Bays estate owners are willing to engage

The owners of the Bays of Harris Estate are willing “in principle” to “take very seriously” its potential sale to the local community if there is a majority of residents in favour.

By Brian Wilson
Thursday, 2nd June 2022, 7:52 am
The Bays of Harris Estate - which constitutes three separate parts - has been in the hands of the Hitchcock family since the 1920s. Pic: John Maher.
The Bays of Harris Estate - which constitutes three separate parts - has been in the hands of the Hitchcock family since the 1920s. Pic: John Maher.

This was confirmed to the Gazette this week by Mr Robert Hitchcock on behalf of the family partnership which owns the 27,000 acre crofting estate as public consultations continued over a community buy-out.

However, Mr Hitchcock – whose family has owned the estate since 1925 – indicated that they would expect the valuation to be “updated” to take account of factors which have emerged since the last formal valuation in 2019 when it was set at a little over £1 million.

He said: “That was the figure Savill’s came up with and since then we have continued less formally with valuations. There is a lot of value in peatland though forestry is not quite such a thing there. We would want to take a rounded view of the whole estate”.

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He instanced telecom masts as a source of additional value and added: “There are also costs (involved in a sale) which is an entirely different matter”.

Mr Hitchock said: “We would hope to avoid the compulsory purchase route which is technically feasible under the 2003 Act”. This was welcomed by John Maher, chairman of the Bays of Harris Steering Group, who stressed that an “amicable” outcome was in everyone’s interests.

A buy-out of this scale would have to be heavily backed by the Scottish Land Fund. There have been few land acquisitions in recent years and the Fund has increasingly moved towards supporting purchase of assets such as pubs, halls and lighthouses.

Another Harris buy-out would be a major boost for its original purpose. Both North Harris and West Harris estates are already in community ownership, accounting for 60 per cent of the Harris acreage. Both have been active in meeting housing needs – by far the biggest issue identified by communities on the Bays of Harris Estate.

Mr Hitchcock said that as well as responding to the result of an overall ballot within the community, “we would be interested to know what the crofters have to say as a sub-group. It is a crofting estate”.

There are 274 crofts divided among 28 townships. The land varies greatly as the Bays of Harris Estate contains three distinct elements – the rocky east side of Harris, Northton in south Harris and the island of Berneray which is now physically linked to North Uist by causeway.

This reflects the “job lot” sold to the current Hitchcocks’ grandfather in 1925 when the assets of Lever Brothers were disposed of at knock-down prices following the death of Lord Leverhulme and, with him, plans for major fishery developments at Leverburgh.

Mr Hitchcock said: “We have been discussing this with community representatives for ten years now. It was bubbling away before the pandemic and our position is as it was then - that we would take very seriously the outcome of any formal ballot”.

He added: “We are absentee landowners. I would absolutely acknowledge that but absentee is not necessarily disinterested. I travel up once a year and I would say that the estate is efficiently run through our factors in Stornoway”.