Crofting, Communism and Potato Bureaucracy

There’s a long accepted truism in the North West Highlands that the best definition of crofting is as follows: ‘A crofter is one who owns a small patch of land surrounded by acres of bureaucracy.’

Since moving lock, stock and car boot full to the 58th parallel I find that I spend many of my spare moments wandering the hills, glens and, of late, casting a wary eye landward from the sea in my small dinghy. The landscape is littered with stumps of foundations, ruined houses with tumble down walls and dykes that disappear half way up a hill or fall away into the sea.

There is evidence of human settlements probably dating back 5000 years to the time of itinerant Broch builders paddling their coracles into coastal settlements and politely persuading the fiercest chap ashore that what he really needed was a three-storey stone fortress to protect his family, friends and livestock from rivals and traveling Broch salesmen.

People have aye been builders here. Brochs, dykes, fanks, duns, stells, cairns, circles and buchts, or remnants of them, abound. Hewn from quarries or the rocky ocean front where the last volcanic eruption left dramatic slopes of three-billion-year-old Lewisian Gneiss and the younger Torridian sandstone dipping their toes into the chilly Atlantic waters. A solitary wander through the landscapes and one can almost imagine generation after generation of farmers trying to force the hard land into one of divine providence.

It’s probably no coincidence that Oscar winning Scottish director Kevin Macdonald chose the headland at old Dornie, and Achnahaird beach over in Coigach, as the most fitting locations for his Sword and Crocs epic ‘The Eagle’. Cineastes of course will remember that the Romans in the guise of Channing Tatum and his slave/BFF Jamie Bell clamber over Hadrian’s Wall and head into the barbarous North to recover the Golden Eagle standard from the ‘Seal People’ who had relieved Channing’s dad of his much loved golden standard and the symbol of Rome’s Imperial dominance over the known world..well apart from err what is now known as Scotland. Hi-jinks ensue with our Roman buddies and their assimilated legion chums defeating the Seal People with colonial battle formations in of all places, the Devils Pulpit near Killearn, the current hot spot for fans of tv show Outlander. Channing returns to civilisation, somewhere near Carlisle a veritable hero, he and Jamie spur all of Rome’s glories and walk off into the sunset on what promises to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If you detect Channing Tatum wincing in any scenes, that’ll be due to his tadger being par broiled after a helpful Scottish crew member poured a kettle of boiling water into his wet suit when the water in a riverside fight scene was a tad too chilly for the fillum star…

What has this filmic trivia to do with Crofting I hear you mutter as you wade through my tenuous prose?

Well everything really, Macdonald’s film was well researched using the Skara Brae settlement on Orkney as a reimagining of the Seal people’s settlement. The story was based on that of the lost Roman legion, ‘The Ninth’, who apparently wandered into Scotland never to return. One can easily imagine the fancy-dan legionnaires weighed down with armour and provisions as being easy pickings for hard-core Caledonian survivalists. Their real life counterparts would have been accustomed to the hardships on the barren North-West coastline. Down through the ages, via the Picts, the Celts and the Vikings it would have been a similar story of adversity in the face of the elements. The same could be said of those who were cleared from the common grazing and shared arable lands over in East Sutherland to these shores 200 years ago. How’s that for a smooth segue?

As history relates, the Crofters lot was not a happy one. Ironically, the “Home Rule” movement in Ireland and the advent of universal suffrage being extended to men owning land worth at least £10 or paying £10 in rent per year was the impetus for real social change. Westminster was facing previously ignored scrutiny with negative headlines coming from uprisings, riots, rent strikes and land raids with crofters occupying common grazing for beasts and new crofts. With the Gàidhealtachd looking to their cousins in Ireland for inspiration, change was swift. The House of Commons soon found their ranks swelled by five belligerent MPs from the Crofters’ Party, whose sole mission was Highland land reform. Thinking them to be hoary handed sons of toil, MPs soon discovered these five new members were educated men, among them a doctor, merchant, lawyer, scientist and explorer. They also had a slogan which was of some concern to the landed aristocracy, ‘Treasa Tuath na Tighearna’ (‘The people are stronger than the lord’). Within the year Parliament created the Crofters Act and granted security of tenure for existing crofts and established the first Crofters Commission which had rent-fixing powers. Rents were mostly reduced and over half of the outstanding arrears were cancelled. There were, however, still massive issues to be resolved.

“Ironically, the “Home Rule” movement in Ireland and the advent of universal suffrage being extended to men owning land worth at least £10 or paying £10 in rent per year was the impetus for real social change. Westminster was facing previously ignored scrutiny with negative headlines coming from uprisings, riots, rent strikes and land raids with crofters occupying common grazing for beasts and new crofts. With the Gàidhealtachd looking to their cousins in Ireland for inspiration, change was swift. The House of Commons soon found their ranks swelled by five belligerent MPs from the Crofters’ Party, whose sole mission was Highland land reform.”

 

The crofters were not granted automatic right to fertile land for expansion of their croft with the Commission claiming they were underfunded and the landowners, unsurprisingly decreeing that there was simply not enough available land to distribute to crofters. Most importantly the Act did not resolve the greatest complaint of the crofters, that the land should be returned to them. The Scotsman, ever the defender of the establishment, wrote that the Act was a “great infringement on the rights of private property.” Estate owners feared agrarian communism was a-looming!

As unrest grew, Westminster did what it does best when encountering sensible pleas for equanimity. Arthur Balfour, the Scottish Prime Minister, no doubt channelling Winston Churchill and the whole ‘did he didn’t he send troops and tanks against Glasgow rent strikers’, palaver exhibited all the insight of a true battling aristocrat (his godfather was the Duke of Wellington) and sent warships to Skye and Tiree to quell any further dissent from the uppity Islanders. Warships!

“As unrest grew, Westminster did what it does best when encountering sensible pleas for equanimity. Arthur Balfour, the Scottish Prime Minister, no doubt channelling Winston Churchill and the whole ‘did he didn’t he send troops and tanks against Glasgow rent strikers’, palaver exhibited all the insight of a true battling aristocrat (his godfather was the Duke of Wellington) and sent warships to Skye and Tiree to quell any further dissent from the uppity Islanders. Warships!”

It took until the mid-1970’s before the Crofting Act was visited again, this time crofters were allowed the legal right to purchase their land for the price of fifteen years’ rent. This however, being Westminster came with the codicil, that they lost the right to claim for land improvement from the Crofting Counties Agricultural Grant Scheme. In 2003, as previously mentioned, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act gave the right of purchase to community organizations even against the landowner’s wishes. In 2010 the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 granted equality between tenants and landowners, especially with regard to grants obligations and it clarified the details of residency requirements. Today, tenants or owners must live within 20 miles of the croft. Crofts not in use can be granted to new tenants.

As I stated at the top of this piece, Crofting legislation is a bureaucratic minefield, with some fairly sensible schemes prohibited under well-intended but proscriptive SEPA rules which prevent, for example, the growing of spuds in a bed where records show previous generations fed their weans with all sorts of organic stem tubers.

As we’re nearly up to date and I’m fully aware that this is just a snapshot of crofting history, next week I’ll be looking at contemporary crofting and chatting with those hardy folk who have opted for the good life and brought enthusiasm and localism to the fore as they become the latest generation of crofters to pit their brawn and brains against this beautiful but unyielding land.

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