What do you mean by a “small” number of eco-enterprises and homes?

Our first cut is to propose 7 workshops for eco-enterprises, 8 starter affordable homes in two terraces of four, and eight detached homes. That would take up the western third of the bigger clear-felled site on north Bunloit, some 12 hectares out of 40 (but most of that 12 hectares would still actively be growing woodland). This idea, we emphasise, is a starter. Other ideas welcome!

The site you propose has only one access route: a single track road up a steep hill with hairpin bends. Is that not a big problem?

This is the biggest challenge for the idea, of that there is little doubt. We will be hoping that three arguments might make the case that the collective advantages exceed the collective disadvantages. First, the folk in the putative eco-development won’t be commuters to Inverness, going up and down Bunloit Hill every day. They will be working on site, in and near their homes. Second, there won’t be that many more cars, maybe 30 in the idea we have described as a starter for discussion. We would run an electric shuttle van up and down the hill to the Co-op and pharmacy. Third, there are regularly spaced passing places on the road as things stand, and in 10 months, our small team has not had a single uncomfortable passing incident on the road up and down to Drumnadrochit. Meanwhile, we note that other single-track roads with fewer passing spaces handle much higher car numbers (e.g. Glen Affric, Applecross). The Highland Council transport planning team will be able to inform this part of the debate with facts and statistics. All that said, we know that some folk will not be delighted with the idea of even one more car on Bunloit Hill. We appreciate that this issue is a “shades of grey” one. At the end of the day, the question will be whether a critical mass of folk in the local community think the collective gain of a small new community, based on new trades and jobs, can outweigh the collective pain of a few extra cars on Bunloit Hill. Unless, of course, there is a good idea that we haven’t thought of!

Local residents depend on springs on the site for their water supply. And there is a long history of water-supply problems on properties along the Great Glen Way road. Wouldn’t any development add stress to an already marginal situation?

This issue we are more confident about. We have engaged a Highland based hydrological company with experience of drilling boreholes in the Bunloit area to advise us. We understand that the last 8 wells they have drilled for residents along the Great Glen Way road have all produced high volumes of good quality water. The area is underlain by 2,000 metre layer of porous Old Red Sandstone forming a good aquifer. We believe we can guarantee that nobody dependent on water from Bunloit will be negatively affected.

You have lots of land on Bunloit. Why not just give these few hectares to the local community so we can do what we want there?

One reason is a straightforward financial one. The funds raised to cover the purchase of North Bunloit will need to be serviced and repaid in due course. It is important that conventional financing can be made to work on estates like Bunloit, for individual landowners and communities alike. Otherwise ownership of Scottish estates is only open to hugely wealthy individuals (which our owner is not). A second reason is that one key aim of the Bunloit project is to help persuade other estate owners in Scotland that they can make enough money with environmentally-friendly activities (such as constructing woodland eco-homes) that they will change their land management away from environmentally damaging practices. Giving away land is not a great way to go about that. That said, we are well aware of the inequalities, historical and current, in Scottish land ownership, and we want our project to contribute constructively to the processes of land reform needed to correct that situation. A core element of our idea basically entails selling off small parcels of estate land, at affordable prices, to local buyers, under one holistic plan. With each such transfer, estate land shrinks and community-owned land expands.

What profit would you make? How would you intend to use that money?

We can guarantee two things here. First, the net profits would not be excessive. The main aim of profitability is to provide working capital for running the Bunloit project, after interest repayments, including paying the salaries of its Highland employees and maintaining the estate. In our existing small team, three out of four hires so far are Highlanders or long-term Highland residents. This gives a flavour of what we intend to create, we hope. Second, there would be a self-imposed levy on net profits for the direct benefit of the local community. We have a track record in this regard. Five percent of annual profits from Jeremy Leggett’s company Solarcentury were donated to communities in Africa, via a charity he set up, SolarAid. In the Bunloit case, we hope for a higher levy, aiming at 10%, and the funds would go direct to a community organisation or organisations yet to be decided for onward use. Again, ideas welcome.

You say this would be a “woodland” eco-building development. What does that mean exactly?

Currently the site in question has been planted with a near-monoculture of exotic conifers. It is surrounded by a deer fence, meaning that native trees are regenerating in big numbers as well (including Birch, Willow, Oak, and Scots Pine). We would prefer that the natives prevail, for biodiversity and long-term carbon-sequestration reasons. There is growing body of scientific evidence that monoculture plantations are bad news for ecology. Whatever, there will be a growing woodland across north Bunloit, and our small community, if we find support for it, would nestle within it. Makar, our eco building partner, will deliver all of our new homes to Passivhaus standards of performance. This has become the benchmark for ultra-low energy performance homes achieving comfort for 90% less energy inputs of a normal newly constructed house. In addition Makar makes use of local timber throughout its manufacture and finishing process. In recent times, independent verification has been undertaken confirming that on delivery, a Makar home achieves Net Zero Carbon due in part to the local sourcing of much of the house and sequestration of carbon in those materials employed. This is a truly world leading achievement for a Highland company, and relevant to us all as Scotland moves towards Net Zero by 2045.

What else is planned on the wider Bunloit estate? What impacts do your more general plans have for the local community?

As we enter the new reward system for environmental stewardship that the governments in London and Edinburgh have promised, verifiable data will be needed for carbon and biodiversity accounting. Therefore there is an urgent need for research, and Bunloit aims to be a leader in this. We intend the estate to be an open laboratory for climate- and biodiversity researchers, particularly from Scottish universities and research institutions. Our first research project has involved partnering in a project we call Credit Nature. This will quantify the natural capital on Bunloit, using a variety of scientific techniques including soil sampling and detailed surveying with drones, and use the data to build a platform that will make it easier for other landowners to undertake natural-capital accounting. There are clear opportunities to create biodiversity baselines, and then measure biodiversity change over time. Plantlife UK, the Highland Biological Recording Group, and the Natural Capital Laboratory argue that Bunloit Estate is well suited to traditional biodiversity monitoring and assessment techniques alongside pioneering approaches such as environmental-DNA (eDNA). Rewilding initiatives by Rewilding Europe, Knepp Wildland, and others offer encouragement that optimising the mix of grazers in the pastureland will lead to both greater biodiversity and increasing carbon content in soils. This will entail a mix of Highland Cattle and Highland ponies as a proxy for pre-historic grazing guilds. We hope to provide facilities for educational, research, and cultural activities as well as an outdoor classroom much used by local schools. We also plan to run a limited number of guided walking tours in the spring and summer, with small groups led by expert ecologists, to tour the Bunloit woodlands. We have only two cottages where people can stay, so we hope to increase the footfall in Drumnadrochit B&Bs and hotels a little. We plan to ferry our eco-tourists up the hill in an electric shuttle bus from their places of residence, and/or the Loch Ness Hub.

Do you have any plans for existing woodlands?

Bunloit is home to some of the northernmost ancient Oak woodlands in the UK, and spectacular Birch and Scots Pine dominated woodlands. In broadleaf woodland, the expertise and experience of both non-governmental organisations such as The Woodland Trust, Trees for Life, and governmental agencies such as Scottish Forestry, will be brought to bear in formulating a strategy for integrated management and/or rewilding. An example of management might be the use of some deer-fenced areas, for example. Rewilding would involve zones where we simply leave nature to take its course. In existing stands of non-native coniferous woodland, we will intervene before allowing nature to take its course. As part of these plans, there will be some upcoming amendments to our Long Term Forest Design Plan to increase the diversity of our forests, making them more resilient by promoting native tree species. Some of Bunloit’s “commercial” plantations are sorry spectacles: crammed and spindly conifers planted decades ago atop peat, easily blown down in gales today. Almost all experts we have conferred with have recommended that we fell them early on. This will entail timber lorries on the Great Glen Way road, as happened when north Bunloit was clear-felled a few years ago. But they will be in carefully controlled numbers each day, as proscribed by Highland Council, and at times that will cause least inconvenience. The woodland on Bunloit Estate is currently being evaluated for Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and PEFC™ certification. Following the removal of non-native conifers, the relative ambition and mix of effort invested in peat restoration, woodland replanting, and natural regeneration, has yet to be decided. All will be directed at enhancing long-term carbon sequestration and biodiversity gain.

A cynic might say that this project is just another example of an outside developer coming in, buying up a tract of the Highlands, and running it for short-term profit at the expense of long-term collective interests, with nature-based window dressing. What is your answer to that?

We do not see ourselves as developers, but as campaigners for the recovery of nature and abatement of the climate and biodiversity crises within the context of the rural green new deal. Our woodland eco-building aspirations we see as evidence of this. So too Jeremy Leggett’s long track record as a campaigner for social good, including being a founding member of the original UK Green New Deal group in 2008. A traditional developer will talk about profit per square metre. We will talk about how many tonnes of carbon our eco-buildings can extract and lock up. (The answer is around a tonne per metre of timber, depending on the species. Plus the large amount that can be saved by both offsetting high carbon emitting construction methods, and by adding micro-generation such as solar roofs). Of course it is possible to be cynical about what we are trying to do, and there is no doubt our project is led by an outsider. But he hopes that his project will be a 300 year one, run by a trust after his demise, using covenants that protect in perpetuity the rewilding, biodiversity gain, carbon sequestration and community centricity inherent in the mission of the estate.

Who else have you conferred with, beyond the local community?

In alphabetic order, those organisations whose advice we have benefitted from include the Alladale estate, the Ardtornish estate, Community Land Scotland, Future Woodlands Scotland, the Glen Urquhart Community Council, the Glen Urquhart Rural Community Association, the Glen Urquhart Heritage Association, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust, the James Hutton Institute, Morvern Community Woodlands, NatureScot, the Northwoods Rewilding Initiative, Reforesting Scotland, Rewilding Britain, Rural Housing Scotland, the Scottish Ecological Design Association, Scottish Forestry, the Scottish Land Commission, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Seafield Estate, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, the Scottish National Investment Bank, Soirbheas, Trees for Life, the University of Highlands and Islands, the University of Edinburgh, Wildland, Woodland Crofts, and the Woodland Trust. We have also conferred with numerous individuals, from immediate neighbours outwards. Much of that advice has been distilled into the idea on this website, and our wider ideas for the estate. But of course not all of it. We are solely responsible for the content of this website, and our main website.