‘WHEN we own the land we’ll change the rules!”, exclaims Androulla Richford upon exiting Wanlockhead Community Centre into the night darkness. The final band to leave the community meeting – attendance 25, one eighth of the village’s population – are in the middle of a historic struggle: an attempt to overthrow the ancient aristocracy and bring land ownership to the people.
The community trust is building up a head of steam to buy the village and a total of 14,500 acres. Meeting by meeting. Leaflet by leaflet. It would be the first Scottish buyout of its kind outside the Highlands and Islands. If there’s a place where a small group of dedicated citizens can change things – and propel land reform towards a truly national revolution – it’s here.
Wanlockhead, nestled high in the Southern Upland's Lowther hills, was once a thriving mining site of nearly 800 people. Not any more. Centuries of lead mining – the village's foundation – ground to a standstill.
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The population sunk. The railway link closed. Its old curling heritage, now scattered across the landscape in disused rink sites, faded. The bowling club is locked shut. Lead, mining debris, and erosion, scar the village outskirts. There are warnings from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency that the land is polluted.
Frustrated residents explain widespread “disempowerment”. Developments – for business, community action, and housing – have failed to progress with the private estate.
But in Wanlockhead Trust, and its visionary activists, there is hope. Over a year of planning, consulting, learning and discussion, the locals have learned from the Highlands’ community ownership movement.
Anjo Abelaira, through his determination to develop the hills as a ski resort, has been a driving force. With experience in the Alps, he moved here with dreams of a growing family and building a new snow-sport business.
On the vast empty hillside, land requests for a family home failed to meet the landowner’s support. “I had to choose between moving out the area and having fewer children,” he tells me. But this inspired his determination to change things. So he pushed on, leading the charge for a buyout and chairing the community ski club where one in five residents are members. It has its own rope lift and has grown despite limits on its activity.
Residents claim the proposed buyout is already having an effect. The tourist rail line from Leaderhills has finally been granted a small extension (albeit leased) after decades of effort. Villagers tell me the concession is out of fear from the march of land-reform legislation and the power struggle ahead with landowner the Duke of Buccleuch.
Ninety three proposals have been gathered. Lincoln Richford, trust chair, shows me the Mennock Pass – the long, road scything through the hillside where campers stay. Some are gold-panners. For the community, riches lie in a campers’ hub that would bring visitors and their cash into the village. As ownership stands, campers bring little but occasional litter scattered by the roadside.
Prior to the meeting, trust leaders join local families scavenging through the Wanlockhead waters for invertebrates – with Dr Stephen Gillespie of Glasgow University.
Downstream, where the old rubble of smelting lies, the water quality deteriorates. “This valley is one of the most polluted,” Gillespie tells me. Forms of lead have been found floating in the water. There is anger over the toxic legacy and its impact on environmental health.
Buccleuch estate officials point out that nowhere in an official report on clean-up of legacy issues from old mine workings did it conclude that they were its responsibility. It says it remains committed to a multi-agency approach to the clean-up, and remains in dialogue with Sepa, local councils, health bodies and landowners. The hills surrounding Wanlockhead are bare now. "Locusts with hooves", the sheep, kill any foresting attempts.
“We need trees to build up an ecosystem with a top soil. That holds the lead in place,” says Gillespie, who insists it’s overgrazed and that benefits one thing: rearing grouse.
Community ownership would bring that opportunity – with jobs and renewables profits instead of a hobbyist landscape that serves as a playground for the rich.
The Duke, owner of over 240,000 acres of land, including Wanlockhead, used a Cayman Islands tax haven; faced a community backlash in Canonbie over coal-bed methane extraction proposals; and incurred protests over the estate’s charging plans for Dalkeith Country Park.
While the estate say they have “no issue” with selling land in and around the village and will look at Abelaira’s plans, residents are disappointed that Buccleuch has offered only some of their buyout plans. The estate wants a giant corporate windfarm project. The residents want to determine their own future. This challenge for the people of Wanlockhead – similar in many ways to Scotland’s as a whole – is just beginning.