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Power to the people - Buy-out is transforming Knoydart's future

Juliet Conway
West Highland Free Press, 13th May 2001

Two years on from the community buy-out, JULIET CONWAY visited Knoydart to find out how life has changed.

We all need power, for work and play. It seems fitting, therefore, that the first major project which the Knoydart Foundation is tackling since acquiring control of their land is the complete refurbishment of their hydro-electric system at an estimated cost of 450,000.

Although the media spotlight has dimmed since the 17,200-acre estate was brought into community control in March 1999, ending decades of conflict caused by a series of absentee landlords, its 65 local residents have been quietly working together to turn around Knoydart's fortunes.

The community's neglected hydro scheme - which was built in the 1970s - has become increasingly erratic, and residents have been forced to rely more and more on the village's noisy, rusted generator which stands off the main street in Inverie. However, the generator is switched off for a part of each day.

Bernie Evemy chairs the Knoydart Hydroboard, a trading subsidiary of the Knoydart Foundation - the community-led body which now owns the estate. He said all the funding for the hydro project was in place and work was due to begin this month, with a completion target of October. Funding has been sourced from the Highland Council, Knoydart Foundation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and European Union.

"We always thought the hydro was our first priority and it was identified in a five-year business plan for urgent attention," said Mr Evemy, who runs Knoydart's post office. "The pipeline is broken and the dam at Dubh Lochan needs virtual renewing."

"Every community requires power. Businesses need it, and it is relied upon socially. In this day and age you cannot expect people not to have power, for example, to operate computers."

He added: "It is one thing that will create revenue for the Foundation, with any profits put back into the foundation and used for other social needs."

The Knoydart Foundation includes two representatives from the Highland Council, with one each from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the John Muir Trust and the Chris Brasher Trust, as well as three from the Knoydart Community Association - open to anyone in the community - and one from the neighbouring Kilchoan Estate.


Main Street, Inverie - Although it's as quiet as ever, there is a new sense of confidence


The "big house" is about to be sold, with the proceeds being reinvested in the community


The six pupils at Knoydart's tiny primary school with the health visitor and teacher

 

But has life in Knoydart really changed in the last two years? "Everybody is a lot happier," reflected Mr Evemy. "There are more opportunities and everything is gradually all coming together. It took old-style landowners years to mess it up, so we have got years to put it back together again."

The imminent announcement of the sale of Inverie House by the Foundation was to be welcomed, he said, as the neglected "big house" had acted as an albatross in the estate's development. Cash from its sale would be reinvested in the community.

Although its new owners will not be responsible for running the estate, as in the past, it is hoped the sale will create opportunities for locals and encourage more people to move there - for example, through house renovation or encouraging more stalking.

Of community ownership, Mr Evemy said: "In a sense we had a revolution, which seemed an impossible dream, and the press gave a lot of support to make it a viable proposition. Everything came together at the right time. Young people are not wondering where to get their next job - everyone is much more confident and getting involved in the running of the place."

Angela Williams, who was appointed a couple of months ago as the first development manager for the Knoydart Foundation, said another main priority to be tackled was the lack of adequate housing.

"The whole estate has suffered from lack of investment," she said. "In a recent housing and tourism survey, some of the population felt there was scope for limited growth, but it has got to be carefully managed because of the pressing accommodation issue. There are seven or eight people living in temporary accommodation. That may seem a low number, but when you consider the percentage of the population it is quite high."

Although the Foundation own five properties, she said they were all in need of refurbishment and the Foundation were looking to convert the houses over a period of time with assistance from Lochaber Housing Association, the Highland Council and the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust.

Outline planning applications for four new houses have also been submitted to the Highland Council. These units, which will cost around 25,000 each to build, are expected to house temporary workers and to act as a stepping stone for people before they buy their own houses.

Some 65 people live in around 25 houses in Knoydart, she calculated, and the population rose every year with the arrival of holiday home owners. "Unemployment is very low," she said. "Only around one or two people are out of work. Most people are self-employed, for example, in tourism or guiding-related work. Only one person has a croft, Davie Smith, who lives at Airor - a six-mile drive away - and Iain Wilson is the main hill farmer."

An independent company, Knoydart Trading, has been set up by the Foundation with responsibility for stalking activities and the basic youth hostel at Home Farm, half-a-mile from Inverie.

Plans for deer management on Knoydart over the next four years include a significant cull - from 722 hinds in 1999 to 450 by 2004. A similar reduction in stag numbers is also planned to bring the average count of 665 stags down to 480.

Another significant project, Angela Williams said, is the refurbishment and redevelopment of Home Farm and the restoration of a disused market garden into a flagship project for the Foundation. It is hoped that storage areas will be converted to around five or six workshops which could be made available to self-employed residents.

Also in the pipeline is the refurbishment of the village hall, which it is hoped will include a new library and enough space to allow a doctor from Mallaig to hold a monthly surgery. Plans for a new pier to be built at Inverie were recently unveiled to local residents in a presentation by the Highland Council. At low tide the present passenger ferry, the 'Western Isles', has to use a tender and in extremely wild weather it has to berth further down the bay at Glaschoille.

Ms Williams said that when the new pier was completed - which, depending on funding, could be in two to three years' time - Caledonian MacBrayne's ferry 'Loch Nevis' will still only carry residents' cars. Visitors will be asked to leave their cars in Mallaig.

"As we have only a couple of miles of serviceable roads we couldn't justify a regular service with vehicles," she said. "The 'Loch Nevis' will not operate a scheduled service and as far as I know Knoydart will continue to be regularly served by the 'Western Isles' on three days in winter and five days in summer."

No one wanted Knoydart simply to be a place for visitors to come to, she said. They were looking at stalking operations and land management to keep some income level throughout the year and it is hoped the new hostel will have a classroom for educational use. "Our fantastic resource is the land and water," Angela Williams said, "so we must make more use of it, without damaging it. But we have got to have a viable community too."

With the considerable media interest generated by the buy-out, were starry-eyed romantics keen to move there? "Yes, we do get a number of queries from people who want to live here," she said. "They are mostly attracted by the remoteness, for example, artists or poets - people who are interested in a disused croft on a remote part of the estate. But housing is such a key issue, and there aren't any vacant crofts lying around."

Overall, she felt that the change from estate owners being in charge to residents having part in the decision-making process had been a very positive experience. A great deal of time had been devoted by local people to a range of issues, some of them involving quite difficult decisions - such as the sale of Inverie House.

Did Knoydart live up to her expectations? "I love the area, and it's a really good community," Ms Williams said. "There is a real cross-section of people here. Some have been here for 30 to 40 years and gone through all different estate owners and experienced a difficult time, and others have been here for a just a few years."

"You can't just nip down to Tesco's, but you can do without that, and I can spend more time with one-year-old daughter. But, it's important not to get too whimsical about it."

Eilidh Klemm, who has lived at Samadalan in Knoydart for the last 20 years and has been teacher at Inverie Primary School for the last four years, is optimistic that the school would undergo an essential extension and upgrade. At present all school activities are held in just one room, including eating lunch and office work.

"The idea is to extend into the schoolhouse, with part to be used for school and part for accommodation," Mrs Klemm said. "We hope to get a nursery and a staff office. It's really essential as nursery-age children up to primary seven are all taught in just one room. It has been worked out that six boys from Doune and three girls from Inverie will be joining the school in the next five years and another two families are to join the community by next term, so that's another three children. We will be losing two to high school."

Although the schoolroom has smart new gale-proof windows, Mrs Klemm said that struggling with the intermittent power supply had meant a tough winter term.

"It's a big problem as electricity is essential. Computers are now used as a tool like a pencil and chalk. We have four classroom computers for the six pupils, as well as a video and a clavinova."

Another drawback of working in a single-teacher school, she said, was that you had all the paperwork of a big school without the staff support. You also had to keep all the children united - from primary two to seven - but challenged in their work.

"But it has its advantages," she said. "You really get to know the children and can really encourage them to develop. They have a great environment and couldn't have a more child-centered curriculum."

The school was the first place in Knoydart to boast an Internet connection, she said, and for the past four years they had been communicating with island schools in Denmark and Norway.

Did she think the community had changed since the buy-out? "Although people are bound to have problems," she said, "the meetings are very productive and everyone - including younger members of the community - are trying really hard to solve its problems. You have got to look at things with optimism."

West Highland Free Press www.whfp.com

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