Dream Island Home Nightmare

By Dougie Strang, published on 15th June in Bella Caledonia 

When you visit a house that you hope to live in, you begin to imagine a future there. You’ll maybe even fall in love with it, convincing yourself that you’ve found ‘home’ and wilfully blinding yourself to its faults and flaws. My wife and I did that for sure, given that the house in question was a semi-derelict 1960s bungalow – a concrete-panelled kit house that had outlived its life expectancy by decades and was now structurally un-sound, with floor joists and window-frames rotting, black mould on the walls, no insulation, and an obsolete heating system. But love, as well as being blind, is often tempered by financial circumstance. The house was within our reach at offers over £90k, so we scraped our savings, borrowed money from friends and family (no mortgage available), committed ourselves to years of renovation work and, in an overheating property market, put in a bid of £130k.

For most of our married life, my wife and I have lived in ‘tied cottages’ – a tenancy agreement dependant on my employment by the owner of the land. If I lose or leave my job, we lose our home. On a rural wage we could never afford to buy the cottage we’re currently tenanted in, but when we put in our bid for the semi-derelict bungalow, we hoped to gain, at last, the security of ownership.
The house was up for sale on a Hebridean island, one that we’ve been trying to move back to for a number of years. It’s not where we’re from, but we met on the island, married on an adjacent island, and I’ve lived and worked on both for extended periods. It’s the part of the world where we’d like to belong. Our offer was more than 40% above the asking price and we figured it would be enough to secure our ‘forever home’. It wasn’t.

Last month I attended a gathering of academics, ecologists, and land reform activists. The gathering was organised by post-graduate researchers Gemma Smith and Ryan Dziadowiec and held at the Shieling Project in Glen Strathfarrar, to the west of Inverness. There was a mix of talks, a walk to an old shieling site, communal feasting, and a fire to gather round in the evenings. Over the course of the weekend, we were offered a variety of perspectives on land use and ownership, with some fascinating insights into early resistance to the Clearances, as well as discussions that focused on more contemporary issues. Talks were led by academics and by crofters, and by those who are both.

‘Anger is an energy’ sang Jonny Rotten, back in 1986. When you’re sitting in a room with fifty or so people, all of whom are informed about, and engaged with, the issue of land reform, and when that issue is discussed by speakers with a depth of knowledge and with a passion for their subject, you can feel the energy rising. The facts are stark enough: Scotland is the only country in Western Europe where anyone can rock up and buy a ten-thousand-acre estate, no questions asked; and where two thirds of the estates that are sold never reach the open market, exchanging hands privately like some grubby, illicit deal. Currently there’s a goldrush, or land-rush, that has doubled the value of those estates in the last couple of years, and it seems that everyone wants a piece of the action – at this year’s Academy Awards in the US, actors were handed luxury swag-bags that included titles to plots of Scottish land.

Round the fire in the evening at the Shieling Project, I spoke to a young woman who wants to stay and work on the island where she was born, but can only do so because she still lives with her parents. All her school friends have left or are leaving because there’s nowhere to rent and none of them can afford to buy. Someone else mentioned a recent letter in the Ullapool local press written by a man complaining that he couldn’t find staff to clean his holiday homes. It turns out he owned over twenty properties in the area. We wondered where he thought his cleaners might live.

From semi-derelict bungalows to 10,000-acre estates, from token gift plots to Air B&B portfolios, demand exceeds supply and the prices rise and rise. This is the way of Capitalism; this is the way of a property market unbound by regulation.
Perspective is useful. In the Highlands and Islands, it’s only a few short centuries since the ideal of the clan chief – born from notions of sacred sovereignty and stewardship of the clan’s dùthaich – began to degenerate to a more plutocratic model. In the 17th and 18th centuries, during that protracted period of land theft that we now call the Clearances, clan chiefs shifted from being ‘first amongst equals’ to become lairds and proprietors of the land under law.

Late at the fire’s hearth at the Sheiling Project, hearing yet another personal tale of injustice and the abuse of power entrenched in our estate-ownership system, I found myself blurting out a thought that has bubbled up many times over the years: ‘The bastards should be handing the land back to the communities it was stolen from, with apologies for 300 years of mis-use.’

The same thought bubbled up in 2000, when John Macleod of Macleod, clan chief and proprietor of Dunvegan Castle, offered for sale a large chunk of the Black Cuillin on Skye. He expressed hope that it would be bought for the nation, but added a price tag of ten million quid. At the time, I remember thinking that Sorley MacLean, only four years dead, would be birling in his grave. I thought of the poem he wrote, An Cuilithionn, ‘The Cuillin’, which mourns ‘the greedy injustice of the men of the castles’, and I imagined his voice rising from the grave, the angry energy of it, rising like pibroch to disturb the dreams of John Macleod of Macleod.

More recently, when the Duke of Buccleuch sold to the local Langholm community a few thousand acres of the least productive of the more than two hundred thousand acres of land that he owns, for nearly four million quid, his greed brought a sourness to my mouth. Is this really the only way to overhaul the most archaic system of land-ownership in Western Europe? Must we pay off, acre by acre, some of the wealthiest people in the country, using taxpayers’ money and the benevolent contributions of those who donate to crowd-fund appeals?

One day, maybe, we’ll hear of a land-owner gifting the land back to the people. It would be a radical act to return that which was stolen, to redress an historic injustice. Go on, I find myself urging the ‘good lairds’ and the ‘green lairds’, those who consider themselves to be no more than stewards of the land. Go on, give it back. Don’t ask the Scottish Land Fund to pay out millions of pounds to cover today’s over-inflated prices. Give it back. It isn’t really yours.

It turns out that the semi-derelict bungalow that my wife and I hoped might become our home sold for over £200k – more than twice the asking price. The people who bought it don’t live on the island; they visit in summer, flying in from afar. Now they own all the properties on the peninsula where it sits. The bungalow will likely end up fully derelict, bought to ensure that no-one else can live there. When you’re very rich, it’s a small price to pay for privacy and control. Friends on the island tell me that, just like the man who owns more than twenty homes around Ullapool, the new owners can’t find anyone to manage the changeovers of their other holiday rentals on the peninsula.

Elsewhere on the island, a young couple are the only residents in a hamlet of over a dozen houses, the rest are holiday homes; while recently, on the adjacent island, an old friend who was born there, and who has returned with his wife and family to run a business, bid on a house for sale and was promptly outbid by people who live very far away.

This isn’t personal; it’s just the way of the property market, and who would dare to challenge that?

This month, the Isle of Eigg celebrates 25 years of community ownership. It wasn’t the first community buy-out, but it has been one of the most high-profile and inspiring, in part because of the circumstances leading up to its sale: the toxic ownership of Keith Schellenberg, the weird sideshow of Maruma, the German ‘artist’ with dubious credentials who briefly took possession of the island; and then there was the public campaign to raise funds for the buy-out, which itself highlighted the debate about land-ownership in Scotland. Since 1997, the islanders have provided a dynamic example of how small, remote communities can come together and figure out best practice for housing, power generation, job creation, land stewardship. The island is now thriving, its population growing.

Last year a small cottage was up for sale on Eigg. It was priced at offers over £65k, but the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust stipulated that they wouldn’t simply be accepting the highest bid. Instead, they would seek a buyer who wanted to live full-time on the island, to make home there and be an ‘active contributory member of the community.’

Self-determination isn’t always easy, but it does empower and encourage people to make decisions in the interest of their community; and it turns out that, thus empowered, and in simple, sensible ways, there are those who dare to challenge the property market. Imagine if all our island and rural communities were modelled on Eigg; imagine if our urban communities were!

In her autobiography, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, Maya Angelou writes beautifully about the ‘ache for home’ and how it lives in all of us, describing home as ‘the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.’ My wife and I are very lucky, we’ve a roof over our heads and we’ve some savings; we’ll eventually find that ‘safe place’. But for so many people now, who ache for home, often in the place where they are from, or in the community they’ve become a part of, it is simply no longer possible. This is the property market – untrammelled Capitalism just doing its thing – and it’s destroying communities throughout Scotland.

Featured image: Photo by Matthew Feeney on Unsplash