THE LAST REMAINING residents of a dramatically depopulated Scottish island pledged to rebuild their community after finalising a €5.1 million deal to buy out their aristocrat landlord.
The five tenants on the Isle of Ulva feared their way of life might be coming to an end when the island was put on the market after decades of ownership by the Howard family.
But they succeeded in delaying the sale under a new Scottish law, allowing them to raise the money through public funds and hundreds of private donations.
The Munro family and their only neighbour Barry George held a party on the island today with supporters from the neighbouring island of Mull to celebrate the sale being finalised.
“We paid just over £4.5 (€5.1) million,” Rebecca Munro, 31, told AFP, adding that a large chunk came from the Scottish Land Fund, founded in 2000 to help communities buy their land from their landlords.
We also had some really generous donations from all over the world on our Just Giving page, and we also had a significant one from the Macquarie Bank so that’s gone a huge way.
The island’s “laird” Jamie Howard put the island up for sale for £4.25 (€4.8) million, offering prospective buyers the opportunity to own “one of the finest private islands in northern Europe”.
Soon after, tycoons began flying in for viewings, raising concerns among residents that they might be removed from the island.
“When the island was on the market and the helicopters appeared, it was a real concern for us that a private owner would come in and close the island and they wouldn’t keep the residents or keep our business going,” said Munro.
Barry George, who has lived on the island for 22 years, told AFP: “It’s a phenomenally beautiful place, and it would be criminal to shut the place down, and that is my objective, to keep it open so that people can come and see what I see.”
The new legislation has far-reaching implications in a region where half the land is owned by just 500 people, many of them absentee aristocratic landlords with castles and vast country estates.
Ulva is an idyllic location with views of Ben More mountain and the spectacular Eas Fors Waterfall on the neighbouring island of Mull.
It once had a population of more than 800 people. But now empty cottages, an abandoned church and the disused Ulva Hostel are falling into disrepair.
“We’re never going to get back to those numbers but we need to make a healthy community so we’ll have to start doing that now,” said Rhuri Munro, 35, a fisherman.
Its decline can be traced back to the Highland Clearances, when landlords conducted a wholesale eviction of Scottish farmers in the 18th century and turned their lands over to sheep grazing.
Many Scots emigrated to the then British colonies and one Ulva native, Lachlan Macquarie, became a governor in Australia in the 19th century.
The islanders received a £500,000 (€570,000) donation from the Macquarie Group, the largest investment bank in Australia which was named after the late governor.
Roseanna Cunningham, the senior lawmaker in the Scottish government responsible for land reform, said the buyout could be the first of many.
“Scottish government officials stand ready to support any community that wants to think about doing this, urban and rural,” she told AFP.
“Ulva, in that sense, is quite iconic because it’s a big, big signal that, no matter the challenges, if you have the vision, we will support you.”