Am Bratach No. 254
An elected official of the Crofting Commission, the body directed by the Scottish Government to rid the country of absentee crofters - that is crofters who happen to live more than 32km from their crofts - is himself a victim of the commission's policy on absenteeism, though with a 5-year fuse built in.
Murdo Maclennan, a member of both the old Crofters Commission and of its successor body, the Crofting Commission, was designated an absentee, or non-compliant with the Resident Duty under the Act, on March 3 of last year despite his high reputation a reputation apparently accepted by the commission as a crofter on Lewis and Harris for over thirty years. Mr Maclennan's home is on one of his three crofts, at Aignis, near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. According to the commission, he inherited the other tenancies, of a croft on the uninhabited island of Scarp, off Harris, in 2005, and that of 1 Cliasmol on "mainland" Harris in 1986.
A spokeswoman for the Crofting Commission said: "The status of his tenancy of 1 Cliasmol has been investigated under the current Occupancy Initiative, which looks at absentee situations of over ten years. Under the terms of section 22 of the 1993 Act, the commission has to determine that the crofter lives outwith the requisite distance and that it is in the interest of that crofting community that the tenancy be terminated.
"The commission received evidence indicating that Mr Maclennan is actively engaged in crofting activities of the North Harris area; this included hill gatherings, lambing, shearing and duties related to maintaining stock. He was cited as increasing his sheep stock at a time when there was a declining trend. Mr Maclennan received the support of the local community landlord, the North Harris Trust, local crofters and the area assessor, for his contribution to crofting in the area."
The commission agreed on March 3 2011 to let Mr Maclennan off the hook, but with the caveat that his situation would be reviewed in 2016.
Unless the government softens it stance, it is almost certain that once Mr Maclennan exceeds ten years as an absentee from his Scarp croft, he will again become a target of central government displeasure and lose a tenancy that has been in his family for generations. And our investigations suggests that, should this happen, crofting on Scarp will come to an abrupt end and the absentee owner of the island will become the true monarch of all he surveys, with not a crofter in sight. Because of the labour and time involved in running a croft on an uninhabited island, there is unlikely to be a queue of young crofters waiting to take over. There may be a reasonably good pier on Scarp, but on the Harris side, at Huisinish, there is not, making the crossing very difficult. All crofting activity is undertaken by four men, of whom Mr Maclennan is one. Gathering the Blackface sheep hefted there takes a full day, with all shareholders present, an informant told us, and we are also reliably informed that should one of them drop out, it would be impractable for the others to continue crofting on the island.
Scarp is 100% under crofting tenure, but has been devoid of a settled crofting (or other) population since 1971, when the last families left. In the early sixties there had been a dozen crofter families and a school population of twenty or thereby. Now, all that remains is four houses, converted to holiday homes and owned by German and English couples, and a former mission house and church, the property of the landowner.
Though the official policy on absenteeism now shows signs of being rather unpopular with crofters, the 2008 Committee of Inquiry on Crofting laid the ground for a number of reforms in crofting regulation, identifying croft absenteeism as the most important area for crofting regulation. The commission website states: "The committee of inquiry itself reported that nine out of every ten responses indicated that absenteeism had to be dealt with. And in its own response to the inquiry the Scottish Crofting Federation stated that 'Absenteeism must be vigorously pursued'".
The Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act, which resulted on July 2 2010, stated that there would be a re-organisation of The Crofters Commission, the establishment of a crofting register, and new duties imposed on crofters and grazing committees.
One of the measures dreamed up by legislators, and a step too far for many, requires grazings committees to report on the condition of the common grazing, and the condition of every croft of a crofter or owner-occupier crofter who shares in the common grazing (see Am Bratach, May 2012). But in a press release issued late last week, Rob Gibson MSP, stated: "I want to stress that my amendment which instigated grazing committee reports was passed unanimously in 2010 during the final stage of the Crofting Bill which received cross party backing. The central tenet of the Bill was to tackle the neglect and absenteeism that are twin scourges of many crofting areas. It is important that robust measures are put in place to tackle them."