A group of East Sutherland crofters have finally taken control of their future with a £300,000 land buyout - and created the first job in a century in the area!
The Garbh Allt Community Initiative (GACI) has purchased the 3000 acre West Helmsdale crofting estate from landowner Sutherland Estates.
The land comprises four townships south of the Helmsdale River.
GACI chairwoman Anne Fraser said it had taken nearly two years to achieve the buyout and plans were already underway to improve the area.
"We are delighted that the process to buy the land has come to fruition. The process was made simpler by the fact that the land was offered to the community by the Sutherland (Estates) family, and we are grateful that we didn’t have to go through the process of an aggressive buy out, which could have taken much longer,” she said.
"The land is made up of a majority of croft land in the areas of Marrel, West Helmsdale, Gartymore and Portgower and the attached Hill ground, south of the river and village of Helmsdale.
"Garbh Allt (meaning rough burn) is the name of the burn that runs through the land area. We felt it was appropriate to attach a meaningful name to the company.
"As most the land is under crofting tenure the community is mindful of the legislation that rightfully protects croft land however we have hatched plans, having consulted the community in the first instance, that will allow us to develop the area to make it self sustaining.
"We have plans to improve the land and infrastructure, as well as working to make the area a more attractive place to live.
"There is a lack of employment in the Helmsdale area so we are looking at ways that we can build jobs into the management of our land.
"The area is of significant importance with regards to its connection to the Land League movement; its geological importance; its archaeological interest; and it natural flora, fauna and wildlife. The plan for the future will be to look at how we make the most of these resources in a way that compliments and betters the crofting way of life.
"We have a part time development officer who is ready to start work officially with us. That is the first job created in the initiative area for about 100 years, and we see this as being just the start.
"We , the directors, have been working hard since July 2016 to make this happen. We have had support and assistance from many people. Scottish Land Fund and SSE BOWL fund were the sources of funding for the costs associated with the purchase of the land. They have also funded three years of the part time development worker post. Community Land Scotland has been a great help, as has HIE - Eilidh Todd particularly - and the Big Lottery.
"We see this as just the start of things. We are keen to get on and work with the community to make this an even better place to live. We are planning to have a formal celebration later in the summer to mark this monumental event and look forwards to involving people in that."
The buyout was made possible with a £29,918 award from the Beatrice Partnership Fund. The Scottish Land Fund had already previously granted £273,000 towards the purchase.
There are 178 individual crofts and common grazings on the estate with 103 tenanted and a 75 owner occupied. It is estimated that 56 people are actively engaged in crofting.
A community ballot gave 95% support in favour of buying the land.
To be part of the new initiative people can join, for free, the growing membership and/or support Garbh Allt’s soon to be launched Founding Funders scheme. Please see www.garbhallt.land for more information.