AN ISLAND dream to use public cash to establish the first new crofting community for half a century has come a step nearer with the successful bid by Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise for the 4,600-acre Orbost estate.
The victory, hailed as historic by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Crofters Commission, is the first time a local enterprise company has intervened to buy a Highland estate in the face of worldwide interest. It quashes local people's fears that one of the largest freehold properties on Skye, which came on the market for £400,000, might fall into the hands of an absentee landlord.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise chief executive Iain Robertson said last night that plans were now being made by Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise and HIE's Community land unit for detailed consultation with the community.
"This was a unique opportunity for a pilot approach and every community land ownership opportunity is likely to be singularly different to the others," he added.
"It is essential that the community is fully involved in developing plans and projects and other agencies are also able to bring their particular expertise and resources to bear.
"Skye has a growing population and a proven demand for new housing and business opportunities. Orbost estate has the advantage of good farmland and, with continued community support, the promise of exciting developments."
Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise chairman Jim Hunter said the agreement signalled a new chapter in the long and often emotional history of land ownership and economic use in the Highlands and islands.
"Today the emotions are of pure joy," he added. "We reacted quickly to this opportunity with the backing of the community.
"A hundred years ago Orbost had a population of 120 and the ruins seen there today are a reminder that these were not just homes.
"With the support of the community we can now start to create new purpose and new life."
The chief executive of SALE, Lorne MacLeod, would not reveal the purchase price of the estate, but said they were now looking forward to the hard work that lay ahead in creating a new crofting community.
He said: "We are looking at the possibility of 12 smallholdings and we have to discuss with local people how exactly we should go about it.
"The crofters will need houses and we will be looking at the possibility of providing further housing on the estate."
A Crofters' Commission spokesman said they congratulated Highlands and Islands Enterprise on its foresight and initiative.
He added that they would continue to work closely with HIE using their knowledge of rural communities to benefit the people around Orbost.
The estate, which features Healabhal Bheag, the highest of Macleod's Tables, belonged to brothers Donald and Ian Macdonald and Donald's son Robert, who is chairman of Dunvegan Community Council.
Last night Robert said he was delighted that the estate had not fallen into the hands of an absentee landlord and that it would be a new beginning for crofting.
He said: "I am delighted that the local enterprise company were able to get Orbost because the lifeblood of crofting is young people and this will help them get a first foot on the ladder.
"It would have been a shame for it to have fallen into foreign hands. We have always had an open policy of allowing people to walk across the estate.
"It is also interesting in that in the past most of the crofting estates Skye were farms. In a way it is the wheel coming round full circle again."
Scottish Industry Minister Brian Wilson said the successful bid had been a great team effort based on a vision of what could be achieved.
The purchase had been consistent with the importance he attached to looking at new ways of co-ordinating the public sector agencies' response in support of peripheral communities.
Press and Journal; Saturday, November 1, 1997;
by Bob King
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