The past, present and future of a community-owned estate: building resilient ‘future heritage’ in West Harris.

   Centre for History

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  Dr I Robertson, Dr D Stiubhart, Ms Linda Armstrong  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

In 1925 four landless cottars began an illegal occupation of machair land on the west coast of the Isle of Harris/Taobh Siar na Hearadh. As a direct consequence, in 1930 the British Government bought several estates in the area to create smallholdings. In 2010 these estates were purchased by their community. This is a unique historical trajectory for community landowners, but also one potentially of great importance in national and international contexts.

The West Harris Trust (WHT) is a leading example of the transformational benefits of community land ownership, with the area recording a 45% increase in population since it was established in 2010 ( As a community-based charity striving to regenerate an area experiencing long-term decline, the Trust’s main aims and objectives are to facilitate greater economic opportunity and wider social provision within the distinctive local Gaelic cultural heritage. Alongside the drive to establish successful community ownership, however, wide-ranging globalised processes are also at work as a result of which West Harris has become a particularly extreme example of overtourism and its consequences. Therefore, whilst WHT’s aims focus upon land and community as central to its mission, the vulnerability of West Harris to overtourism means that the heritage/tourism binary is particularly challenging in the area. This PhD will take a comprehensive perspective on these processes and challenges, investigating what kind of future heritage the people of West Harris might choose for themselves to promote community resilience, sustainability, and self-confidence. The Trust has a long history of collaborative relationships with public, private, and third-sector groups and organisations. It has hosted several students on work experience and ScotGrad placements, the most recent of which, in 2022, aimed to strengthen the use of Gaelic in the community and make it more resilient. WHT will bring the experience gained from such collaborative supervisions to this project and, crucially, build on an established, successful partnership with the UHI Centre for History.

Working with the resident community and adopting an interdisciplinary approach, this project seeks to uncover the interconnections and braidings of history, heritage, and community development in the locality. To help strengthen WHT’s aim ‘to build a sustainable future for our community’ the researcher will investigate:

·        the local history and landscape history of the buyout;

·        the interaction of changing landownership patterns, culture, and heritage;

·        ways in which indigenous worldviews might help to shape sustainable heritage futures within a community ownership context.

These objectives underpin a project engagingwith fundamental historical and cultural processes in recent Highland history, working at the intersection of heritage and community development, and taking a novel ‘from below’ approach. To further this the successful candidate will  work with and learn from a highly experienced community development professional and then disseminate their knowledge to the WHT team. This singular focus will enable the PhD to make a distinct contribution to:

The growing literature on community buyouts which has hitherto adopted a more ‘top down’ perspective;

·        global networks of researchers studying community ownership;

·        national conversations about future land reform legislation and its impact on local communities.

In particular, the PhD will inform and advance WHT’s mission to tackle social exclusion and to add to our understanding of the insights indigenous cultures might bring to the development of future heritage. Working collaboratively, the student, WHT, and local community will create an online archive, a set of digital artefacts, and a final exhibition, thus addressing the needs of the communities of practice and interest (Hughes, 2022) who are the likely main users of this future heritage asset.

The research materials from which this impact derives comprise three elements:

·        the nationally significant, but seldom scrutinised records of the acquisition and management of the estate by the Department of Agriculture;

·        the collective memory of the everyday experience of the Department’s management régime;

·        action research to identify community perceptions of future heritage.

When drawn together, this research will uncover key aspects of the past, present, and future of the management experience of the estate. The student will be expected to place insights gained from more formal archival research in dialogue with the collective memory of the more quotidian experiences of the West Harris community, using both living reminiscences and earlier recordings in local and national repositories, in particularTobar an Dualchais. Such a proposed synthesis of written and oral material has seldom been attempted in Highland historiography.

Identification of future heritage will utilise an action research Photovoice method using participant photography to unlock hidden perspectives on the historic and lived landscape. We anticipate that these novel approaches, when interwoven with the distinctive historiographical side of the project, will help to build and enhance a fresh sense of future heritage ‘from below’.

These ethnographic approaches and methodologies will both illuminate the complexities inherent in public narratives of the trajectory to community ownership and overtourism, and pinpoint those aspects of future heritage which may be  significant to the West Harris community. Consequently, it is vital that the student is a fluent Gaelic speaker.

This PhD closely aligns with the research strategies of UHI and both Centres. Through the work of Robertson and colleagues, the Centre for History leads research on critical heritage studies within UHI. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (SMO), Scotland’s National Centre for Gaelic, has long-standingwith expertise in researching changing sociolinguistic self-identities of local communities and investigating indigenous nature/culture perspectives.

Both Centres also share aspirations with WHT  to make use of collective memories of places and their embodied culture in order to enhance community wellbeing and to craft future heritage. The partnership extends opportunities for stakeholder engagement, and adds perspectives on community development to our understanding of wider public history. It represents an exciting, innovative research partnership of citizens, local stakeholders, and academics. Working together, the Trust and UHI aim to help their community and, ultimately, other local communities, to understand, articulate, and develop what is considered heritage, where it is, and to whom it belongs.

Interview date: 20th July 2023, by video conference

Eligibility & How to Apply here

Funding Notes

Funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s CDA scheme, the full-time, 3½ year studentship covers Home UK tuition fees and annual stipend.
Restrictions apply, see 'Eligibility & How to Apply'.


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