As It Happens

Scottish isle of Ulva, population 5, makes pitch to grow community

Rebecca Munro's family currently make up four-fifths of the population of the tiny Scottish isle of Ulva. But she hopes that will change now, thanks to a new repopulation campaign.

Rebecca Munro and her family currently make up four-fifths of the tiny isle's entire population

An image of the scenic shorefront near Ulva. (Submitted by Rebecca Munro)

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The tiny isle of Ulva, off the west coast of Scotland, is home to a small, but tight-knit community — so much that four-fifths of the entire population lives under the same roof.

Rebecca Munro, her husband Rhuri and their two children are among the last remaining inhabitants of the tiny isle, a 90-second ferry ride from the nearby, larger community of Mull. Along with another man who works as a bus driver in Mull, that makes a total population of five.

But Munro hopes that will change, thanks to a repopulation campaign that got underway after the island was bought by a community trust called the North West Mull Community Woodland Company last summer, for just over £4.5 million ($7.85 million Cdn).

"I think it's just a really special place to live," Munro told As It Happens host Carol Off, lauding the "spectacular scenery and wildlife" as well as a peaceful setting to raise a family.

"It's quite a unique experience living here. It's definitely one I'd recommend to people."

According to The Independent, Ulva was home to 859 residents in 1851, but the population dwindled, partly because of job prospects on mainland Scotland but also due to the mass forced evictions known as the Highland Clearances.

Rebecca Munro and her family make up four of the five people who currently live on the isle of Ulva. (Submitted by Rebecca Munro)

When Munro's husband was growing up, there were only about 35 people left. When Munro moved here in 2006, there were 12.

She runs a boathouse seafood restaurant with her sister-in-law. It's the only business on the island.

Munro hopes that the repopulation campaign will build Ulva's community to about 50 in the next few years.

Community-owned

The effort was nearly killed before it started when she learned that the family who owned the island intended to sell it to investors interested in making it a tourists' resort.

"We had people from the Middle East, and Russia and a lot of foreign interest in buying the island. And unfortunately, the island was marketing as kind of like an island getaway playground," she said.

Her family was afraid that such a sale would threaten eviction to the last remaining residents.

Thankfully, Munro explained that Scottish law gives residents first right to refusal for such a purchase.

Ulva was home to over 800 residents in the 1850s, but dwindled as part of the forced evictions known as the Highland Clearances. As a result, many of the older homes and buildings fell into disrepair. (Submitted by Rebecca Munro)

"We also have a thing called the Scottish Land Fund. Every year they have £10 million [$17.5 million Cdn] that they can allocate to communities to purchase land for the benefit of the community," she said.

"So we put in an application to them, and we were amazed they gave us 95 per cent of the purchase price."

They also received a £500 million ($873 million Cdn) donation from the Macquarie investment group, whose own family has historical ties to the isle.

Munro's family and the Mull community are now planning to restore and renovate some of the buildings that have been left derelict since Ulva's busier days, as well as build new housing units for prospective new neighbours.

The isle of Ulva was purchased by the community of Ulva and North West Mull, with assistance from the Scottish Land Fund, after residents feared it would be sold to foreign buyers with the intention of making it a tourist attraction. (Submitted by Rebecca Munro)

A group called the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust in Inverness, Scotland did a survey, and heard back from 500 people who expressed interest in moving to Ulva or learning more about the isle. The group plans to contact the applicants once there is adequate housing.

Munro said the community has also heard from Canadians who are interested in moving to Ulva.

Aside from the scenic landscape and wildlife, she says many visitors are drawn to Ulva out of genealogical interest, tracing their family roots to people who lived on the island decades ago before moving away.

Rebecca Munro and her sister-in-law run the Boathouse restaurant on Ulva. It's the only currently-active business on the isle. (Submitted by Rebecca Munro)

"We had someone over a couple of weeks ago who actually came on their honeymoon to go and find the house that her ancestors had left in before they emigrated to Canada," she said.

"It's really lovely to have people from all over the world come and visit the island. We get to show it off, and they get to see what's so special about Ulva."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Rebecca Munro produced by Kevin Ball.

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