Until 2003 the 55,000 acres of the North Harris Estate, home to 700 people, was in private ownership. When the estate came up for sale in 2002, a group of islanders saw this as great opportunity. With help from HIE's Community Land Unit and others, the new North Harris Trust succeeded in buying the land together with some buildings. In 2006 they also bought a second, smaller estate, bringing a total of 63,000 acres under their stewardship. This is a wild and rugged area, and the Trust aims to safeguard what is a unique landscape and promote developments that can bring economic and social benefits to the community.
Generating income from the estate, however, is not easy. With ownership of the land comes responsibility for the deer herd, the habitat they live on, and other protected areas. This brings in some income from Scottish Natural Heritage as part of a land management agreement. The Trust also gets income through lease agreements: as the landowners, if anyone wants to put up a communication mast for example, they have to pay to lease a site. In addition, income has been generated from selling off plots for housing, although the Trust has decided to ringfence this money for other housing developments as this is a major priority for them.
To achieve its diverse goals, the Trust has to make canny decisions, and work in partnership with others. On the land management side, staff and volunteers from the John Muir Trust and other groups regularly contribute expertise and muscle: undertaking habitat surveys, clearing invasive plants, maintaining the path network etc. On the housing side, a partnership with the local housing association resulted in a social housing development getting underway in 2009; the first on the island for ten years. A chance discussion with someone from the Council led to the Trust turning a disused site into a recycling centre; a contract from the Council allows them to employ a couple of staff to collect and sort material from all over the island.
Managing the land, improving the environment and providing housing are all important objectives for the Trust. Equally important, however, is creating long-term jobs, and making sure the Trust itself is sustainable. This is where a partnership with HIE has been particularly important.
Lewis Mackenzie from HIE has been working with the Trust to analyse potential sources of income. He says, "One of the most promising of these is renewable energy and HIE helped put together a funding package for a three year development post so the Trust can progress ideas". The Trust already owns one small wind turbine, which will power the recycling site, and has undertaken feasibility work on several hydro projects: all of which could generate an income to support the long-term development efforts of the Trust.
One of the key areas for development is tourism. Visitor numbers to North Harris last year increased by 25% but the infrastructure to support them isn't in place. New campsites are a priority: last year hundreds of camper vans descended on sites that had little water and no local services. In response, a local crofter in Huishinish plans to develop a new site, and the community in Cliasmol are exploring how to use an old school to provide overnight facilities for camper vans. The Trust is supporting all these efforts, which could create jobs and have positive knock on effects for local shops and hotels.
Another key piece of infrastructure is the provision of space for business. HIE and the Trust are looking at the feasibility of building new "carbon neutral" business units. This is a development that would fit perfectly with the Trust's environmental and economic objectives: they would cut energy costs, reduce the overall carbon footprint of the island and support the entrepreneurial efforts of others.
These are all complex and ambitious projects involving many different people, but for Alistair MacLeod, Development Manager of the North Harris Trust this is just the start. "Community ownership has brought real economic benefits to the area but we know we have to build up all our sources of income: this is not a short-term project". But, he says, "There is a renewed sense of optimism and confidence in the area, and the support from agencies like HIE has been fantastic: they see that we are capable of delivering projects and want to work with us".