As small as a mustard seed

Lisa Maclean, Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, Isle of Lewis

It is so important to create the conditions for growth, if that is what you seek. Something can start ever so small and seemingly insignificant but can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

I’ve worked for Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn (UOG) for almost nine years. I manage the community owned estate which covers most of the North West of the Isle of Lewis. The estate was in private ownership until 2007, when the community bought it and established a charitable trust to undertake the management of the estate. UOG has a board made up from the membership and many of those serving on the board have remained committed from the outset providing a sense of stability and a wealthy pool of experience.

UOG is evolving and it is everyone’s responsibility to evolve with it. I have often pondered what it is that makes us grow or even wish to grow and the answer in my view is a mix of opportunity and clarity of vision; a vision that has come from the community.

Shortly after the buy out the core business of the estate was considered; ensuring all areas of estate management were operating as efficiently as possible and a large part of that was ensuring there were income streams to sustain longer term plans and become self-sufficient. A 2.7MW wind energy development owned by the community and managed by UOG goes a long way to ensure this is the case.

UOG set out with an asset stripped estate with no staff and today, just twelve years later we have increased the asset base by building infrastructure, but we’ve also created fourteen jobs. That’s fourteen people employed directly by the trust. We have distributed almost £250,000 to over seventy projects in the area and we have undertaken huge steps to develop policies and initiatives to support the wider community, whether this be around land, health, tourism etc.

The “jobs” factor is no small or insignificant thing. We have a variety of staff working on various contracts, but these are roles we need to have filled and our flexible approach allows us to employ skilled people, many of whom don’t wish to work full time.  We employ a large number of women and our flexible working allows women to work within their community, not travelling to Stornoway. It allows them to place their children in the local school and means they don’t have to take decisions about putting work/family life first. The balance is achievable, but only with good processes, strong communication and empowering staff which in turn builds a trusted workforce.

A trusted and empowered workforce who buy into the strategic vision of the community reaps huge rewards. UOG encourage staff to look at new ways of working, work across teams, collaborate with others, be creative and measure activities to ensure they contribute to the strategic objectives of the community.

We offer a 12-month placement each year through HIE’s ScotGrad programme and this has been invaluable for many reasons. It brings in a fresh vibrant graduate to the staff team and we encourage them to explore their own talents and see what they can offer, whilst also encouraging them to have the best experience with us too. We’ve had various success stories, but none more so that Fiona, who in my view had completed the circle.

Lisa Maclean and Fiona Rennie, Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn

Fiona was with us for a 9-month placement, before she went off travelling to New Zealand for a year. Before Fiona left, she believed she was keen tor return as I think island living and working at UOG have fulfilled her more than she had even expected. Fast forward 12 months and she was back and keen to set up her own business, having realised during her placement the many opportunities for a talented bilingual creative with a degree in photography. Fiona’s company was launched, and we continue to contract with her where there is a need. She’s established and I believe UOG played a small part in helping Fiona to see that it is entirely possible to live and work in a satisfying way on the estate. The best part is Fiona has brought her partner back from New Zealand and he now lives on the estate too. Fiona isn’t a one off though, many of her friends have opted to step out of city life, believing there is much to be gained from living in a community, whereby real community connections still exist.

We run various activities on the estate, bushcraft, health walks, evening talks, buggy walks, fishing tuition, bilingual intergenerational activities and we’re working with others to develop more of a focus on health and wellbeing for all. These are just a few of “soft” things we work on which help us and others to make connections, they weave the threads of community and build capacity. The capacity and connectedness is what in turn I see as being what underpins and makes the “infrastructure” projects work. One example of this is our vision to create a wellbeing hub on the estate and it is imperative we have created the best conditions to be able to proceed with such a transformational project.

We will always continue to look at the very traditional things we all know are required to stem the exodus of young people from the estate i.e. housing, jobs, excellent communications and quality social activities, but aside from that we won’t overlook the importance of creating opportunities for people to connect. Great things are possible when the right conditions are created to allow a community to flourish and have a handle over their own future. Start small and seemingly insignificant…. seek to collaborate, nurture, support, feed and watch things grow.

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