EDINBURGH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the residents of Garbh Allt in the Scottish Highlands were offered the chance to buy their land from the wealthy family behind the brutal eviction of their ancestors, many were initially hesitant.
But years of underdevelopment under the Sutherland Estate - one of Scotland’s biggest landowners - and the prospect of shaping their own future convinced them to take the leap, and in June the land was sold into community ownership.
“People were saying, oh I’m not really sure if we should take it on or not. And I was thinking to myself, my father would be spinning in his grave if we didn’t take up this opportunity,” said Anne Fraser, head of the Garbh Allt community initiative.
“I had to pinch myself the other day to actually remember we’re in ownership,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It gives me great delight when I’m walking along and suddenly think, oh, this belongs to us. It’s quite something.”
Memories of the evictions of poor tenant farmers by wealthy landowners during the 18th and 19th centuries remain strong in Scotland, and the national parliament set land reform as one of its key priorities when it was established in 1997.
Thousands of people had to emigrate to avoid starvation in the wake of the Highland clearances and some of the worst abuses have been blamed on the then Duke of Sutherland.
Fraser said she did not see the deal as revenge for the clearances, but as a chance for the community to take control in an area that, like many in rural Scotland, has suffered years of underinvestment and depopulation.
It is among the latest transfers of private land into residents’ hands under the Scottish Land Reform Act of 2003, which gave communities first right of refusal when land was put up for sale.
“Scotland is characterized by having a very concentrated pattern of land ownership,” said Andy Wightman, a Scottish Green Party member of the Scottish parliament.
“Approximately 440 to 450 land owners own half of all the privately-owned rural land. Scotland until 2004 still had a system of feudal land tenure.”
The Scottish government’s aim is to have a million acres of land in community ownership by the end of 2020. By June 2017 it was more than half way there, according to the latest available figures.
But not everyone agrees with its methods.
As the Garbh Allt community completed their purchase earlier this year, another, much more contentious deal went through on the island of Ulva - this time largely government funded.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon announced the planned buyout of Ulva at the SNP party conference a year ago, hailing it as a victory for community ownership.
Three decades ago, Ulva, a stunningly beautiful island off Scotland’s west coast, had 30 inhabitants. Now it has just six, and those behind the buyout say they want to revive local life.
But the island’s original owner Jamie Howard questions whether the 4 million pounds ($5.2 million) the government put toward the purchase was a good use of public money.
When the community expressed its interest, he had no choice but to sell to them - even though he favored another buyer who he said was better placed to give the island the long-term investment it needs to secure its future.
“They do say that the only way to make a small fortune from somewhere like Ulva is to start out with a large one,” said Howard, whose family had owned the island for generations.
“We had one person in particular who I think would have made an extremely good guardian of Ulva, with stacks of money and a very good track record as far as responsible ownership is concerned.”
That view is challenged by Ulva’s new owner, the North West Mull Community Woodland Company, which already had a track record of community ownership on the neighboring island of Mull.
Its chief executive, Ian Hepburn, defended the use of public funds, saying it was about “developing and adding to the sustainable development of the north west of Mull”, as well as the island (of Ulva)”.
The island’s former owner is not the only critic of the deal.
Kirsty Flannigan, manager of a community trust that has taken ownership of the post industrial town of Linwood near Glasgow, said she was “taken aback” by the speed with which the government moved to help Ulva’s buyers.
“It took one year for five people to buy land that cost 4.5 million pounds,” said Flannigan, who heads the Linwood Community Development Trust.
“It’s taken Linwood nine years, with a population of 9,000, to just take over land and have it developed, and I think the question is why ... The allocation of funding has to be looked at and questioned ... I think land reform is quite political.”
For many though, the issue of land reform goes beyond questions over value for money and to the heart of Scottish identity in the wake of the 1997 devolution of powers from London to the national assembly in Edinburgh.
“Since we’ve had a Scottish parliament I think that’s really encouraged people to think differently about what’s possible,” said Fraser from the Garbh Allt buyout.
“If empowering people to take choices about their own lives is political, then everybody’s at it. It’s what we should all be doing.”
($1 = 0.7631 pounds)
(This story has been refilled to correct name of party in paragraph 9)
Reporting by Max Baring, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org