Martin who is reputed to have established a monastery there, probably around 300-400AD, and from whom the island takes its name.

Agriculture and fishing must have been the mainstays of the island economy for most of its history. The original feu charters, dated early 1700, make interesting reading. By the eighteenth century there was an important and active trade in fish from the island, and a herring station and associated customs house were established by a John Woodhouse. The export of fish stopped in 1813 after successive years of falling catches. During this period there were probably around a hundred people living on the island.

The island has probably been farmed since people first lived there. During the 1820s the island was divided into crofts, and crofting continued for nearly 150 years until the 1960s when the island was taken out of crofting tenure. It would have been predominantly used for cattle and sheep grazing, with some limited arable at the southern end near the main settlement.

In the late 1930s a wealthy local landowner, much interested in local development and employment, established a flour mill on the site of the old herring station, and some substantial housing was constructed. Most of the mill workers were ferried daily to the island. Wheat was carried to an island wharf by sailing ship and flour transported back to Ullapool from where it was distributed to bakeries across the north of Scotland. Sacks were labelled "Isle Martin Flour Mills". However, the mill closed, and buildings and wharves were dismantled, in 1948.

In the 1960s the island was purchased by Mrs M E H Goldsmith, who ran it mainly for nature conservancy purposes. She brought two houses up to modern standards and converted the old mill house into a dwelling. Limited water and power supplies were installed, using an artesian well and a small generator. Sheep were cleared from the island in 1969, and in 1979 the small herd of Highland cattle was deported. Mrs Goldsmith gifted Isle Martin to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1980 on the understanding that it would be managed for conservation. Included in the feu disposition were several constraints on the options open to the RSPB should they wish to dispose of the asset at a future date.

Under RSPB management an ambitious programme of broad-leaved woodland regeneration ensued, behind the protection of extensive rabbit fencing. A reserve warden carried out experimental work on plant populations, plantations and fertilisation of trees. RSPB recorded visiting and breeding birds and surveyed their populations. A trial of long-term house letting also took place, using two or three houses.

However the location of the island and its particular attributes made it difficult for the RSPB to fulfil its aims and remit, and by the middle of 1996 it was understood locally that Isle Martin was to be given away or sold. Representations were made, and in May 1999, with the active encouragement of Mrs Goldsmith's daughter, Miss Oriole Goldsmith, the RSPB gifted the island to a trust proposed and established by the community of the parishes of Loch Broom and Coigach - The Isle Martin Trust.

Creation of the Isle Martin Trust Steering Group

The possibility that Isle Martin might again pass from the community aroused strong feelings and complaints. As a consequence of this disquiet, a public meeting was called by the local councillor, David Green, (now Convenor of The Highland Council (THC)), and the meeting hall overflowed.

A substantial proportion of the parish of Loch Broom attended the meeting, which was chaired by David Green. The outcome of the meeting was the election, by proposals and show of hands, of a steering group of 12 local people who were given the remit of paving the way for the RSPB to gift the island to an acceptable trust formed for and by local inhabitants.

Rather unusually, the initial task was not to raise a purchase price, but to create an appropriate trust. It would have to have aims and a format which would be acceptable to the RSPB, whose ability to make a gift of the asset was constrained by Charity Law and the conditions of Mrs Goldsmith's disposition to the RSPB.

The Work of the Steering Group

The members of the steering group, eight of whom represented interested parties (mostly local), were guided in their initial formative procedures by the local councillor and the then Head of Policy for The Highland Council, Nick Reiter. Their ready help, and the resources to which they had access, proved to be essential elements in the preparation of the 'professional quality' documents and the specification of the procedures necessary for a workmanlike trust.

A detailed and wide-ranging discussion paper was prepared for consideration at the first group meeting, held in January 1997. The paper dealt with various topics and issues that had been raised at the public meeting, such as possible objectives and a brief outline of possible Articles of Association. However, it was considered essential to broaden discussion and interest in view of the local disquiet which had already been expressed. Accordingly members were requested to try to gauge local feeling and encourage local people to put forward their ideas and hopes for the island's future use and management. This they did through informal consultations with a wide range of local people.

The views expressed during these consultations informed further discussion by the Steering Group of a range of topics, from the procedures thought necessary to acquire the island, to how to finance and manage the asset and how to make best use of the island in the local interest. As always with discussions of proposals and possibilities, there were plenty of new ideas, consequent reservations and healthy disagreement.

The Steering Group was helped in its discussions by a presentation on the possible future management of the woodland on the island, together with an archaeological briefing, and also by a visit to the island to view habitats, housing and access. Meanwhile the group also continued the work of drafting the Memorandum and Articles of Association with advice from The Highland Council.

By May 1997 the Steering Group considered that the tentative plans and draft documents should be discussed at a public meeting at which approval would be sought for the formalised draft objectives already published in the "Ullapool News". At this meeting there was a very positive response to the proposals made by the Steering Group, and it was agreed that there should be formed an Interim Executive Board comprising eight elected members and a ninth member nominated by THC as its representative. It was also agreed that the Board would have the option to co-opt a further six members to represent particular conservation interests.

Interim Executive Board

The eight elected members and the THC nominee met in July 1997, elected a Chairman and considered the first objective: formal dialogue with RSPB regarding the actual transfer of the island to the Isle Martin Charitable Trust. There were two essential issues:

  1. Acceptance of the draft objectives of the proposed trust, which had been defined as:
    1. Regenerating the quality and diversity of the natural, cultural and human heritage of the island.
    2. Developing the educational and recreational potential of the island as an important local and national resource.
    3. Identifying opportunities for sustainable economic activity in so far as is consistent with conserving the natural habitat and wildlife interest of the island and the trust's charitable status.
    4. Encouraging and ensuring open access to the island in so far as is consistent with the trust's conservation objectives, and the interpretation of both its heritage and ecological qualities for the benefit of the community at large.
  2. Preparation of an acceptable form of trust document incorporating
    1. Memorandum;
    2. Articles of Association; and
    3. a Business Plan.

THC provided essential and very full advice on the Memorandum and Articles, the latter being broadly based upon the articles prepared shortly before for the Ullapool Museum. The council was also asked to help in an official capacity with the preparation of the business plan. At about this time, Highlands and Islands Enterprise's Community Land Unit (CLU) made contact with the group and were most helpful. THC and the CLU came to the rescue of the group by offering to fund the Business Management plan, and the Ross and Cromarty Enterprise (RACE) LEADER II Programme suggested eight individuals or consulting groups who could carry out the work.

A short leet of three was drawn up and interviews conducted by the Chairman, Vice Chairman and a THC representative, and a consultant was appointed. Following detailed discussions with members and an island visit, he prepared a draft plan which he presented to the Board. After full discussion of the draft at a meeting with the consultant, the Board made minor amendments which were incorporated into the plan.

The business plan is a detailed and comprehensive document. As well as outlining the structures and aims of the trust, it gives a projection of work and financial expectations for the first three years and also incorporates plans for such fundamental matters as access and maintenance and development of the natural heritage. In due course the approved plan was submitted to the RSPB. It proved to be an essential element in the Board's further endeavours to secure funding.

The plan also had an almost immediate effect on morale. Members now felt not only that they knew much more clearly where they were going, but also that they were at last on the way to acquiring the island and could make the project work. With clear goals and new-found confidence, the Board's enthusiasm was outstanding. Members started raising money from stall sales at village events, and received a further boost from offers of voluntary help with printing facilities and accommodation for Board meetings.

The Board was fortunate in that it was developing its ideas for Isle Martin at about the same time as other community land acquisitions were taking place. The coincidence made Isle Martin newsworthy even although the project was of a smaller scale. The Board attempted to capitalise on this interest. For example, one Board member, aided by THC, prepared a video display of island features - woodland scenery, buildings, historic buildings and pier. His display and illustrated talk, together with updates in the "Ullapool News", served to keep the village informed of the Board's activities. The Coigach community displayed interest in the venture and the Board gave a similar display and talk in the Achiltibuie village hall.

The Launch of the Trust

The trust was formally launched in late 1998 by advertisement and public meeting. Membership is open to anyone living in the Ullapool or Coigach area and to other individuals having close associations with the area. Subscriptions are 5 annually and life membership 50. At the time of writing the trust has some 200 members.

Improving Access

On their early visit to the island members of the steering group had been impressed by its peace and tranquillity. A further visit by representatives of interested parties, such as RACE, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and THC, accompanied by members of the Board, was arranged. However, conditions in the island bay prevented landing, and it was generally accepted that adequate island access was a priority.

Accordingly, the Board prepared a fully costed scheme to provide car parking adjacent to Ardmair Beach, refurbish the old jetty and purchase a 'ferry' boat. An appeal for funds for this scheme was put to seven organisations based in, or having an interest in conservation and development in, the Highlands. Happily, three were able to offer help: RACE's LEADER II Programme, the Community Land Unit, and SNH. In addition, Rhidorroch Estate donated land for the car park at Ardmair. Subsequent trials of a variety of supposedly appropriate boats - 'landing craft', sport types and specialised boats - together with the experience gained from boarding difficulties during the trials, indicated that a small, sturdy second-hand boat together with a simple gabion jetty would prove the most suitable combination. Since this plan could be effected within the grant allocation, it was adopted.

Final Steps toward the Handover

The Board was fortunate in obtaining the willing co-operation of a solicitor with profound local knowledge, who took on the task of revising and completing the Memorandum and Articles, and who, in due course, acquired Charitable Status for the trust. The Memorandum and Articles together with the business plan were approved by the RSPB, and a tentative date was set for the official handover of title deeds to the trust, which was now entitled to describe itself as "a community-based charitable trust".

Detailed conveyancing work was carried out for the trust by a firm of solicitors in Inverness, and was funded by THC and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). The actual handover event was a most pleasant celebration largely funded by RSPB and took place on 3rd May 1999. Fortunately the weather allowed a large number of guests to be ferried out to the island gathering.

Following this achievement the Interim Executive Board stood down. In its place an Executive Board with a similar number of members was elected by ballot at a meeting of members held on 29th June 1999. The ballot resulted in the re-election of a substantial number of the Interim Board.

Progress So Far and Future Plans

Much has been achieved in a relatively short time. The Steering Committee carried out an audit of the resources of the island. The electricity supply is provided by a small generator and is quite inadequate. However a new supply from the mainland would cost 115,000, it has been estimated. The island depends for water on an uncertain artesian source on the island. This could be augmented, however, if power were to be brought in. In assessing ways of improving the pier facilities it was decided that large pier construction aided by an army exercise was not practicable. Unfortunately it has not been possible for the trust or any other appropriate organisation to fund an archaeological survey of existing ruins and possibilities.

Jetties, boats and car park are now in place (the former necessitating extensive correspondence with four authorities). It is planned to operate a limited evening and Saturday ferry service in summer 2001. Experimental runs on Saturdays in the summer of 2000 were a success, the boat being manned by experienced volunteers, with information and assistance on the island provided by another volunteer.

Work has already started on the island. Some attention has been given to the woodland plantation by members and by school parties, and this work will continue. Minor maintenance has been carried out on the houses by volunteers, but much remains to be done, and it is intended to place a contract to achieve more substantial progress.

A large registration of both annual and life members is in place, and a newsletter is distributed to all members. Issue One appeared over the winter of 1999, and Issue Three is awaited.

It had been envisaged in the preparation of the business plan that an endowment fund could be established which would be sufficient to meet recurrent annual charges (community charges and insurance) and foreseeable small running costs. However it is now accepted that although charitable trusts may be willing to support specific objectives with which they are in sympathy, they are not happy to provide funds towards an endowment. Instead, income has come from a variety of sources. Small but very significant sums have been raised on several occasions by running stalls at village events. Annual subscriptions provide a further source of income, which has risen with the increasing membership. Small individual donations have been received on occasion and grants for specific purposes have been received from the Gillman Trust and the James Thin Trust. Many other trusts were approached, and courteous replies received from those unable to help with donations.

Conclusion

Funding will remain a substantial problem. It is hoped to generate income by encouraging and providing for visitors and by letting the houses on the island. However both activities require summer-time attendants and a full-time warden, and the latter requires substantial funding not presently available from grant aid. The Community Charge is an ongoing and onerous problem, as it swallows the greater percentage of the revenue from all fund-raising efforts, even though it is currently levied at 50 per cent of the normal charge. It may be possible to obtain a further reduction by changing the use of two properties from dwelling-houses to a store and visitor display/interpretation area. The trust should be able to engage in activities to develop the island as set out in the objectives, but progress will depend to a large extent on its success in raising funding.

 

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