Its been just over five months since the community of Ulva and north west Mull took over ownership of the island of Ulva, and after the media flurry on 21 June, behind the scenes the residents and committee have begun tackling the huge challenge of running an island. The most significant thing about that for me as someone living and running a business on Ulva is that I now have an input and say in the decisions that shape where Ulva is headed.
The day after we got the keys, we had to very quickly change from the mindset of a group trying to complete the daunting task of navigating the community right to buy process and finding £4.5million within eight months, to being landlords and custodians of a culturally and environmentally significant piece of Scotland. For me, its only within the last month or so the whole thing has truly sunk in. After spending twelve months fighting for the right to determine the future of Ulva, and expecting the dream to crumble at each of the many hurdles, it was a very surreal feeling to know we had succeeded against the odds.
So what have we been up to since June? A lot of unglamorous preparatory work, in short! Our main aim from the outset was always repopulation, and with several empty houses on the island, from day one we started the ball rolling with them. We have had visits from structural engineers and architects, energy and water surveyors, and hopefully this week we will settle on the final plans for the first round of work so building warrants can be submitted. There is currently a housing feasibility study being undertaken, and we have been collating all the expressions of interest we have received from people who would like to live or work on Ulva.
We have been putting up additional signage for visitors on some of the more challenging routes, with plans to replace and upgrade signs in the next few months. We have started work on patching up some of the roads, and work will shortly begin on clearing out ditches. We hope next year that we will be able to rethatch Sheilas Cottage, our small visitor centre.
The deer population we inherited is approximately four times the number that can be healthily sustained, so we have appointed a stalker to bring deer numbers down over the next few years. We made the decision that we did not want any commercial shooting on Ulva, and that we would only use copper bullets to prevent lead from entering the food chain. All of the deer shot on Ulva will be sold as venison, and we hope to make some of our meat available in local shops next year. We have also been looking after our small herd of Hebridean sheep, shearing them in summer and preparing them for the probably wet winter ahead!
One of the most wonderful things to have arisen from the community purchase is our Garden Force. Almost immediately, volunteers from the local community began work on the overgrown garden at Ulva House. Most weeks in summer, and even as recently as the start of November, residents of both Ulva and Mull have been working together to restore it to its former glory. There were also several visitors who took time out from their holidays to help cut grass and dig out lost paths. This kind of collective work within the community serves to show the positive benefits community land ownership can have for many more than just those living here.
Community ownership isnt all sunshine and unicorns, of course its not. There are huge challenges and strong opinions and even stronger personalities. But we know we all have the same aim to make the decisions that are best for Ulva and our community, and we all have a part to play in that. Decisions are collective, not made by one person for their singular benefit.
I dont think I or any of the others involved in what we have achieved could deny the importance of land reform in allowing communities like ours the opportunity to choose a different path. The fact that the Scottish Land Fund exists, and that land reform has been firmly on the agenda at Holyrood for many years now, serves to show that land ownership in Scotland is changing, I believe for the better. That NWMCWC Ltd had the experience in community land ownership already, and that they were there as a board and as a group to fight for Ulva was essential to our success. The communities that came before us, the likes of Eigg and Assynt, paved the way for and continue to inspire those of us that come after. My hope is that Ulva is an inspiration for other communities in the future.
As we approach the festive season, I find myself in remarkedly different circumstances to last year. If someone had said to me last December – while we were waiting on the ballot going out, contemplating our last Christmas on Ulva, and knowing all the trials still ahead of us – that my kids would be sitting here now as community owners of the island, I dont think Id have believed them. The process was tough, and the challenge ahead is momentous. But Id do it all again in a heartbeat.
To document the community buy out in Ulva, we are collecting the iconic ferry signal sign along with a doorknocker from the home of Rebecca and Rhuri Munro as part of our contemporary collecting programme, Collecting the Present. You can find out more about it in this blog post and watch a film about land reform on Ulva and Eigg at www.nms.ac.uk/collectingthepresent.