What motivates communities to buy land they live on?

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

image captionA warning sign at the MoD's Cape Wrath training area in Sutherland

A community group is vying with the military for a square mile piece of land in Sutherland. But what motivates people to take over land they live on?

The Ministry of Defence owns 25,000 acres (10,117ha) at Cape Wrath in Sutherland, on Scotland's north-west coast.

It provides an important area for UK and Nato armed forces to train in the use of live weapons, including 1,000lb bombs dropped from jets.

The MoD wants to purchase about a square mile of land around Cape Wrath Lighthouse and create new artillery and mortar positions and troop accommodation.

Using community right-to-buy legislation, Durness Development Group has registered its interest in acquiring the land currently owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board.

The group claims historic buildings, such as a ruined signal station, will be demolished and the public will also be prevented from using spectacular cliff paths, if the MoD gets the land.

John Ure, who runs a café next to the lighthouse, told BBC Reporting Scotland that he was surprised the military wanted more territory.

He said: "The land seems to have been sufficient for them since 1903.

"Up until today they already owned 75 square miles of land. We wonder what the importance is of taking this last square mile."

The MoD confirmed it was interested in the land and said it was also aware that a community right-to-buy application was being submitted to the Scottish government.

Another possible community land buy-out could take place for more unusual reasons - protecting the venue of the World Stone Skimming Championships.

The competition has been held in a quarry on the island of Easdale, near Oban in Argyll, for 15 years.

But this year for the first time the landowner sought a land-use fee from the organisers.

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell said there was now talk in the area about making a community bid for Easdale.

Mr Russell, who is also education secretary, told BBC Radio Scotland: "I am neutral on that."

However, the SNP MSP added: "I do recognise that this sharpens the argument in Scotland for community control of their own assets. The question has existed in the Highlands for many generations - how can you make progress if you cannot control the assets around you?"

Mr Russell said successful buy-outs such as of the island of Gigha in 2002 and of South Uist Estates in 2006 were good examples of what communities could do.

He said: "It is quite difficult to do and is a lot of hard work, but it is something that is available and there is a renewed interest in it because some additional resources have been put on the table by the Scottish government."

Mr Russell added: "Not every community will achieve it and not every community should achieve it. But it is a live issue and becomes even more live in circumstances such as these."

Land ownership in Scotland has a long and difficult history.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Highland and Lowland clearances saw families moved off estates to make way for large-scale agricultural businesses, such as sheep production. Landowners had the legal right to do so, but incidents where people were forced from homes that were then destroyed before their eyes attracted notoriety.

The Crofters War of the 1880s was a period of protests and sometimes violent clashes over land rights.

There were also land raids on Vatersay in 1906 and Knoydart in 1948 by landless men who were seeking to establish crofts where they could make a living and raise families.

Unrest was not limited to the Highlands and Islands, crofters in Aberdeenshire burnt an effigy of a unpopular landlord in 1886.

David Cameron, of Community Land Scotland, said it was difficult to escape the past when discussing land ownership today.

He said: "Personally, I am aware not just of the clearances and the Crofters War but even further back to post-Culloden when there were attempts to smash Gaelic culture and language and houses were burned.

"We are often accused of living in the past, but you cannot help but be aware of it in the background."

Mr Cameron, who lives on community-owned land on North Harris, believes the landscape of ownership is changing.

He said: "Things are now pointing in the right direction. We have always thought that four things were needed to be in place for community land ownership to really happen.

"You have got to have political will and government putting the legal framework into place. You need the funding to purchase land. Technical support for communities lacking expertise to purchase land and develop it. Lastly, but not least, you need the community desire itself.

"I really believe we are seeing the start of long, long story."

Mr Cameron said there were landowners willing to work with communities, and others who were not.

He said: "There are areas of Scotland where you have to wonder why an individual would want to own so much land. What is the point if they are not going to do anything with it?

"It just sits there in the background, a backdrop to summer holidays, shooting and fishing."

Mr Cameron said there were a mixture of reasons for buy-outs by communities and crofting townships.

He said: "Some people would say they were doing it to right wrongs, others such as the crofters of Eigg, Gigha and Assynt did it very much with a sense of purpose to turn around communities that were on their knees."

Public money is used to purchase land for communities.

This summer the Scottish government invited applications to the £6m Scottish Land Fund, a three-year scheme similar to a fund that ran between 2001 to 2006.

Mr Cameron said the use of public funds had drawn criticism from some quarters.

But he added: "Someone has calculated that if you total up the takeovers of places such as Assynt, North Harris, Stòras Uibhist, Gigha and Eigg, it has cost £30m of public money. It was also calculated that £30m would buy you 600 yards of the new Edinburgh tram system. I'll leave people with that thought."

Scottish Land & Estates, which represents 2,500 landowners across Scotland, said it welcomed a diversity of land ownership in Scotland.

A spokesman said private landowners made substantial investments of their own funds to deliver significant social, economic and environmental benefits.

He added: "Equally, there are examples of community and charitable trust ownership which demonstrate that they too make an important contribution.

"Ownership is not always the most important factor when it comes to land.

"There are many ways communities can benefit from land and buildings and play a role in their management without owning them. Generally, what is most important is what is done with the land."

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