Am Bratach No. 220
A response to the recently published
Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill and associated commentaries
The crofting system we now have emerged from a serious of legislative impositions. Some, like the Act of 1886, were intended to stabilise a very fraught law and order situation which had occurred as a result of economic pressures and landlordism run riot. Gladstone`s great contribution in 1886 was the curbing of untrammelled plutocratic power. Vested interests with their foothold in Parliament, particularly the House of Lords, had some of their teeth drawn. The market was not stopped, neither would Gladstone, the great classical liberal in economic matters that he was, have wanted to. Professor TM Devine in his book, "The Scottish Nation 1700-2000" published by The Penguin Press 1999 makes the point that "the 1886 Act did not provide any long term remedy for the fundamental economic problems of the region and for much of the twentieth century depopulation continued."
Economic historians are well aware of the long term trends towards urbanisation, declines in the numbers employed in agriculture and a squeeze on small scale production. Crofters were hit severely by these in the years of cheap food policy, depression and moves towards very much larger farms after the Second World War.
To some extent the circumstances faced by Scottish agriculture and crofting today are a continuation of long-term trends. State intervention since 1945 has ameliorated the impact, but the desire to further free up the world markets work against small-scale producers.
The EU regulations and distribution of support in this country seems to favour the strong. The SFP and LFASS systems are historic, based on stocking density. Land in the more favoured areas is paid much more per hectare than we in Assynt are, for example.
The effects of this are demonstrated by the SAC report, "Exodus of livestock from the hills", which clearly shows the biggest loss in the most disadvantaged areas.
Brian Pack in his draft report into Scottish agriculture makes the point that under the current EU rules nothing can be done to help the young gain farm tenancies and access support. Just like crofting, commercial agriculture is facing a severe shortage of skilled, committed labour. For years new entrants into crofting have found it virtually impossible to gain entitlements, without which crofting is totally unprofitable. If farmers in the Borders and Fife need subsidy to survive economically, how can small scale producers with all the inherent disadvantages of climate, topography, distance from market and diseconomies of scale make ends meet.
Unless and until the political will and courage is found to address and remedy the subsidy distribution, crofters will struggle.
Crofts are small businesses. The economic incentive is as crucial to them as it is to a barley baron.
This can be demonstrated with reference to the rapid exodus of cattle and sheep from the crofting areas after the price collapse precipitated by the BSE crisis and accentuated by the two Foot and Mouth outbreaks. Only this past year have prices rallied to what they in the nineteen eighties.
Administrative impositions will not stimulate economic activity. In fact it is morally wrong to order crofters to use land when in so doing they shall impoverish themselves.
Absenteeism arouses much passion. Absenteeism has been implicit in the crofting system since it began. The Rev Principal MacLeod encapsulates the situation superbly when he writes,` I always saw a croft as a place from which one sallied forth in search of a job.` My own grandfather worked away from home for 18 years. I have heard of children who did not know their father, he was away from home for so long. Many men in the parish of Lochbroom spent months away from home sailing yachts for the rich. The fishing occupied many others and provided the cash which was becoming vital to survival. Donald Macleod of `Gloomy Memories` fame spent many months of each year plying his trade as a stone mason in the south of Scotland, and this before the ground breaking 1886 proposals.
The croft as Principal MacLeod says was a base, of necessity so, because it was so small and in many cases infertile. It could not produce sufficient to sustain a family. Landlords had seen to that!
Napier makes the point that the Highlands and Islands had never been self sufficient in grain. They did their best; that task usually falling to the women and children.
The economy of the croft-house revolved round the women and children, the men usually being present to plant and harvest. Central to the whole operation was the household cow, hens and a potato crop and possibly other vegetables. The work was backbreaking. Women and children had to bring massive loads of seaweed from the ebb or from boats for the fertilisation of the vegetables and the oats and hay which were essential for the the cows` winter fodder. My own great, great grandfather drowned while trying to take a boat load of seaweed from Priest Island to the shores of Little Lochbroom. My grandmother and my father both told me of the grinding toil involved in cultivating their three acres. In years of inclement summer weather the worry was immense; these people were not able to order up a load of hay from the Black Isle. They lived on a remote peninsula accessible by foot and boat. For most in the west and north such isolation was the case, the road network being inadequate.
As soon as my father and brothers were of work age, the family headed for Ullapool. The primacy of the money economy was finally being established in the Highlands and islands. The eldest son did not consider that a life he would embrace; the younger pair had to look for paid employment; crofts were in short supply, even if they wanted them.
Critics of the 1886 reform claim it did not contain enough in the way of a development strategy, made no provision for the landless cottar and perpetuated the system of small holdings the Taylor Report of the 1950s suggested be reorganised . It seems to me that this reorganisation came about organically in response to market pressures, higher expectations, the spread of the money economy. The de facto reorganisation is in fact the system we now have with many crofters in possession of or having the use of more than one croft. The so-called multiple tenancies are in fact the reorganisation that officialdom didn`t have officially.
These tenancies are much attacked by some. They are crucial to the system. The larger tenants by and large arrange and carry out the stock handlings, see to marketing, and often the care of animals of many more than their own. These businesses, built up over lifetimes and often over generations, as capital accrued and land became available as others vacated it, are of crucial importance not only to the Highlands but also to Scotland`s agrarian economy. They produce many of the best lambs, rams, ewes and suckled calves leaving the Highlands and Islands. Representatives of both Dingwall and Highland Marts and UA (Lairg) have told me that 50% of their throughput comes from crofts. Dingwall alone sells 250,000 sheep per annum. These maligned tenancies now under attack produce a large proportion of these sheep. This output is critical to the retention of sufficient critical mass of stock in the crofting counties, to enable stock producers to have access to reasonable facilities. Downstream industries such as retail, garages, feed merchants, vets, hauliers and many others rely on this croft-generated business.
The control economy advocated by so many who do not work in crofting and by those who have not been averse to selling house sites themselves will ossify much of what has been achieved since 1976.
Absenteeism and its reversal is seen as the panacea to solving the problem of land for the young.
On average10% of crofters are absent. That discounts the land used by others where arrangements or sublets exist. 1,700 crofts could be made available, at the expense of putting some of the businesses described above out of business. It means making available something like 4500 aces of indifferent land on which the young are to make a living.
The expense of settling this land is the killer for the young or not so young as we found out. A house is needed. The average price of a house in Scotland is £160,000 and every young wife wants one of these! The land needs to be fenced at some £4 per metre, drains have to be dug, the phone has to be installed, electricity may be needed, steadings and outbuildings are essential as is machinery.
To do this a great big Land Investment Bank ought to be set up, rather than the current approach of trying to take established crofters' houses and permanent improvements from them at a knock down price.
Were the government to offer young crofters the £60,000 per unit given to social landlords to provide homes we would be a long way along the track to solution.
The Commission in the interests of fairness and transparency requires to be at arm`s length from the every day, disinterested and impartial. The pilots on local control, run earlier this century make instructive reading. All involved, officials and crofters, had grave reservations. This is alluded to in the Rural Affairs` Committee`s report on the 2006 Act but the actual documents are much more unequivocal.
An elected commission would be our preference, based on the existing distribution of commission board seats.
This new commission would have to energise the upper echelons. The current lethargy, back-covering, self- serving pedantry, obscurantism, obfuscation is unacceptable. A can- do approach is essential to the future good governance of crofting. In the Ocraquoy case sloppy work was submitted by the Commission to the Land Court, no evidence was led by the Commission and one of their main assertions was based on a show of hands at a public meeting. This will not do, nor will the retort we have no policy when it comes to a contentious issue. The Commission is too important an arbiter to behave like this.
When the chairman of the Commission says,`the Court tends to decroft in cases where planning permission has been granted (Am Bratach December 2009), we wonder did the Commission lead evidence and prepare a robust case at these hearings?
The registration of crofts is
something landowners should do, if it needs to be done at all.
The Commission register is 95% accurate according to Mr Ratter,
perfectly adequate for a working document.
The widespread speculation in crofting land which is supposed to have taken place on a scale similar to the Yukon gold rush was not as widespread as suggested or as harmful; the vendors were prone to invest their gains in permanent improvements or on equipment. Conspicuous consumption was notable by its absence.
Each croft is entitled to one dwelling house: therefore much of the land developed was not in productive use, which means that the figures used by the Commission are misleading in that regard, and the situation is quite unlike that at Ocraquoy or Taynult. Many tell us that fragile communities have benefitted from the influx of people; this is the view of the Land Court in the Ocraquoy case where the benefit of three new families had to be weighed against the agricultural usefulness of less than half an acre of relatively indifferent land. Moreover, house building in Assynt, has been a great boon to local tradesmen and others further afield. The possibility of draconian anti-decrofting laws in the period of austerity, if not depression, which we are about to enter, has very wide implications, and ought to be contemplated with great care.
This is a joint submission to the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament from Netta and Iain MacKenzie, The Willows, Elphin, By Lairg, Sutherland, IV27 4HH; Tel:01854666217; email: email@example.com.
They are active crofters breeding North Country Cheviot sheep, making extensive use of the common grazings. They were outright winners of the Johnson Carmichael Trophy. Their ewe and ram hoggs being assessed on figures and looks.
Iain graduated in economic history while Netta has a degree in chemistry and is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Both taught in Ullapool High School, moving permanently to the crofts in Elphin in 1996 when their house had been completely refurbished. Subsequently significant investment was made in other permanent improvements, including modern sheds to allow bulk purchase of feed and space within which to finish lambs which used to be sold through Dornoch abattoir, a fank, fences, drains, and the rebuilding of the old stone steading, not to mention the usual machinery required in such businesses.