Dumfriesshire villagers set off on ‘voyage of hope’ as they pursue community buyout
The Herald Scotland, by David Ross
One is a former mining community dubbed "the highest village in Scotland", the other embraces crofting townships in the Outer Isles."
But villagers of Wanlockhead, Dumfriesshire, are to begin a “voyage of hope” to learn lessons from islanders in Harris amid plans to reclaim a swathe of ground from the UK’s largest private landowner, the Duke of Buccleuch.
The Wanlockhead Community Trust (WCT) is pursuing a community buyout of over 14,600 acres around the village, from the Duke’s 90,000-acre Queensberry Estate. There is clear local support, and an interest in the land will soon be registered under the land reform legislation.
This would provide certain legal rights, including first refusal if the land comes on the market or ownership is being transferred.
Matters have been complicated by the estate’s plans for a controversial 42-turbine wind farm on sections of the land coveted by the community.
On Thursday, WCT will be guests of the North Harris Trust, which in 2003 led the community buy-out of the 55,000-acre estate from Jonathan Bulmer, the cider magnate.
Mac Blewer, WCT secretary , said: “We have a lot of history here, including a mining museum and an 18th-century lead mine. But it is a future we need now. So our trip to Harris is a voyage of hope; a chance to see a community where local ideas are now addressing local needs.
“Ideally we would like to work with the Queensberry Estate. We have met and discussed our respective visions, which may be different. But there is hope. The estate sees itself as part of this community, and the best way to demonstrate that would be to support our buy-out.”
Lorne MacLeod, chairman of the umbrella body Community Land Scotland, said the buy-out proposal is of “great significance” and would be the “first major land purchase in the south of Scotland”.
The islanders of Harris offer a blueprint for success – driven as they were to combat the chronic depopulation that has blighted the area. Since the buy-out, nine full-time jobs have been created – the equivalent to almost 100 positions in cities by traditional socio-economic calculations.
In the wake of the Harris sale, affordable houses also have been built and let; modern industrial units created, 25,000 trees planted; an extensive footpath system developed and an annual mountain festival established to extend the tourist season. This year’s finished on Saturday.
The 160 residents of Wanlockhead have ideas – from improving the appearance of the village to a hydro scheme; polytunnels for vegetables to geothermal heating. They would like a shop, better roads and faster broadband; but attracting more visitors is seen as the real key to the sustainable future.
There is the long held dream of completing the narrow gauge railway from the village of Leadhills two miles away. The former branch of the Caledonian Railway, which closed in 1930, only travels a little over half a mile towards Wanlockhead.
John Glen, CEO of Buccleuch Estates, which in total own 240,000 acres of Scottish land including Queensberry, said: “Buccleuch is pleased to engage with community bodies and has no issue in principle to selling land, or entering into other contractual arrangements, in and around Wanlockhead where the land use can be feasibly enhanced.”
He said land had already been sold to businesses and individuals in the village. Another meeting with WCT would be held soon and he looked forward to hearing more detail from the trust.