Island of the Month #5 Gigha

Many of our members are community landowners, and have taken ownership of pieces of land on their island to sustainably develop it to meet the community’s needs. The Isle of Gigha is unique in that the whole island was taken into community ownership in 2002. This southernmost Hebridean Island is just 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide and a 20 minute ferry journey from Tayinloan on the Kintyre Peninsula.

When the island was put on the market in 2001, The Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust (IGHT) were encouraged by local elected representatives to pursue a community buyout. Since then, an elected board of directors have steered the trust to develop various assets in the community and the island has seen an improvement in the facilities and infrastructure, as well the population decline being reversed and now sitting at around 170. 

SIF spoke to Jane Millar (IGHT Business Development Manager) and Carly Robertson (Marketing Graduate undergoing a ScotGrad placement with IGHT) who are both working flat out on some very exciting projects in Gigha.

Loops v Lines: Gateway to Gigha

IGHT are investing almost £1 million in a major path infrastructure project for over 9km of new and upgraded paths. For such a small island it’s hugely impressive that IGHT have managed to attract this level of investment combining public funding and their own reserves. But what really strikes us is the fact the project so clearly has meaningful benefits for not just visitors, but the local community as well.

“Our access to sites of interest is pretty poor and you’d need a good pair of boots to go anywhere beyond the village”.

“We don’t want it to just be experienced walkers that can enjoy every corner of Gigha, but the local community as well”.

The idea behind the paths element of the project, the aim is to create loops within the island so that people don’t just use the main north-south road.

Due to be completed by the end of 2022, the project is more than just paths. It involves active travel investment, installation of interpretation boards, way finders, information boards along with an integrated online information platform on a new website to provide more information about what sites of interest people are walking past.

In addition to the c.£500,000 secured from Transport Scotland’s Low Carbon Travel & Transport Fund, and c.£200,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, IGHT have been acquiring income from their four wind turbines managed by subsidiary Gigha Renewable Energy Ltd.

Gigha were the first community-owned grid connected windfarm in Scotland, after purchasing three second hand VESTAS V27 turbines from a wind farm in Cumbria which they installed on Gigha’s south coast. “The turbines generate a lot of income to support us to develop the island and all the profits go back into the community.”

Go west

Jane goes on to explain that the shape of Gigha means that traffic tends to focus on the main road going right down the middle of Gigha: “At the moment the road goes up and down which creates a lot of congestion with walkers, cyclists, cars, and vans. Everything is using the same road. In the midst of this you’ll have motorhomes going up and down the road while local businesses like the Wee Isle Dairy are trying to get to ferry. Therefore we are encouraging people to get off the road and see more of Gigha. 

“Gigha has an amazing coast and the village is in the east but the views from the west coast over to Islay and Jura are amazing.”

“One of the main parts [of the project] is actually encouraging people not to take their vehicles to Gigha. We have bikes and e-bikes to hire so people can explore on two wheels.”

As well as responsibility for socio-economic development, Jane is also managing delivery of a new campsite project opening for the 2022 season having managed to secure funding from sources including the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund (RTIF) and Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

The reasons why this is being prioritised by IGHT is familiar to most Scottish Islands: “The project was originally developed because we typically get alot of wild campers and a lot of people bringing motorhomes over and parking in less than ideal locations.”

Sited close to the ferry terminal at Ardminish, the campsite will have 15 tent pitches and 10 motorhome spaces where they can get an electrical hook up – there may even be scope for this capacity to be expanded depending on demand. 

“Obviously we’re not going to stop wild camping but it’s just to ensure there’s facilities there for people like showers, toilets, and chemical waste disposal.”

After receiving 300 enquiries for their Campsite Manager position for this new facility, IGHT are looking forward to getting someone in post and seeing the campsite used by visitors in 2022.

As well as encouraging people to visit the island on foot, IGHT are trying to boost the economic impact of visitors to Gigha.

Marketing Gigha

Carly Robertson recently started as IGHT’s Marketing Graduate through the ScotGrad programme which involves developing the business profile of the island. Carly, originally thinking she’d have to stay in the central belt after graduating with a business degree, was delighted at the opportunity to move back to her hometown of Campbeltown and make the weekly commute to Gigha.

“My role is to develop a new website and work with local businesses to improve our local platforms.” 

“I started at the end of July and am here for a year – it’s been very varied so far. I’m mainly working with businesses speaking to them about social media to see how they can promote themselves more.” 

It looks like Carly’s work combined with the Gateway to Gigha project will be transformational in terms of access, visitor information, and promoting local businesses.

More tourists?

When asked whether the aim is to attract more tourists, Jane is frank about the fact Gigha gets plenty of visitors in summer but that they could take more in autumn and spring. IGHT estimates (based on Calmac statistics and Achamore Gardens donations) that around 10,000 people visit Gigha each year – but they don’t always plan ahead!

“They come to Gigha and they’ve not planned anything and they ask “what is there to do”. We’re hoping that the work Carly is doing on the website and branding will make it a better visitor experience and draw out the season a bit”.

“It’s definitely about more than just increasing visitor numbers because obviously that’s not always a good thing and it can be a bit too much. It’s just about making them better informed and hoping they will stay for longer and visit more businesses while there.”

Carly highlights the link from this to the paths project: “If you stay for longer there’s so much more to see, and with the new paths project there will be better access to all the heritage sites”

Someone who spends a lot of time helping both locals and visitors to enjoy everything Gigha has to offer is the Countryside Ranger, Casey-Jo Zammit. From community events and working with the local school, to guided walks and events for visitors, Casey-Jo is kept busy. SIF were also delighted to welcome Casey-Jo to join our new Marine Litter Working Group to help shape Scottish Islands’ response to this huge issue.

Murder Island

Something Gigha perhaps didn’t account for was a month-long takeover by STV film crew for the filming of Channel 4’s Murder Island – a reality drama where eight contestants become detectives and compete against eachother to solve a murder mystery crafted by famous crime author Ian Rankin.

STV originally contacted IGHT last year when they were looking for an island to film on. Gigha was deemed most accessible and so after booking out all the accommodation (and bringing their own motorhomes) in spring 2021 around ninety people arrived to film the new drama.

Jane admitted she wasn’t quite prepared for the number of enquiries that followed Murder Island airing on TV: “A lot more people became interested in Gigha because of Murder Island. We were Inundated with phone calls and a bit overwhelmed with the media side of things – we didn’t expect people to be so interested. 

Despite Gigha being chosen for it’s accessibility with just a short crossing from the mainland, they perhaps hadn’t anticipated the broadband situation that too many Scottish Islands are accustomed to. 

The Downsides to Gigha

When I asked about the biggest issues in Gigha broadband was #1, and apparently the STV film crew agreed! 

“They were shocked by the poor broadband and had to bring their satellite and use multiple USB drives to store files so they weren’t relying on Gigha’s internet.”

IGHT feel the broadband situation in Gigha is probably the single biggest factor that would put people off moving to the island: “It’s the main downside to Gigha”. IGHT are exploring the possibility of a Community Fibre Partnership with Openreach.

Whether or not there is a Murder Island effect on visitor numbers remains to be seen, but there is a real threat that poor connectivity can have long term implications for the sustainability of small Scottish Islands.

From the radio waves that provide broadband, to the Sound of Gigha waves that carry the Calmac ferry to Gigha – transport connectivity is as important as broadband connectivity. Despite it being a fairly short and frequent crossing there is concern that communication from Calmac could be improved. One of Calmac’s smallest vessels, the 1987 built MV Loch Ranza carries just 12 cars. Only the MV Loch Buie (10 cars) and MV Carvoria (1 car) carry fewer vehicles than the Gigha ferry.

Jane explains that if one lorry comes onto the ferry, only a small number of cars can get on – advance warning of whether a large vehicle is booked on to a crossing would be of huge help to local individuals planning travel. 

Population growth

Despite these frustrations, Gigha is showing encouraging signs of bucking the depopulation trend. With the population nearing 170 the population is much more stable than it was at the time of the buyout when there were around 100 people.

“We actually have very few second homes in Gigha so that’s a really good thing for us and we know other islands struggle with that”. 

So are IGHT hoping the population will continue to grow? 

We’re not aiming for huge population growth. We are looking to deliver five new houses to address a housing need. There’s elderly people in the island who don’t have homes that are suitable for their accessibility needs or we don’t have nice one bedroom flats for young people that are affordable, so delivering five units means we will likely increase the population slightly.”

IGHT also sell small plots to people interested in building a house as long as they are willing to live in the island permanently – the plots are deliberately not for people who want the house as a second home.

“I wouldn’t say we’re actively trying to increase to a certain number and we know it’s currently already at a sustainable level but another twenty people coming to live wouldn’t do any harm because the jobs are there.”

So with jobs, houses, businesses, visitors, paths, and a new campsite, not to mention a stellar team at IGHT – things are certainly looking up for Gigha.

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