I visited the island of Ulva on a day when snow and strong winds blew off the Atlantic, interspersed with pale sunshine that lit up the surrounding mountains on the much larger neighbouring island of Mull.
It’s a beautiful, inhospitable and remote part of the British Isles. You might wonder who would choose to live here, and the answer is few people do. Ulva’s human community is dying. In the mid-19th century it was home to 600 people. Today, just six remain.
Rebecca Munro is one of them. She runs the island’s seafood cafe, popular with visitors who take the short ferry ride across from Mull, especially in the summer months.
Rebecca’s husband was bought up on Ulva, and they are raising their two children here. She took us on a walk along a muddy track past abandoned and run-down houses, an empty church and hostel, all of which, she dreams, will one day be used again.
Ulva’s owner, Jamie Howard, a retired army captain whose family bought the island back in 1946, has put it up for sale.
For Rebecca, and for community activists on Mull, this is an opportunity. New legislation introduced by Scotland’s pro-independence Scottish National Party gives community groups an initial chance to buy land before it is put up for sale on the open market. So Rebecca and her friends have several months to raise about US$6m required to buy Ulva.
They’re likely to get substantial support from the Scottish Land Fund, which gives money in support of community buy-outs. If they are not successful, they fear a “devastating alternative”; that Ulva could be bought by a wealthy absentee landlord, essentially as a private pleasure island.
Ulva is a tiny spot on the map of Scotland, but the conflict of interests over its future resonate across the highlands and islands, and through the country’s history. Ulva’s depopulation began around 1850 when a previous aristocratic owner forced people off the island to make way for sheep grazing, part of the so-called Highland Clearances.
Today, some 430 individuals own half of all private land in Scotland, and the question of land ownership remains very emotive. The SNP would like to broaden the ownership.
Howard would reject any comparison between him and the heartless “lairds” of the 19th century. He’s selling the island reluctantly, and while he’s not opposed to a community buyout in principle, his land agents told Al Jazeera they were concerned the Mull group have badly underestimated the costs of maintaining and restoring infrastructure on Ulva.
Rebecca disagrees. She sees Ulva as a place of potential, a place where farming, fishing, tourism could all be developed, a place where old houses could be restored and new affordable housing could be built.
“This,” she says simply, “is the only opportunity to bring people back to the island.”