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Crofters prepare for revolution on the estates

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  • diggers350 <tony@gaia.org>
    Crofters prepare for revolution on the estates http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=370983 By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent 20 January 2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 21, 2003
      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 owners.

      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.

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