Am Bratach No. 219
January 2010

View from the croft gate
by John Macdonald

I notice a fair degree of comment in the press at the moment as the Crofting Reform Bill goes through another stage of its torturous journey — well, not the press in general, for who wins a talent contest, or who can make the bigger spectacle of themselves, is much more newsworthy than anything to do with the mundane life of the crofter, unless of course, Prince Charles drops by to give a hand with the tatties.

It is interesting the angles which are brought into play when crofting is the subject of debate. To some, it is an outdated system that should be dismantled and open to the forces of the free market. We could call that the “Thatcher Approach”. They have a strong case and things have been quietly swinging their way for a number of years as more and more houses appear on croft land. But many people are uncomfortable about this “riches-just-now” attitude and think that croft land is an asset to the community at large and that we, the present generation of crofters, are but the custodians of the fruits of the sweat and labour expended by generations past, and as custodians, we should see it as our duty to maintain and possibly improve our inheritance. For someone like myself, brought up on the croft and aware of what fathers and grandfathers had done to continue the land in cultivation while improving on what they had, it is easy to be sympathetic to the latter line of thought.

But over the last number of years, since the right-to-buy came into being, many crofts have gone to people who seek but a house in the country. They are not always interested in the agricultural aspect of what is entailed or what it means to be a crofter.

The amalgamation of crofts has seen many former croft houses become “house in the country units,” but the change is double-barrelled in that not only is the house and site lost to crofting, so too, in many cases, is the indigenous element of the population.

Change is inevitable, but a brake should be put on too rapid a transition. It is encouraging to read that the importance of the old housing grant and loan scheme is being recognised and that moves are afoot to make it more meaningful to crofter housing in the present day. We await the detail.

A lot of noise is engendered over the issue of vacant crofts and the proposed residence clause in the forthcoming legislation drew positive rebellion in our neck of the woods. I am not aware of any vacant crofts although there are many crofts not being used to their full extent, but why this should be is quite complex.

One of the main reasons is simply the rules of nature. On the whole, a woman lives longer than her husband and so crofting has its fair share of widow tenancies. When the couple were young, the croft would be worked and, more than likely, as positively encouraged to do so by the Crofters Commission and estates, other crofts would be added to make a more viable unit. But all things eventually end and if a widow is left in her declining years with a batch of crofts, it is a fair bet that, by now, the houses belonging to crofts acquired have been sold as private units while the land remains with the widow. If the lady is fit and enthusiastic enough, she will carry on. If there is a member of the family around who can take over, so much the better. But sometimes there is no-one in the family taking over and if the widow cannot continue to work the land it is usually given to a neighbour or friend to work. Perhaps for a limited period if there is a likelihood of some family member turning up to take over the old home, probably on retirement.

This is where I think a stronger line should be taken on subletting. At present, sublets are seen as very temporary arrangements, five years being the average. But why not have them over five, ten years, or more. I think that were the commission to enforce a stronger, more forward-looking policy on sub-letting, they would have better control over crofting tenure and a lot of the issues could be resolved without the need for new legislation.

Vacant crofts. Perhaps there are areas where this is so, but I am unaware of them and regard vacant crofts as another media bone to make a noise over. Under-used crofts, that’s another issue.

Another debate is going on about the whole ethos of crofting in general. Are crofts an asset or a hindrance? Are these small units getting in the way of efficient land management? Surely the economic answer is to sweep them away.

It is always alarming when opinion like this keeps on getting aired and one has to ask if people ever look over their shoulder to see if there is a shadow from the past. I felt this very strongly when our government leaders jumped on the back of Cowboy Bush’s bronco and charged into Iraq and Afghanistan.

To step off my soapbox and back to crofting to examine the issue of big is beautiful, then we see a very dark shadow indeed. Were not the clearances brought about precisely because the advanced thinking of the day was that big is beautiful? In Sutherland, this led to the creation of our present day arable farms and the coming of large hill sheep farms, and what you did not want was a seemingly backward population in the middle of an efficient agricultural enterprise. So they got rid of them.

And what of today? In November our local heritage society invited along a gentleman from Clyne Heritage Society to give an illustrated talk on a walk he undertook during May 2008. He set off from Cape Wrath, went down to Sandwood and then took a bee-line across the county to Brora. His illustrated adventure was most interesting.

His pictures showed striking views and all manner of flower and fauna with deer in abundance, but as one crofter commented, not a sheep in sight anywhere. Perhaps it was the time of year and the sheep were in-bye for lambing, but it tells a story when so many of the vast sheep farms are no longer functioning or have been given over to forestry. Were the sheep masters of a hundred years ago to be told that there would come a day when one could walk right across Sutherland and not see one sheep, they would not have believed it.

So if we look over our shoulder, we have to ask, do we prefer a county with a community, a county with shepherds, keepers and “get off my land,” or the quiet wilderness of today?

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