Reversing the clearances: Helmsdale backs Sutherland community land buyout 

Overwhelming support for community land buyout on Sutherland coast 

VILLAGE RESIDENTS IN EAST SUTHERLAND have overwhelming backed a plan to take ownership of its surrounding land. 

The Garbh Allt Community Initiative for the townships of Marrel, West Helmsdale, Gartymore and Portgower, on the East Sutherland coast, returned a 96 per cent Yes vote in a public ballot on a community land buyout of land surrounding Helmsdale from the private Sutherland Estate. 

Locals hope to complete the purchase of 3,000 acres of land in 2017, and are investigating renewable energy investments to boost the local economy. 

Seventy six per cent of the community turned out for the election, which is a crucial stage for providing evidence of local support before having the right to proceed with the buyout. 

The people’s land: how community ownership has revitalised Knoydart

The Helmsdale and District Development Trust (HDDT), which has coordinated the buyout process, is now celebrating.

 “We are absolutely delighted to let you know that the proposed buyout from Sutherland Estates has a strong community support,” the group said.

“For the past two weeks, the townships of Marrel, West Helmsdale, Gartymore and Portgower were posting votes to voluntary groups - East Sutherland which were counted last night. The results of the ballot show 76 per cent turnout, of which 96 per cent of voters were supportive of the community purchasing the land.

“This is a fantastic result which will definitely show the Scottish Land Fund Board that the community stands strong behind this project.”

Changes in land ownership in Sutherland are particularly significant given the areas history of violent evictions and depopulations by landowners during the Highland Clearances. 

2016 marks 200 years since the trial of the Duke of Sutherland’s land factor Patrick Sellar for arson and culpable homicide.

He presided over the burning of a Strathnaver croft, while Margaret Mackay, an old woman, was still inside.

Helmsdale is five miles south of Badbea, where the ruins of the village are preserved as a memorial to the Highland Clearances.

While Sutherland remains scarred by the social and economic legacy of the Clearances, the HDDT trust was established to “reverse the trend of decline in the village and surrounding area”. The village had a population of 764 in the 2011 census, a slight drop on 2001. 

How community activists hope to buyout the village of Wanlockhead 

The election result marks a key landmark for the community, which has developed a buyout plan since they were approach by Sutherland Estate in May 2015. 

This has included holding meetings with local residents, considering renewables development, and mapping local land ownership. 

The Garbh Allt Community Initiative has been set up to apply for funding and the eventual purchase.

The community will now develop a full business plan and expect a final decision on the buyout in the early months of 2017.

While the potential Helmsdale buyout is small, campaigners hope that community activism and a gradual transition of power can lead to a wider repopulation of the Highlands and greater economic gains from land ownership and development.

Update: This piece was updated to emphasise that the land relates to communities surrounding Helmsdale. 

Picture courtesy of Helmsdale and District Development Trust

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