Am Bratach No. 252
October 2012


Letter to the editor
Barrows of concrete were left to harden as men headed for ‘the meeting’ in Elphin

De idir tha dol an adhart anns a bhaile bheag, bochd ris an can iad Ailfionn?

Colin Macdonald visited the crofters here in the early years of the last century. He was most impressed with our predecessors when he addressed them in the library. Their grasp of procedure, practice and etiquette at public meetings was beyond anything he had experienced across the Highlands and Islands. Other sources tell us there was a vibrant literary society with monthly meetings, debates and talks, not to mention their well run church.

Now the library is no more. Some of the chairs are used in the fank. But we have a group running the old school and managing to obtain large sums from the public purse to provide entertainment. Well known bands play there every so often — boom, bang, boom — the sort of stuff that one hears whether one wants to or not. Even in the teeth of a severe south-westerly, of the type that carries anything not battened down to the back of Ben More, it can be made out half a mile distant.

And, of course, there is the annual Chicken Day, with all kinds of tom foolery, culminating in the winner being presented with the Bulmer Cup, but not I hear, by the great man himself. He had pressing commitments in the Metropolis.
Given the variety and intellectual diversity of the programme this self-important group puts on in the old school, one could be forgiven for thinking that their tastes are well satisfied.

Not so. Some of them have taken a keen interest in the procedural affairs of the crofting fraternity. I am told one even journeyed north from Tunbridgewells, in the “Garden of England” no less, to be present and take the minutes at an AGM which a small crofter-clique called and was ruled incompetent subsequently by the Crofting Commission.

In fact there were more non-crofters present at that AGM than crofters. The prospect of tea, fresh scones and homemade jam did not appeal to the independent minded crofters.

Interest in “the event,” now approved by the Crofting Commission, was massive. The location did not suit some of the non-crofters: city dwellers would not have been used to meeting in such lowly places. Those calling the meeting were invited to move to the old school. Notice was given to expect the arrival of “two heavies” from the commission as a result of the many enquiries! The voting crofters were equalled in number by the spectators who came from far and wide. Mr Bulmer’s land agent motored over from Inverness and put in his tuppence worth. An MSP drove up from Ullapool, carefully observed, no doubt reported to a higher authority later, and met with a select group in the old school after the spectacle in the fank.

Such was the excitement, locally, that barrows of concrete were left to harden as men building a new shed headed for “the meeting”; rumour has it that ewes were left in a pen unshorn while the shearer headed to the Elphin fank; soaps were left unwatched as their admirers raced to see the crofters; courting couples deserted their private rituals in the hope of watching elderly men and women nominating and proposing folk to a committee; meals were not cooked or eaten as usual. To be at the fank was a must. People from every walk of life made it their business to be present. These guys busied themselves in intense research before venturing out to ensure transparency prevailed at the fank. The product of all their labours, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, was brandished to inform the meeting as to the number of shareholders allowed to vote. Whether this was the reason to lodge the FOI or whether it was to get a list of compliant names to condone land fill on the common grazings by the group running the old school, time will tell.

Those of us who were on “the front” during the anti-Shucksmith campaign felt rather alone and exposed and that the general public was at best indifferent. Interest in crofting, we thought, was waning. Now it is gratifying to witness this resurgence of interest. No attendance prizes were offered for presentation by the far-travelled land agent of the modern day proud possessor of large swathes of the lands formerly occupied by the Earldom of Cromartie and of the Dukedom of Sutherland. And at variance with the current trend in Elphin, the original calling notice did not have BYOB as an addendum!

Such was the intense adherence to pedestrian legalism and the gain of advantage by the pro-Boom Bang Boom faction among the crofters that we were not allowed to appoint office bearers because the convocation was called under a particular sub-section of the 1993 Act. On a very narrow reading this might be correct. However the writer of a well regarded and established textbook on crofting law said that the office bearers could be elected. That would have meant someone on a 3-month Continental holiday and an absentee of nearly twenty years being unable to vote. A date and time three weeks hence was announced by the chairman upon agreement.

What would Colin Macdonald, co-author in his later life, of the seminal Land Court judgement laying down rules as to the conduct of such groups make of the next twist when transparency, said to be induced by the antiseptic of public gaze, and the fairness set down by Colin and Robert Gibson, was cast aside with such contempt? Some twenty-four hours before the agreed time, a hand delivered, unsigned, letter informed us that “the majority” had decided that the time would be put back by an hour and a half due to the work commitments of some of them — no doubt those observing the minority which convened at the time agreed and organised the composition of a letter of complaint to the commission, the reply to which is awaited.

The Willows

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