The question of who chairs NTS may appear to be a matter only for the charity and its 330 thousand members. But NTS owns and manages a lot of land with a lot of tenants – and until very recently it has managed the Inner Hebridean island of Canna like a Victorian landowner, offering only tied housing to employees and short-term leases which left local people with pre-Eigg buyout levels of disempowerment. As a result, dozens of islanders who arrived with the dream of owning land, building a home and having a stable future on Canna left within months. But according to newspaper reports last week, NTS has finally decided to let the 15 remaining islanders control efforts to attract new residents, in the hope they can finally boost numbers. It’s not clear if that means ownership of land and housing assets will now be transferred to the community – hitherto the charity has insisted that the specific terms of the bequest meant Canna and its assets must be owned by the nation (via their charity) — not private individuals no matter how needy or local.
But a similar legal impassse was successfully resolved on neighbouring Rum several years ago, when the government-run quango Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) transferred land to a community trust of islanders. And in 2013, with the full support of trustees, the Scottish Parliament overruled Sir William Burrell’s stipulation that the Burrell collection could never be loaned abroad. As tricksy lawyers demonstrate every day, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Yet despite watching the fabric of Canna crumble alongside the Gaelic music, poetry and literature collected by John Lorne Campbell and the redoubtable Margaret Fay Shaw, NTS has continued to insist no legal change in ownership is possible – even if it’s necessary to stabilise island life. If that position has now changed – if the charity has finally decided to bite the bullet, tackle the lawyers and join the 21st century, I’ll be the first to applaud.
But forgive me if I hae ma doots.