New homes bid to save Colonsay island community from collapse

Fancy living on one of the most beautiful islands in Scotland, with white sandy beaches, stunning scenery and iconic wildlife on your doorstep?

Yes, well so do Colonsay locals – but many have been forced into temporary accommodation in caravans or to commute from the mainland due to a lack of housing and land for building on.

The community has now launched a crowdfunder to help build 24 new affordable homes to house existing residents and help attract new young blood to bolster the dwindling and ageing population.

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Colonsay is a small island off the west coast of Scotland about two-and-a-half hours from Oban by ferry, making it one of Scotland's most remote settlements.

Colonsay is one of Scotland's most picturesque islands, making it a popular spot for second homes and holiday accommodation

It has a primary school, a pub, a shop, a cafe, several beautiful beaches and a lot of sheep.

And although it has a small year-round population – about 130 people – there are not enough houses to go round.

The island’s small size and picturesque location mean land and property are scarce and come with a hefty price tag, coupled with the fact that at least two out of every five residential properties are either second homes or holiday accommodation.

Caitlin McNeill’s family has roots on Colonsay going back centuries.

Land and houses come with a hefty price tag on Colonsay, where at least two out of every five residential properties are second homes or holiday accommodation

She is one of the few young people choosing to return to live on the island after completing their studies elsewhere.

As is the case for many islanders, the 27-year-old has been like a character from cult Scottish film Local Hero, holding down several jobs, including working in the local shop and bar, cleaning cottages and teaching music in the school, not to mention her current voluntary role as a director of Colonsay Community Development Company (CCDC).

She has already moved house nine times since she turned 18, even resorting to living off the island for a time.

“My family has been here since the 1700s,” Ms McNeill said.

Caitlin McNeill, a 27-year-old local and volunteer director with Colonsay Community Development Company, is one of many islanders who are unable to find affordable permanent homes that would allow them to 'settle' on the island

“The situation with housing makes you feel demoralised and let down.

“I’ve lived in a number of different places – two caravans, one cottage, one flat, back home with my father.

“Most of these I shared or alternated with my younger brother.

“Both of us had well-paid jobs, but after two years of ricocheting around the island we gave up and both made the very difficult decision to move to the mainland.

Colonsay Community Development Company has secured a site near the main settlement of Scalasaig, with plans to create a range of affordable new homes and self-build plots for residents

“My brother even commuted to his fish farm job from Stirling for about 18 months.

“We are both fortunate and grateful to be back on the island now, but our housing situation is still not ideal.

“What housing means to us is security – being able to start the plans you have for your own life on your own terms.”

And they are not alone. The situation is the same for many other islanders.

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CCDC has finally secured a chunk of land in the main settlement of Scalasaig, with a view to creating a mixture of new homes and self-build plots.

But the project, despite support from the Scottish Government, Argyll and Bute Council and other partners, is facing a funding shortfall of up to £250,000 that could scupper the plans – or at least delay them.

The charity has now launched a fundraising campaign in a bid to raise enough money to get the project off the ground.

More than £28,600 of the £50,000 stretch target has already been pledged, with a day left to run.

Helen Mann, crofter and port supervisor for ferry firm Calmac, is a mother of two.

She said: “Having experienced living in a caravan for two years after moving to Colonsay to take up a community croft, my young family were close to leaving until we were lucky enough to secure social housing five years ago.

“No more tenancies have become available during that time and, with only nine social houses available, the position we are in remains critical.

“The new housing development is absolutely essential to the island’s future.

“Without it we cannot continue to grow the island community, keep the school open and staff the essential and critical jobs needed to service this island.”

Ms McNeill added: “I don’t mind that we are having to lead the building of our own affordable homes – in fact, I’m incredibly grateful for the privilege to do so – but I cannot stress how critical it is that these houses are built, for me, my family and friends and the future of the island.”

More than half of current residents are of retirement age or older.

Only 30 are under 50, ten are aged between 18 and 30 and there are only 11 children.

Secondary-age pupils must travel to Oban to attend school, lodging in a hostel during the week and returning home to the island at weekends.

The primary school roll is due to drop to four later this year and is at risk of being closed down.

To find out more, see CCDC‘s crowdfunder page.

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Case study 1

Roz Jewell, a nursing assistant for NHS Scotland, lives in tied housing, but is hoping to get a building plot on the new development.

“Having moved five times in the past seven years, my husband and I would very much like a home of our own,” she said.

“We have a six-month-old son and would like to make a life here.

“We are very much in support of this exciting development.”

Case study 2

Gavin Clark, owner of the Colonsay Pantry cafe, said: “It’s critical to be able to have affordable housing, not only for future staff for local businesses, but also to give the island more structure.

“Personally, in the last ten years I have moved house eight times and for a period I have to live in a caravan as there has been no accommodation available due to the high number of second homes.

“As an employer it’s critical that we can be stable so we can employ more people as time goes on.”

Case study 3

Grace Johnston owns the local shop with husband Keir and works as property coordinator for CCDC.

She said: "My husband and I are now lucky enough to have a family home on Colonsay, but we spent many unsettled years during which we moved several times between inadequate accommodation.

“We considered moving away many times due to the stress of not having a secure base.

“Retaining and attracting families is really important to us personally and for the island as a whole.

“At the moment we are in a really precarious position in that if one family were to leave, this would likely create a domino effect, which could see the school close.

“It’s important that we don’t let this happen.

“Secure, affordable housing will ensure that young people and families can choose to make Colonsay their home for the long term.”

Case study 4

Mother-of-two Tanya Wren, a registrar, care worker and crofter, has been living and working on Colonsay for the past four years.

“We moved to the island to take on a crofting tenancy – a life-long dream of ours – to be closer to family that live on the island and because it’s a fantastic environment to bring up children,” she said.

“We are in the process of beginning a house build that will give us housing security for the future.

“Unfortunately we have been forced to live in unsuitable or temporary accommodation since 2017.

“We have been reliant on the generosity of family friends to help with our accommodation needs, initially siting a static caravan on croft land and subsequently staying in an empty second home during the pandemic, since the birth of our daughter.

“We have sacrificed a great deal to remain in Colonsay and we strongly feel that for families to move to the island this issue of housing poverty must be addressed with provision of affordable housing.”

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