• John Randall
Location:
Kershader
Date:
Thursday 3rd June 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/015

John:

I’m John Randall and I’m the chairman of Co-chomunn Na Pairc, the Pairc Community Cooperative, which owns the former school at Kershader. It’s called now the Ravenspoint Centre and that’s where we are and it is the former school and the Co-chomunn, which has been going since the late 1970s, well before I arrived on the scene, which is about six years ago. The Co-chomunn runs for the community a hostel, which is in the former schoolmaster’s house which is semi-detached to the main school building. Also a community shop, it’s the only shop in the whole area of South Lochs serving a population of about four hundred people, and we have a small tearoom and a number of visitor attractions, one of which is the museum where we’re in at the moment and another is the Angus Macleod Archive which you might be interested in. They have a lot of information about the history of the area.

Simon:

And the original cooperative, was it set up to run the shop or ...?

     

John:

No, in the early days ... it was set up by the former Highlands and Islands Development Board in the late 1970s. It was one of a number of Co-chomuinn that were set up at that time. Most of them have closed since. We are one of the few that is remaining but in the early days I believe the Co-chomunn was involved in things like fish farming and agricultural supplies so it’s only been relatively recently, the last ten years or so, that the shop has been run. The shop was a very small shop but a year ago, in May of 2009, we expanded the shop and relocated it into a different part of the building. We now have a much wider range of stock and much longer opening hours so it’s been quite a challenge. The community though has responded really well to the expanded shop. Obviously costs have gone up but we’re now getting more turnover. But it is a challenge to cover our costs and certainly visitors coming in are important to us, staying in the hostel, using the shop, people coming to the tearoom and visiting the archive, visiting the Comman Eachdraidh Museum, all of those are things that we very much want to encourage because it helps to safeguard the services we provide to the community.

Simon:

Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about the archive and the local history museum?

     

John:

Well, I’ll start with the Angus Macleod Archive. It is a most remarkable collection, left by the late Angus ‘Ease’ Macleod of Calbost. He was born in Calbost in 1916 and died near Stornoway in 2002 and the archive is his legacy, one of his legacies, and it’s a remarkable collection of personal papers, books, photographs, sound recordings, video recordings ... about all the subjects he was interested in which was a fairly wide range of things basically to do with the history of the island, particularly South Lochs, but it covers things like crofting, fishing, Harris Tweed, all of which he was personally involved in. Also, the Clearances, Land Struggle, the Pairc Deer Raid, and resettlement schemes. Angus was the leading light behind the construction of the cairns, the memorial cairns to the heroes of the land struggle of which there are three main ones on the island, one of which is very close here to commemorate the Pairc Deer Raid of 1887. So all the papers relating to that and all these other subjects plus religious life, educational life, social life, ceilidh house stories, place-names, all of that is in the archive and is open to the public at Ravenspoint. The archive is owned by Angus’ family. Elizabeth, his daughter, is the main link between us and the family so it’s owned by the family and it is run by the Islands Book Trust and Comunn Eachdraidh Na Pairc which is the Pairc Local History Society. I’m involved in the Book Trust, I’m actually involved in both of them with different hats on! (laughs) Like most people here.

 

So the archive has been open to the public since 2004. We were awarded some money from the Heritage Lottery Fund initially to set it up, catalogue it, open it to the public, produce some publications and we also instigated an annual memorial lecture in honour of Angus Macleod where we have a speaker who talks about a subject which would have been of interest, we hope, to Angus. Certainly I think it’s worked very well so far. So the archive is there, it’s open to the public and, as a second project, we digitised quite a considerable amount of the archive and it’s now online. We now have a website which is www.angusmacleodarchive.org.uk and a lot of the material, but not all of it, is on the website. We get a lot of visitors, both visitors and local people who, because the archive has information about the genealogy of each of the villages and obviously that’s of particular interest to local people ... Genealogy is absolutely part of the culture here so people can tell you not only who you are but who your ancestors were back several generations. But as well as local people we are getting increasing interest from visitors and from colleges, universities, schools, because I think it’s potentially a very important educational resource and it’s not just of local interest. While it’s mainly to do with South Lochs, the themes that it covers are of much wider interest, fishing, for example, or the Clearances. So what we have, I think, in the Angus Macleod Archive is a localised set of information which sheds light on these wider topics and what I think is important about the archive is not necessarily that every statement made in it is correct in some absolute sense but that, in a way, it represents the collective memory of the people of this area. I mean, Angus Macleod was a most incredible person, well ahead of his time in terms of recording local history. He was doing this from the 1960s, at least, onwards before it became fashionable, and I know he went round and collected a lot of stories and information from local people. I think there was a bit of a love-hate relationship actually between local people and Angus Macleod, but one good effect of all of that is that local people regard it as their archive! (laughs) He twisted their arms to get it in the first place. It’s not like some archives which are seen as somehow distant and from the outside. This is something that local people very much relate to and it’s that combination of getting the views of local people and the views of people from the outside, academics, for example, from universities, which is important. That’s very much what we’re trying to do here at Ravenspoint and also through the Islands Book Trust, bringing people together from different perspectives which I think sheds new light on history. I think we all learn from each other.

 

So that’s the archive and the other main visitor attraction we have at Ravenspoint is the local history museum of Comunn Eachdraidh Na Pairc. That’s only fairly recently been relocated to Ravenspoint but it’s working very well and what we’ve got here is a whole range of things from photographs to quite large artefacts. I’m looking as we speak at photographs taken going right back to the 1950s and 1940s of schoolchildren in the different schools in South Lochs. There were five main schools up until 1972 when they were closed and the new school at Gravir was opened. And the current school in Gravir has a pupil roll of just over thirty but each of these five schools in the 1950s had over fifty children in them so, in a way, that demonstrates what a fall in population there’s been. I think that’s the other thing that the archive and the Book Trust and the local history museum demonstrate. It all illustrates the traumatic population history of this area which is not atypical of other rural parts of Lewis, but I think it is a really dramatic story. To give you an example, when Angus Macleod was born in 1916 the population of Calbost, his home village, was nearly two hundred people. When he died in 2002 the population was one. So over less than a century it had gone from two hundred odd to almost complete depopulation. It’s now turned the corner and the current population, I think, is seven, so it’s on the way up. I think Calbost illustrates what’s happening to the other villages in South Lochs but in an extreme form. This fall in population during the twentieth century wasn’t the result of clearance in the classical sense of whole villages being cleared at one time. It was through individual people and families leaving for what they saw as better opportunities, economic and social opportunities, outside the village, outside South Lochs. And the population of South Lochs has also declined as the school roll figures illustrate. From nearly two thousand a hundred years ago, now it’s about four hundred so it’s a fifth of what it used to be. Not as extreme a decline as Calbost but still a pretty big decline and again that’s mainly been in the twentieth century through emigration but there is a history of clearance prior to that and the whole area is a very good illustration of what’s happened to other islands and the Highlands more generally over the last 250 years. So there are villages which were cleared in the nineteenth century which you can go and see today, places like Striomrabhaigh for example, and smaller settlements south of Loch Sealg - those clearances were mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Other villages, say, like Orasaigh and Leumrabhagh, were cleared at that time too but they were eventually re-settled from people who were cleared from other villages. Leumrabhagh was re-settled in 1857, mainly by people who were cleared, if that’s the right term, from Striomrabhaigh. And Orasaigh was depopulated from 1843 right the way through to the 1920s when a number of land raids took place. Orasaigh and Striomrabhaigh were land raided in the 1920s and eventually that led to Orasaigh being recognised as a crofting township today.

 

Now the land raiding, in a way, you could say follows on from the Pairc Deer Raid of 1887. The Pairc Deer Raid was just a year after the Crofters Act which gave security of tenure to crofters which was a great step forward for the people. However, it did nothing for the people who didn’t actually have crofts and there were hundreds of cottars and people without any land rights, and really the Pairc Deer Raid was a determined attempt and a planned attempt to draw attention to the remaining problems of these people. And it was not a spontaneous raid in the sense of people waking up one morning and deciding to go ... This was a carefully planned campaign and the press were informed about it well in advance. Newspapers were there at the time and some of the most important coverage comes from the newspaper reporters who were there. And it was to draw attention to the continuing problems of land shortage in areas like Lewis and I think eventually you can see that that led to the resettlement schemes that the government introduced in the late decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. Again, we can see in South Lochs examples of those. I’ve mentioned Orasaigh which was land raided in the 1920s but became recognised by the Department as an official crofting township and you can look at the house designs and many of those date from that period when the Department had standard housing types and people could get loans to build houses. We also have another example of a resettlement scheme in Glen Gravir where a scheme for fisherman’s holdings was introduced by the government in the late 1920s. Again, you can see some of the original house designs there.

 

Now all of that is an interesting background to the population trends and problems indeed of the area. We and a lot of the people in the community want to reverse these trends. Conditions obviously are different now to what they were a hundred years ago so we’re never going to get back to the population levels of a hundred years ago, but we do think that the pendulum is swinging and with effort from the local community of various sorts that some of these trends can be reversed. So certainly the Co-chomunn here is doing its very best to keep services going, and to attract visitors. The Comunn Eachdraidh likewise, and the Islands Book Trust, which is based here, brings people in for talks, conferences, visits to islands, and so on. We also publish a number of books. All of that creates jobs and helps the local population, and the Pairc Trust is the local body which is currently trying to buy the local estate. Now that has been a long drawn out process. It’s been over five years since the process started and I won’t go into all the details of that. Unfortunately, unlike other estates or other communities who have been able to buy their estate through a voluntary arrangement with the landlord, we uniquely are having to go down what’s sometimes called the ‘hostile bid’ route using Part 3 of the Land Reform Act. We would much prefer to come to a voluntary agreement with the landlord but it has to be an agreement which we feel gives the community real powers to help address the problems of the area and so far that hasn’t been forthcoming so that is why we are pursuing the Part 3 powers of the Act.

Simon:

Could you just summarise what those powers are?

     

John:

Well, these powers have never been used before, as I said, but if the government conclude, if ministers conclude, that it’s in the overall public interest for the estate to transfer to the community body then Part 3 allows that to happen if certain criteria are met, even if the landlord is not a willing seller. Obviously we have to demonstrate that it is in the overall public interest so we have a business plan which sets out our ideas and plans for the future of the area. The bottom line is that we want to address the continuous population decline of the last hundred years. We want to create more jobs, more local jobs. I don’t want this to be a controversial interview, but the fact is that the local estate, the family that’s owned the estate for the last eighty-five years and more, have not created one local job throughout the whole of that period. Now we think we can do better than that so we have, set out in our business plan, plans for a community renewable energy project for example, and other projects. A community wind farm, possibly some micro hydroelectric schemes. We certainly would plan to make more land available for housing, affordable housing, social housing, as other communities are doing. Just down the road in North Harris you can actually see the houses going up at the moment on land that North Harris Trust has bought. We feel there is a need to be much more pro-active in making housing available so that local people can stay here if they want to and come back to the area if they want to, and that will also be helped by creating more local jobs. In tourism I think there’s great potential for attracting more visitors. In a sense we’ve already made a start on that with Co-chomunn Na Pairc but the potential is much greater to attract people to the area. I think the key resources and attractions the area has to offer I would say firstly are the environment, the landscape and the wildlife. It’s one of the best place to see golden eagles and sea eagles, for example, otters, different types of wildlife, and so there are tremendous opportunities there for walks and to attract ornithologists and people interested in all sorts of outdoor pursuits. But also I think the history and culture of the area, the Gaelic culture, is again another great resource, an opportunity, and, as I’ve mentioned, you can actually see on the ground the remains of some of the deserted and cleared villages. All the feannagan (sometimes called ‘lazy beds’), that were cultivated and which are no longer being cultivated, partly through depopulation in the twentieth century. So all of that is on our doorstep and it’s like a living museum of dramatic history.

Simon:

Could you maybe just summarise the actual process of the buy-out application from the beginning?

     

John:

Well, it’s a very, very complicated procedure but basically back in 2004 the Pairc Trust held a ballot of the local community to check whether the local community were in favour of buying the estate and the answer was ‘Yes’, it was an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote. An application was then put in under Part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act to buy most of the land of the estate, in fact the common grazings area of the estate because the mapping requirements of the Act are extremely onerous and for pragmatic reasons it was decided to exclude the townships because the mapping was very, very difficult to do. The problem was that the landlord set up what is called an interposed lease so that, even if we were to buy the land, it would be almost worthless because most of the rights were leased for seventy-five years to a subsidiary company which he controls called Pairc Renewables Limited. Now that subsidiary company has entered into a lease with Scottish and Southern Energy for a commercial wind farm which is a major factor in the value of the estate. So buying the land itself would not have really given the community any levers over what we want to do. The whole validity of the interposed lease was in question for quite a while. The government referred it to the Land Court, and it took two years to determine. The Land Court judgement in 2007 found that the interposed lease was legally valid but that the community should have the right to acquire it, so the legislation was amended to make it clear that that was the case. At that point the landlord started discussions with the Pairc Trust with a view to a voluntary or amicable agreement and, as I said, we would far prefer to do that, still would, but we concluded last year that the sort of powers that were needed, powers that other community bodies have and the powers that we would need to reverse the population trends, were not going to be made available. So in 2009 we reluctantly concluded that we would have to go back down the Part 3 route. So another ballot was held in December of 2009. The ballot question this time explicitly included the lease as well as the land which hadn’t been the case in the previous ballot. Again, we got an emphatic endorsement by the community of their wish to buy the land and the lease. There was a 75% turn-out and 69% voted in favour. So on the basis of that the Pairc Trust have submitted two new applications for the land and for the lease. The two should be seen together but they are separate applications as they have to be under the legislation.

 

The current state of play, and I’m talking in early June 2010, is that our applications went out to consultation in March and the landlord and others had an opportunity to put in comments on our applications. That consultation period is now finished but we are awaiting the comments. We then have a further sixty days to comment on the comments and after that ministers are in a position to take a decision on whether it’s in the overall public interest, so we’re still a little way off a decision being made but hopefully not too far off. The position is complicated by the fact that the landlord has sought petition for judicial review. Well, he actually sought two things in the courts, one a judicial review of a number of aspects which has been granted - and the current position is that there will be a hearing for a judicial review later this year. The second thing that he sought in the courts was an injunction to stop the consultation process on our applications but the judge rejected that. So the consultation process can continue but there will be a judicial review later in the year to cover a range of things. On the one hand, it will consider the compatibility of the Land Reform Act, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2003, whether that is compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights - which is not for us to answer but for the Scottish Government and the Parliament. At the other end of the spectrum, the landlord is questioning a number of detailed aspects of the conduct of the ballot. We will certainly be vigorously defending the procedures used in the ballot. The ballot was actually carried out for us by the local council, deliberately so that it was an independent ballot and, as I said, the results were emphatic. But all of that is for the future. We believe we have followed the procedures in the legislation and we hope that ministers will take a decision as soon as possible, that it’s in the overall public interest that the community buys the land and the lease and that would then allow us to put into action the various proposals that are in our business plan to improve conditions in the area.

Simon:

I’m quite interested in how you actually went about defining the land boundaries. That connects the history and the current situation together.

     

John:

Well, in a way, what we are doing is there has a continuity with history, going right back to the Pairc Deer Raid and the Clearances. There are eleven townships that form the Pairc crofting community townships, and each have their individual history and some of those do have cleared settlements on them. On the boundaries, we have to look at the boundaries of the Pairc estate because that’s the land we’re seeking to acquire. That’s been in the ownership of the current family since 1924 when it was brought from Lord Leverhulme. And each of the townships has its in-bye land, that’s the township where the houses are, plus its common grazings. As I said before, the area that Pairc Trust is seeking to acquire is the common grazings area which is the great bulk of the estate, over 20,000 acres, but excludes the in-bye land where people live, and that’s not because in principle we don’t want to buy the whole of the estate, we would. It’s because in order to follow the requirements of Part 3 of the Act, the mapping requirements are extremely onerous and we would have had to have mapped all of the in-bye land in tremendous detail, identifying areas that had been de-crofted, and, as is well known, there is no authoritative current map of crofting areas and it’s extremely complicated. It’s bad enough doing the mapping of common grazings for an area like this! I sometimes think that Part 3 was designed for a couple of fields, you know. This is over 20,000 acres and it’s extremely onerous and for pragmatic reasons we decided that we should restrict out applications to the common grazings area.

Simon:

What do you see as the potential for future development here? You’ve talked about a turnaround in population. Do you see that going further?

     

John:

I certainly think there are opportunities here and I think the community owning the land and the lease would be a major step forward to realising those opportunities. I mean, there are things we can do here and now and we’re trying to do that at Co-chomunn Na Pairc at Ravenspoint. You don’t need the land for every development, clearly, but I think having the land, control of the land, would be a major step forward in terms of providing more areas for housing, for example, generating income for the community particularly through a community wind farm. Looking at the sums of the work that we’ve done, a small scale community wind farm could bring the community in far more revenue than the community share, community benefit, of the commercial wind farm, so there’s no question that owning the land would be a major way of generating income and that income would be used for social projects. Our aim in all this is to help the community, reverse the population trends and provide good quality services for local people and there are opportunities to do that. I mentioned not just renewable energy but through tourism and the wider sense of bringing people in to look at and enjoy the environment, to enjoy and understand the history and culture, the Gaelic culture of the area ... Gaelic for example is a resource that this area particularly has to offer. At Co-chomunn Na Pairc we’ve already organised a couple of Gaelic learners’ courses where people have had formal lessons in the mornings during weekdays. The rest of the time we’ve taken them out into the community which makes these courses different from many courses and certainly the feedback we’ve had has been very positive. So people have been to the church for a Gaelic service on the Sunday, they’ve been to the local Gaelic medium unit of the school on one afternoon, they’ve been to people’s houses. Ladies of the area have invited students to come in and talk Gaelic with them and their neighbours. Now that’s the sort of thing that’s very difficult to find on the mainland, for example, and it’s something this area has to offer and it’s something we could do more of. I think having the hostel is a resource too so I think organising holidays, packages for people to learn Gaelic, to learn about the history of the area, to enjoy the outdoors through walking or other recreations and things like fishing for example ... I think there are many opportunities there and I think having the land would be an important component of maximising the potential of all of that.