Am Bratach No. 242
November 2012

View from the croft gate
by John MacDonald

I seem to have been attracting attention over the ongoing land dispute that filled a couple of news columns in last month’s Bratach. It is an issue that has been rumbling on within part of our crofting parish this last few years ever since the estate changed hands and the new owners discovered that as although the estate was theirs, most of it was under crofting tenure and they could not do just what they liked with the land or the crofters on it. They are 125 years too late on the scene for that to happen. The only bit of land in the whole estate not under crofting tenure was the lodge policies and some eighty acres that was our summer pasture, shared with neighbouring crofters should they wish to put animals on it.

The land used to form part of a small estate and was purchased by the Sutherlands about the end of 1700s. A few people were removed, as was the way with things at that time, and the “Park,” as it was so called, was created. It was one of many schemes thought up by William Young, the estate factor, to improve the estate for the Countess but also an attempt to give people employment. A burn was diverted, dams and sluices constructed and two mills built further down the parish to utilise this resource. The tweed mill ran until the Second World War and the meal mill carried on for a further ten years or so. The buildings are still there.

The “Park” seems to have been first used as a summer cattle pasture for the mains of Dunrobin, along with Dunrobin Glen, according to Adam’s book about Sutherland Estate management. A house was built for a park-keeper with a field dyked in for his cow. How long, if at all, the land was used to graze Dunrobin cattle we do not know, but it was at some period given over for the use of the nearby crofters caught up in the upheaval of Young`s plans and trying to exist in their allocation of five stony acres with three acres outrun and practically no hill ground. According to oral records on tape in national archives, “the Countess gave the land to the people,” not something we have come to think in associating with the first Duke and Duchess, so best think this one out before you remove any more stones from the “Mannie” on Ben Bhraggie.

Back to the present day and one hoped that the estate would come round to acknowledging that the land which was used as a crofters summer pasture since long before living memory was really not much use for any other purpose but as grazing land enjoyed by the public and of interest to archeologists. But this has not been the case and when outline planning for houses on the pasture appeared, that stirred things up.

The matter at stake is rather important. The estate’s attitude is that they have now bought the land and what went on in the past has nothing to do with them. In law, on matters outwith land under the crofting acts, they are correct. So in effect it puts us into a situation comparable to when the estate, two hundred years ago, sent notice to the people that they now have other plans for the land so get off. Whatever had been its previous status was now null and void.

It shows just how important the right to security of tenure is. Without it, every tenant crofter is vulnerable to the whim of the landowner. It is only when you are actually confronted with such a situation that you sense just how helpless people must have felt when served with an eviction order. In our local case we are cushioned by the fact that our homes are crofts so the estate cannot get rid of you on the pretext of some breach of estate regulation. Nevertheless, your emotions are roused at the taking away of land that has been part of your crofting way of life.

We must accept the fact that times have changed. In the days when every croft had its milk cow and horse, the park in question meant something to nearly every crofter in the district. Today, few keep cattle and the horse is some lassie’s best friend. Cattle grazing is required by fewer crofters but those who do, have many more cattle. The management of their herd has totally changed but the summer pasture remains as important as ever it was to those who depend upon it. You put the cattle out on June 1 and took them back at the end of September. We ran a community bull scheme for a number of years using the Department bulls, so we had tight spring calving, although it was getting difficult to tell your cow from a neighbour’s. All this came to a sudden stop when the estate said, “No, we have other plans for this land”.

The issue is not my personal attempt to have control of this land, although some might see it that way, but just to continue to be allowed to summer pasture our cattle. It does not matter who controls the grazing as long as they respect our long established “right” to do so. Generations will come and go but the land will remain and for the sake of the crofter of the future, not to protest is to give in and see the land use changed.

One answer is to go down the road of a community buyout and in our situation this is probably worth pursuing. I was reading an article recently on the funding now available for such schemes and it paints a gloomy picture. The land fund set up for the purpose of providing assistance for land buyouts has been absorbed into the National Lottery and a fat chance we have of getting any funding when they are targeting all the lottery cash into London and the Olympic spectacle. Once that has run its course there will be lots of other influential hands out for funding and the chance of any of it drifting down to help a crofter or two is pretty remote. Politicians make good speeches on community ownership but they seem powerless to ensure that the funding allocated for such a purpose is ring-fenced and not shuttled off to build a fancy stadium that they do not know what to do with once the Olympics are over.


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