Out along the peninsula where I live (Cowal) lies a ramshackle old Victorian stately home surrounded by an estate all gone to seed, called Castle Toward. I have a particular love of this place, in all its overgrown and leaking grandeur, as it is the where I play cricket from time to time with Innellan Cricket Club.
Castle Toward was built in 1820 for Kirkman Finlay, who had been Lord Provost of Glasgow- political power seemed to serve him well as he also made a fortune from trading in cotton from the far east and India. His Scotland was thrusting and expansionist, fat with Empire plunder and Findlay feasted with the best of them.
Through the years, Findlay’s big house was pressed into service as HMS Brontosaurus, then in 1954, after being bequeathed to the local corporation, was run as a centre for arts and music. In fact even in very recent years orchestras have used it to rehearse- I remember playing cricket listening to Mozart wafting on the breeze from square leg. Ownership passed to Strathclyde council, and eventually to the newly constituted Argyll and Bute Council, who ran it as an outdoor centre, then let it to an organisation who did the same.
For a while it was a television star, as a childrens TV programme called Raven was filmed there;
However, cash strapped Argyll and Bute council decided to sell. After a complex bidding process a deal looked to be on the cards- the Castle was to become a posh spa resort. It all got messy very quickly however as other bidders (most notably the organisation who where the current tenants, Actual Reality) raised considerable objections to the way the matter was handled, as well as making allegations about various other dodgy dealings on behalf of the council. Whatever the truth of all this, the deal fell apart and the council was left with a huge white elephant which seems to be costing them many hundreds of thousands of pounds each year just in maintenance and security costs and with no tenant, it provides no income. The estate itself is slowly being reclaimed by weeds and saplings.
Frustrated members of the local community decided that they were sick of the mess the local council were making of this prize asset and decided to try to take it into community ownership, something made possible when Scotland’s Land Reform Act was passed in 2003. This Act allowed communities with a population of less than 10,000 in Scotland to apply to register an interest in land and the opportunity to buy that land when it comes up for sale.
The Act was intended to address an age old issue of the power of the Highland Lairds, whose ownership of the land that whole communities lived and depended has given them almost total power over the lives of Highlanders for generations. Think of the Clearances, or scandals over more recent absentee landlords. Celebrated Community Buy-outs have taken place on the Islands of Eigg and Gigha for example, although these projects are often marginal and troubled.
The Toward Buy-Out has so far been a political story full of twists and turns, claims and counter claims, interventions from Government, allegations of lies and double dealing. At present Argyll and Bute Council and its leader Dick Walsh (almost unbelievably, in whose ward the Castle lies) are looking like a bunch of incompetent nay-sayers with some kind of agenda that makes little sense to anyone who is unfamiliar with the odd political landscape in this part of the world. Here are a few pointers;
Argyll and Bute Council was created in 1996 from the existing Argyll and Bute district and one ward of the Dumbarton district. It is a massive mostly rural area, made up of lochs, mountains and glens, as well as islands in and around its extensive and twisting coastline. It has a population of around 80,000 but has only four towns in which more than 10,000 people live.
The council has long been dominated by ‘independent’ councilors; with no stated political affiliation. There are a few Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party have done well of late, but Dick Walsh, the veteran (‘independent’) leader of the Council depends mostly on a coalition of independents. Power in Argyll tends to continue to be held by those who have seized it, with no real challenge, no obvious political ideology and no overt value base.
There have been a few scandals, but Dick has shown himself to be remarkably politically resilient. Check out this article from 15 years ago.
The council itself seems to ride out a fair number of external criticisms. For example, Audit Scotland have made several damning assessments of the way the Council operates over the years, most recently in 2013. It was this report that ushered Dick Walsh back into power in the wake of the collapse of an earlier SNP led coalition. However he had survived earlier critical reports himself, with barely a shamed face, managing to bring about changes that satisfied the critics.
Dick Walsh and the leader of the Castle Toward Buy out company, South Cowal Community Development Company have clashed before. He is Alan Stewart, a nice bloke who runs a local garage – the one we always take our car to – and had previously successfully run a campaign to oppose closures of local village schools, much the to then embarrassment of the Council, and Dick in particular.
(I hesitated about making this point, but decided in the end that it had to be said.) Argyll has a long tradition of Freemasonry. Key members of the elected membership and senior officers of the council are thought to be members of local lodges. The significance of this might of course be entirely benign- I have friends who are also active masons and I believe them to be persons of great integrity and community mindedness. In a context in which power is mediated through such complex webs of alliances and political wheeler-dealing this does seem to me to be something worth mentioning, but surprisingly, few people ever do, which always confuses me. I am no conspiracist, but I am interested in how people reach consensus on a particular subject; the supporting social context. Politicians of course need to be particularly careful with this and the still secretive nature of Freemasonry always obscures rather than reveals.
The valuation placed on the castle by the Council was £1.7M, and through fundraising and a grant from the Scottish Land Fund, the community had gathered around £700,000. They needed either a hefty discount from the Council, or some kind of loan that would allow the project to proceed. Don’t forget that there are no other known buyers on the horizon and that the vacant property is costing the Council a fortune.
What happened was anything but a straightforward yes/no duality- those things are rare in Argyll politics. Rather something was offered in a way that seemed to pretend helpfulness whilst simultaneously torpedoing the Buy-out. You can read more about the terms of the loan deal offered here.
Locals were furious and demanded to know what Dick Walsh was up to. He replied with the political equivalent of ‘not me gov’, continuing to express his support for the project, and the need to get the best deal for the Council to maintain services such as education. Even the most trusting local smelled a rotten rat. Some have been openly demonstrating in the streets and outside Dick’s Councillor surgery.
There is also an on line petition with over 10,000 signatures- you can sign it yourself here.
Then, more twists. Firstly, an independent valuation suggested that the house and estate was worth a lot less than the Council valuation at just £850,000.
A vote of no confidence was tabled against Dick Walsh by another local Councillor. He survived this by somehow managing to vote in the motion himself, and relying on the casting vote of his friend in the chair. More on this bizarre local take on democracy here.
Then, following the increasingly angry exchanges between the Council and the local MP, the Scottish Government intervened; first the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, then the First Minister herself, Nicola Sturgeon. This from here;
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged Argyll and Bute council to negotiate with the local community group in South Cowal over the purchase of the Castle Toward estate. At a busy session of first ministers questions Nicola Sturgeon was asked by MSP Mike Russell to engage with Argyll and Bute council over the local authorities unwillingness to reduce the price of Castle Toward. The local authority had instead offered the community a £1 million pound commercial loan.
Here is what Mr. Russell had to say;
Council Leader completely isolated but still thinks everyone out of step but him.
The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has added her voice to the chorus of organisations and individuals urging Argyll & Bute Council to accept the bid from the South Cowal Community Development Company for the Castle Toward Estate and has urged those involved to “negotiate constructively” to secure the future of what she described as “an important community asset”.
Dick Walsh has responded again by saying that others are misrepresenting him and distracting people from the proper work of the council.
A full hearing of the matter in front of the council is now planned, with Walsh looking increasingly isolated- but this is Argyll so who knows what the outcome will be. Things are different here.
I used that term ‘post-modern’ to describe this story as although the struggle has many historical precedents in all those small communities fighting unequal battles against landowners and those in power, still this one feels very different. The land in dispute is not some Western Isles Crofting village, or an island community withering because of the neglect of an absentee landlord. No-one was evicted from the estate (although perhaps Actual Reality, who ran an outdoor activities business there might argue against that.)
The land in question has no deep roots in local culture- in fact the history it represents belongs to the Lamont tribe who appear to have been rather silent on the issue. People involved in the campaign are not necessarily poor, or disenfranchised, or necessarily otherwise politically active- rather they are ordinary people from all social classes who see the opportunity to break out of the old negativity that often clings to these hills and do something that invests in the life of this place, bringing jobs, art, creativity and energy where there is only a leaking roof and lots of weeds.
Oh- and a cricket field.