Crofters prepare for revolution on the estates
- Crofters prepare for revolution on the estates
By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent
20 January 2003
People have lived and worked on the western shores of Loch Eriboll in
Sutherland, overlooking the peaks of Ben Hope, for hundreds of years.
From the tiny crofting community of Laid, the tranquil view of the
distant mountain provides a spiritual link with the past while its
name offers a glimpse of a future, which later this week will be all
the more brighter. The Scottish Parliament will begin debating stage
three of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill on Wednesday. Once passed,
as is expected, it will receive Royal Assent within weeks.
The flagship policy of the Scottish Executive is expected to spark a
rural revolution and has even earned comparisons with the Zanu-PF
land grab in Zimbabwe.
At present, Scotland has the most unequal distribution of land in
Western Europe. In a country of more than 19 million acres (7.7
million hectares), more than 16 million are privately owned. Two-
thirds of this rural landscape is in the possession of 1,252 owners
who control it under a series of feudal laws dating back to the 11th
century. Another 750,000 acres is registered with off-shore
companies, which avoid British taxation and hide the true identity of
The Land Reform Bill is designed to abolish this old system and
replace it with a more straight-forward form of ownership, giving
small communities and individual crofters the right to own the land
they live and work on, and provide greater public access to the
Under the Bill, small communities will be afforded the right to
register an interest in a piece of land so that if the landowner
should want to sell, local people are given first refusal. More
controversially, crofting communities will have the right to force a
landowner to sell.
In the Western Isles alone, this could mean more than 500,000 acres
of land being taken into community ownership if all 300 crofting
communities exercise the option. Of the Western Isles' 716,000 acres,
521,000 could end up in community ownership more than the combined
private estates of the Countess of Sutherland, the Dukes of Argyll,
Athol, Westminster and Roxburghe and the Queen.
Although individual crofters have, since 1976, had the right to buy
their crofts at 15 times the annual rent whether a landowner wanted
to sell or not, the new legislation will extend the right to whole
communities. Mineral, fishing and sporting rights will be included.
For the residents of Laid, the new legislation could mean the
difference between life and death for their small Highland community.
The township of 18 crofts and 10 other households has been trying for
years to secure 2,300 acres of common grazing land which has been
used by many of the present inhabitants' ancestors since they were
forced to move there because of the Highland clearances 200 years ago.
"We need to be able to control our own destiny," said Hugh MacLennan
of the Laid common grazing committee, which was set up to launch a
hostile bid for 2,500 acres of the estate.
"There are so many possibilities for us provided we can take control
of our own lives, instead of relying on absentee landlords who have
little or no interest in us."
Not everyone is so optimistic that the Scottish Executive's flagship
policy will herald a brave new world.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors predicted land values
could be halved because of the uncertainty caused by the rights of
crofters to force landowners to split their estates.
"It's nothing but toff bashing," said David Cotton, the president of
the Crofting Counties Fishing Rights Group, an organisation of water
bailiffs, ghillies and other Highland river workers opposed to the
Bill. It was causing uncertainty on many rivers, with owners
disinclined to invest in expensive conservation projects because they
no longer believed they had security of tenure, Mr Cotton said.