Crofters electricity crackles despite authorities

Gerrard Winstanley tony at
Tue Jul 6 19:47:02 BST 2004

Lessons to be learned from Assynt in living with community ownership
click for the pix

GENERATING ELECTRICITY And eventually bringing in revenue for the community, hopes John Mackenzie - seen here in the hydro scheme's turbo room

Power to the people: Assynt 10 years after the buy-out

MICHAEL RUSSELL visited Assynt last week, as the people prepared to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the community takeover of the estate

Inside the turbine room conversation becomes impossible: the piercing, metallic wail of the Croatian-built generator brings our discussion to a very definite halt. So John Mackenzie takes his clipboard and jots down a few readings, as he has done every day since the Loch Poll Hydro Project first came on stream in September 2000.

He peers at the dials on the control panel and makes a careful note of kilowatts, voltages and water levels; there's a phone on the desk and I wonder just how it can be heard ringing over the incessant din.

After a few minutes we're outside again in the bitter February air. John shuts the door and the noise drops to a conversation- friendly level. "Let's go up to the loch," he says, "and I'll show you what we've done."

The gravel track hides a tidy secret: 620 metres of ductile iron pipe, transporting hundreds of litres of water a second from Loch Poll down to the turbine room, where the onrushing liquid is converted into elecricity.

In the 10 years since the Assynt crofters secured their right to self-determination, the hydro project is, arguably, their greatest achievement. It certainly took long enough to build, largely due to the unwanted attentions of an old enemy: Scottish Natural Heritage.

John's eyes light up when he tells of battles lost and won during the mammoth eight-year struggle to get the project off - or in - the ground. He points to a line of birch by the river. "They told us to root-ball those trees, lay them aside, and then replace them when we were finished," he says. "It was just another mad proposition. They also imposed thoroughly impractical restrictions on the width of the pipeline's corridor up the gorge."

Perhaps most famously, SNH raised a number of objections based on the presence of a single pair of black-throated divers. This elusive couple returns to nest by Loch Poll every year, so far without the patter of tiny, webbed feet. By all accounts they're still trying.

Once we reach the head of the loch, John proudly gives me a demonstration of the tilting weir mechanism used to regulate the flow of water during the salmon season. As the required 500 litres per second pours over the weir, a pulse of peaty water makes its way downstream. Between April and October, a colony of freshwater mussells gets a regular bath this way, and the salmon have a decent chance of making it upstream.

>From an environmental point of view the hydro project's impact looks, to the untrained eye, insignificant. Aside from the weir, there's a concrete platform, barely three strides long, a guardrail - and that's it. From a distance the whole structure disappears within the vastness of the lochside and surrounding hills.

It is a monument to painstaking compromise: a few inches here, a few hundred litres there. Up a bit, left a bit, and mind the trees and the black-throated divers as you go. "When we've paid off our debts the hydro will be a useful source of revenue," says John, as we make our way back down the track to the turbine room.

He enthuses about other similar projects which could come into being on water-courses throughout the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate, now that ordinary people have the power to contemplate such things.

It occurs to me that here is a man of tremendous energy and drive, who fought for years to complete the hydro project, and before that to wrest control of the estate away from a succession of indifferent landlords.

Later, I meet "fellow traveller" and former Assynt Crofters Trust chairman Allan MacRae and I am struck with the same feeling: both men are clearly devoted to a cause, and that cause is the wellbeing of their beloved estate. They are characters - vivid, almost eccentric personalities - who display a conviction common, I imagine, among first-generation revolutionaries.

John is now 66 and I ask the former Assynt Crofters Trust chairman if there are other younger locals with his determination and commitment. Surprisingly, he says no.

SO, WHO IS going to drive forward future hydro projects? And what about plans for rented housing for local families? Or the merits of a native forest regeneration scheme? Or restocking local rivers with trout? In short, are there fresh troops ready to replace the old guard?

In terms of numbers, the answer is yes; only three of the 12-strong trust board have been there since the pre-buyout days. One of the nine more recent appointments is 36-year-old Isobel MacPhail. Using her learned rural development skills, Isobel has been trying to build a picture of what the next 10 years might hold.

Her recent survey targeted the all-important 18-30 age bracket. "We need to create and maintain opportunites now and in the future for our younger people," she argues. "We need to make the most of our assets for the future."

Key to stemming the out-migration of the young is the native forestry scheme that, to date, now covers about 800 hectares - 10 per cent of the entire estate. Isobel has no doubts about its value to the community. "This scheme definitely created, and continues to maintain work, for the 18-30 age groups," she says.

But some, like Allan MacRae, would like the scheme to change. "There should be a greater emphasis on commercial species, like Scots pine," he insists, gesturing to a few young specimens - the beginnings of a windbreak - around his caravan near Achmelvich Bridge. "But the Forestry Commission grants dictate the composition of the scheme. As it stands, the scheme falls far short of what the community needs."

Allan MacRae is pleased with the "modest" progress achieved in the last 10 years, but adds: "The trust can't wave a magic wand and make everything better."

Allan is pleased with the "modest progress" achieved over the last 10 years but is well aware of the challenges that still lie in store. "The trust can't wave a magic wand and make everything better," he says.

His herd of Highland cattle amble into the yard, and he tells me about a small flat he's building in the hayloft across the way. What looks like an old stone byre is getting a facelift. "I've been building that for 15 years," he sighs, before introducing me to a prototype waterwheel he has rigged up to a car engine and gear system. It doesn't appear to be working.

Allan also takes a very dim view of the current institutionalised aversion to small-scale agriculture. "It would be folly to put the land back to nature," he rails. "Crofting is the glue that holds communities in the Highlands and Islands together. Only when it is gone will be realise what a mistake we made in getting rid of it. But by then it will be too late."

As for the future, Allan is sanguine about the prospects of a new generation of consolidators coming up to supplant and build on what - and who - came before them. "You know how it is, it would take a volcanic eruption to move some crofters," he says. "But you'll always get that in any community. There's plenty for us still to do here and I'm sure we'll get the people to do it."

In 1967 Norman MacCaig's epic poem "A Man in Assynt" told of modern Highlanders, descendants of those who were cleared fromthe land, "kept in their place by English businessmen and the indifference of a remote and ignorant Government".

Thirty-six years later we have the Land Reform (Scotland) Act - proof, surely, of political engagement. True, there are still some clinging on to their acreages, threatening to withold their crumbs of investment if they, too, go the way of Lord Vestey. But not in Assynt. Or Gigha. Or Knoydart. Maybe they'll all, eventually, prove McCaig right and reverse the "sad withdrawal" of people from the bays and sheltered glens by "coming, at last, into their own again".

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