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At last Gigha is freed from the petty power of the big house

Brian Wilson MP
West Highland Free Press, 21st March 2002

BRIAN WILSON was on Gigha last Friday when the community celebrated the formal handover of the island to the new trust which will run its affairs on their behalf. The community buy-out could not have come at a better time, he says

I stopped in Tarbert, Loch Fyne, last Saturday morning to buy some newspapers. They had a lot in them about the Land Reform Bill having, the previous day, cleared its latest Parliamentary hurdle.

Most of it was negative in tone with spokesmen for the Scottish Landowners' Federation and its various front-organisations spitting contempt on the process, complete with the usual references to "Mugabe-style land raids". Ceausescu's Romania even got a look in from the 'Daily Mail' while a Tory MSP detected the hand of "Marxism".

Robert Balfour, convener of the Scottish Landowners' Federation, complained bitterly: "Our worst fears are confirmed. This is an exercise driven more by political ideology and a desire to expiate the Clearances than by any appreciation of the real needs of rural Scotland."

As we rolled through Mid Argyll, I was struck by the completeness of the disjunction between what I was reading and what I had just experienced. An hour or so earlier, I had left the Isle of Gigha - by any standards, a part of rural Scotland and a place as unaffected by "political ideology" as any you are likely to encounter. There would be few votes for Marx, Mugabe or Ceausescu.

Yet the people of Gigha had been celebrating, with joy unconfined, the implementation of precisely the phenomenon of which Mr Balfour and his cronies so vehemently complained - land reform. And best of all they had been celebrating the eradication, on that island at least, of precisely the blight which Mr Balfour seeks to perpetuate - private landlordism.

And this is where the contrast between propaganda and reality becomes surreal. The landowners speak of the status quo as it is some benign state of affairs, much loved by a contented population and threatened only by meddling urban ideologists. But on Gigha, they spoke of departed landlordism in terms which could be summed up in two words. "Good riddance." It was a pity Mr Balfour could not have been there to witness it.

I have rarely experienced such a palpable feeling of the lid coming off a place as I did on Gigha last weekend. This was an island which really had, for the past 20 years, been held down by the arrogance and petty power of "the big house" and the changing cast of odd-balls who occupied it. And it was all the worse on Gigha because they had once known something very different.

For many years, under the Horlick family, Gigha was a model of well-intentioned, paternalistic private landlordism. But good landlords are, like the rest of us, mortal. When they die, the security they have provided dies with them. As Gigha has repeatedly learned to its cost, it is replaced by uncertainty and the lottery of the market place.

Kenny Robison, one of several excellent people providing leadership for the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust, summed up what has happened in the past 20 years since he arrived on the island. The population has gone from 180 to 98. The number of agricultural tenancies is down from 10 to three. The school roll has fallen from 29 to six.

When one is more accustomed to areas which are under crofting tenure, it is easy to forget just what power can be exercised by a landowner in areas which do not enjoy that status. George Lyon MSP, a former president of the Scottish NFU and himself a tenant farmer, said that he had never seen such oppressive conditions as were contained in the Gigha leases. The best that can be said is that there still are a few leases on Gigha. On Colonsay, the factors Clutton's have managed to get rid of them altogether.

So Gigha did not finally opt for community ownership out of political ideology, Mr Balfour. It opted for it out of sheer desperation and a fear of something even worse than it has experienced in these past 20 years. Ray Michie, the former MP for Argyll, recalled that she had tried to persuade them to go for it the last time the island was up for sale but the support wasn't there. Even when it went on the market last autumn, there were only about a fifth of the adult islanders initially in favour of attempting a community buy-out.

But gradually, as the possibilities became more apparent, the mood turned. Even the chairman of the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust, Willie McSporran, freely stated that he had not been in favour of it to start with because of the scale of the undertaking. But the commitment of Willie and many others is now all the deeper - precisely because they came to their own conclusions on the basis of careful thought and consideration.

Kenny Robison said that the visit to Eigg had been "pivotal" in their decision-making process. They had seen how confidence there had increased; how land and houses were being brought back into use; how control over its own destiny had created "a real community". It was appropriate indeed that Eigg was well represented at last weekend's event to which it had contributed so much.

The Scottish Land Fund also contributed in more material terms and was absolutely right to do so. Its chairman, David Campbell, recalled the tension of the final negotiations by three-way link-up. Would the land fund be able to put up the necessary money? Would the previous owner agree to sell at valuer's price? Would the people of Gigha go for it this time? All of the answers came out right.

In a simple ceremony of beautiful symbolism, Simon Fraser - whose legal guidance has been crucial to the evolution of the whole movement - passed a handful of stone and earth to Willie McSporran to signify the transfer of ownership. Willie replied in the Gaelic of Gigha - a noble reminder that the language survives against all odds, since not a finger has been lifted by any corner of officialdom to support it in this or similar places. That too should not change, however late in the day.

The Minister for Enterprise, Wendy Alexander, was there to offer support from the Scottish Executive. Some last-minute manoeuvring by CalMac allowed her to make the hugely-welcome announcement that children would, in future, be able to travel to and from secondary school in Campbeltown on a daily basis. One just wondered why it had taken so long for CalMac to yield this point. Only recently, a family with four children left the island because of this very issue.

But the message was not lost on the people of Gigha, and it will not be lost on many other places. A lot of things change when a self-confident community begins to realise its own potential and rids itself of the dead hand of landlordism. In terms of leading by example, the Gigha buy-out could not have come at a better time.

West Highland Free Press www.whfp.com

Article archived at: http://www.whfp.com/1560/focus.html