The island of Gigha: A community under threat

WILLIE McSporran sits on a standing stone and leans into the haar rolling off the Sound of Gigha. “I started this but I won't see it finished," the 77-year-old says, sweeping his walking stick across an expanse of jewel-green land that takes in several crofts, a fish farm and three gleaming wind turbines.

WILLIE McSporran sits on a standing stone and leans into the haar rolling off the Sound of Gigha. “I started this but I won't see it finished," the 77-year-old says, sweeping his walking stick across an expanse of jewel-green land that takes in several crofts, a fish farm and three gleaming wind turbines.

Willie McSporran sits on a standing stone and leans into the haar rolling off the Sound of Gigha. “I started this but I won't see it finished," the 77-year-old says, sweeping his walking stick across an expanse of jewel-green land that takes in several crofts, a fish farm and three gleaming wind turbines.

It is late February on the inner Hebridean Isle of Gigha, and the weather is drizzly, grey and irrefutably Scottish. McSporran, former chairman of the Gigha Heritage Trust and current director of Gigha Renewable Energy, has lived on this tiny speck in the Irish Sea since birth and comes from a long line of similarly hardy McSporrans. He wipes the rain from his glasses and peers into the distance. “Well," he says, as the wind turbines he helped bring to the island – nicknamed Faith, Hope and Charity – beat furiously behind him, “at least I gave it a bloody good whirl."

It is ten years this week since the Isle of Gigha was given its freedom through a £4 million community buyout that divided Scotland. Critics said the money, most of it government and lottery funding, was a waste of cash – a huge payout that benefited a tiny handful of the population – while advocates hailed it as an important landmark in safeguarding rural communities.

Back then Gigha was, quite literally, falling apart. The population stood at 96, there were just six children in the primary school, which was under threat of closure, while 75 per cent of the 42 houses on the estate were classed as “below tolerable standard". Most of the population of working age had to go to the mainland to find a job, while the island's farms had all but stopped functioning. “If we put in a nail or a hinge or put a slate on a roof, we will have done a bloody sight more than has been done for decades under our landlords," McSporran remarked, with characteristic frankness, not long before the deal to buy the island – and put its welfare into the hands of its population for the first time in hundreds of years – went through. A decade later, the island is transformed.

Land at the tiny ferry terminal – just 20 minutes from the mainland – and a swathe of new, wood-clad, eco-friendly houses rear up before you, helping accommodate Gigha's now bulging population of 150. Down the road, the primary school has 17 full-time pupils while at the far end of the island – a trip that does not take long in a place that is only seven miles long – you'll find a state-of-the-art halibut fish farm that supplies some of New York's top restaurants, and ‘the dancing ladies' – the three aforementioned wind turbines.

The turbines, a great source of pride to the community, were installed in 2005 and generate 2.1 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, which is sold to the National Grid and brings in around £150,000. Almost everything on the island is run by the community, from the windfarm to the hotel to the fire station, and every decision is made by one of the island's three community boards.

Perhaps, then, though he takes his family holidays at his father-in-law's estate on the neighbouring island of Jura, it is no surprise that David Cameron loves Gigha. Indeed, Danny Alexander recently cited the island as one of the ultimate examples of the Big Society in action, remarking, “There is nowhere in the country where what David Cameron would call the big society is more in evidence than in these island communities [like Gigha]."

But like every big society, there are small flaws. Money is tight, the work is relentless and enthusiasm, say some, is flagging. For every person on Gigha who pulls you aside to tell you the buyout has been a success, there's one who will whisper in your ear that things aren't as rosy as they seem. “It has done a bit of good, but the debt is worrying," one islander tells me. “In the current climate, you've got to wonder if we've done the right thing."

IT'S lunchtime at Gigha Primary School and the playground is a hive of activity. The children have been highly involved in planning the island’s tenth anniversary celebrations – which will include a march to the shore by schoolchildren past and present and the unveiling of a plaque – and the anniversary's logo was designed by one of the pupils. There is a palpable sense of excitement.

Gigha Primary is a Green Flag eco school. There is a cycle pod, an ultra-modern outdoor classroom and bright classrooms that overlook the sea – where, much to their delight, the children will be making pancakes today. “We need to keep them engaged and involved in what's happening," says Lorna MacAllister, who has been headteacher for 31 years. “It's important they feel a part of it all."

But MacAllister knows the fortunes of not just the school, but the whole island, depend on having more youngsters in the population – and keeping them here. “Whenever I speak to the board about new residents I always joke that they've got to have children under five," she says.

She may talk in jest, but her remark contains raw truths. The island has an ageing population, and many of the most influential cogs in the wheel are, well, getting on a bit. The likes of McSporran, and current Heritage Trust chairman Alasdair McNeil, are pensioners, and most have been on the board several times in the past ten years. “It's harder now to get people involved in the board," says Lukas Lehmann, a strapping 34-year-old German who has, for the past two and a bit years, been working as trust development manager.

“That was always going to happen. We have vacancies for a total of 17 directors, all of whom are needed to run the island's affairs. That's more than ten per cent of the population – and I'm not just talking about the adult population."

The community drive still exists, however. “We have a volunteer fire service, and they started the first Young Firefighters Scheme run by a volunteer fire station in Britain," he says. “That kind of thing is a very important part of the community. You don't get that sort of commitment everywhere."

One of the main reasons the island has regenerated to such a degree is thanks to the post-buyout population – fresh blood that has helped breathe new life into an island that until the 21st century was living under an ancient feudal system and where new business was almost discouraged.

Henri McAulay, a jewellery designer who runs the Gigha Gallery, moved to the island six years ago and lives with her nine-year-old son Tristan. When she applied to move to the island – every prospective islander must go through a similar process – she had to come up with a sound business plan that would demonstrate not just how she would generate an income and pay rent, but contribute to the island's economy.

“It was so nerve-wracking," she says with a laugh. “I had to prove to them I could start up a gallery in the disused toffee factory, but supplement my own income by making my jewellery."

The board voted in her favour, and the gallery has been a huge success. Last year, in something of an artistic coup for Gigha, she brought a John Lowrie Morrison exhibition to the island and sold 22 of the Scottish landscape artist's paintings. In June, she will exhibit painter Erni Upton's work, including some pictures of Gigha.

McAulay loves the pace of island life. “In the summer it's paradise," she says. “And the way everyone pulls together is amazing. Without the buyout, the school would have shut, the houses would still be falling to bits. Now there are so many opportunities. There is so much still to be done. Of course, there are some people who don't get involved – you get that everywhere – but for the most part it is a fantastic place to live."

Lehmann, sitting in his Heritage Trust wood-clad office surrounded by enormous box files, one for every family on the island, would agree. “Danny Alexander was right when he talked about the big society and Gigha. It's a symbol of what you can achieve if you work at it. Take a tower block in Glasgow with 150 people – want to know how to help them? You've got a model right here. What can 150 people do? I'd like to see another place where you have this much volunteering."

But volunteering, for all its strengths, does not pay the bills. The community paid back a £1 million loan within two years of the buyout. The majority of the funds came from the sale of the former laird's house, Achamore, for £650,000, to an American businessman who makes flower essences, while the rest came from fundraising efforts organised by the community. They are proud of meeting the deadline – there is even a certificate displayed in the Gigha Hotel lobby – but it has had a detrimental effect on the island as a whole.

Ten years on, only 70 per cent of houses have been brought up to acceptable standards, and housing remains the number one priority – it’s also the most difficult thing to find money for. “Financially, Gigha got off to the worst possible start," says Lehmann. “If you think about it, in a normal business, the first few years are the ones where you invest. You don't take money out of the business. Gigha had to take £1 million out in the first two years. You'll find it's not a coincidence that, after Gigha, none of the other community buyouts were asked to pay that back."

Instead, the island has been forced to play a long game of catch-up, borrowing more money in order to improve and expand. The loan for the wind turbines, for example, which came from a number of sources – including the Lottery and Highlands and Islands Enterprise – cost £440,000. A plan is now in place to introduce a fourth turbine, costing £850,000, which will generate as much electricity as the other three together. This time the loan will, the trust hopes, come from the ethical bank Triodos. But such is the system that loans are in a constant cycle of being paid off and taken out again in order to fund new projects – much like in any large business.

Meanwhile, one of the most successful post-buyout projects on the island, the fish company Gigha Halibut, is not owned by the community, but by a firm on the mainland. The company exports its fish to top restaurants across the UK and the US, and in 2009 it won a Waitrose Made in Britain Award. But while it gets Gigha's name out there, and it is powered by the wind turbines, the community sees none of the profits.

Trust chairman McNeil, who can trace his family back 1,000 years on the island, is realistic but philosophical. “A lot of people gave it their all, and they're not seeing everything in a clear light because the light is still dim," he says. “There's an awful long way to go. We have done much but hopefully our grandchildren will reap bigger rewards. This anniversary, it's a time for reflection. We're proud of what we've achieved. We're just trying to make the place better."

DOWN at the shore, John Martin, a 69-year-old dressed in pale blue denim accessorised with yellow fisherman's boots and a red neckerchief, is peering out over the crystal-blue waters that God's Island is famous for. Martin looks like a cowboy, if cowboys drove quad bikes and rowed boats from Ireland to Iona to raise money for the community. He describes himself as a blow-in (he arrived from Campbeltown in 1969 and married a local girl), but he, like everyone here, loves Gigha. “I'll never stop fighting for this place," he says. “It is my passion to see it do well."

In the past year he has suffered from prostate cancer, so has had to decamp to the mainland for five days a week for treatment in Glasgow. He too is realistic about the island's future. “It's vital to have the young ones involved," he says, explaining how he takes children out in the community boat in summer to teach them some of the old skills. “Some of them will go and some will stay, but if you treat them all with respect they will respond."

He laughs, and above him the sun peeps out from behind the clouds. “It's not Shangri-la here, but if you have belief, you can do anything."