Calum Mackay and Gordon Cumming of North Harris Trust

At HIE, we’ve launched an online community campaign called #GoPlaces aiming to share the experiences of pioneering community led enterprises and initiatives across Scotland. We have remarkable stories of innovation across rural Scotland, and all with community prosperity at their core. As well as being fascinating stories in their own right - they also offer so much experience to learn from.

The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government prioritises the involvement of local communities and businesses in economic and community wealth building. This has led to projects in six local areas, including the Outer Hebrides, to embed its principles as a way of working. With this focus on locality, it’s a great time to look at the breadth of experience our communities and organisations have in stimulating sustainable development, including: product and service delivery; managing land and assets; and identifying partnerships to address affordable housing as well as environmental issues. 

We've been working with communities for over 50 years, helping empower them to exploit their assets, create sustainable opportunities and drive growth. It’s a wide reaching, long term strategy for HIE. The specifics for each place are unique, but all share the principles of partnership, collaboration and investment in developing community skills and leadership, in building infrastructure, attracting new industries and diversification to create jobs.  

There are over 8,000 voluntary and community groups in the Highlands and Islands, some delivering focused services to meet need, others with wide strategic plans. With a 100-year history in community land ownership, our region is recognised internationally for the work we do to maximise community benefit with other nations often following our approach. Our social enterprises have longevity too with 73% of community enterprises operating for over 10 years, and 82% of them providing services to the public.  

Our first #GoPlaces story featured Shetland Heat Energy and Power, a practical working example of the community and public sector investing in a shared vision. Together, the community introduced a district heating system in Lerwick, which provides warmth, fights fuel poverty, saves the planet and reinvests its profits back into the community. It has been delivering community and economic benefits for some 20 years. 

An important aspect of success is being open to change, supporting new industry and taking opportunities to maximise the impact of private investment. Strong collaboration of community, public and private sectors and partnership working is key. We know that community ownership enables communities to identify, prioritise and deliver sustainable projects which meet need and maximise community benefit. Communities taking things into their own hands means they’re not waiting for development to be done to them.  

The first community buy-outs in the 1990s and early 2000s were high profile: Assynt Crofters Trust, Eigg, then North Harris. Today, more than 75% of people in the Outer Hebrides live on community owned land.  

For North Harris, it has been a real success story with local people running the estate and managing their own assets. Collaboration between stakeholders has been an ongoing feature of the Harris journey. A great feature of the culture has been the ability to bring local and external stakeholders and private businesses together around a vision for a more vibrant Harris with economic opportunities helping to retain and grow the population of the area.  

Much has been achieved over the years by the Trust. In its first decade of community ownership, they released land for affordable housing development. It was taken forward by the local housing associations environmental management, a recycling service in partnership with the local authority. They built a Trust office which included affordable flats for rent, housing units on Scalpay, grid connected wind and hydro-electric schemes, launched a small grants scheme for local organisations, investigated tourism projects, including the former whaling station and a investigated the feasibility and local support for a potential first community led designation as a National Park.  

More recently we’ve seen enhanced tourism developments including pontoons in East Loch Tarbert, and Huisinis Gateway involving camping/camper van facilities, showers and toilet facilities for those visiting or setting out to explore.  

In growing communities, the journey never ends. The community in its broadest sense, is always looking for the next opportunity or challenge to apply its energies and resources to with ever increasing capacity and ambition. This tenacity and capacity have proven particularly invaluable in our rural and island geographies in the response to COVID-19 and will continue to do so as community wealth building increases its momentum in generating and cycling wealth in localities.

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