Learning from remote, sustainable communities

| 22nd December 2009
Inverie, Knoydart

photo: Jim Manthorp (jimmanthorpe.com)

Inverie, the 'capital' of the Knoydart Peninsula
photo: Jim Manthorp (jimmanthorpe.com)

Being off the beaten track need not require lashings of fossil fuels to provide a comfortable lifestyle. James Morrison tells the remarkable story of the inhabitants of Scotland's Knoydart Peninsula

It’s Britain’s remotest mainland point, and Scotland’s last great wilderness. Accessible only by a 20-mile cliff-top hike or a chugging boat-ride from the faded ferry port of Mallaig, the Knoydart Peninsula is a place of wheeling golden eagles, free-roaming red deer, dense woodland, and brooding munros.

But for its inhabitants, who number barely 100, it is also the location of a slowly unfolding experiment in sustainable living.

A decade ago, Knoydart (from the Norse 'Knut's Fjord') became the subject of a celebrated community buy-out when its 17,200-acre central estate was sold for £750,000 to a charity set up by residents determined to end 900 years of near-feudal ownership. Since then, the Knoydart Foundation has transformed the area into a model of responsible land management, animal husbandry, and ethical tourism.


Over the past eight years, every property in Inverie – the dispersed settlement, snaking around a bay, which passes for the peninsula’s capital – has been linked to a hydroelectric system fed by Loch Bhraomisaig on the slopes of Beinn Buidhe. The community has also been exporting its most plentiful resources, timber and venison, to trading partners as far afield as Ireland. Now, in its 10th anniversary year, it’s embarking on the next phase of its march towards self-sufficiency – intensifying cultivation of home-grown staples, and diversifying into eco-building and electric vehicles.

'We make use of whatever we can locally,' says Angela Williams, the foundation’s development officer, surveying the single-track high street winding to the small concrete jetty which passes for Inverie’s ferry terminal.

As things stand, she admits it would be wrong to paint Knoydart as a carbon-neutral utopia: 'We have a market garden we’re developing as a community resource. Otherwise, most food is imported from elsewhere.'

So why do so many visitors to the area – attracted by positive write-ups on websites like responsibletravel.com and greentraveller.co.uk - evangelise about its eco-friendly credentials? The answer lies in the efforts its stolidly progressive residents are making to harness its natural advantages.

The foundation’s proudest achievement is its hydroelectric system, which generates 280 kilowatts of electricity and supplies 70 homes and businesses around Inverie Bay – a lifeline for a community the National Grid has never threatened to reach. Now managed by a separate company, Knoydart Renewables, the project has a tangled history stretching back well before the 1999 buyout.

Transfer of power

Until the 1970s, locals largely relied on diesel (a single generator in Inverie is still used as back-up today). But by the end of the decade, the estate’s then owner, Major Macdonald, decided to invest in hydropower – his principal intention being to provide a reliable supply to his 19th century loch-side mansion.

One of the few roads on Knoydart, none of which connect to the mainland Photo: Jim Manthorpe

In the 1980s and 90s, this stuttering system fell into disrepair under a succession of less diligent landlords. By the time the foundation took over, an overhaul was needed. Angela, 46, recalls how basic conditions were when she moved from Lancashire to take up her post in 2001:
'Cash registers weren’t working, nobody had computers.'

In the end, it took a £500,000 cash injection – largely financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the Scottish Government initiative Highlands and Islands Enterprise – to make the power supply fit for purpose. Only three years after the buyout, with the dam raised and refurbished, additional transformers installed and the existing turbine-house rebuilt, was it possible to connect an initial 45 properties to the makeshift grid.

'We’re lucky to have such an ideal head of water,' says Angela. 'We’ve only had one instance where the dam level ran low – during a very dry spring in 2008. But year on year we’ve improved our knowledge of how it works.'


The network of connected homes and businesses is still being extended incrementally as more scattered properties come within reach of its 5km power-line. But even now most residents of Knoydart’s other main settlement, Doune, rely on diesel, while a handful of refuseniks closer to home prefer fossil fuels.

Which is where Gwen Barrel, the foundation’s 'Powerdown' officer, comes in. Powerdown is a consortium of 26 highland community groups which recently secured a £1.5 million grant from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund to mount a sustained effort to reduce their combined carbon footprint through local innovation. Knoydart’s focus - besides odd diversions, including an upcoming road-test for electric quad-bikes - is on renewables.

Like Angela and most other ‘Knoydartians’, Gwen is an incomer. Ten years ago, she migrated from Durham on an impulse, and today is fiercely patriotic ('I am!' she snaps, when asked if she’d describe herself as 'local').

Gwen’s current aim is to persuade households not yet linked to the hydro system to convert to energy-efficient combination schemes or wood-boilers – a task she knows will mean overcoming entrenched attitudes based on 'age and tradition'. The thought of homes being heated by imported coal and kerosene rankles with her: one resource Knoydart cannot be said to lack is timber.


The peninsula’s verdant 500-hectare covering of conifers is managed by the Knoydart Forest Trust. Each year it produces 150 tonnes of firewood and 30 tonnes of building timber for local consumption. The trust is pushing the latter ever more proactively – it ran log-building courses last summer, culminating in the completion of a Swiss-style cabin at Inverie’s Long Beach Campsite.

More importantly, in terms of long-term sustainability, timber represents the peninsula’s most obviously tradable raw material. Last year, Knoydart began exporting wood to the nearby Isle of Eigg – itself the subject of a 1990s community buyout – while fires now crackle with its kindling as far away as Ireland.

Any risk of deforestation is mitigated by the trust’s rolling tree-planting programme, which maintains a mix of indigenous species.
'Every five years we have a large harvest,' explains community forest manager Grant Holroyd. 'The first was in 2007 - we sold 8,000 tonnes of Sitka Spruce to a sawmill in southern Ireland. All the wood went straight from the forest by ship to the mill, so there was no road haulage.'

A similar model of sustainability is adopted in relation to other aspects of land management. Though Gwen stresses Knoydartians are 'not farming deer', an annual stag cull takes place each autumn, in the interests of biodiversity.

Treeplanting on Knoydart. The peninsula's forests are sustainable managed and harvested
Photo: Jim Manthorpe

While the resulting venison yield has become the peninsula’s other signature export, Gwen hopes more will increasingly be consumed locally. The once-a-year harvest presents certain practical problems, though, she explains: 'It’s possible for us to eventually become self-sufficient. Most of us buy the bulk of our meat locally, and people are growing their own fruit and veg and keeping chickens. But we have a problem with the big Victorian larder we’ve inherited, which isn’t big enough to store large amounts of meat.'

To galvanise the community, Gwen’s planning to demonstrate the need for long-term planning by organising a 2011 Burns Night supper using locally sourced haggis, neeps and tatties: 'It’s a nice symbolic project that shows how far ahead you have to think to make a single meal for everyone,' she says.

The message has already reached some quarters. A short trot down the road, there’s ample home-grown fare on the menu at the Knoydart Pottery and Tea Room and the Old Forge Inn, where hearty mains include venison burgers and seafood dishes whose ingredients have travelled no further than nearby Mallaig.

A model for the future?

But just how self-supporting would Knoydart be without tourism as a fall-back? With 200 beds at the foundation’s 'bunkhouse', a spacious campsite offering panoramic views of Loch Nevis, and 10 self-catering properties, no-one is pretending the area doesn’t benefit from visitor income.
'The economy is buoyed by tourism,' concedes Angela, adding that 'serious munro-baggers' and stag parties ensure holiday lets remain occupied throughout winter – especially at New Year.

Yet, shorn of a proper ferry link (day-trippers are shipped to and from Inverie by a privately owned boat whose main purpose is to serve locals commuting to Mallaig, and children attending that town’s secondary school), and with no road link to the rest of Scotland, the peninsula is as far off the beaten track as it’s possible to get in Britain.

This out-of-the-way appeal may explain why so many people who initially arrive as tourists end up staying to help with Knoydart’s numerous green projects – or moving in for good. Of its 100-odd permanent residents (the last census recorded 98), only a small number are even Scottish. Angela says the legacy of the highland clearances, combined with the estate’s ever-changing ownership prior to 1999 – entire past populations were uprooted wholesale, as vassals followed their lairds elsewhere – means the only true natives are children born here.

As for second-homers, they are refreshingly few - and none can be described as absentee landlords. Hardly surprising that Knoydartians’ attitude towards newbies is so relaxed (its latest growth business, Knoydart Construction, is currently building four houses for 'outsiders'). Angela says: 'Our view is that we are all incomers, so everyone’s welcome.'

So just how easy would it be to replicate Knoydart’s example elsewhere? On nearby Rum, locals will soon find out. February 2010 sees the first phase of a staggered handover of the island by its long-time owner, Scottish Natural Heritage, to the Isle of Rum Community Trust, following a referendum of its 30-strong population which returned a vote of 22 to two in favour of the transfer. Islanders – until now employees of SNH almost to a man (and woman) – have already established three crofts, and in future see allotments, intensified fishing, Knoydart-inspired deer culls and hydroelectric power as integral to their endeavours to build a viable community.

As with Knoydart, though, tourism and migration will also be vital parts of the package. A former Knoydartian, Charlie King, 67, is now chairperson of the ‘task group’ set up to steer Rum’s quest for autonomy. He’s convinced Knoydart’s is an example worth emulating:
'It’s so much more vibrant there than 10 years ago. The buyout is the best thing that’s ever happened to Knoydart.'

James Morrison is a freelance journalist and writer

This article was updated on 22nd April, 2010, to reflect more accurate information on Knoydart supplied by a resident

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