Who we are and what we do
The island of Gigha sits between the Kintyre peninsula and Islay in south-west Scotland. Its 3,500 acres support our small community of 156 people. We set up the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust in 2001 when the laird decided to put the island up for sale. We organised a community buy-out and now own and manage 47 cottages, four farms, a hotel, quarry, wind farm and a 54-acre garden, including a walled garden. Our village hall has been in community ownership since the early 1950s.
Susan Allan chairs the trust…
"Community ownership of the island has been a great success. It is so second nature to people here now, they sometimes have to be reminded that it has actually happened"
How we got going
The decision to put our island up for sale gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Undaunted by the near-£4 million asking price and with backing from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish Land Fund and the MSP, we decided to make a bid. We called a public meeting in the village hall and, after a lengthy debate and a vote, the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust was born.
Two members of our community visited the Isle of Eigg to find out how a community buy-out had worked out; they came back inspired. A great deal of hard work and numerous meetings followed, but it brought its rewards in March 2002 when transfer to the trust was completed. Trust member John Martin sums up the change…
"Gigha was like a ship in the doldrums, but then the sails started moving. We've hit a few rocks on the way, but now the trade winds are blowing and we're getting there."
How we organise ourselves
The trust is run by a board of seven people, all elected by our 96 community members - 80 per cent of the island's adult population. Every trust member over 18 can stand for election to the board, but it is not just board members who take responsibility - community participation is a crucial part of our decision-making. We now want younger residents on the island to have a greater say in what happens.
We employ a number of office staff to help us manage the business side of things, oversee the housing renovation work, run the hotel and look after Achamore Gardens.
Where our funding comes from
The original funding for the buyout came from a Scottish Land Fund grant of £3.5 million (£1 million of which had to be repaid within two years) and a £0.5 million grant from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. We sold the laird's house and fundraised on the island to repay the loan.
We've had further grants from the Government's Rural Empty Properties Fund for renovating the cottages and one of £130,000 towards our wind farm. We have also taken out commercial loans. Income from housing rents and the wind farm helps to pay back these loans. Other income comes from businesses run by our two trading companies. A Big Lottery grant is helping us modernise the old steadings for self-catering accommodation.
We are slowly moving towards financial independence, but at present are still dependent to a certain extent on grants and ongoing fundraising. We expect to break even financially within three years, but we are always looking for new income-generating opportunities.
What we've achieved so far
Many things have improved on the island in the last seven years. Most of the homes were below the Tolerable Standard when we took over, but are now being renovated. Although this means higher rents it also brings modern standards, warmer living conditions and lower energy bills. The trust now has a housing plan, supported by the Scottish Government, which has already seen 18 new homes for rent built by a local housing association. Our population is now increasing; there are now 31 children here; seven years ago there were only six.
We now have virtually full employment on Gigha. Our wind farm generates £100,000 of income a year with other income coming from the quarry and our self-catering cottages. We've also improved the island's only hotel.
Yet despite these many important changes, for some the trust's main achievements have been about people. Gigha is a small island; everyday social and community activities are seen by everyone here as important. We now run a music festival and a village pantomime, whilst five-a-side-football, keep-fit, carpet bowls, afternoon tea and a drama group are all regular activities in our village hall.
There is much talk here now of greater freedom, pride and respect. 'Saorsa' (Gaelic for 'freedom') is the name given to the new community boat which will soon be used for pleasure trips and training programmes for young people. Confidence in Gigha's future is increasing. We are now in control of our own destiny.
The problems we've overcome
When the island was put up for sale we thought this meant we could buy everything. We knew the houses were in a poor state, but we thought we might be able to use income from the fish farm to help fund improvements. Unfortunately, the laird decided to keep the profitable parts of the fish farm.
In some ways this made us even more determined to succeed. Paying back a £1 million pound loan within two years is evidence of this determination, involving as it did a lot of ingenuity and sheer hard work, particularly on fundraising.
Keeping everyone involved and finding a way through the many different views and interests within the community was never going to be easy. Willie McSporran, one of the trust's founder members, sums it up like this…
"In many ways, the buy-out itself was the easy bit. There is nothing more difficult than trying to please a whole community. There are on-going issues and disagreements as there is in any small community, but you deal with this the way you would in any family."
Staff turnover and continuity has been an issue for us - at present we are without a business manager, but we are hoping to employ someone shortly. Getting the right staff can be an issue on an isolated island when the salary we can pay is perhaps not as high as people can earn elsewhere.
Balancing the trust's books is also a constant headache and there have been some inevitable community tensions over finances. But we are now moving towards a much stronger financial position and new business ideas are constantly being put forward by members.
Kerrie Redington, who has been advising the trust and works for Highlands and Island's Enterprise is well aware of the problems initiatives like this can face…
"Many island residents have very high expectations of the trust, but they seem unaware of just how big a commitment is involved both in time and responsibility. I worry sometimes about the strain it can put on people. Having said that, what they've achieved in just seven years has been amazing."
What we've learned
Our community buy-out has been a great success, but getting there has not been an easy process. We have all had to work extremely hard - board members were sometimes meeting three or four times a day in the early stages - and we needed to find the right advisers. Fortunately, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Argyle and Bute Council have been very supportive, whilst the staff we've employed have been knowledgeable, enthusiastic and committed.
Susan Allan feels it's been a joint effort from all those involved, not just the islander.
"It has been a steep learning curve for all of us; without our advisors we would not have been able to do it. I was all for it at the beginning, but had my reservations during the process. The advice and support from our two major supporters kept us all going."
What's next for us?
In the short term we need to get our new business development manager in post - this will make it much easier for the community volunteers. We also need to keep the momentum of our housing renovation programme going and look at new business opportunities, including making the hotel more profitable.
We may also decide to install another wind turbine. As new members join the board we will need to make sure we put in place a continuous programme of support, advice and training. There is still plenty to do here.
Want to find out more?
We are always keen to show people our island and talk about how we managed our community buy-out. You can contact us at:
Gigha Heritage Trust
Isle of Gigha
Phone 01583-505390 Email email@example.com Web