Island of the Month #4 Bute

Arguably the most accessible of Scotland’s islands, with 14 ferry crossings per weekday, you can get to Bute in just over half an hour from the Ayrshire coast, or a mere 5 minute ferry crossing from Colintraive on the Argyll mainland. 

Known for the victorian-era seaside resort of town of Rothesay, Bute is a hugely popular destination for visitors. Geographically, it’s got it all: fertile farmland, moorland, sandy beaches, woodlands, and a range of attractions both modern and historical. 

With the COP 26 Climate Summit underway, we hear much discussion (dare we say some hot air too) about this vital issue of the climate. So often discussion about the climate among jet-setting elites lack meaningful follow-up action. While the world’s leaders are in Glasgow for the summit, they might benefit from jumping on the ferry at Wemyss Bay to visit Bute where there is real community-led action.  

Most Scottish Islands Federation member groups are engaged in projects to improve the sustainability of their island, but Bute is (so far) the only of our members to have attained ‘Zero Waste Town’ status. Bute is just the second place in Scotland to be given this designation along with Dunbar, East Lothian. 

Since 2005 Fyne Futures have been delivering local projects which have the overarching aim of making the island as sustainable as possible for visitors and it’s population of just under 6000. ‘Towards Zero Carbon Bute’ is an ethos that is the foundation for all of FF’s activities. The aims are to deliver social, employment, educational, environmental and health benefits to the community. We spoke to Reeni Kennedy Boyle, General Manager at Fyne Futures to find out more. 

Back in 2011 FF linked up with Glasgow Caledonian University to work out what their carbon footprint was and where the main sources of energy use were. The four main sources that came out of this research were: commercial energy use, domestic energy use, transport energy use, and waste management. This led to exploration of questions like where the main supply chains were, and could these be reduced or made more efficient. Reeni was taken on as a Project Manager to coordinate the research and development work underway, as well as feasibility and pilot work for trialling different solutions in things like transport, food production and waste management. 

“What became clear was that across the island there was a dearth of opportunities for skills development in general, but especially opportunities in low carbon goods and services.” 

Environmentally sustainable rural living became the central aim of everything done by Fyne Futures Ltd, and transport, horticulture, and waste management are three of the main strands in their day to day operations. 

Bute Produce 

In September 2020, Bute took ownership of what is now known as ‘Bute Produce’ and a 6 acre site that they had been leasing from Mount Stuart Trust (Bute Estates Ltd) since 2008. Food sustainability has been a recurring theme in public debate in recent years, mainly prompted by climate concerns and the UK’s departure from the European Union. Bute Produce have been running this local food produce scheme long before these issues were dominating headlines. Bute Produce grow local seasonal food that is an affordable food source for the local community and which has a low carbon footprint – in contrast to the supermarket shelves.  

With two full-time horticultural staff, Bute Produce do outreach work with children of all ages who visit the site. “We support pupils from local school who are maybe looking for extra curricular activities if they have a gap in their class schedule.” They are also currently supporting 9 pupils who are involved to complete modules toward their Duke of Edinburgh Awards. 

Employability 

Often unemployment issues are easily overlooked in island communities. Previous labour market reports by Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) state that the town of Rothesay has a higher unemployment rate than the wider Argyll & Bute local authority area, and higher than the Scottish average. Further, they have a higher than average percentage of the adult population who have no qualifications. A few parts of the town are classed as being among the most deprived 10% communities in Scotland according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. 

Fyne Futures have been doing life-changing work to support people seeking to improve their employment prospects: “We support people on their employability journey with wage based training placement and volunteering opportunities where they come and learn horticultural skills and get a personal development programme.” 

“In terms of skills development, there’s not a lot on offer in Bute”. The project involves people getting support from a dedicated Employability Coach – a service which is highly sought after. Such is the reputation of the service that people come because of the employability service but end up learning new skills, gaining confidence, contributing to the community, and increasing their environmental awareness in the process. Reeni explains “They improve their competency skills, personal development, problem solving, customer service skills, self-esteem, communication skills”. 

This employability project isn’t a catch all solution to someone’s employment prospects by any means, but the value of being able to contribute with your skills and take pride in your contribution to a community asset can work wonders for removing barriers for someone, “particularly if one of the barriers is low social capital”.  

“In small communities it can be pretty hard to ditch a family reputation, for example. This project gives people an opportunity to demonstrate their own social value. Built into all of this work is the strong ethos of improving the environment”. 

“The big capital project we are working on at the moment is that having bought Bute Produce from the estate we now have the opportunity to develop something permanent on the site with the Horticultural Training Centre.” 

 

Waste management 

FF are concerned by the huge amount of waste being sent to landfill in Bute every year – they make the argument locally that ‘feeding the dump’ costs everyone in landfill tax and waste management bills which is bad for the local economy. On the flip side, donating and buying quality up-cycled goods has huge benefits for the local economy, environment, as well as supporting grassroots skills development and employability. FF’s Re-Style project involves collection of items in a reasonable condition that can be restored, repaired, and spruced up for re-selling at affordable prices which they sell at their shop premises in Rothesay. “This is all about making things last – we work with a whole range of materials including wood, textiles and slate”. 

The work seems to be paying off, and as well as having strong recycling rates locally, Bute proudly boasts the Zero Waste Town status. Reeni emphasises that community support has been key: “The community have responded really well. There is really high awareness. Our recycling rates are comparatively high.” 

“Obviously there are people who don’t buy into the whole climate change thing, but there’s really high awareness generally. We look at questions like how many delivery vans do we have on the island – could we have a shared resource? But everyone accepts that these things make sense. Key is linking the environmental concerns with the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. 

While being encouraged by local support, FF are under no illusions about the ultimate challenge of achieving net zero: “We haven’t got a net zero position yet but it’s about the community working towards that and thinking about how our homes and businesses can be more and more efficient.” 

Sustainable transport 

Bute is known to be one of the more accessible islands to get to, but FF aim to make it easier for people to get round the island with a lower environmental impact. Reeni proudly told me about the Bute Community Car Club (“the only island-based community car club in Scotland!”) established in 2011. FF launched their electric bike scheme, Bike Bute, thought to be Scotland’s first island based community run e-bike scheme. 

The popularity of Bute for day trippers from Glasgow presented an opportunity for FF to tap into the market for a regular bike hire scheme. FF work with the Local Authority and Calmac to run a hybrid scheme with a purpose-built shelter on Rothesay pier, and a temporary storage site at Port Bannatyne marina.  

The popular Bike Bute scheme allows people to rent out an e-bike, state of the art e-bikes (Raleigh Motus Grand Tour) for half or a full day. FF also collaborate with Bute Community Cycle Club which provides borrow bikes for those below 14 years of age. It is clear from speaking to Reeni that they are passionate about removing barriers for people making cycling a part of their routine by providing various accessories: they have trailer suitable for children, a trailer for your pet, a trailer suitable for going shopping, and an adapted cycle for wheelchair users to go out for a cycle with a companion. 

“These are about catering to the local community’s needs and helping them to build cycling into their everyday activities, as well as to explore the island beyond the main towns on the east coast”. They initially trialled the scheme for free and to introduce people to it, and they provide training for trailer users. FF want to embed the concept of bikes being a shared resource for the local community that they can use year-round. The scheme has to be sustainable, and year-round usage is very much the aim. 

Environment v Employment? 

In most Scottish islands it seems like the desire for employment opportunities on the one hand, and concern for the environment on the other are difficult to balance. One thing that became very clear through speaking to Reeni is that integrated skills development is a thread that runs through everything FF do. Underlying their environmental aims is the ambition that if a young person wants to live and work in Bute, they have the opportunity to do that. “Skills development is central to what we do. We aim to build more and more opportunities and that’s hugely important because population decline is a huge worry”. 

The ‘dark village’ threat 

On housing, Reeni explains that there are plenty of houses, but many of them are Victorian flats not suitable for families. The COVID-19 pandemic impact on the housing market appears to be significant, though the evidence is primarily anecdotal. 

“I don’t know that we’ve really fully got hold of the issue, but we have seen a huge change in the housing market in terms of the private sector. It looks like there’s been a significant increase in houses being bought as second homes. We’ve certainly seen an increase in Airbnb activity here. Whereas before [the pandemic] we’d have been sitting at about 7% of the housing stock as second homes, I think in a year this will have moved well into double figures. The impact of that won’t be known for another couple of years in terms of young people getting onto the housing ladder.”  

“We’ve not suffered too greatly from ‘dark villages’ but we won’t see that until the winter comes. We’ve not had this before, where villages are dark because nobody is there in winter, compared to other islands like Arran or Cumbrae.”  

Like with most community groups similar to Fyne Futures and their subsidiary groups, the work done by paid employees is complimented by the army of dedicated volunteers who give of their time, enthusiasm and energy to support the work. We’re hugely impressed by the examples being set in Bute. Community-led initiatives are transforming people’s socio-economic prospects while simultaneously reducing Bute’s carbon footprint and raising awareness about the climate crisis.  

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Thanks to David Herriot and Reeni Kennedy-Boyle for the photographs.

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