On Crofting, Landlordism, Rewilding and Depopulation

This is my home, not just where I live, but my “home” and part of my community. There are eight croft houses and an equivalent number of new houses set in a patchwork of fields, pasture woodland and blocks of trees. Soon to be surrounded if not overcome, by new forestry. It sits on land that was originally ceded to the Grants by James IV back in 1509 and remained in their ownership for nearly 450 years. During that time lairds such as the “Good” Sir James Grant did much to improve the conditions for tenants delineating holdings, constructing steadings and undertaking tree planting (in the late eighteenth century), where oak, birch, ash and hazel plantations were managed for the tanning industry, charcoal production and hardwood for implements.  There was also a grove of Roble Beech planted, thought at that time to be the new wonder wood. Very forward thinking.

There were no mass evictions or clearances in favour of sheep in the “Glen”, but “removals” continued until the Crofting Act of 1886.  In 1945 the estate was divided up and sold in lots (houses, crofts and farms) allowing tenants to purchase at a reasonable price. This has meant that some families are able to trace their history back in the locality through many generations, giving a strong sense of place, and although the community in the Glen is dispersed, it is still quite close-knit. 

However, things change and there are now at least three rewilding/natural capital projects close by. With respect to one of these, the community soon learnt that it is never a good sign of things to come, if a prospective major player in the life of the area chooses to communicate repeatedly with the community purely via the self-promoting newspaper articles. It is now viewed as a rich man’s folly, appearing to have little regard to local opinions or concerns, let alone heritage of the land or its place in history. The people who lived there, worked and won the land, raised families and died there, these families, even if they’ve left the Glen, still have a strong emotional connection and sense of place.  

Locals, whose families and extended families had previously cropped the land, well within living memory, are incensed that so much is being discarded/ ignored/ dismissed. To some it is deeply upsetting, and many consider rewilding and associated “green lairds” as a continuation of colonialism and liken it to the “Clearances”. People feel insulted, patronised, that they are being treated with condescension by “another rich man from down south”, which in fairness could be anywhere south of Perth, promising largess to “the locals” who are unable to either recognize or seize the opportunity for themselves.   

Rewilding, Carbon Credits and Nature-based Solutions have become clickbait to grab the public’s imagination with an idyllic, sunlit, sylvan landscape teeming with wildflowers and butterflies, offering boundless opportunities for the reintroduction of long-lost species. 

Promises of economic benefits through “green jobs” have been greeted with scepticism, particularly as these don’t include game keeping or agriculture. As without these jobs, estates in general, aren’t known for their vast income stream. Locally the combination of second (ultimately retirement) homes, holiday cottages and low paid seasonal work servicing tourism, has generated a lack of affordable homes and young people have to move to find housing even if they have employment. On the whole, people in the surrounding area are financially poor and cannot afford the rising house prices, that are further inflated by “incomers” paying well over the asking price, that can be £100,000’s over, let alone find and afford a property to rent  and any aspiration to acquire a few acres (less than 10) is bordering on the delusional. 

One rewilding project is putting forward plans to build high-end houses, under the guise of subsidising low-cost housing for estate workers but in reality to generate the required income stream to service the promised financial return for their investors. 

There is no plan to restore any crofts and so bring people back to work the land in a sustainable or “nature friendly” way. The land, that was fought so hard for with consumption dykes and stone piles on field edges acting as salutary reminders of the shallow soil and the grinding work, will be allowed to regress to an idea, a vague concept of what the new owner conceives, or how like-minded associates consider, the countryside might have been like thousands of years ago complete with an acceptable flora and fauna and, somehow, appropriate climate.  

An apparent benefit of “rewilding” will be “re-population of the Highlands” however this requires affordable housing.  It is true that many “incomers” don’t want to see any increase in housing, other than for those “nice people like us” with a substantial income. But they want a safe countryside, wild, but not too wild, deodorised and sanitised, with a couple of bucolic peasants toiling for an honest living in the distance, so long as they live somewhere else. People who require affordable housing have to move to large urban areas and commute back to their village for work. 

Local people are not happy. They feel that there is a degree of arrogance, many people are concerned at the level of “landlordism” or that this is another “green laird”.  There is doubt that there is an actual goal, although the plan is to “build back better”, whatever that means. 

But, in order to generate the required income to cover running costs and acquire more land, unusual methods of finance acquisition and alternative ideas of shareholding have been proposed. These have invoked comments on social media such as “that’s not land reform you’ve written about, it’s financial levying via taxation, changes nothing of ownership and tenure dynamics, and rather bolsters economic apartheid under a ruse of fairness” and “there is too much emphasis on finance and business behind the scenes for me which I think is disingenuous to what they state publicly”.  

Another pipe dream is “eco-tourism”. But given that the aim is to capture carbon on a grand scale and reduce carbon emissions, this is surely at odds with encouraging tourists to drive/fly to the area to pay to have a look at a relatively ordinary piece of hillside.  It doesn’t matter how many trees are planted or bogs restored, those continual emissions should be avoided rather than magically offset on some global spreadsheet. 

Within several projects, some croft houses have been restored as holiday lets for people to dream of the good life they would so like, as long as it wasn’t too hard, didn’t rain/snow too much, no midge, not too far from a coffee shop/takeaway and Tesco’s delivered, an idealism far removed from the realities of a crofting life. Others have been allowed to become ruins, a sad, stark reminder of previous lives and thriving communities. 

There is a long history of Scotland being used as a playground for the monied and entitled to extract profits from its natural resources (timber, coal, petrochemicals), its people or simply its beauty. There is the potential to generate, renewable energy, in the 1940’s it was the “Hydro” (see the Cooper Committee), now it is multi-nationals such as the Norwegian Government’s energy giant Statkraft cultivating wind farms, and most recently monied peoples buying estates to enhance their investment portfolios with this season’s must-have fashion accessory, namely an estate to sequester carbon or improve biodiversity (as noted in the Tatler). This sudden interest in Scotland is not about altruism, profit must be involved. 

However, in rural areas, these ideas of, Carbon Credits and Nature-based Solutions are viewed controversially. Scepticism of the concept is rife and a range of questions asked:

  • What is involved?
  • How will we be affected?
  • How will it be achieved?
  • Who will profit ? –
  • Will they pay tax or corporation tax? 
  • Is it another scam? The reports in the media (if correct) about the company Verra certainly seem like it.

Will there be compensation for the loss of common grazings, sometimes unregistered, or is this more of “Scotland being bought up by absentee kleptocrats”

The reality is that these “carbon credits” will simply become another Stock Market commodity. 

So, are Nature-based Solutions simply “about turning nature conservation into a capitalist enterprise with profit as the bottom line” or reducing biodiversity to an algorithm and assigning a monetary value as if it was a tradeable commodity? Surely nature should be protected for its intrinsic value rather than as a source of capital?  Little wonder then that an increasing portion of the population are now penetrating the smoke and mirrors of carbon credits and Nature-based Solutions to identify their guise as a financial gain, for “environmentally woke” entrepreneurs especially where promises of an “X% return” are dangled as reward. 

A land agent at a well-known company relates that carbon credits are “a tricky subject and something people are scared to grab hold of! In my experience with both woodland and peatland restoration carbon projects, landowners are entering into the schemes and going through the process but then holding onto the credits. The advice they are being given is to hold on to them as the market is only going to rise with the net zero targets. Therefore, there are very little units being traded.”

However, in contrast the agent also said ; “I have been involved in a large peatland carbon scheme on Lewis where the landowner was entering into the scheme in collaboration with the many common grazing committees. The plan was to split any profit from the scheme 50:50. In my experience this is unique!” 

Surely this is the way forward, everyone can gain, everyone has an input and there is a common goal. 

Another area of land, not part of a rewilding project, potentially still be a part of an area of unregistered common grazing has been sold off in five-acre plots that the new owners have a virtual free-hand to develop. This expanse of what was once species rich pasture woodland dominated by birch and wetland, has only been lightly grazed since the 1960’s by deer, sheep and cattle. Some of these veteran birch have been felled and replaced with rows of whips in plastic tubes for carbon credits. “Green washing, but I’m getting paid by a charity promoting carbon sequestration through tree planting” a plot owner cheerily said. 

A further block of the common grazings along with three crofts, purchased by an estate simply to permit timber extraction and managed by a prominent Scottish land agent is to be planted/ replanted with trees to enhance biodiversity, but in reality to garner carbon sequestration credits and Nature-based Solutions. The community is currently fighting the loss of these grazings and solicitors are involved. The crofts will be lost under tree planting and there are no plans for the three houses. Does everything have to be destroyed for financial gain?
Would the community want to manage the land instead?

The majority would like to see the land returned to some form of crofting, i.e. that houses could be bought and families return to the land which would be held under a covenant to be maintained as croft land either registered or not, with common grazings and their use resurrected. It should be pointed out that crofting has the potential to be the low carbon model of living that we need a lot more of, combining production of fuel, food and energy with economic activity.

That however is just one side of the coin and it should be compared with what can be achieved with respect to providing a real benefit to both the environment and the community. Not many miles to the south is an alternative approach – a project whose vision is “of a revitalised wild forest in the Highlands of Scotland, providing space for wildlife to flourish and communities to thrive.” This enterprise comprises a large estate with a tree nursery, and a new education centre that includes a Gaelic resource centre and employs over 30 staff with a similar number of volunteers.

250,000 trees have been planted and using the Woodland Carbon Code it has been calculated that these will potentially sequester 50,000 tons of carbon. Approximately half of the derived credits are passed to the local community. Two tranches of derived funding have already been passed to the community with no criteria as to how the money is spent or when, other than it has to be for community benefit. Naturally this project and those involved are held in high esteem by most in the area.

The key point, from the very start, was that they were clear and open with their intentions and go out of their way to engage with people directly, continually disseminate ideas and outcomes and don’t communicate repeatedly via the news media or attempt to empire build by buying vast areas of land or pricing locals out of houses. They have a record of achievement in habitat restoration, they are inclusive of people, and sensitive to cultural heritage, language and customs. They’ve kept things simple and local and it seems to work.

Yet think of the Cooper Committee on Hydro development in 1942/43 where they say in their report:

Is this happening now? Are we seeing the “green lairds” and the “rewilding aficionados ” heavy handedly trying to convert the Highlands into a national park and sterilise it in perpetuity?  Is it right that people with access to large sums of money are able to buy up vast areas and their response to any criticism is “It’s our land and we will do as we want with it”? Communities are being priced out of any hope of land acquisition purely for vanity projects and the latest fashion accessory (Tatler). And carbon credits and the monetization of nature, will they just be another financial Bubble? 

Can we dare to hope that land reform could provide opportunity in the Highlands for initiative, independence and industry? For the sake of just my community alone I hope so. 



Comments (24)

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  1. Graeme McCormick says:

    until government grasps the nettle and uses land as the principle source of our public revenue nothing substantive will change. They’ll just fiddle with it. A prime example is the current land reform bill.

    AGFRR in rural Scotland provides the means to implement a national policy while devolving to local communities and residents the power to determine what is sustainable to human kind and inhabitants.

    The charge on big estates will cause a very quick realisation that much of their land must go or the liability to pay AGFRR will consume the economic bits.

    there will have to be conversations between government and these estates as to the basis on which government will take the responsibility of ownership of the owners.

    Thereafter the opportunity for residents and communities to manage, develop and steward the land will happen.

    But it will happen without the unsustainable public funded contributions to buyout owners.

  2. Squigglypen says:

    I support you 100%. An excellent article. Scotland is just the playground of the rich or foreign crap who want to make money and not a community. That’s why I keep screaming UDI. Take back our land. I support Revive who fought for licensing at Muirburn. The land burned and any biodiversity destroyed so that grouse could be raised to be killed by rich excrement from down south. While all the local fauna and small animals destroyed . Revive successful as the Scottish government now control licences. Revive now wanting no licences given out. Land reform should be an essential aim of the Scottish government.The land is our heritage and should be owned by the Scottish people. Other countries look after their land. Why can’t the Scots. (I heard recently that the so called ‘hunters ‘ are now shooting from helicopters.)
    Look at the Revive site to see if there is something to learn there.
    Anything I can do..write to MSPs etc. I am here.
    For Scotland!

    1. Wul says:

      “…foreign crap..”, “…excrement from down south…” ?? Come on! That is unacceptable language.

      Those are people, other human beings you are talking about. You are never going to win any argument using language like that. It simply marks you out as a different stripe of unhinged zealot.

      1. Niemand says:

        Well said. I notice a general rise of nationalists using this sort of language – I read a similar comment calling English people a pestilence, rats, vermin that need to be ‘booted out’ of the highlands the other day on a different site. Just one step away from calling for the final solution. It is disgusting. And was it called out? No, in fact it was cheered on by some and everyone else remained silent and more often than not the same is true here (though such comments are thankfully much rarer), unless of course it is people attacking other ‘foreigners’ than the English.

        There is one thing the world needs more of today: empathy. Don’t see much of that on here. People need to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves what they are becoming.

        1. We don’t tolerate racism on this site and have banned or warned people who indulge in it.

          See our Comments policy here: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/our-comments-policy/

          1. Niemand says:

            But calling English people foreign crap and excrement (which clearly is what meant here) is OK then?

          2. Alastair McIntosh says:

            I think those remarks by the anonymous Squigglypen should be moderated unless the author themselves requests a revision. All they’ve achieved is to divert attention from an important article and alienate allies in the growing of community. “Go heavy on the issues; gentle on the people.”

          3. Alison Strange says:

            Please folks there’s no need to be rude or abusive, we all have different ideas and thoughts, but lets join together to make a difference.

      2. Derek Thomson says:

        Every Sunday, when I read the Sunday National and read the “Website Comments” I feel a sense of deep despair. “Excrement” and “Scum” are bandied about freely. In a national newspaper?? I honestly cannot understand how they think that is acceptable. Imagine if one of the English papers called the SNP scum and Nicola Sturgeon a lying piece of excrement. What would our reaction be? Like Nicola Sturgeon, I detest the Tories and all that they stand for (although detest might be way too weak a word) but how a national newspaper thinks it’s ok to print it is utterly beyond me.

  3. Antoine Bisset says:

    While there may be possible ways of managing things better, many of them require a government that looks after its people. The Scottish government has failed to do that quite spectacularly. The Westminster government is quite complacent about that. In an independent country a competent government (not the present bunch obviously) could deal with these things. Country not for sale to foreigners, and sensible controls, that might bring an end to sporting estates.

  4. Paul Hayes says:

    Lots of unattributed quotes. TBH you seem to be putting words in people’s mouths.

    You allude to the idea of well paid jobs. Just what might these be?

    Providing services to remote areas is expensive (bin collection let alone health) and I’d be very surprised if the taxes paid in rural areas covers the costs. So you expect us urban types to subsidize rural lives but then don’t want us to visit as the carbon cost is too high (and jobs in tourist jobs don’t pay well enough anyway, you say).

    I love visiting the Highlands but let’s face it, to quote Monbiot, it’s been wrecked by sheep and deer and now new ‘lairds’ want to bring back a little more biodiversity the locals cry foul.

    I’m not sure what you want but I’m pretty sure you expect others to foot the bill. Without urban taxpayer subsidy upland farms go out of business. You’d like the money but don’t feel the people paying should have any say! Sadly , considering the tone of the article this seems hypocritical.

    The shipyards, mines and steel works all closed because they required subsidy, but the farmers, Torys at heart, were left untouched.

    1. John Wood says:

      I think you misunderstand. Billions of £ of our money are paid as agricultural subsidies to the big landowners for grouse shooting and deer culling which are inexplicably classed as ‘agriculture.’ But crofters with a few acres get nothing. Not only do we not get subsidised, but we are penalised for living where we do at every turn. here in Wester Ross, surrounded by hydro and wind power we pay the highest electricity charges in the UK – to subsidise SE England. Our water bills supposedly for ‘roads drainage’ provide nothing here but simply subsidise urban areas. We pay massive premiums for deliveries, there is almost no public transport, and our roads are full of potholes be there are not enough of us left to have any political clout at all. We are constantly told that ‘most people live in urban areas’. That’s where the votes are. That’s where the money is. That’s where it’s cheap to deliver services. So presumably that’s all just fine is it? We can all just move out. And leave a nice empty hunting ground for international oligarchs.

  5. Jennie says:

    Excellent article. I think you’re talking about the glen my brother and sister live in which also used to be my home. ..one of the reasons I left was the way it’s being hollowed out by greed. I remember it in the 1960s and it’s scarcely recognisable now, dotted with glamping pods, housing estates and Airbnb. Tragic.

  6. Seamus says:

    Glenurquhart resident here: you do not speak for the Glenurquhart community, Alison. The community on Bunloit hill that you speak about are a group of incomers who are out for themselves, and I include you in that bracket. While I’m not a huge fan of Leggett and his company, and you make valid points about the click bait company he runs, it is hard to argue that they’ve done nothing for the community. Jobs have been provided for actual locals, apprenticeship opportunities have been provided, paid internships too, and the local high school visit the estate for environmental science and outdoor education lessons on a semi-regular basis. Other ‘locals’ have benefited from the project, too, including, if rumour is to be believed, yourself for survey work you were paid to undertake on the estate. You’ve moved to the Highlands for a slice of the good life, and you criticise others for doing the same: you are every bit as culpable when it comes to locals with a long family history not being able to acquire property in the area their family has always lived.

  7. BSA says:

    The gratuitous comment that these green lairds could be from anywhere south of Perth is also ‘clickbait’.. Why is so much Highland comment accompanied by gratuitous Central Beltism as if an area with huge deprivation was the source of your problems ? That’s compounded in this article by the sense that picturesque locals with the right family histories are a special case in a UK economy which is oppressive everywhere. Total sympathy with the real and distinctive problems in all rural areas but the divisive and superior attitude assumed here will be pretty unappealing to many.

  8. John Wood says:

    Very well said! The attitude that the highlands are an exclusive ‘wild playground’ for the super-wealthy is alive and well as ever. The so-called environmental agenda is a distraction. If companies really want to offset their carbon emissions it would be much more effective to stop the destruction of the tropical rainforest. But who cares about that? This is all really about making money, and creating exclusive hunting grounds. Modern oligarchs, like all their predecessors want exclusive hunting reserves where they can get away from it all and go slaughter some wildlife. They don’t need roads or shops or anything much apart of course from satellite broadband. They come and go by helicopter. Unfortunately the Scottish Government seems to be dominated by a central belt, urban mentality, and of course that’s where the votes are, and of course they are keen not to upset the global “investors”. The so-called (by them) ‘remote rural’ areas are de-funded and left to fall apart. Services are centralised, and all investment is -as it says on many of our litter bins now here in Wester Ross – ‘For Visitor Use Only’.

    It is the 21st c Clearances. We need to stop this, right now. Where is the traditional radicalism?

    1. Dorothy Pritchard says:

      John your comment is the one our area on the North Coast, NC500, can most identify with. The system of Carbon Credits is just a “get out of jail” card for mass polluters and effectively comodifies nature; encouraging more and more traffic and pollution into what at the moment is a pristine area. A fact confirmed by Nature Scot in their recent UNESCO bid. Hypocrisy???

  9. Wul says:

    Very pleased and interested to hear from someone “on the ground” at the site of a “Re-Wilding” scheme. Thank you for the article and your courage in sharing your experience. Ignore the personalised attacks like the one above. It’s simply a sign that you have named something that those with vested interests would rather remained un-named.

    It seems unlikely that the millionaire capitalist mentality, which has destroyed so much of our biosphere, will also be the solution to it’s own vandalism. History and life teaches us otherwise.

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      Do you think that Seamus is one of those “vested interests”? Didn’t sound like that to me.

  10. Magnus Johnson says:

    Excellent article. Captures a lot of what is going on on the west coast as we see rural gentrification changing the economy of these areas and opinion holders/remote funders driving change that will wreck communities.

    1. John Wood says:

      Agreed Magnus, but with the caveat that most of the people who are doing our best to stand up for the places and communities we have made our homes are actually ‘incomers’ according to certain local ‘small c conservatives’ who have tugged the forelock to landlords for many years. That ingrained deference might have been necessary for an earlier generation in order to survive but no longer. An ‘incomer’ if course refers to anyone who was not born here, even from the diaspora. And if born here, their parents and grandparents also.

      There are of course the extremely wealthy, who are an absolute menace as ever, but don’t forget those of us who are committed to a sustainable future for our communities, wherever we are from. I may be Cockney by birth, but I’m a Teuchter by adoption

      1. Derek Thomson says:

        Don’t read too much into it. I asked a man in a bookshop in Inverkirkaig if he was local and he said “No. I’ve lived here for 36 years”. He was a Scot from somewhere else in the Highlands.

  11. Magnus Johnson says:

    That quote from the Cooper committee continues: “But if, as we hope and believe, the policy to which this report is a small contribution is to give the Highlands and the Highlanders a future as well as a past and to provide opportunity in the Highlands for initiative, independence and industry, then we consider that a few localized interferences with natural beauties would be an insignificant price to pay for the solid benefits that would be realised”

    Much as I agree with the core message of the post, it’s a bit naughty to selectively quote in such a way!

  12. Jane Frere says:

    Up here in the Highlands however derogatory words for those we (historically mind! ) considered foreign, ie. anyone below the Highland line, a fine sounding word rolled of tongues “Sasunnoch” or “Sassanach”

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