Alastair Davis: Seed money to buy a forest has made a real difference to people's lives

Maintaining population levels and sustaining jobs have proved to be challenges for the Scottish islands, despite the creativity and hard work of those living there.

Alastair Davis, CEO, Social Investment Scotland

South West Mull & Iona Development (SWMID) was set up in 2014 as a response to these very challenges in a bid to regenerate and grow the area in a sustainable and appropriate way.

In November 2015, SWMID bought 760-hectare Tiroran Forest, funded by a £200,000 loan from Social Investment Scotland (SIS) and a £750,000 Scottish Land Fund grant, as well as some additional Highlands and Islands Enterprise grant funding for the first five years. The forest will provide income via timber and leisure use.

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It’s all about developing and capitalising on the skills and ideas of local people, with suggestions for a visitor centre, a campsite, walking routes, adventure playgrounds and woodland crofts.

In the future it is hoped that an onsite saw mill will bring additional job opportunities. The two local ­primary schools use the forest, ­allowing pupils to spend more time learning outdoors and feel part of the forest’s development.

Buying the forest led to SWMID ­creating two new part-time ­permanent jobs in an area where most are ­seasonal. Employment ­benefits have extended further, thanks to the forestry trading company contract requiring the use of local contractors where possible.

This has seen trees harvested by a local company, moved by local ­hauliers and a Mull-based company building a compost toilet in the forest.

SWMID general manager ­Morven Gibson appreciates the ­difference this makes: “We don’t underestimate the ripple effects – this has made a ­significant impact on local people.”

These early successes with forest development have given the board an even greater appetite to make changes and address issues. New additions to the board and the involvement of other local ­people have helped increase their ­confidence and capacity to contribute.

SWMID has also been working with Historic Environment Scotland and HIE to take over the management of the Columba Centre to develop it as a business centre and its new office.

Future plans include a visitor ­centre, zoning the forest to include a commercial area which would have walks and trails, areas to view ­wildlife and the introduction of woodland crofts. Other ideas include using the forest as a learning ­environment for young people ­seeking a career in ­forestry and land management.

SIS’s loan to South West Mull & Iona Development has had an unexpected but life-changing impact on one Mull family in particular.

Celia Compton moved to the island with her family nine years ago from England. With their two children, Celia and her husband, Philip Yielder, help to provide balance to the island’s ageing population.

Her five-year appointment as SWMID’s financial administrator meant the family could secure a mortgage to build a home on their croft and become more settled.

Celia welcomes what it means for her family: “The key benefit has been the secure income of having this job.

“This has been a gateway to job ­satisfaction for me, a home and ­settled future for my family and we all contribute to the wider community.

“I feel I have options, which I didn’t before. SIS’s involvement was very important – there is a direct connection to my job and all that it has made happen.”

Social Investment Scotland ­provides investment for charities and organisations looking to make a real difference to people’s lives, society or the environment.

Since launching in 2001, SIS has invested more than £56 million in 270 social enterprise projects across Scotland.

More details about SIS investments and their impacts can be found in the SIS annual impact report, which you can find at

Alastair Davis, CEO, Social Investment Scotland.