Island of opportunity welcomes a population explosion

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THE community-owned island of Gigha has passed another significant milestone in its drive to reverse centuries of economic and social decline.

Islanders announced yesterday that the population has now topped 150 - a rise of more than 50 per cent since the 4 million buy-out from a private landlord in 2002.

In the 18th century the population of Gigha was over 700, but by the 1960s it had fallen to 163 and to 143 by 1991. By the time of the community takeover it was down to 98, one of the worst cases of decline of any Hebridean island.

However, since then it has shown one of the greatest growth rates, with the population rising to 123 within two years of the change in ownership and standing now at 151.

The latest additions are Micky Little, 47, who has become the new head gardener at Achamore House, the island's main residence. Mr Little, his wife Tracy, 42, and their two children have relocated from Dartmoor.

Willie McSporran, chairman of the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust, the community owners, said the island is now on track to achieve the target population of 200 by the next census in 2011.

He said: "Perhaps the most pleasing statistic is that the number of children attending the Gigha Primary School is 21, up from six, four years ago.

"The island has come on leaps and bounds since the buy-out. Under the feudal system the landlord was under no obligation to reinvest in the community," he said.

"The trust turned 300 years of population decline on its head by encouraging new development and the growth of the local economy. A sign of the surge of people wanting to relocate to Gigha is that we are struggling to meet the demand for housing despite building 18 new homes."

There are now just 26 people aged over 65 in Gigha and 46 under 25, with 11 under five, highlighting the recent arrival of young families.

John Watt, the director of strengthening communities at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said: "The population growth in Gigha is remarkable. It is great credit to the hard work done by the trust over the last four years. Gigha is an excellent example of what a community, in control of its assets and in partnership with a range of agencies, can achieve in terms of regeneration."

As well as an influx of people, ten new businesses have started on the island since the takeover.

Among them is Gigha Renewable Energy, which invested 370,000 in building three wind turbines - known locally as the Dancing Ladies or Faith, Hope and Charity,

The company generates 125 per cent of the island's electricity needs and in its first full year of operation made a 100,000 profit, which is reinvested in the community.

The new optimism and confidence in the island has encouraged some people to return and enjoy improved opportunities.

Joe Teale and Lindsay Sherrif came back to set up the Boat House caf bar, which recently won a Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust award.

The island also attracts about 15,000 visitors a year, and most of them stay in the Gigha Hotel, Scotland's only community-owned hotel.

New life for craft shop owners inspired by childhood holidays

AMONG the new breed of islanders on Gigha are Neil Holmes and Henri Macaulay, who left their home near Peebles to set up a craft workshop and gallery in June.

The couple, with children Tristan, four, Catriona, 11, and Lachlan, 13, moved into one of the new houses built on the island and took up a newly created craft unit. Their company, Smashing Glass, makes stained glass products and shoreline jewellery.

Mr Holmes said: "My wife used to come here on holidays as a child so the move has been a dream come true for her. The house became available at the same time as the gallery so it was too good to miss."

As well as making their own products the couple exhibit other local artists.

"You have to have good reason to live here, it's not a place for retired millionaires. We like to think we are contributing to the community.

"Things have gone better than we could have dreamed of and it's a great place to bring up children. The remoteness adds to the pleasure, we don't need to go anywhere on holiday.

"There is a real live-wire feel about the place, a real vibrancy, and there are lots of good ideas coming up so the future looks bright too."