July 2016

They’re nicknamed Wendy, Fanny and Blowy. The three huge turbines, each 330ft tall, stand on a great expanse of boggy moorland overshadowed by the bare mountains of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. They converse in sibilant voices  as a fierce wind spins their enormous sails,  but nobody hears them, save a lone crofter  digging peat.

Some would consider the turbines a blot on this wild and desolate landscape, but not Angus MacMillan. He sees them as objects of beauty. ‘These three ladies will be our salvation. They are the key to our economic renaissance after centuries of decline,’ he declares.

‘I don’t see turbines. I see the graceful collection of energy that translates into a future for our island.’ MacMillan, 62, is a silver-haired, ruddy-faced former salmon-farm owner turned visionary. 

A decade ago, he spearheaded Scotland’s largest community buyout, using a new Land Reform Act to purchase 93,000 acres of South Uist and its smaller neighbours, Benbecula and Eriskay, from the absentee landlords.

Since then, under MacMillan’s forceful and sometimes controversial stewardship, South Uist’s prospects have been radically transformed. Seemingly doomed to a slow, lingering death like so many other Scottish islands, it is now fighting back in dramatic fashion.

‘There’s still a hell of a lot more to do, but  I think we’ve been extremely successful,’ MacMillan says. ‘We’re trying to reverse  decades of decline and neglect and lack of investment, but we have more than achieved the objectives we set ourselves in 2006.’

Lorne MacLeod, chairman of Community Land Scotland, which represents 65 other community buyout projects, concurs.  The energy of entrepreneurial spirit of South Uist’s islanders has been unleashed, he says. ‘It’s been very successful… Everybody is very inspired by the achievements of South Uist in a relatively short period of time.’

Even the former landlords are enthused. ‘I’m really pleased they’re doing as well as they are,’ says Rupert Ponsonby, an Oxfordshire farmer and businessman, who still returns to South Uist with his family each summer.

‘There’s more money on the island, and more mood of  a positive future, which will hopefully bring more islanders home and make the whole  place zing.’ In short, it is the rented-car syndrome writ large. Nobody looks after a rental car, but they take very good care of their own.

South Uist, a last stronghold of the Gaelic language, is nothing if not remote. It stands on the westernmost fringe of Europe, where the continent’s last rocky outposts fracture into the Atlantic, a 30-mile stretch of wind-whipped, treeless mountains, bogs and dunes dotted with crofts like tiny Monopoly houses.

The island can look stunningly beautiful in sunshine, with its pure air and huge skies, bleached beaches and aquamarine seas, white bog cotton, wild yellow irises and lily-covered lochs, but bleak and forbidding otherwise.  It is home to an impressive array of rare birds  – corncrakes, corn buntings, hen harriers,  redshanks, lapwings, skylarks, eagles, short-eared owls – and the Great Yellow Bumblebee, which is seldom found elsewhere.

It may be the only place in Britain with signs warning drivers of otters on the road. Humans have lived – or rather survived – on South Uist for thousands of years. Four pre- historic mummified bodies were discovered on the island in 2001.

It is littered with ancient roundhouses and brochs. The Vikings came and went, and were later replaced by the MacDonalds of Clanranald, who prospered by harvesting kelp, until demand collapsed in the early 19th century.

Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young Jacobite pretender, also came and went. He landed on Eriskay in 1745, before crossing to mainland Scotland to raise an army. He hid on South Uist after his defeat at Culloden, until a local girl, Flora MacDonald, spirited him ‘over the sea to Skye’, disguised as her maid.

In 1837, a Colonel John Gordon bought the island, and forcibly removed many of the  crofters to make room for sheep farming. The population, roughly 7,300 at the turn of the 19th century, almost halved as hundreds of islanders were shipped to Canada.

It continued to fall as the island’s ownership passed to Gordon’s daughter-in-law, Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart, and, eventually, to a syndicate of nine families who visited for a few weeks every summer to shoot and fish.

That syndicate invested little in South Uist, and some crofters still lived in thatched cottages lacking electricity or running water in the 1970s. By 2001, the population had fallen to just 1,951 – a decline of 15 per cent over the previous decade alone.

‘Our backs were against the wall. There was no prospect of employment. School rolls were diminishing rapidly. Young families were leaving. Morale was  absolutely rock bottom,’ says MacMillan, the only one of his five siblings still living on  South Uist.

That is why he and others decided to pursue a community buyout, under the terms of the Scottish Land Reform Act. The syndicate agreed a price of £4.5 million for the estate’s 93,000 acres, 850 crofts, three quarries, shooting and fishing rights.

For an extra £100,000, MacMillan also secured the wind rights, which turned out to be the bargain of the century. The islanders overwhelmingly approved the buyout in a ballot.

They raised £400,000 of their own, and the rest in grants from various Scottish development bodies, the local council and the lottery.

On a stormy night in December 2006, they celebrated their purchase of the island with bonfires and a huge ceilidh – the band flying in on a private plane from Edinburgh, because the commercial flight  was cancelled.

‘It was a momentous occasion. After waves of depopulation and brutality and clearing people off the land, after all that working for a pittance just to pay the rent, people for the first time had control of their land and their own destiny,’ says MacMillan.

‘The mood was euphoric. There was a real sense of history,’ says Father Michael MacDonald, a priest on an island  which remains predominantly Roman Catholic because the Reformation never reached it. Then reality intruded.

The islanders had bought an estate that had been neglected for decades, remained solvent only by selling off parcels of land, and had only one full-time employee left. ‘The whole thing was in free fall,’ says MacMillan. So they developed a plan that MacDonald describes as a  ‘fag-packet job, but a good fag-packet job’.

They set up a management company – Sealladh na Beinne Mòire (SnBM, Gaelic for ‘view from the highest hill’) – charged with regenerating South Uist’s economy so its people could stay. They made MacMillan SnBM’s chairman, and elected seven volunteer directors.

SnBM moved quickly to staunch the losses by increasing the rents on the quarries to commercial rates, raising fishing and shooting fees, and repairing Grogarry – the old landlords’ dilapidated lodge – so it could be rented to fishing and shooting parties for up to £20,000 a week. They also lobbied furiously to avert an impending disaster – the departure of South Uist’s largest private employer.

The north-western corner of South Uist has long been covered by mysterious towers, bunkers, radar posts and great windowless warehouses protected by high wire fences.

This is Europe’s largest missile-testing range, where generations of prototype British and Allied missiles have been fired into the vast empty wastes of the North Atlantic.

When the Hebrides Range was first mooted in the 1950s, the islanders were appalled and Canon John Morrison – a local priest dubbed ‘Father Rocket’ – led the campaign against it by erecting religious shrines along the roads.

But they were equally appalled in 2009 when QinetiQ, which operates the range for the Ministry of Defence, proposed moving it to west Wales, taking more than 200 jobs  with it.

MacMillan formed a task force with the Western Isles Council, unions and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to fight the move. They enlisted the support of local politicians, and visited the MoD, the Scottish Office and Alistair Darling, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in Downing Street. They won.

‘SnBM and Angus [MacMillan] played a crucial role,’ says Donnie Steele, a local councillor and Unite shop steward at the range. Another early success was the golf course, which is a much bigger deal than it sounds.

In 1891, Old Tom Morris, the founding father of modern golf, who won four of Scotland’s first eight Open championships and designed most of its top courses, visited South Uist at Lady Cathcart’s behest.

He took one look at the machair – the grassy dunes that lie between the island’s western beaches and its boggy interior – declared the terrain ‘second to none’ for a golf course, and proceeded to build one. Following the First World War, the links reverted to grazing land, and Morris’s course would have vanished for ever had Gordon Irvine, a golf-course consultant, not heard rumours of his lost masterpiece in 2005.

Deeply sceptical, Irvine telephoned Ralph Thompson, a local golfer, who offered proof in the form of contemporary newspaper cuttings.

Irvine later climbed a hill overlooking the undulating dunes, with their sculpted ridges and hollows, and saw what Morris saw. He declared it the ‘holy grail’ of golf, and pledged to restore the great man’s links.

Today, the Askernish course is a golfers’  paradise, its stunning views and fiendish holes attracting players from across the world. Around 150 enter its ‘open’ each year, pumping some £70,000 into the local economy. In late June, when the northern evenings seem endless, it holds a ‘longest day’ competition which begins at 8pm and lasts till midnight.

‘This has been a great success story, and it wouldn’t have happened without the community buyout,’ says Thompson as he sits in the neat little clubhouse beneath a faded photo of Morris lying on the dunes. SnBM rents the land to the club for a token fee, and helped it to defeat a legal challenge by a few crofters who wanted the dunes for grazing.

Cows and sheep do  still graze on the course, but with everyone’s blessing. ‘They help keep the rough down,’ Thompson chuckles.

But the three turbines were the really major transformational project, and one that exploited South Uist’s greatest and limitless natural resource: wind. SnBM raised £11.5 million in grants and loans.

It spent seven years obtaining the finance and permits. The giant towers were trucked and shipped from Germany to South Uist via Sweden, and erected on bases containing 40 million cubic metres of concrete each. Their sails began turning in 2013, and have been generating huge amounts of electricity and cash ever since.

Wendy, Fanny and Blowy were expected to earn about £600,000 last year, but gales of 80 or 90 mph are not uncommon on South Uist.

They actually operated about 98 per cent of the time, and earned £1.2 million – a bonanza for a tiny island. Twenty per cent of the profits are pumped straight back into the community, but the rest helps finance further investment –  notably the regeneration of the island’s  harbour at Lochboisdale which had been virtually moribund since herring fishing collapsed in the 1960s.

Absurdly, the islanders currently have to buy fresh fish from a van that arrives once a week from Peterhead on Scotland’s  east coast. SnBM has invested £10 million in a new causeway, pier and breakwaters at Lochboisdale, creating a marina with berths for 50 seagoing yachts, which opened last summer, sites for 16 new homes and 30 acres of land for industrial development.

Marine Harvest, the fish-farm conglomerate, has already built a new warehouse there, and its employees can sit inside, in front of screens, monitoring the automated feeding of thousands of salmon in offshore pens with the help of underwater cameras.

In another coup, SnBM forced Caledonian MacBrayne, the Scottish government-owned ferry company, to open a direct route between Lochboisdale and the mainland port of Mallaig this summer, cutting four hours off the existing service to Oban via the island of Barra. It did so by threatening to bring in a private contractor to run the service.

‘This is our M1,’ MacMillan says of the new route. The islanders have become not just skilled lobbyists but masterful fundraisers, securing more than £23 million in grants and commercial loans. ‘The more you do, the more you understand what to say to tick the boxes,’ Kirsty MacCormack, SnBM’s development manager, says.

The newly regenerated Lochboisdale harbour, which had been virtually moribund since herring fishing collapsed in the 1960s
The newly regenerated Lochboisdale harbour, which had been virtually moribund since herring fishing collapsed in the 1960s CREDIT: SEAN DOOLEY
‘We screw them for everything we can – but don’t write that,’ MacMillan adds with a laugh. And they fizz with new ideas. Next up, a distillery to exploit both the rising global demand for Scotch and another colourful nugget of South Uist history.

In 1941, the SS Politician sank in the shallow sound between South Uist and Eriskay, and the islanders shamelessly plundered the 260,000 bottles of whisky it was shipping to Jamaica and New Orleans, until customs and excise officials began raiding their crofts. The saga was immortalised in the Compton Mackenzie book and Ealing comedy, Whisky Galore!

SnBM is also planning to develop a deep-water commercial port at Lochboisdale so that it can receive cruise ships, and vessels servicing offshore wind farms and oil rigs. It intends to buy several looms at £20,000 apiece and rent them to islanders so they can make Harris tweed. It is seeking planning consent for three more wind turbines. This is all, of course, a work in progress and it is far too early to proclaim South Uist saved.

‘This is a 50-year project, not a five-year project. We’re only at the very beginning of the benefits being realised,’ MacCormack stresses. But the auguries are good. A decade after buying the island for £4.6  million, SnBM now has assets of more than £30 million, a healthy balance sheet, and about 20 staff. New jobs are being created.

The population appears to have stabilised. There is now money to improve drainage for South Uist’s crofters, cull the island’s rampant deer population and improve facilities for anglers lured by its abundant brown trout, sea trout and salmon. As MacMillan points out, ‘Everything we have done in the last 10 years they [the previous owners] did not do.’

That doesn’t mean the islanders are all thrilled. On the contrary, some see SnBM in general, and MacMillan in particular, as secretive and overbearing. Two directors resigned in 2007, accusing MacMillan of running the company as his personal fiefdom.

An aerial view of the island: the main way of reaching South Uist, though, is by ferry CREDIT: SEAN DOOLEY
There have been some acrimonious legal disputes with crofters who feel their rights have been trampled on, conflict-of-interest accusations, upsets because funds have been channelled into one project and not another.

This year’s AGM, held in a village hall one evening in early June, was conspicuous for  the hostile questioning, with one man calling SnBM a self-serving company that had  lost touch with the people it was supposed  to serve.

MacMillan is unapologetic. ‘I’m strong-minded in trying to achieve what we originally set out to achieve,’ he says. And he has plenty of defenders. ‘I’d rather have Angus’s boldness than some guy sitting there twiddling his thumbs,’ says MacDonald. 

‘The buyout would never have happened without Angus,’ says Steele, the union shop steward. ‘He gave us a vision and he goes for it. Some people may see it as bullying. I see it as strong leadership.’ But no one regrets the buyout, and sitting in that hall that evening it was not hard to see why.

It was not just that South Uist appears to have a viable economic future at last. The islanders were able to voice their views in a way they never could before. They were free to stand for election to a board of directors that never previously existed.  The AGM was an exercise in participation and democracy not seen on the island in a  thousand years.