As a no hoper freelance journalist with a knowledge of the Hebrides I have been asked by a major newspaper to give them some background on the Ulva buy-out, and as my head is now full of the research I have been doing for them I thought I might simultaneously jot down some of what I have been sketching out for them for Bella, even although it will almost certainly annoy some of your more sensitive readers.
For that I apologise, we polemicists are often emissaries of satan. Sorry, it just gives us such pleasure to force thought.
To kick of the irritation by being indulgently personal let me introduce myself. Whilst I may talk like a repressed English public school boy (jings you brutal commentary guys in Bella are being handed the opportunity to unburden yourselves on a plate) my family have lived in the Hebrides, mostly as Parish Ministers for many hundreds of years, and as I am sure you will all agree the formalisation of superstition is a fascinating trade that has mediated honestly between the landlord and the tenant down the ages (this essay really is the gift that keeps on giving, eh guys? I feel like a golf ball waiting to be blasted down the course).
Accordingly when I was a child spending most of my holidays on Iona ( there was a chatty kid there called Mike Small. God knows what became of him ) I developed an extreme suspicion of the island’s owner the Duke of Argyll who was a Viagra landlord ( I have a house in the highlands but I dont get up nearly as much as I would like ) Why, I would ask the pier side crabs as I tormented their claws with a stone dangled on a string, do we never see this guy who controls so much here? By what right is he the Alpha Male, and does it really provide the most efficient system of land management?
I never met him once, I am told he was a nice man, though his personality wasn’t my complaint.
By my mid teens I was a fervent socialist fired by the thought that all wicked landlords should be hung from lamp posts and went off to do Karl Marx’s work as a school teacher in a virtually communist comprehensive school in London’s East End hoping to learn how to make Molotov cocktails and seduce dungaree wearing social workers.
That was of course before I acquired my now perfect skill set of inter gender relationships and now just see seduction as the humiliating process a man has to go through as he waits to find out what a woman decided shortly after she met him.
Now let me assure you that if Karl Marx himself had ever had to experience being a school teacher in London’s East End in the early 1980s he would have become a Tory and after a few years I came back home sliding rapidly to the right.
Cut to circa the nineties ( now there’s a relief) and I am running a business advising charities on how to raise funds and the door opens and in comes an old Iona pal called Tom Forsyth who was one of the founders of the Scoraig Community and he’s asking me to advise him on the Eigg buy-out as he’s on their board. And I’m in pompous fart mode (sorry Tom it goes with the education, sometimes you just can’t help it ) and I lean back on my Director’s chair and give him a lecture on how I have heard that Eigg has been colonised by a bunch of Yorkshire dope smoking subsidy junky hippies and that my sympathies lies with their fine landlord Keith Schellenberg who seems a first rate chap and who has sent his son to my old school. Arf arf.
At this Tom, who is well into his sixties and is wearing Oxfam shop oilskins, rises in silent fury and heads for the door without a word , and as he does so I notice he has a huge smear of mud on the back of his oily jacket.
Slightly, ok, very, patronisingly I rise to wipe the mud off Tom’s back and to my amazement this sweet and invariably kindly old man pushes me away and spits. ” Listen Maxie ( my childhood appellation) I hitch hiked for two days to come to see you and slept in a ditch last night which is why I am so muddy and all you do is patronise me and make conclusions on things you don’t understand.You should be ashamed of yourself.”
And suddenly I am indeed ashamed and not even the fish supper I immediately buy him gets me off the hook, so I promise to attend some ghastly land reform conference he wants me to go to in Inverness.He was and is such a nice man and had been like an uncle to me when I was the size of a cricket bat. It was the least I could do.
And the conference was a life changer. My main memory is that I sat at a lunch table with two stangers called Bill Ritchie from Assynt and another called Andy Wightman ( there’s another,
I wonder what happened to him ? ) and the conversation was so passionate that none of us touched our food as we shouted at each other incessantly. Seriously, we didn’t even lift the cutlery and by the end of the meal I had promised to go to Eigg and see what I could do to help. The answer was bugger all. They ignored all my advice on fundraising, but I fell in love with them and their cause, and they were sweet enough to tolerate me for many a subsequent visit.
The key thing that so few landlords from my own background fail to understand about Eigg is that whilst there are some (though not as many as on other Estates) folk who smoke a bit of dope there (and yes they like a good grant- who doesn’t ? ) in the main they are some of the most hard working entrepreneurs that I have ever come across and they were determined not only to improve their lot but be exemplars in showing other failing and subsidy reliant communities what could be done.
Are they just a bunch of hippy wasters ? It’s quite likely that some arrived as such but the weather soon weeds those kind of people out of Hebridean life and only those who can work a full shift survive more than one or two winters.
And the weirdest thing about it is that the good ones who delivered the buy-out are a feather in the cap for the man who they deposed of , the Toad of Udny, Keith Schellenberg himself. He may be a bit of a chancer and tricky to work with but fair play to him he had persuaded so many fine people to up sticks and go and live there. If ever there was a man who was the architect of his own destruction it was KS and if he had only played his hand a bit better he might now be the hero of the land reform movement and not its bogey man.
No the people I met on Eigg were mostly extraordinarily switched on grafters. Whilst few had degrees or much money they knew about campaigning and focus and even although it was still years away from the buy-out it wasn’t unusual to see three or four committee meetings a week with everyones opinions being listened to and noted and personality clashes being methodically resolved. The parties were extraordinary, not just because of their energy but because more than half the population could play musical instruments. You could feel the energy rising like a volcano that was about to erupt in such parties and I often thought that if someone had walked into a party and had announced they were the new owner of the island that everyone would have burst into laughter and played another tune and someone would have given the stranger a beer and explained that they already owned the place in everything but title and asked if he had any new songs he wanted to sing, because ‘Island Owner’ wasn’t one that was allowed any more.
All that was twenty odd years ago and now I look back on those days on Eigg as being some of the happiest and interesting I have ever spent. Since then the island community may have indeed absorbed a good deal of government cash but in exchange they have pioneered a huge number of innovations in areas such as community energy, apportionment of land for people who want to build their own homes, conflict resolution and training programmes. And are they all sorted out? Has nirvana been created? Don’t be ridiculous, these are just normal often impoverished people and they struggle with their challenges just like the rest of us, but here’s an honest appraisal. In the twenty odd years that I have been witnessing Eigg I have seen improvements and developments every single year and during that time the population has almost doubled. A bunch of English hippies living off the state? If you seriously believe that go and see for yourself before you insult them.
Which brings us to Ulva. Now I am writing this from Muck and naturally the main subject of conversation amongst every tourist here is whether the £4.5 million pounds that the government has put into the island’s purchase has been worth it.
Now I’ve known Ulva for most of my life, indeed my late Father went there around 1905 ( true) and told me that he met people who could remember the clearances and that they could remember the stench of the singed milk that had been hurled on the peat fires by the bailiffs. And do I support the £4.5 million given? Oh yes, whole-heartedly, but I am no longer a romantic socialist and dont think that nationalisation of such islands, and lets face it that’s what this is, is a model that would work everywhere.
But the other model, the free market model, has also failed. Sure there are some islands, and I regard the privately owned Muck as being the best managed island in the Hebrides, where private ownership has been a huge success but there are others where the viagras have come and gone and soon tired of their toy, though forgot to sell it on.
I recognise the syndrome. I myself I own a family house that I should have sold years ago, it’s hard to let go, sentiment snarls up efficiency, it’s a hard drug to beat.
Every island seems to have different needs and different systems of ideal management. I believe that Rum, for example, should be run as a government managed nature reserve, whilst Canna could well do with another John Lorne Campbell living on the place, though ideally one with more cash.
I approve of how Eigg is managed, and perhaps perversely I also approve of the way Muck is owned and managed. Different problems need different solutions.
But why should the six people living on Ulva be given the cash? It’s simple, because Ulva isn’t just a rake of fields waiting to be turned into crofts, although there’s room for that, it’s one of the most exquisite nature reserves waiting to happen in all of Scotland, a treasure trove of diversity that overlooks other gems such as Staffa, The Treshnish and fair Iona, all of which are now rightly managed through various agencies by the state. Visit Ulva, and it’s in reasonable day visiting distance from such tourist hot spots as Fort William and Oban, and you will find such a variety of flora and fauna that anyone with any knowledge of such things will be thrilled and inspired. In my perfect world every Geography teacher in the land should soon be getting their kids tuned into this wonder island by every internet device available, be it permanent viewing cameras or well crafted web sites, or locally employed wardens, and even if it still is going to cost another few million to deliver those kinds of services they would still get my vote. Let students all over the world tune in daily to watch the orchids flower the orca parade, the otters chatter, the cottages be re-inhabited.
Night is now falling in Muck as I write, I’m off back to the mainland tomorrow. The rowing boat that Mike so kindly lent me is now back in its noost after Lawrence dragged it there at no charge with his tractor and I will now pour out that last dram of Talisker and go drink it on the hill behind the cottage as I say good bye to these lovely islands. They, and their communities, are one of Scotland’s greatest treasures. We should care for them with self-sacrificing love. And loads of money.