…….. half a million acres of land are now in community ownership in Scotland, resulting in re-population: new homes; new businesses; and the unleashing of a new sense of confidence, energy and opportunity.
[Melanie Leech and Martyn Evans, in the Forward to James Hunter’s book ,From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops, Carnegie UK, 2012]
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I recently had the privilege of spending almost two weeks on the island of Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). The island is part of the Outer Hebrides chain. Its a long thin island around 20 miles in length and just a few miles wide. Its oriented north south with the western side fringed with gloriously sandy beaches, the eastern side by wild moors and mountains. At the junction of east and west the land is just about farmable.
Around 2,000 people reside permanently on the island. They are widely scattered with no major settlement. Since 2006 the island has been owned by the community living there through the community company Storas Uibhist. Such community ownership has grown in recent times in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Storas Uibhist is the largest community ownership scheme in Scotland.
Such purchase is intended to mark a return to local community management, reversing the often brutal and widespread clearances of the 18th and 19th century, when usually absent landlords emptied their land of people in order to provide more land for deer and sheep. Management of the Uibhist a Deas estate was turned into profit within three years and the building of a wind turbine electricity satiation followed soon after. The station provides for local demand whilst also enabling for around £2m of ‘spare’ electricity to be sold to the national grid. In contrast to the large stations proposed by the major power companies with no more further income to the community, the Uibhist a Deas wind turbines number just three.
Alongside such contemporary development, age old framing practices continue to today, reflecting cultural values which challenge those of the commodified and globalised stance of western society. The farming methods not only ensure ongoing yield from the land but maintain a diversity of gene pool, a key element of healthy processes which is more often than not missing from modern agriculture, and a sovereignty to the produce.
Today’s Uibhist a Deas is thus a place of fascinating culture and sociology. Having been there during the period of the independence referendum, it seemed to me that new confidence noted by Leech and Evans was major contribution to the 45% of the Scottish population voting for independence – a proportion of total vote higher than anything enjoyed by any modern UK government! There is proof that independence does not have to be a pipe dream in these newly community owned lands – lands which I believe are starting to bear the clear signs of a post colonial, post English dominated and new Scottish, landscape. Its a confidence encapsulated by the small boat whose job is the laying fibre optic cable between the Hebridean islands.
Whilst there I started to photograph. The work is very preliminary but I post a few images here for feedback and comment whilst I plan the further development and refinement of a project which will, I hope, undoubtedly result in return visits. I stress they are far from the final work and welcome thoughts and comment.
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