When an isolated Scottish community turned down a £2.7 million scheme to bring badly needed new housing, opportunities and environmental improvements to the area, it surprised many people.
The reasons behind the decision by the people of Morvern have been unclear – until now.
For the first time one of the main drivers of the scheme, and its chief opponent, have spoken about what led to a convincing majority voting against the community buyout of the deserted 6,000-acre Killundine estate.
It happened despite a strong local record of assets being community run, and the story raises questions about the amount of work people in remote communities must do to get facilities the rest of us take for granted.
The Morvern peninsula, north-west of Oban, is reached by ferry, then a 30-mile drive, mostly on single-track road. It has sweeping moors and mountains, coastal woods, sparkling sea and pretty lochs – but it also has problems.
The population is ageing and young people move away. While jobs are not scarce, for anyone wanting to live and work there housing is a major headache, especially for families. The primary school has shrunk to a dozen pupils.
Tourists sustain much of the Highlands but here the draw is muted. It’s not on the way to anywhere besides the Lochaline ferry to Mull; the hills fall short of Munro status; it’s not in a Harry Potter movie and it doesn’t host any Instagram-famous sights.
So when the Morvern Community Woodlands (MCW) company raised £2.7 million to buy and restore Killundine by a deadline of October 31, you would have expected community celebration: it meant proposed affordable housing, business units, new crofts and woodlands could go ahead.
But in a ballot in October, 103 local people voted yes to the buyout, and 142 voted no. With a turnout of 72.5 per cent, the plan was abandoned.
Cash in the coffers has been returned to donors; grants from organisations – the vast bulk of the money raised – have been politely declined. That includes the Scottish Government’s Scottish Land Fund (SLF), whose promised £1m sparked the race to raise the total purchase price.
So why did a community facing serious problems turn down a free, no-strings-attached boost?
For Alasdair Firth, the chairman of the company, which owns and runs a small wood west of Lochaline, the unsurprising answer is: “It’s complicated.”
When I visit Morvern in August, Firth, an ecologist for the Woodland Trust conservation charity, takes me onto the unoccupied estate. I see Marie Celeste desertion, washing-up liquid still on the farmhouse window sill, a board game set out in the gatehouse. He talks enthusiastically about how that could be changed.
Most of the spread is rolling open moorland, but there’s good farmland for crofts lower down, and forestry plantations that could raise £300,000. Five homes could come back into use, and more could be built.
But when I speak to him a few weeks after the ballot, he admits they had an idea it might be close-run. In the run-up to the vote, the Covid-19 crisis meant meetings to generate enthusiasm for the plan couldn’t be held.
“We didn’t really have a feel for what people were going to say,” says Firth. “The lack of face-to-face contact didn’t make it easy to know what people were thinking … the closed circles became closer.”
The ballot itself opened three weeks before 31 October, the deadline to raise all the money set by the SLF as a condition of its grant. At that stage the company was well short of raising the cash, which Firth believes put people off.
He feels the size of Morvern was a factor too: it covers 200 square miles. The settlement at Kingairloch for instance, is 15 miles from Lochaline, the largest village, and from there it’s still eight miles from Killundine. Those in Kingairloch could be excused for questioning the benefit of an estate 23 miles away.
But the purchase would have brought no financial or other risk to the voters. Large-scale community land buyouts elsewhere have brought major benefits, and if the scheme had failed, the estate could have been sold, grants and donations returned.
For Firth, the problem was divisions in the community, between incomers – himself included – and those with a more “traditional” view of the Highlands.
He says a vociferous group wanted Killundine run as a sheep farm, even though the shepherd who last grazed sheep there says it cannot be done economically.
Morvern has several community assets run by the Morvern Community Development Company (MCDC). But Firth noticed some resentment of community development, with a belief that only tourism business benefit from MCDC’s petrol pumps and yachting facilities.
And the fact that he and other MCW directors are relatively recent arrivals? “Oh yes, that’s played a part. Then there’s specifically anti-MCW feeling in some places because it’s a more conservation and environment-focused group.” He adds: “Some things are polarising anyway here, like people who stand up for trees are not standing up for sheep.”
He says there was also resentment at “taxpayers’ money” – the SLF grant – being used. Even incomers were divided, with some wealthier new arrivals not wanting to see “other people subsidised to come in”.
In the end, Firth feels the scale of the project was just too much: “It would have been quite a radical change – maybe the radical nature of it was what made enough people be opposed to it from different directions.”
Local resident and newspaper columnist Iain Thornber, who has been involved in the community for more than 50 years, was the scheme’s chief critic. He states bluntly that the buyout was “the wrong place, at the wrong time, by the wrong people.”
He has a range of criticisms of the proposal: no-one would want its proposed crofts, and restoring Killundine would cost £2m, he says, something only a wealthy private buyer could do.
He also sees a failure by MCW to connect with the community: “The group didn’t really go near the community … they didn’t take the community with them,” he says.
He agrees with Firth that being primarily “incomers” damaged the buyout group’s chances. And he believes the MCW board lacked the agricultural knowledge to convince local people they could run the estate.
“I am not totally against community buyouts providing the community can work it and do good things with it but there was so much airy-fairy stuff there,” he says. “If they had been sons of crofters, farmers’ sons interested and knowledgeable about the land, I think people would have got behind it.”
There was a fear too, he says, that the project would fail and be condemned as a waste of taxpayers’ money. “There was only one thing this community buyout was going to bring to Morvern and that was notoriety,” he concludes.
But beyond the divisions was the issue of capacity. When a Killundine buyout was first mooted, MCDC was asked to get involved.
Jane Stuart-Smith, its chair, says it fully supported the bid – but could not take it on because it already had too much to do. That includes building the UK’s biggest community hydro-electricity scheme, new housing, and a village hub, and running the petrol pumps and yacht facilities.
Stuart-Smith says in remote areas with small populations, the pool of people able and willing run schemes to benefit the community is limited, while those areas are often most in need.
“Small communities are very lucky if they have enough volunteers who have the time and can take time from earning their livings,” she says, adding that some suffer “burnout”.
For her, what makes MCDC’s success possible is its project officer, paid for by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
If the woodland company had had something similar it could have made a difference. Firth says: “If we had had the resources two years or a year ago we could have got the message across and sold the idea.”
He is still sure despite it all that MCW would have had the capacity to run Killundine successfully, but agrees it was a reasonable concern that it would take a lot of local people’s time.
“It makes sense to build up to bigger projects – you need a body that has built up the recognition in doing it,” he says. “Another group comes along that hasn’t done it before, and it’s seen as yet another thing… taking more resources out of the community.”