Scotland’s New Generation of Woodland Crofters

Meet Scotland’s new generation of woodland crofters – pioneers and stewards of the land enjoying a sustainable rewarding low-carbon existence.

There has been a surge of recent interest in crofting – and particularly in woodland crofting – as people look for new ways of living that cushion the combined blows of Brexit, COVID and the worsening climate emergency. It’s also a great strategy for repopulating the Highlands.

In practical terms woodland crofting doesn’t just mean planting thousands of saplings every year. The beauty of crofting is that it can mean different things to different people depending on their skills and interests. Non-timber forest products (NTFP) are increasingly common as crofters promote the benefits of localised food networks alongside any other number of businesses that can be run from woodland homes. Whether you’re a tenant crofter based within a wider community or you’re an owner-occupier crofter branching out alone, there’s room for everyone in crofting.  

As Jamie McIntyre, coordinator of the Woodland Crofts Partnership, said, “Increasingly one of the USPs of woodland crofting is low-carbon living. We’re all going to have to live much more lightly on the planet, with a smaller carbon footprint, and woodland crofting has potential to help do that: building the croft house from local timber; heating it with wood fuel; using space on the croft to grow and raise food, and to site other renewables; even to offer low-impact holiday experiences, the cabin in the woods. It also offers – like wider crofting – resilience against many emerging difficulties. As well as COVID and Brexit, there are also the consequences of climate change in disrupting supply chains; storms, floods, drought etc. To be able to produce a good amount of food and fuel for yourself from your woodland croft is a big hedge against future uncertainties.”

Al Whitworth and his wife Aurore have been woodland crofting at Skerray in Sutherland for the last five years. “Tending and being custodian over a small piece of land is incredibly rewarding. It gives a chance to learn endless practical skills and leave the land healthier than when we received it. For us, the main purpose of the croft is to provide food (veg, hens) for ourselves, and firewood,” Al told me. 

“Aurore is a basket maker and grows willow on the croft that she uses in baskets she sells. We hope to be self-sufficient in croft-grown willow in a few years. We have a very small tree nursery and sell a small number of trees locally. We sell surplus eggs in the summer and will be selling salad bags to the local hotel this year from our new polytunnel.”

Like many crofters, Al and Aurore supplement their croft work with other part-time jobs. Al is a carpenter who builds timber polytunnels and shepherd huts while Aurore drives the local school bus.

“In the five years we’ve been here, we’ve both done several different jobs, including things like washing dishes at the local hotel! Trying to earn a modern living wage from a croft at a time when society doesn’t value food or natural resources anywhere near highly enough – ie they’re too cheap – I think is very difficult. Though of course not impossible.”

Elspeth MacDonald and her partner Stevie have been woodland crofting near the village of Benderloch, north of Oban, for two years. “It had been a dream of mine to be a crofter since childhood,” Elspeth said, “but it was really buying my house from the council and selling it that made this a possibility. The son of a man I was doing cleaning and gardening for loaned me the money to do this. I realise this was quite extraordinary. I was able to pay him back as soon as the house was sold and then buy the woodland.”

The couple have registered the croft as a non-profit company and run it as a social croft providing activities to various community groups. “We work with people from Enable Scotland, Oban High School support department, the local Cubs and Beavers, a home education group, childminders and their children… the list of people who come and help out is always growing.”

Crofting has given Elspeth a keener sense of purpose in life. “I grow my own veg in the polytunnel, I can shape the landscape of an ugly Sitka clear-fell back into a natural deciduous forest. I keep pigs and eat meat that I know had a good life. We have logs and honey for sale. I get satisfaction when my tree seeds start chitting and I can plant hedges. We have bitten the bullet and are getting mains water as having a dairy business was probably never going be viable on a private water supply. I encourage community groups to come out and enjoy themselves, arranging activities so people can come here and have fun, from making assault courses for the Oban ADHD kids group to doing pottery with someone with mental health issues, on a treadle wheel using clay dug off a local beach. I want the croft to be sustainable and inclusive and those are my main aims. Everything else just falls into place.”

Andy Robinson has been a woodland crofter on the Isle of Mull for nine years. He sells cell-grown trees mainly to community woodland projects. For Andy, the best thing about woodland crofting is watching the croft change over the years, “Especially watching the trees grow!”

However, Andy believes better grant support would give woodland crofting the boost it needs. Currently, woodland crofters often have trouble accessing the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme (CAGS), as a woodland croft is not seen as an agricultural enterprise.

“The current CAGS system does not support woodland crofting or non-food horticulture, ie tree nurseries,” Andy said. “Hopefully this is set to change soon. I have claimed Scottish Forestry grant to expand the nursery. There is so much talk of biodiversity and carbon sequestration, but all the money seems to go to big high-profile projects. Surely woodland crofting could play a part in this?”

The problem with CAGS has been accepted by the Scottish government, and they have committed to ensuring all crofters are eligible for a revised future scheme. The question is when this will happen – it should already be in place, but Brexit and COVID pushed everything back.

Tiril Planterose and her partner Dorian have recently taken over a woodland croft previously run by Tiril’s sister Merlin at Leckmelm Wood near Ullapool. The croft is part of a much larger former Forestry Commission forest.

“This is the first woodland croft in the forest,” Tiril said, “which was registered three years ago. We, alongside two other families, have been committed to growing as much of our own vegetables as possible. We’ve also been planting an orchard, restocking the forest with native broadleaf trees and establishing small forest gardens. We hope to develop a more biodiverse ecosystem to help transform the monoculture of the plantation. Largely, it fulfils a basic need of ours and the neighbouring families to have access to fresh organic produce, which is hard to come by living on the far northwest coast of Scotland.”

Tiril’s main aim in taking on the croft is for it to be fun. “We want to experiment with the croft, to test out and explore small revenue streams, to hold community open days, woodland crofting events, and perhaps training sessions in the future. The most recent project we’ve engaged with is working out how to home a community apple press on the croft. If we can home it, then this will mean a couple of open days a year during the apple harvest season where community members can bring their apples to be pressed for juice. This is something that really excites us as we’d love to progress from focusing on creating sustainable food growing systems for our families – which we feel we are doing really well now – to working out how we can be more of an informal educational space for the wider community.”

Tiril and Dorian recognise that being outdoors, having work to do that is land-based, being able to work with natural systems and following the seasons are all incredibly beneficial for their nervous systems, immune systems and mental health. “For example, there is a large pond on the croft and in the winter when the water’s high, it’s the perfect spot for a cool dip after shovelling a load of cow manure to mulch the beds! It’s moments like this that make us feel lucky to be stewards of the forest where we can appreciate the cycle of human input to supporting soil health, which in turn supports our health.”

Patrick Krause, outgoing* chief executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, believes that attitudes to crofting have totally changed over the last 20 years.

“I remember when there was a real scorn about crofting within the government, and with large lobbying organisations. The word anachronism was used by government officials. They were saying it’s past its time, a hangover from a century ago. Whereas now it’s widely accepted within government that crofting actually delivers a lot of public goods that are increasingly important. We’ve got a [climate] emergency. We have to go back to the more traditional ways of doing things, like crofting, because they were more kind and friendly to the planet. I really believe that crofting’s time has come.

Let’s leave the last word to a woodland crofter I know quite well, my husband and business partner Rab Egerton: “What’s special about woodland crofting is that it brings together two traditional ways of life, crofting and forestry, in a modern way. Now that people can run a croft, plant trees, earn a living and have decent WiFi, anything is possible.”   



Read this tenth birthday guest blog post on the Woodland Crofts Project website by the good folk of Kilfinan Community Forest Company

Donna Smith took over as chief executive of the SCF in October.


Comments (16)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks for this interesting article.

    Scotland is a very urbanised community. In centuries past many of the empty glens, straths and moorlands had a greater proportion of our population than they have now and, perhaps such areas can be repopulated by some of the routes that such as Lesley Riddoch has set out in her book. There are other people who have done this.

    But, because so many of us live in towns and cities, the kinds of things described in the fine article do not strike a chord, because the gap between the daily experience of many urbanites and country dwellers is so wide. It is not that urbanites are uninformed or hostile. It is the fact that the 15-minute neighbourhood is the reality for many of us and it is, for many, a comfortable reality. Urban living is a congenial experience, too, and things like allotments and community gardens have enhanced that experience. Even densely populated cities like Glasgow have a lot of gap sites owned by ………????? an offshore corporation? a property developer?, which could be brought into community ownership by land taxation and legislation to give urbanites the experience and sense of agency of running things for themselves.

    1. Ros Nash says:

      Thank you for your comments, Alasdair. I was born a townie but now (as a woodland crofter) have the best of both worlds, living in a beautiful woodland just a ten-minute drive from the closest town and supermarket. The point of the article was to try to promote crofting as a viable modern way to live, which I heartily believe it is. Like many people in the Highlands I have a few part-time jobs rather than one full-time office job (which is what I had in the city and led to nothing but stress and burn out!) But like any kind of lifestyle, crofting is not for everyone! Thanks for taking the time to read it.

  2. Wul says:

    Brilliant and inspiring article! Thank you. These examples offer hope to people (especially young people?), who want to make a good, useful, meaningful life that doesn’t harm our planet.

    There just seems to be a cascade of wonderful benefits and opportunities released when this approach to “making a living” is encouraged; school kids getting out into the fresh air and being inspired, good, healthy local food being served in hotels, tourists staying in non-harming accommodation, high-quality handicrafts and skills becoming available, wildlife being allowed to thrive, people being happy and fulfilled…..

    None of it looks easy; turning a hillside of abandoned Sitka stumps into a productive nursery, eaking a living with 3 or 4 different jobs etc but it does look very, very worthwhile.

    What would the potential be if the fifth of Scotland’s land that is currently imprisoned as “wee-birdie-shooting-moor” and “cos-playing-deer-hunter-playground-for-toffs” became available for people to actually LIVE on?

    1. Ros Nash says:

      Thank you! I think you make a very good point about young people. Why shouldn’t crofting be suggested to school leavers as a healthy alternative to office life?

  3. MacGilleRuadh says:

    Nice article. How do we spread this concept however? The big issue is that forest land valuations have speculatively skyrocketed in the last 3-4 years, anecdotally up to a 500% increase. This is fed by large pension and investment funds betting the house on a continued rise in timber prices, a continuation of the incredibly generous tax treatment of commercial forestry and very generous forestry grants. These factors combined have pushed the valuations of plantations way out of reach of communities and the Scottish Land Fund. So what we have here is UK & SG policy fuelling this feeding frenzy, a madness that cuts across a variety of other government objectives and provides windfall profits to existing bare land (plantable with sitka) and commercial plantations. Why is this happening? In respect of SG I think it is the single-minded pursuit of annual planting targets and determined and successful lobbying by the likes of CONFOR. In respect of UK policy (eg inheritance tax, CGT and so on) I imagine it is the normal desire to subsidise favoured client groups (eg. large landowners) while bearing down on subsidy for the unwashed masses. SG could take action now however by taxing large land-holdings, reducing the generosity of forestry grants etc. If they did this, these plantation asking prices would rapidly return to levels at which communities could start the acquisition process again. However it seems SG are more sensitive to the constant lobbying from CONFOR than motivated to see more community ownership and thence woodland crofts.

    1. Ian Stewart McMickan says:

      Is the SG not one of the largest owners of afforested land in Scotland ? Perhaps they could look at their vast ownership of forestry to make some woodlands available for would-be Woodland Crofters ?

    2. Ros Nash says:

      You make some really good points here. The current price of land of any kind (but particularly forestry) is a major sticking point for wannabe crofters. I would just say that although I didn’t want the article to get bogged down by the intricacies of crofting law reform and regulation, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that will make crofting and crofting land generally more accessible. Nothing will happen quickly but at a SG level at least, the situation will (I hope) improve eventually.

  4. Ed Pybus says:

    We’re woodland crofting tenants at Kilfinan Community Forest, in Tighnabruaich. Community ownership combined with crofting could play a big role in sustaining, and growing, rural communities in Scotland.

    By creating crofts on land purchased by the community, the community retains ownership of the land, the tenants are able to live and work on the land and, most importantly, have security of tenure.

    More info about the model of woodland crofting that is happening here is on our website

  5. SleepingDog says:

    These days, education might offer a simulation of the crofting experience. I had a quick look at Farming Simulator 22, which covers Agriculture, Animal husbandry and Forestry, but it might lean towards product placement. It does seem to focus on the economics of running a farm as a business on three difficulty levels, and offers a variety of maps. Perhaps crofting is unlocked as you progress through your career, although how ruthlessly you have to keep to a standard agribusiness model, I don’t know. It’s a highly-mechanised game, perhaps quite different from Scottish woodland crofting. Is there an actual woodland-crofting game/simulation, outside of dedicated colleges like SRUC, and accessible to the mildly interested, that is?

  6. Steve Marquis says:

    Good article, nice to hear there are more woodland crofts. We’re planting small scale native woodland (adding to existing planting), hedgerows, animal tree forage, wood fuel and willow in the far North of Scotland.

    Small crit – the 1st image isn’t Al and Aurore, needs modifying text or image.

    1. Thanks Steve – fixed image attribution

  7. Rory Haigh says:

    Great article, do you know if the Scottish Government are actively helping people to achieve this way of life. I believe in Wales they have One Planet Development that assists off-grid sustainable living. Scotland has the resources and land to really tap into this culture which would also help stop the depopulation of the Highlands & Islands.

    1. Ros Nash says:

      I think the SG minister responsible for crofting, Mairi Gougeon, seems pretty positive about crofting and its value especially relating to issues such as land reform. Becoming a crofter will get easier, it’s just a question of when.

  8. Alastair Mackenzie says:

    Thanks for this, very resonant right now as I’m in Prague at a gathering of numerous ‘access to land’ organisations from Spain to Ukraine. . It is great to be able to learn and share from many different models that are emerging. (My wife forwarded me your article and said I would like it, but warned me off liking it too much! )

    1. Ros Nash says:

      Sounds very interesting, Alastair! Glad you liked the article.

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