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West Harris Trust

Western Isles, Scotland

Founded by the community in 2008, West Harris Trust is a community charity responsible for managing 7225ha of land that it purchased from the Scottish Government in January 2010. Its overall aim is to reverse population decline in the area by creating housing and employment opportunities, attracting new residents (predominantly young families) and increasing tourism to the region. Work undertaken so far has included the installation of three wind turbines, construction of a pontoon and associated marine shed and development, design and construction of a Community Enterprise Centre and six affordable houses.

Population decline reaches critical point

The population of Harris was shrinking fast with a decline of 50 percent between 1951 and 2001. Of particular concern was the large portion of the population that were economically inactive, the small number of young families in the community and the high portion of the population aged over 65 years. Increasing employment opportunities and the supply of appropriate housing were identified as key measures to address these trends.

Social and economic goals go hand in hand

West Harris Trust is a community charity seeking to build a strong community for the future through local endeavour. It employs four paid staff members, has a volunteer board of directors and its membership is comprised of members of the West Harris community. Key projects to date include a pontoon and marine shed, affordable housing, renewable energy infrastructure and a Community Enterprise Centre. The social and economic goals of the organisation are inextricably linked in all projects.  

A growing community

Since the purchase of the land, the population of West Harris has grown from 119 to 144. The number of children under five years old has also grown – from one to seven. Business opportunities have also been created through the construction of a pontoon and marine shed and a Community Enterprise Centre that includes a restaurant, conference facilities and four business units. These facilities also provide valuable tourism infrastructure.

Investing in the future

West Harris Trust has worked strategically, investing in projects that address the social challenges faced by the community while at the same time paving the way for economic sustainability for the organisation itself. The organisation has enjoyed strong support from the community (including several talented and dedicated board members who have dedicated a large amount of their own time), the municipality, and the regional economic development agency (Highlands and Islands Enterprise). At the time of writing, the organisation expected to be generating enough income to support its basic operations at some point in 2017.   

Flexible funding a solid foundation for success

West Harris Trust’s swift and smooth realisation of its goals can, to a large extent, be attributed to a decision from the Big Lottery Fund made soon after the purchase of the land. The Fund had awarded a large sum of money for the construction of a hydro-electric scheme that, for strategic reasons relating to a change in legislation, West Harris Trust decided not to build with public funds. Rather than retracting the funding, Big Lottery agreed to reallocate it (subject to approval) to other projects that supported the development of the community. This decision was incredibly helpful, giving West Harris Trust the freedom to pursue their own, community specific, goals and making it easier to attract match funding for projects.

Big ideas flourish in a supportive environment

A key element of West Harris Trust's success is attributable to its role as the land owner meaning that the lessons learned appear, at least at first glance, to be quite specific to the Scottish context. Despite this, there are several elements of West Harris Trust's experience that are transferable to other contexts including:

  • The value of linking social and economic goals – both for community organisations themselves and for the institutions that fund them.
  • The enormous potential of a flexible and easily accessible funding source to accelerate the progress a young community based organisations can make.
  • The importance of a supportive political environment. 


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Page last updated December 2016.