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A community’s quest to save its harbor

The village of Portpatrick, on Scotland’s serrated western coast, doesn’t so much lie around its harbor as embrace it for dear life. On a map, the harbor resembles the head of a cartoon bunny gnawing its way inland; the main road runs around the muzzle and past one of the ears before curving away from the sea. Nearly all of Portpatrick’s establishments — its inns and pubs, its village hall and tennis court — are on this road or just off it. Portpatrick Hotel, stately and broad on a bluff above the coastline, gives its guests a gull’s-eye view: the rocks scarring the harbor’s outer lip, the brief beach that emerges during low tide, the boats bobbing about on the water.

In the harbor’s two basins — the bunny’s rectilinear ears, each a different size — the water can drop from one tide to the next by nearly fourteen feet. They tend to be properly populated with boats only during the summer; the winds of winter, ferocious enough to shred the saltire on the flagpole, send the sea barreling into the basins and up their sheer stone walls. Apart from the sturdy Royal National Lifeboat Institution vessel, few boats dare to stay through the winter. Yet the harbor is central to Portpatrick’s imagination. When asked to describe its importance, people are briefly stumped, as if they’ve been told to audit gravity. Not surprisingly, then, the dramatic near loss of the harbor two years ago came upon the village like a temblor.

The village harbor and seafront. All photographs from Portpatrick, Scotland, by Sophie Gerrard

Among Portpatrick’s 540 residents, it’s difficult to find anyone more intimately bound to the harbor than Robert Erskine. For two and a half decades, Erskine worked as the coxswain on the lifeboat. Then he became a partner in the Harbour House Hotel, a handsome cloud-white building. He also tends to the putting green, which is so close to the harbor that a wayward golf ball may well end up in the nearest basin. In one way or another, Erskine’s career, his livelihood, and his passions have all been channeled into the harbor.

He lives only a minute’s walk away, and I found him at home one morning, eating porridge in his kitchen. He is nearly bald, and his eyes glint with good humor; his voice is so soft that sometimes he’s just sighing the lowest registers of his sentences. Erskine became Portpatrick’s harbormaster in early 2015, just when it seemed that soon he might not have a harbor to master at all.

Under a succession of owners, the harbor’s charm had been sloughing off. Mooring rings, ladders, and chains corroded, and debris gathered in corners; the amenities that sailors today seek, such as Wi-Fi and showers, never materialized. “Nothing was getting repaired!” Erskine said. The harbormaster before him, “that English fella from Port William,” lived elsewhere. “So the boats coming in weren’t getting the sort of welcome they were getting earlier.” Fewer and fewer were pulling into the harbor, he said. Whispers of a fuller effacement — a cruel loan, financial intrigues, and the looming threat that the harbor would be redeveloped into a marina or a similarly dull commercial bauble — began to gust around the village.

“In the pub in my hotel, I’d hear different people saying about how they weren’t coming that often because it’s not the same,” Erskine said. It saddened him tremendously. Portpatrick was, in any case, like dozens of villages in Scotland — like thousands across the world — where the young had up and left. To be severed now from its cherished harbor would transform it into a lesser village altogether.

Portpatrick perches on a slim, anvil-like projection of coast just twenty-one miles from Ireland, near enough for a woman to try once to Zorb her way across. (She failed.) A weekly mail service across the North Channel began in 1662, and in 1790, a mail coach galloped up to Portpatrick daily from London. The village grew so vital — for trade and transport, but also as a staging post for troops to quell potential Irish insurrections — that in 1821 the government began to construct an ambitious new harbor.

Engineers poured into the village, working with the finest materials: iron from England, wood from the Baltics, mortar from Italy, limestone from Wales. With the help of a diving bell, workers consolidated the foundations of two great piers. A lighthouse sprouted on the harbor’s southern tip. But soon it became evident that the piers wouldn’t survive the ferocity of the ocean. The lighthouse was shipped off to Sri Lanka, while the half-built north pier softened and crumbled; some rocky fragments still jut through the waves, like crushed ice in a whiskey sour.

Holiday decorations

But Portpatrick’s proximity to Ireland and its allure to fishermen maintained its importance. In 1861, a fresh project carved out a square basin within the harbor, giving it a bottom and walls of smooth sandstone. A rail line connected Portpatrick to Glasgow, and steamer ferries departed regularly for Ireland. Through the next century, fishing boats crowded into the harbor, carrying tons of herring from the waters off the Isle of Man. The crates were unloaded onto the quay, encouraging Portpatrick’s scamps to slip coat hangers through the slats and into the gills so they could pull the fish out whole, as one longtime resident told me. If they were caught, they received shovelfuls of ice dumped on their heads; if not, they sold their plunder for threepence a fish. The boats were so thick in the harbor, people told me, that you could cross the water without getting a toe wet, simply by stepping from one deck to the next.

Eventually, though, Portpatrick was left behind by its own success. The ferry services had migrated decades ago to the bigger harbor of Stranraer, half a dozen miles away. The fishing boats, growing larger over the years, also found more spacious ports elsewhere. In 1950, the Portpatrick line of the railway closed down. The harbor began drifting from the hands of one absentee landlord to another, slipping all the while into visible disrepair. Portpatrick’s sense of itself crumbled as well. It became a town without a function.

When Harry Harbottle settled in Portpatrick in 2001, he noticed the widespread concern about the state of the harbor. Growing up in Stranraer, he had visited his grandparents in Portpatrick frequently: “Sort of typical times, really — bathing in the freezing sea, messing about on the rocks.” He left this nook of Scotland to work as a designer of playgrounds and landscapes, but when he realized that, thanks to the internet, he could run his companies from anywhere, he returned to Portpatrick. There were more cars now, he saw, more holiday homes and more places to eat and drink, but fewer people to call the town home.

The Crown, a harborfront pub

Figuring that the harbor would be better off in the hands of those who lived around it and needed it, residents formed a trust in 2005 to try to get it back under community ownership. This turned out to be a protracted affair. At the time, the harbor was owned by Endon Barry Blatch, who held several properties across Britain. He ran into legal trouble over the management of his companies in 2007, and spent time in prison; he also went bankrupt. He owed money to Sir David Kirch, a multimillionaire with a reputation for philanthropy, and when Kirch realized he wouldn’t be repaid, he recovered a number of Blatch’s properties. Portpatrick’s harbor shifted into the hands of Sunningdale Investments, a company, registered out of the tax-haven island of Jersey, that serves as an investment vehicle for Kirch. This must have happened early in 2012, everyone agrees, but it’s surprisingly difficult to ascertain the date; documents went astray, and memories claim to have fogged. Sunningdale is talked about in circumspect tones.

When the trust first wanted to discuss the harbor with Kirch, Harbottle said, he wasn’t “the easiest of people to get hold of, and he wasn’t the most cooperative of people.” I was able to measure Kirch’s elusiveness for myself. The internet provides no email addresses, websites, or phone numbers for him, Sunningdale, or the David Kirch Charitable Trust. A property manager who’d briefly looked after the Portpatrick harbor for Sunningdale told me that he wasn’t permitted to pass on Kirch’s contact details. Finding Kirch’s postal address in Jersey, I wrote him a letter, but received no reply. Finally, reached through the company secretary of one of his other firms, Kirch responded to questions over email — the first time readily, with six enumerated answers, the last of which mentioned that he found Portpatrick “a charming place” and then more reluctantly, offering just four sentences. Each time, his answers had been printed out on letterhead, then scanned and attached to the email.

Kirch said he no longer had his old files but that he had “probably” owned shares in Portpatrick’s harbor as security, or had the right to repossess it, even when it was under Blatch’s control. He did not spend money on the harbor and said, “I imagine it did deteriorate during my ownership.” Kirch says he accepted Blatch’s valuation of the harbor — a speculative estimate based, apparently, on planning approvals that Blatch had secured to build half a dozen flats, a bistro, and other amenities. The only independent valuation, which I was told was conducted in 2007, had reckoned the harbor itself to be worth around 50,000 pounds (less than $100,000), though Harbottle and Kirch both noted that they thought the figure was too low. “I obviously disagreed with the valuation of 50,000 pounds because of the development potential,” Kirch said.

When negotiations with Kirch began at last, the trust had come into some money: roughly a quarter of a million pounds (more than $350,000 at the time), a donation from a company that operated a nearby wind farm. Harbottle said that the money was “time-limited,” making it more important to close the deal quickly. Even so, the sale price Sunningdale first quoted seemed enormous.

Eventually, the parties haggled their way to 350,000 pounds (some $550,000) — much higher than the valuation, though Harbottle noted it reflected that “members of the community had pledged materials and labor” free of charge for repairs, which he said boosted the value significantly. The terms of the contract were confirmed in the summer of 2012.

“It may be that the price was a bit too much,” Harbottle admitted. “But we had money, and here was an opportunity to get the harbor for the community. So we took it.” After all, they’d been working on this project for eight years. The prospect that Sunningdale or another owner might choose to transmute their harbor into a pale version of the Riviera lent an urgency to the deal. “This is never going to be Key Largo,” someone told me. “We know that, and we don’t want that.”

Others in the village, however, thought Harbottle and two other trust officials had worked in an opaque manner, not properly consulting them about the wind-farm money or the purchase of the harbor. Somehow, they had agreed to a price several times the 2007 appraisal.

The exact nature of events thereafter is hazy and contentious, and people tended to speak about them — to me, at least — only in thin detail. In part, this was a submission to the demands of life in a village, where it never ends well for factions to harden, or for someone to slag off a neighbor. But it was also a signal of how little of this affair was well known — and of how much can be tucked out of public sight, even in a community as small as Portpatrick.

Harbottle didn’t want to get into detail about this chapter. “The best I can tell you is that there was dissent. It wasn’t an easy time,” he said. (The dissent, he noted, was mainly a result of “the dissemination of misinformation.”) Erskine, who was once the vice chair of the trust, had resigned in 2008. “I didn’t trust what was happening,” he told me. Even after the purchase was completed, he said, very few people knew how the contract had been hammered out, or that it was tilting the village into the maw of a fiscal disaster.

For a couple of years, the angriest resident of Portpatrick must have been Calum Currie, who joined the trust in 2013 and discovered all the mud in its machinery. At forty-five, Currie is a steep hillock of a man. His hair and beard are buzzed close, and he seems impervious to the cold. It is, he reminded me, much more frigid in Norway, where he works two weeks out of every six on an oil rig. When he’s home, he installs and fixes heating systems for a living, and tinkers endlessly even otherwise: with cars that he buys to repair; with his home, which he renovates himself; with the harbor’s moorings and other paraphernalia. His hands are frequently sliced and bruised in a dozen places, and after a busy day, the bases of his fingernails are filled with puddles of black grease.

Like Harbottle, Currie was reluctant to dwell on the confusion around the actual acquisition of the harbor from Sunningdale; when he finally got into it, the Lowlands burr in his voice acquired an edge of steel. That Currie adores Portpatrick is plain. His family has lived here for generations. He grew up here, attended the clamshell-shaped school, played vertiginous games of tag on the walls of the ruined church, and learned how to sail and fish just offshore. When he was younger, he would, after a late and intemperate night in a pub by the harbor, make it a point to shun the road home; instead, he’d walk straight up the hill, over stiles and through back yards and meadows and woodland, until he ended up on his doorstep. Whatever quantity of beer he’d consumed, he never made a mistake. It was as if the village had wrapped itself around the man — and Currie insists that happens to practically anyone who spends any time here. Stay a few days, and you’ll find yourself wondering how you can move to Portpatrick wholesale.

Boats in the village harbor

When Currie began to serve on the trust, “it became apparent that there was a real mess.” He’d previously known nothing of the purchase contract, so he wasn’t aware, for instance, that the trust had agreed to a price so far beyond the harbor’s estimated asset value. Further, 125,000 pounds (nearly $200,000) of this sale price was a three-year, interest-free loan, extended by Sunningdale itself to the trust, and a failure to repay it would keep the harbor — and the 225,000-pound down payment from the wind-farm fund — firmly in Sunningdale’s pockets. (Harbottle says the trust hadn’t thought this was the case, and that lawyers had advised them that “there was no automatic reversion in the contract but that it was subject to negotiation.”)

The inequity of these terms was compounded by the disorder in the trust’s affairs. When any minutes of meetings had been kept at all, they were sketchy, Currie said. He asked for the paperwork of the loan terms to see if he could refinance, and “I was told, ‘Oh, we can’t find a copy of the loan agreement.’ ” He said that the trust’s officials also initially failed to provide a copy of the valuation they said they’d had conducted before the contract was signed. Many documents, Currie said, “strangely became unavailable once I started asking financial questions.” (Harbottle insists that “all papers were passed over to the new chair.”) As a result, potential lenders told him, “You don’t get a loan if you haven’t got a proper valuation, up to date. Who’s the loan with?” Currie would tell them it was with Sunningdale, the harbor’s owner. “To which they scoffed, obviously.”

In the summer of 2014, Harbottle stepped down as the trust’s chair. Currie took over, even though he thought it was “a poisoned chalice.” The clock on the loan was due to run out in a little more than a year. No bank would lend fresh funds, and the harbor’s income — 18,000 pounds or so (less than $30,000) a year at the time, Currie told me — certainly wasn’t sufficient to cover the debt. A lawyer he consulted told him, “Your ship is sinking spectacularly.”

Currie turned to Kirch, hoping to renegotiate for kinder terms and an extension of the loan’s tenure. Kirch had, after all, given away millions of pounds to the residents of Jersey; a few years earlier, around the time Sunningdale’s loan to the trust kicked in, he had pledged to leave a hundred million pounds to the island’s elderly. To this request, though, Currie said that Kirch first offered fresh terms — which Portpatrick couldn’t afford — and then declared that he would grant no further concessions. Within Currie’s fat red folder of documents pertaining to the harbor, the topmost is a letter from Kirch, on the letterhead of the David Kirch Charitable Trust. Kirch requires only a couple of terse paragraphs to turn Currie down. “I do not mind any business-like approach,” he writes, “but I am tired of the request for charity.”

By January 2015, Currie was near desperation. The trust called an extraordinary general meeting. A hundred and sixty people turned up one Wednesday night at the village hall; Currie thought he’d never seen it fuller. In a speech, he laid out the trust’s state of distress. The loan was due to be repaid in July, and they didn’t have the money. “Make no mistake,” he warned. “There is a very real danger that the harbor will be lost.”

Crabs at Portpatrick harbor

Portpatrick doesn’t ordinarily witness the kind of theater that followed. “That meeting was phenomenal for watching something unfold,” said the trust’s newly appointed secretary, Norman McKie, a pathologist who spent his childhood in the village and lives there still for much of the year. People booed and jeered the former officials who had struck the disastrous deal with Sunningdale. The audience included a few lawyers, and they rose to catalogue how these ex-officials had failed their fiduciary duties. “It was the pointy-finger-type thing: ‘Right, well, you just go now!’ ” McKie said. On the spot, they were forced to quit their membership of the trust. By the end of the night, Currie said, he was chairing a rump board of just three people, and still no closer to finding the 125,000 pounds and holding on to the harbor.

After the momentous village hall meeting, Currie waded into the internet. He examined charity lending options but discovered that the harbor was so distressed that it would be ineligible for loans. He consulted people with backgrounds in finance, who told him that he was sunk, that the corporate world wouldn’t touch the harbor. He thought about a Kickstarter campaign but dismissed the idea: “It’s very difficult, crowdfunding, when there’s no trust there.” When Currie finally read about an ownership model called community shares, it proved to be in the barest nick of time; like windows in winter, all his other options had slammed shut around him.

Community shares can seem like a chimera: the heart of a crowd-funded venture, the pelt of a cooperative, the growl of a publicly listed company. A community benefit society, or “bencom,” sells shares in an enterprise or asset; the buyers are oftentimes mostly local residents. The money goes toward purchasing this asset or constructing it from scratch. The bencom then exerts itself to turn a profit. The surplus might return as meager interest on the share capital, but the bencom makes no guarantees; frequently, the money is reinvested in the asset or used to assist the community in other ways.

The evening before I left for Portpatrick, I met Dave Boyle in a pub near the Edinburgh railway station. His hair was incoherent; he’d had a long day and was due to catch a train later that night. We drank Pavlov’s Dog as he talked about community shares, his conversation ducking in and out of history, politics, and philosophy. It struck me, an hour and three pints in, that I’d never met anyone who took such manifest joy in socioeconomic wonkery.

Mackerel at Portpatrick harbor

Boyle, who has worked with social enterprises for nearly two decades and now runs a firm called the Community Shares Company, is originally from Rochdale, near Manchester, the very town where the modern co-op was born. Four days before Christmas in 1844, having collected twenty-eight pounds of pooled capital, the Society of Equitable Pioneers opened a shop selling butter, flour, and other groceries at prices that poor workers could afford. (The co-op movement’s guiding ideals are still called the Rochdale Principles.) The co-op took in capital from its members — just ordinary people paying in a pound or so — and in return gave them dividends if it was able. “So the cooperative movement’s thesis was, essentially, profit is an accounting error,” Boyle said. “If we trade goods and services for their fair price, and there’s a surplus at the year-end, then we’ve charged you too much money, and therefore we give it back to you.”

Broadly speaking — in its social spirit, its paid-in capital, its one-member-one-vote rule — the co-op is the nearest cousin of the community shares model. But a co-op need only benefit its members; the asset at the heart of a community shares venture benefits everyone in the community. A school will educate the children of shareholders and non-shareholders alike; a hydel turbine will supply everyone in the locality with cheaper electricity, and its profits might mend a road or roof the village church. The capital invested in buying shares can be withdrawn, but honestly, you expect never to pull it out or earn any interest. “People only invest in these things because the actual capitalists are off fucking the world,” Boyle said. “What we’re trying to get to is: ‘This is a better way to use your money than putting it in a bank, but it’s not the way you get rich. You make your community richer.’ ”

Despite all the hard clarity of these ventures — the legal terms, the share-issue rules, the nonnegotiable demand that they sustain themselves — the model prizes something more fugitive: a sense of communal well-being, and a belief that such well-being will improve lives in immaterial as well as material ways. In a time of steroidal neoliberalism, this philosophy can sound almost quaint. It cannot be nailed into a spreadsheet, factored into EBITDA, or scaled up into the quantifiable future — so it was, for decades, simply forgotten. Companies ran themselves well (except when they didn’t), so, the state assumed, everything ought to be run along similar lines. Governments fashioned themselves after corporations; public assets were flung into private hands; citizens began to be turned into employees of the state. The commonweal was confused with the spirit of free enterprise.

A memorial to the MV Princess Victoria, a ferry that sank in the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland in 1953

In the United Kingdom, the law enabling bencoms to issue withdrawable shares is more than a century old, but it was only in the 1990s that it was rediscovered, and only in the 2000s that enterprises began using it in any meaningful number. In England and then Scotland, as state funding dried up in the nerve-racking years after 2008, dozens of communities tried to fend for themselves, issuing shares to buy or create assets they deemed too important to do without. The government found it useful to encourage community share issues; a two-year research program culminated, in 2012, in the launch of the Community Shares Unit. Since 2012, 110 million pounds (some $150 million) have been plowed into 400 or so enterprises: pubs, farms, soccer clubs. In Hastings, in East Sussex, a bencom purchased the local pier. Strontian, up in the Scottish Highlands, plans to build itself a school; not far away, the community built a hydroelectric power plant. And Portpatrick, with its pastel houses under low, capricious skies — Portpatrick bought back its bunny-shaped harbor.

The community shares model is unfamiliar in the United States. For the most part, regulations have been too stringent to permit it, said Amy Cortese, who wrote the 2011 book Locavesting. But the law is changing slowly in such a way that it might, one day, accommodate bencoms. The JOBS Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2012, enabled equity crowdfunding, so that a grocery store might more simply sell shares in itself in an offering online. Beginning with Kansas in 2011, thirty-six states now allow small companies and co-ops to issue shares to local investors. But the benefit of these to the community is presumptive — a reliance on the theory that when a small business flourishes, the local economy feels new wind in its sails. For British bencoms, the impulse to assist the community is written into their genes; it defines the very function of these enterprises, and it organizes the way they spend their profits.

Community shares is still too new a model to have suffered any grand fiascoes, but Boyle could see what its challenges would be: to keep selling shares to locals rather than to anyone who’ll buy them online, to refrain from treating share capital as easy donations, to keep participation alive. “How do they make it so the shareholders don’t go, ‘Oh, those guys have got it covered’? Repeat and rinse for five years, and suddenly those guys are an oligarchy.” In yoking the profit motive to intangible benefits for the community, the model also risks pursuing the former more heatedly than the latter; when a bencom insists that high profits are the best way to improve the lives of its shareholders and community, it will turn into the very profit-hungry corporation it is trying to stand against.

Bencoms must register with Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates financial-services firms. But the body has little responsibility of oversight, which risks shivering the confidence of the public; share issues are unregulated, and investors feel protected only to the extent that they know the people — their neighbors or friends — who are running the bencom. There is plenty of opportunity for well-intentioned failure, as a 2016 report by Nesta, an innovation foundation, warned. “The crowd,” it noted, would not have expertise in the issues, so “their funding decisions will instead be driven by who they know, where projects are based and the extent to which they can tell a compelling story.”

Still, as a notion in our post-2008 world, the bencom promises a minor revolution. Small communities no longer have to play the poor hands they’re dealt; they can get fresh cards. “You could say, ‘Yeah, but they’re ameliorating the retreat of the state under austerity politics.’ Maybe they are,” Boyle said. But community shares is a pragmatic remedy for a problem that is both acute and universal. “I want communities to own things and be in control of things. . . . They might not make the right choices as far as I’m concerned, but at least they’re making the choices.”

My evenings in Portpatrick were spent, inevitably, with Currie at the Crown, a harborfront pub owned by his brother. People began to wander in around six, and a couple of hours later, the place would be full. At ten, the Crown would start emptying, and only those who’d determined to have a long night would stay on to close the pub out. No one in Portpatrick ever really planned an evening at the Crown; it’s just where you ended up, knowing that your friends would probably be there, too.

The Crown reminded me of the pub in Local Hero, the 1983 film starring Burt Lancaster. Playing an eccentric oil tycoon, Lancaster sends a young executive from Houston to Ferness, a small Scottish village; its bay is ideal for a transshipment terminal, and the executive is tasked with buying up all the land in the village so that a refinery can be built. The owner of the local pub, who is also Ferness’s accountant, rallies the villagers. It turns out, unexpectedly, that nearly everyone is eager to sell, to snatch up their payments and hurry out of their difficult lives. Only one man, an old beachcomber who owns the land by the bay, holds out.

The view across the North Channel from the harbor

In the Crown, I mentioned Local Hero a couple of times to people. They hadn’t heard of the movie, but they always looked shocked when I explained the plot. It was utterly improbable, they declared. Who’d sell out their village that way? With the harbor here, people were so anxious that it stay the same, and if it hadn’t been for community shares, who knows what would have happened? One man I met, who lived just up the coast from Portpatrick, said that he hadn’t been able to register for shares because he’d been splitting up with his wife at the time. He sounded more regretful about that than about the divorce.

It wasn’t surprising that the share offer had flashed past him — between Currie’s discovery of the community shares model and the retrieval of the harbor, the process moved with celerity. Portpatrick was fortunate; an agency called Community Shares Scotland had just been formed to assist aspiring bencoms. The intricacies of forming one were sure to require more time than Currie and his trustees had on the loan, so CSS helped arrange a bridge loan of 75,000 pounds (roughly $115,000) from Social Investment Scotland (a partially state-funded charity). The harbor’s accumulated savings from mooring fees had, by then, grown to about another 75,000 pounds — just enough, Currie said; Sunningdale was repaid about ten days before the axe fell. Now Currie and his newly constituted Portpatrick Harbour Community Benefit Society had to absorb how the model worked in action, and how they might sell 75,000 pounds in shares to, at long last, haul the harbor back into the village’s hands.

They planned a share offer for September. It would begin the first weekend of that month, to coincide with the village’s annual folk music festival, and it would last eight weeks. CSS provided PR assistance, muscling the share issue into the attention of the media. The bencom’s officials draped the village with posters, left leaflets in the pubs that were to host the folk music troupes, and set up a website and a prospectus.

The long weekend of the folk festival turned out glorious — three days of liquid sunshine, immaculate skies, and a jocular sea breeze. The shares went on sale on Microgenius, a pilot platform run by CSS; Currie and Keith Benton, the society’s treasurer, were astonished at how it all unfolded. “My emails were going dut-dut-dut-dut,” Benton said.

“We’d go for a pint,” Currie said, “and his phone would be dinging, and he’d say, ‘There’s another thousand. There’s another five hundred.’ ”

“It just went crazy,” Benton said.

“Individually, I was going to take a thousand pounds’ worth of shares and my wife was going to take the same,” Currie said. “But when we saw there was such a massive subscription, we said we’d take five hundred pounds and give other people a chance.”

“We were over the moon, weren’t we?” Benton said placidly.

Each share was worth a pound (around $1.50); a subscriber could buy in with a minimum of twenty-five and a maximum of 10,000 pounds. A third of the shares sold out that first weekend, they said, and within three weeks, the harbor had raised 100,000 pounds. The offer was oversubscribed. Applications for at least 114,000 pounds had flooded in; many people got no shares at all. If they’d held an open offer, Currie reckoned, they could have made twice as much, easy. Unwilling to hold more investments than they could conceivably pay back, though, they held to their upper limit of 100,000 pounds.

Among the 554 new shareholders were Lynne-Marie and Keith Stebbens. In 2011, they moved to a house amid the fields just outside Portpatrick. The Stebbenses are bookkeepers, and Keith brews small batches of beer that are on tap in a couple of the village’s pubs. The Portpatrick Brewery is, in essence, a white shed behind the Stebbens residence. Above the brewery, the sails of a domestic wind turbine swipe lazily at the breeze.

Lynne-Marie and Keith had missed the rancorous village hall meeting a few winters earlier, and they’d known nothing about the community shares model when the share issue was announced. But buying shares, they felt, was the right thing to do. “Moving here, we always wanted to get involved,” Keith said. “Even though we’re not actually in the village, it’s our closest community.”

“It gives you some sort of feeling of ownership,” Lynne-Marie said. “Makes you quite proud that you’re involved in it.” When the offer opened, they bought into it instantly.

“You’d like to feel, in some small way, a part of it,” Keith said. “You don’t do it for profit.”

We sat in an alcove in the Stebbenses’ house, looking out the bay windows at the sunshine pouring down on the meadows. Keith had given us glasses of his Dorn Rock brew, named for the knuckle of stone at the entrance to Portpatrick’s harbor. The Dorn Rock features on the brewery’s label and also, in silhouette against a rosy sky, on the background of the harbor’s share certificates.

The harbor hadn’t been in good shape, the Stebbenses knew. “It’s a horrible thought that somebody so far away can have so much impact on your life, on all of our lives,” Lynne-Marie said.

“It’s just the bad side of capitalism. It’s just greed,” Keith said. “The way things are going, the bigger companies are just gobbling everything up.”

Some of the shareholders live considerably farther afield than the Stebbenses: residents of Bermuda, Canada, Germany, and Australia, who’d perhaps visited the village once before and held fond memories of it. Largely, though, the people who bought the shares were the people who had stayed in Portpatrick, or came regularly on holiday, or had moved away and wanted a link to home, or even just sailed their boats here for a few days every summer. The harbor was preserved, in the end, by those who most found Portpatrick — or life — unthinkable without it.

On a morning of raw wind and a beaten-tin sky, I walked down to the harbor to meet Currie, who’d been at work there since daybreak. With the help of the village blacksmith, he was cutting away some of the corroded iron chains that ran across the width of the inner basin. I ambled around the harbor, past boats with names like Clappidoo II, Rock Lobster, Belinda, and Genie, which had all been hauled out of the water, shrouded in canvas, and mounted on trailers to wait out the winter. Out at sea, the gulls cawed and bickered without pause.

Currie joined me when he was done and started to point out ways in which the harbor would be improved: hot showers and better toilets, spiffed-up equipment sheds, a resurfaced road, a picnic area, maybe even a small heritage center. Every so often, we’d run into someone he knew, and he’d have a chat and mention the new moorings that had just been installed; then, when we had walked on, he’d say, “He’s a shareholder.” It was the same when we’d meet in the pub in the evenings. Currie, towering a couple of heads above everyone else, would scan the crowd for my edification: “He’s a shareholder. She’s a shareholder. They’re both shareholders.” He made these observations with a parental pride. It was undeniable, of course, that people had bought their shares because they knew how much Portpatrick’s economy, and so their own livelihoods — their cafés and shops, their hotels and fishing charters — relied on the harbor and its unspoiled charm. But Currie seemed to intuit something deeper and nobler: pluck and altruism, an instinct for unity, a glint of rectitude in the character of the village.

Currie offered to take me out to sea, to get another view of Portpatrick. He waltzed down the harbor’s lone set of stone stairs, down to the water where his boat, the Das Boot, was moored; consummately as expected, I slipped on the slick algae that coated the steps. After we swung out of the basin, past the remnants of the old piers, the water turned instantly choppy, and the wind lanced into us. My ungloved hands, holding onto a rail, grew riddled with cold. Currie adjusted his T-shirt and pointed Das Boot south.

The coast undulated: bluffs and coves, bluffs and coves, a sinusoidal topography. Half a mile down, Currie pointed out Dunskey Castle, a sixteenth-century ruin. Then we came upon a grand hotel sitting by itself in a broad bay, but through the rest of our jaunt, I saw no other human settlement along the shore. I understood, when we doubled back, what this harbor must have looked like to sailors caught in evil weather: an unexpected refuge, a sudden benediction. As we neared Portpatrick, I half-expected a shaft of light to blaze through a crevice in the clouds and shine directly on the village. But the sky remained drab and stern, and the pastels of the houses appeared sallow as they huddled into the harbor. Nevertheless, Currie beamed. “It doesn’t look it now, but it’s a happy little village,” he said. Then he steered his boat home.

is the author, most recently, of This Divided Island: Life, Death, and the Sri Lankan War (Thomas Dunne Books). He lives in Dublin.

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April 2021

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