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Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Benefits of Independence, Education Reform Update, Business Motion, Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Great Bernera Community Land Buyout


Great Bernera Community Land Buyout

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-04117, in the name of Alasdair Allan, on supporting Great Bernera’s community land buyout. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons or place an R in the chat function if they are joining us online.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the work of the Great Bernera Community Development Trust towards a crofting community buyout and the development of the island; understands that, despite concentrated efforts on the Trust’s part to bring the crofting land’s sale to completion, a reported lack of cooperation by the island’s absentee landlord has delayed and halted necessary progress; is deeply concerned by reported recent demands for significant payments by the landlord from local crofters before he will give permission for various legitimate, and elsewhere payment-free, transactions to proceed; understands that, in recent years, the island’s school and local shop have both closed; further understands that part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has not yet been successfully utilised, but considers Bernera to be an example of where that approach may well be required; notes the hope that all relevant agencies can continue to support the Great Bernera Community Development Trust in securing the buyout of the crofting land, and further notes the calls on the landlord to engage constructively and promptly with the local community going forward.


Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I thanks members for staying this late in the evening for the debate.

Since its re-establishment, this Parliament has helped empower many communities, beginning to address centuries of injustice in the way that land has so often been gifted, sold and, sometimes, neglected.

Around 57 per cent of Scotland’s rural land is in private hands. I should say that many of those landowners work hard to develop their estates and engage reasonably with the communities who live and work on them. However, that is not the case when the landlord turns out to be an absentee with no visible plans for the estate other than the extraction of money.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 seek to ensure that landowners uphold their responsibilities and, particularly if they are not doing that, provide a legal basis for communities to negotiate a purchase of the land.

The island of Great Bernera has been connected by a short bridge to the west coast of Lewis since 1953. The construction of that bridge, incidentally, came about only after islanders threatened to create their own informal causeway by obtaining their own explosives.

The people of Bernera have a long history of having to battle for their own rights. In the 1874 Bernera riot, crofters resisted the forced evictions that their then landlord attempted as part of the wider Highland clearances. Bernera’s crofters eventually won their case against that landlord in court.

In 1972, the islands of Great and Little Bernera were bought by Count Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees, a colourful man whose wartime exploits in the Balkans were said to have partly inspired the character of James Bond in his friend Ian Fleming’s novels. His title as a count was bestowed—I understand—by the Government of San Marino. All that said, the count led a fairly simple life on the island, where I visited him a couple of times. He died in 2012, leaving the islands to his grandson—Cyran de la Lanne—in Germany, but told islanders that they should have the first option of buying the island should it ever be put up for sale.

In 2015, 85 per cent of Bernera’s residents voted in favour of a community buyout. The district valuer set a sale figure of £70,000, reflecting the island’s status under crofting tenure. However, the family of the owner considered that sum too low. Despite numerous efforts by islanders, some of whom visited the owner in Germany in 2017, negotiations did not get very far. There was an intention to purchase through a combination of grants from various sources, but the de la Lanne family stalled, not naming a price at which they would be willing to sell.

In 2020, the Great Bernera Community Development Trust began the process of pursuing a crofting community buyout. In March, I contacted Bernera’s landlord with a request to meet him to discuss the various barriers that the estate was by then reported to be putting in place, hampering local development and blocking legitimate transactions with tenants.

After an initial agreement to meet, my office has followed up three further times to be told that currently “there are no suitable dates” for Mr de la Lanne and his father but that they might get back in touch “shortly”. That tactic has, I understand, been employed repeatedly regarding the island’s buyout efforts, as well as with individual tenants.

One Bernera crofter, Mr Neil MacAulay, has been seeking to exercise his legal right to purchase his own croft for a number of years. I am told that, rather than respond to any emails about that, Bernera’s landlord has simply ignored him. Mr MacAulay’s daughters want to move to Bernera with their young families and hope to build long-term homes on their father’s croft. However, they cannot do that until their father is allowed to buy it, which generally requires the co-operation of the landlord. The family’s next step may involve the courts.

Another constituent, Mr Ian Murdo Macdonald, had been hoping to retire to his family home in Bernera but instead had to put the property on the market to pay for his late mother’s care home fees. For 18 months, Bernera estate refused to agree to its formal decrofting to allow the sale until Mr Macdonald was prepared to cough up the completely arbitrary sum of £16,000, adding significant stress to an already difficult situation. That kind of sum might not mean very much to an absentee landlord, but it is impossible for most people to magic it out of thin air. I should also say that that practice is unheard of on other estates.

My constituent stood his ground and the landlord has now, finally, agreed to allow the sale to be finalised without that completely unjustifiable fee. However, unless something changes soon, Bernera’s population will continue to decline. The island’s school and shop have both closed in recent years and although there are young families who want to move back to the area, the lack of scope for local development under the current owner means that it is impossible to reverse the island’s depopulation by building any new affordable housing.

Part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 provides for a hostile bid by a community. That route has never been taken, although it has been threatened previously where landlords were seen to be particularly unco-operative. The owner of Bernera seems to be determined to paint himself into that corner.

I hope that the minister may be able to say something in summing up about the contact that the Government, its officials and the Scottish land fund are able to have with my constituents to try to resolve the situation. According to the Scottish land fund, private estates in Scotland stay in the hands of the same families for an average of 122 years. I sincerely hope that that does not prove to be the case with Bernera.

The island of Bernera should belong to the people who live there and to those whose families have worked the land there and fished from the surrounding seas for generations. Morally and culturally, the land is, of course, already theirs; we must now continue to do all that we can to support the Great Bernera Community Development Trust to successfully take legal ownership so that the island’s community can begin to develop and thrive once again.

I gently remind those who have not yet pressed their request-to-speak buttons to do so as soon as possible.

Donald Cameron joins us remotely.


Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests as the owner of a landholding in the Highland Council region. I am grateful to Alasdair Allan for securing time to debate the issue. I also commend the work of the Great Bernera Community Development Trust.

When I was first elected to Parliament in 2016, I said that I would always seek to stand up for the most rural and remote communities, who often feel that Edinburgh is as far away as London and that decision making that reflects the concerns of such communities does not always happen in the Scottish Parliament. In that vein, I welcome the opportunity to debate this particular case. I hope that it shows that we can discuss important matters such as land ownership and land reform in both general terms and as they affect our constituents specifically.

Turning to the precise nature of the aims of the Great Bernera Community Development Trust, I reiterate the support of the Scottish Conservatives for many of the general principles that underpin land reform. It is often forgotten that the very first moves towards greater community ownership of land in Scotland were undertaken by the Conservative Governments of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which prominent land reform academics such as Professor Jim Hunter have acknowledged.

In the more recent past, our benches have noted support for improved transparency of land ownership as a means of tackling tax avoidance. We have also noted support for community empowerment, and it is interesting that aspects of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 were derived, in part, from United Kingdom Government localism legislation.

It is patently clear that although there is a very long way still to travel, we have been moving towards greater diversity in land ownership in Scotland, with many successful community landowners. I see that particularly in the Highlands and Islands, from where I am speaking tonight. From Eigg and Gigha to Carloway and West Harris, there is a plethora of different community landowners who have been not only successful but transformative in what they have achieved.

Alasdair Allan touched on the fact that in this specific case there is clearly a long-standing and contentious issue between the community development trust and the island’s landowner, and I share the worry of the Great Bernera community about the regrettable turn of events. I am grateful to Alasdair Allan for setting out the precise history and detail of the issues, in which, as the constituency MSP, he will be well versed. I cannot add much to that detail, but I am very concerned to note that the local school and shop on the island have closed, further adding to the unnecessary worry faced by the local community.

I touched briefly on the more general issue of island depopulation, which I feel that the issues on Great Bernera are tied into. There are concerning trends of depopulation across our islands, which is a huge cause for concern. In particular, the fact that the population of the Western Isles is expected to drop by 20 per cent come 2041 highlights the harsh reality of that issue.

There are things that we can do to reverse those trends: we need to ensure that connectivity between our islands and the mainland is reliable, continue to invest in the roll-out of broadband and better mobile connectivity, and ensure that investment is directed towards delivering more social and affordable housing to give young islanders an incentive to stay.

It is also critical that we support job creation where possible. For example, recently, I met a business that is looking to create several new jobs on Harris, but it faces real issues in getting the raw materials to set that up on the island.

We in the Parliament have an important role to play. I am grateful to Alasdair Allan for highlighting the specific issue around Great Bernera and I extend an offer to work on a cross-party basis where possible to secure a more desirable outcome for the community there.

As I said, community buyouts often work extremely well, and they can be powerful forces for good in local communities. I hope that a resolution can be found in this instance and in other instances in which communities are struggling to own land when that is in the wider interest of the areas in which they live and that they represent.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I congratulate Alasdair Allan on bringing this debate to the Scottish Parliament. I am happy to make some brief remarks in support of his motion, which recognises the work of the Great Bernera Community Development Trust towards a crofting community buyout and the development of its island.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 seek to ensure that landowners uphold their responsibilities, and they provide a legal basis for communities to negotiate a purchase of the land. As Alasdair Allan said in opening the debate, an absentee landlord might legally own and control the land—or, in this case, the island—but the question remains whether, morally, they should. Although we might say that morally and culturally the land already belongs to the people there, it is the case, particularly when we look at the experience of the citizens of Great Bernera, that in order for them to develop and thrive, legal ownership could be seen as crucial.

It is hugely regrettable that the lack of co-operation from the absentee landlord has delayed and halted progress in that regard. I am sorry that the legislation that is in place to deal with that, namely the 2003 and 2015 acts, have not yet delivered for that particular community. The reports of the highly unusual demands from the absentee landlord for payments from local crofters are, frankly, alarming. The community itself knows what is required to sustain the population there. The loss of the school, care home and shop, combined with rising house prices and the difficulties in developing land, contribute to a challenging picture for the community.

It is not just a matter for the Highlands or rural Scotland; it is of concern to urban communities, too. The fact that MSPs from around the country will contribute this evening reflects just how important the topic of who owns our land and assets, and what they are used for, is.

Land reform is defined as changes to land ownership and land use in the public interest. The issue of land ownership in Scotland can be a contentious one. It is of concern to many of us that large swathes of our country are being held by only a handful of private and in many cases non-resident landowners. As the Centre for Local Economic Strategies notes,

“Land ownership matters because it is an expression of economic and political power”.

The concentration of rural land ownership in the hands of only a few people is a structural problem, particularly when it results in land use that extracts wealth from local communities to their detriment and to the detriment of the wider public interest. The situation in Great Bernera highlights that.

I wish the Great Bernera Community Development Trust every success in its endeavours. I believe that ownership of the land being with the folk who live there will help to redirect wealth back into the local economy and place control and benefits into the hands of the local people, which is right and just.


Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Alasdair Allan for lodging his important motion for debate.

Land ownership remains one of the greatest injustices that we face in Scotland, because the ownership of Scotland’s land remains heavily concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few at the expense of communities. As Alasdair Allan and Ruth Maguire have so poignantly put it, those communities have a moral and cultural case for ownership of that land. That could not be seen more clearly than on Great Bernera—after all, the local community there has found its aspiration to purchase land frustrated by Scotland’s inadequate land laws.

Despite residents seeking a sustainable and prosperous future through community land ownership, progress continues to be delayed by a lack of co-operation from the island’s absentee landlord. In the meantime, the same landlord continues to exploit what should be the community’s land for his own gain by demanding significant payments from local crofters.

Great Bernera is the prime example of what happens when Scotland’s land laws fail to secure the public interest. That is what happens when a disinterested landowner is able to stifle the needs and aspirations of a local community. The truth is that landowners can get away with that because Scotland’s land laws favour their interests over those of local communities.

Even after 20 years of devolution, our land laws lag far behind those of other European countries when it comes to protecting the public interest. In Scotland, it is left to communities with few resources to try to exercise complex legal rights in the face of a landowner that seeks to frustrate their ambitions and, as things stand, the Scottish Government has no right to formally ask whether a landowner is acting in or against the public interest.

That is why we urgently need radical and progressive reform of our land laws. Ministers must be given the powers to intervene and to ask the public interest questions that need to be asked. They must also be able to require the compulsory sale of land when the public interest demands it.

Although the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce a land reform bill is welcome, I am worried that it will fail to deliver the radical change that is needed. That is why I will introduce a land justice bill later this year. I am sure that the minister will remind us today that landowners have property rights. My bill will respect that, but it will not hide behind the timid interpretations of what those property rights might mean that are, I fear, likely to emanate from Government lawyers.

Powers are not just needed when land is at the point of changing hands; they are also needed when the landed class—often an absentee landlord—frustrates the legitimate interests of the people. That is what I will propose through my land justice bill so that the people of Great Bernera and other communities can have their interests advanced far more easily than at present.

I hope that my fears about the Scottish Government’s land reform bill will prove to be unfounded. It will have my support if it delivers the truly bold and radical change that is needed. However, Parliament deserves to have an opportunity to consider truly progressive land laws, and I will make sure that it has that opportunity through my land justice bill.


Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I, too, express my gratitude to Alasdair Allan for securing time for this debate.

I recognise the huge efforts that the Great Bernera Community Development Trust has made to try to complete the sale of the crofting land. It is deeply disappointing that the absentee landlord is refusing to engage co-operatively with the community. A rural community being rendered dependent on a feudal landlord should be something of the past. It is not reflective of the progressive Scotland that the Scottish Greens are striving for.

I understand that the Bernera community has sought to use crofting community right to buy powers, but it has been challenging, given that the process is complex and time consuming. Other communities across Scotland have instead made progress by reaching amicable agreements with landlords to complete buyouts. Unfortunately, that has not been the case to date in Bernera, and I urge the landowner to work with the community in the spirit of good will.

As Alasdair Allan pointed out, this is not the first time in Bernera’s history that the crofters have fought for the right to own the land that they live and work on. In the 1870s, crofters’ grazing land was reduced to smaller and smaller proportions of the island to make way for sporting estates. The crofters upheld their end of the agreement by paying rents and working to improve the land, but it was not long before agents of the landlord arrived with eviction notices.

Following local arrests, some remaining crofters took it upon themselves to march to Stornoway to defend their rights and get a fair hearing. Unfortunately, more legal wrangling was to come, which ended in a court case. However, in 1874, the crofters were found not guilty of the charges against them. Eventually, the case played a part in the first successful challenge of the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, so the Bernera islanders who marched that day took some of the first steps towards land reform in Scotland.

Last week, I visited the islanders on Eigg to join them in celebrating 25 years since their successful community buyout of the island. I could not help being struck by the amazing possibilities that can be achieved by a community that is in control of its land and resources. We gathered in the island’s brand-new community hub at the pier. The hub provides a fine tearoom along with food and craft shops and office space, all with stunning southerly sea views, and it is also a considerable local economic driver.

As part of the celebrations, I joined the Eigg electric tour to learn about Eigg’s pioneering renewable electricity system. It is the first island to generate power from water, through hydro and wind, and with turbines and the sun, by utilising a large solar array. As the islanders said, their electricity is now cheaper than electricity on the mainland. Along with electricity, the islanders also have a successful and growing forestry initiative. Great Bernera’s residents want those opportunities for generations of islanders to come.

It is the responsibility of all of us who are elected to the Parliament to ensure that land reform acts support successful buyouts. I know that the Government intends to introduce a land reform bill later in this parliamentary session, and I hope that we can tackle some of the issues that have been raised tonight through that bill, including by developing a public interest test for the sale of large land holdings and exploring what we can do to tackle overseas landowners.

While preparing for the debate, I came across a poem by Bernera crofter Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn, who lived on Bernera at the close of the 19th century and witnessed the first push for land reform on the island. The poem in English is titled “Spirit of Kindness”, as translated by Derick Thomson. I will share a few lines:

“They handed over to the snipe
the land of happy folk,
they dealt without humanity
with people who were kind.
Because they might not drown them
they dispersed them overseas;
a thraldom worse than Babylon’s
was the plight they were in.”

Almost 150 years on from those lines being drafted, we must start a new chapter for Scotland’s crofting communities and Great Bernera’s land buyout.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I, too, congratulate Alasdair Allan on securing this evening’s important and interesting debate.

Beautiful Great Bernera on the rugged west coast of Lewis has a population of just over 250 people. It was linked to the Isle of Lewis in 1953 by the first pre-stressed concrete bridge in Europe, and the island welcomed 4,000 visitors on the bridge’s opening day. The bridge was built only after islanders threatened to build their own causeway by dynamiting the hillside.

The island boasts the first planned crofting township in the Outer Hebrides, which was created in 1805, and the village boundaries are still in use today by the community. Great Bernera also boasts the marvel that is Bosta, which is the most well-preserved late iron age village that has been found in Scotland. Revealed in 1993 following an Atlantic storm and excavated three years later, Bosta features a series of preserved houses that were inhabited from the early first century, with some houses being virtually intact.

Great Bernera’s resilient crofters resisted the Highland clearances, sparking the Bernera riot of 1874, at which the first victory for small tenants was recorded when they refused the evictions and rent increases for the expansion of sporting estates. No doubt that is why the island was not cleared as so many other tragic Highland islands were, such as Taransay and Mingulay, both of which are also in the Outer Hebrides. That victory catalysed future resistance in the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, which became known as the crofters’ law. Scotland’s modern land reform is rooted in its outcome—which, ironically, the island’s future now depends on.

From 1960 until his death in 2012, the island was owned by Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees. As Alasdair Allan said, he is one of the people who are associated with the James Bond character, but then so were Fitzroy Maclean and many of those landlords. I take all of that with a pinch of salt. Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees offered the islanders first refusal to buy the island, and approximately 85 per cent of the island’s population voted in favour. However, the new absentee landlord would not accede.

The Great Bernera Community Development Trust continues to try to negotiate with the island’s landlord to purchase the island, despite underhand tactics and a lack of co-operation or willingness to engage in any meaningful negotiations.

Today, the community is mostly dependent on lobster fishing, crofting and tourism, with the Outer Hebrides welcoming more than 200,000 tourists annually. The island’s priority is to bring the community into ownership for its economic and social benefits and secure a stronger, more sustainable future.

The community hopes to ensure that money is invested back into the island to provide employment opportunities and encourage younger generations to remain on the island, helping to ensure its sustainability. With the growing number of people moving from the mainland to the Western Isles, house prices on Great Bernera have increased dramatically, pricing many out of the housing market. Affordable housing is therefore crucial to ensure that islanders can afford to stay and that it remains an attractive community. Of course, that cannot happen with the current landlord. The community needs to take control of their land. Support is also required to renovate housing to ensure accessibility for elderly islanders.

Currently, 70 per cent of people in the Hebrides are living on community-owned land. Community buyouts have been successful in Gigha, north Harris and west Harris, to name just a few, and we heard from Ariane Burgess about her experiences on Eigg. Community ownership has generated significant employment opportunities and affordable housing, highlighting that a bright future should materialise for Great Bernera when the buyout eventually happens, as I am sure we want it to.

The tightly knit community already takes a democratic approach to local matters, surveying islanders to ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of residents and the island. That highlights their capability to take on ownership of the island and plan its future. As the MSP for two island communities, Arran and Cumbrae, I can appreciate at first hand the harm that an unresponsive landlord can do, leading to depopulation and damage to an island’s economy. I fully support a community buyout on Great Bernera.

Islands have a unique set of needs and I am proud that the Scottish Government continues to support island and rural communities. I am delighted by the support that the Scottish land fund has provided to Great Bernera, offering the cost of the land and funding for two part-time posts—a commercial manager and an administrative officer—to aid the community’s future as a community-owned island. I hope that Great Bernera will successfully use part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. I trust that ministers will understand and sympathise with the islanders’ reasons for the endeavour.

I also support continued land reform to ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same situation again. I urge the current landlord of Great Bernera to engage and co-operate with the island’s community development trust to reach a fair agreement that will reap huge benefits for the current islanders and future generations on Great Bernera.

The final speaker in the open debate will be Rhoda Grant.


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate Alasdair Allan on securing the debate.

The current situation arises wholly from the failure of the Scottish Government to legislate to make the community right to buy possible in the face of a hostile landlord. It has had 15 years to address that and it must introduce a new land reform bill urgently. The battles, particularly in Pairc, showed that, although the 2003 legislation was well intentioned, it was far too complicated in the face of a determined landowner. If there was serious intent to help communities such as Bernera, that would have been fixed long ago.

New legislation must ensure that anyone who owns large areas of land in Scotland must do so in the public interest. If they do not, there must be powers to remove that land from their ownership. Of course, there need to be checks and balances in any system but, at the end of the day, people such as Cyran de la Lanne-Mirrlees should not be put in charge of a cat far less people’s futures and wellbeing. Indeed, there are more powers in Scotland to remove a cat from a bad owner than there are to remove land.

Bernera is a community that is in decline for the same reasons as many others. The key issues are housing and jobs. Both can be addressed only with access to land. It is scandalous that a place that has so long been associated with resisting landlordism is still cursed by the 21st century version of absentee landlordism without Government lifting a finger to stop it.

The Bernera buyout has been mooted for more than a decade, but it can go nowhere because of the intransigence of an individual sitting in Frankfurt. That shames Scotland and the Scottish Government. In the face of similar hostility, other communities do not even bother to try for a buyout.

The case shows us what is wrong with Scottish landowning patterns. While the Scottish Government procrastinates, people suffer. My colleague Mercedes Villalba is consulting on setting a limit for the amount of land that a person could own. That limit would, of course, disinvest Mr de la Lanne-Mirrlees of the majority of the land that he owns in Scotland, which would be beneficial to the people who would no longer be held hostage by his unreasonable and unlawful demands.

Mr de la Lanne-Mirrlees states that he is being advised by Savills to extort huge amounts of money from house sales on the island, but that has no legal bearing on the matter. If that is the case—and I sincerely hope that it is not—it begs the question whether Savills should be practising in Scotland.

Agents who represent such estates must take some responsibility for the abuses that are being perpetrated. In the case of Bernera, a 26-year-old student in Frankfurt hides behind a legal firm in Stornoway that seems powerless to extract any communication from him, leaving people in dreadful circumstances and the community in dismay. The agents for such landowners need to consider whether they are representing the interests of the community by continuing to represent them and provide them with a shield of virtual anonymity.

The lack of progress by the Scottish National Party on land reform is a disgrace and the work that was done in the early years of Holyrood has never been built on or advanced. That is the hidden scandal. Bernera symbolises the fact that that is the bigger issue.


The Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth (Tom Arthur)

I commend Dr Allan for securing the debate, the powerful way in which he narrated the circumstances of his constituents on Great Bernera and the way in which he explained the powerful and intrinsic links between land ownership, development and sustaining a growing population. I also recognise the contributions from colleagues across the parties that were delivered in a constructive and thoughtful tone.

No landowner should ever be able to exert such control over the lives of people who happen to live on land that they own. That is especially so in the case of Great Bernera, given that the previous owner had already given the community first refusal to purchase the island following his death in 2012. When it was put to the community, 85 per cent of them turned out to vote on the buyout. In total, 142 backed the purchase of the island, with 37 against.

The community trust received £100,000 from the Scottish land fund, financed by the Scottish Government, to help to purchase the 2,260 hectares of the Great Bernera estate, including 69 crofts around Kirkibost, Tobson, Hacklete, Breaclete and Croir. Ideas for boosting the island’s economy range across various areas and types of development, including renewable energy and, indeed, a pier.

Why has that not happened? Other crofting communities have faced similar challenges and succeeded. In 2007, the Galson Estate Trust took ownership of 22,000 hectares in the north of the Isle of Lewis. On the same island, Pairc Trust took ownership of 11,000 hectares in 2015. Neither of those buyouts was without its challenges, most notably in the case of Pairc Trust, but both succeeded.

The most obvious answer lies in the tenacity and belief of the communities themselves. Both communities believed that they could take on the running of the land around them and improve the circumstances of their own communities in doing so. Both communities were determined to see that through, no matter what obstacles were put in their way.

The Scottish Government brought in legislation that was aimed at giving rights to communities to purchase land, and the crofting community right to buy was aimed at just this type of situation. However, it is notable that neither of the two successful groups concluded the transfer of the estates using the right to buy. In the end, both concluded the transfer through a negotiated sale, and the preferred way of achieving these outcomes should be both parties reaching common ground and deciding on the way forward. In the case of Pairc, it took several years and a few legal challenges, but it still got there.

Although neither community concluded their deal using the right to buy, it is equally worth noting that, without that right to buy, it is unlikely that either would have got a seat at the table. Both communities began the right-to-buy process and, through using it, brought the owners of the estates to a position of either negotiating with the community or facing a compulsory purchase through the right to buy. The right to buy is a strong tool for a community to have at its disposal.

In the case of Great Bernera, the community is facing some of the same challenges that the Pairc Trust faced. It has an owner who, through the various means at their disposal, is not willing to entertain any discussion with the community about it purchasing the whole estate. They are exerting influence on those who live on land that they own—to what ends, we can only speculate—making it more difficult for the people who live there to plan for any kind of future.

Any owner of land has responsibility to the land itself and to those who call it their home. The Scottish Government’s land rights and responsibilities statement, which was published in 2017 and is the first statement of its kind in the world, says exactly that in two of its principles:

“The holders of land rights should exercise these rights in ways that take account of their responsibilities to meet high standards of land ownership, management and use. Acting as the stewards of Scotland’s land resource for future generations they contribute to sustainable growth and a modern, successful country”;


“There should be greater collaboration and community engagement in decisions about land.”

If the Great Bernera Community Development Trust feels that those principles are not being followed, there is the crofting community right to buy. The trust has already been investigating that route, and it has been in discussion with Scottish Government officials. Admirably, the trust has continued to pursue the negotiation route, but I recognise that there is a view that the time has now come for a more forceful line of action. Officials are considering how the trust could access the right to buy route and they will continue to do so, as they did in the Pairc and Galson cases.

Looking forward, I note that, as has been touched on during the debate, the 2021-22 programme for government committed to introducing a further land reform bill during the current parliamentary session. During the summer, we will work with all stakeholders, including landowning interests, to develop policy and legislative solutions to progress our proposals. We will undertake a wide-ranging consultation on proposals for the bill, which we aim to introduce by the end of 2023. Our proposals will comply fully with the ECHR, including the right to private property, and with terms of the current devolution settlement, but they will also be ambitious and aimed at making sure that the land plays its full part in delivering the vision set out by the just transition commission of a fairer, greener future for all. That reflects the principled position of the Scottish Government and our explicit commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for every member of society.

The programme for government also committed to doubling the Scottish land fund to £20 million by the end of the current parliamentary session. The fund was put in place to make it possible for community groups to apply for awards to purchase assets, no matter which route that ownership takes.

I close by congratulating Great Bernera Community Development Trust on continuing to persevere in the face of adversity, and I encourage it to pursue the purchase by any means at its disposal. Indeed, in responding to Dr Allan’s specific request, I hope that the land fund will now be able to enter into more detailed discussions with the buy-out trust to examine the options that it wishes to pursue.

The crofting community right to buy has never been used to completion, but maybe it is about time that it was. In this case, it might be able to bring the owner to the negotiating table. If not, I feel that this community is the type to follow through with its plans and take it as far as it can until it becomes the owner of the land.

Meeting closed at 20:24.