Crofters buyout news

Ecovillage Network UK evnuk at
Wed Sep 10 12:33:24 BST 2003

Mark in the soil

Kirsty Scott on plans for the biggest ever community buyout of private land 
in Scotland,7843,1016991,00.html

Wednesday August 13, 2003
The Guardian

It started with a conversation over dinner; five friends from the island of 
South Uist mulling over Scotland's pioneering bill on land reform, passed 
in a historic vote by the Scottish parliament in January.

Crofters on one of the largest privately owned estates in Scotland, they 
thought the law might allow them to own the land on which they had lived 
and worked for generations. An informal approach was made to the consortium 
of families who have owned the South Uist estates since 1961. The families 
responded positively and this week a series of meetings have been held 
across the islands of Eriskay, Benbecula and South Uist as plans for 
Scotland's biggest ever community buyout, involving some 3,000 people on 
93,000 acres, gather pace.

"It has just been excellent," says Ralph Thompson, a crofter from Daliburgh 
on South Uist and one of the five friends who sparked the idea. "Hopefully 
there is going to be a feasibility study to see if it is worth doing and 
how best to move ahead. We just started talking about land reform and it 
stemmed from that."

Few issues provoke such emotion in Scotland, which has the most 
concentrated pattern of private ownership in the world: just 343 people or 
bodies own more than half of all private rural land. For generations, Scots 
have watched estates, islands and even mountain ranges put up for sale on 
the open market. When the Scottish parliament was formed in 1999, ministers 
made it clear that land reform would be one of their first priorities.

As the bill was passed at an emotional sitting in Holyrood, Alasdair 
Morrison, Labour MSP for the Western Isles rose to his feet and said in 
Gaelic: "Tha latha an uachdarain seachad. Tha e criochnaiche" - "The 
landowners' day is over. It is done."

Under the new legislation, rural communities have a legal right to buy land 
when it goes on sale. They will be able to register an interest and have 30 
days to decide whether to exercise the right to buy, which could be funded 
by a Scottish land fund set up with lottery money. The most contentious 
measure, which some landowners compared to President Mugabe's land grab in 
Zimbabwe, allows Scotland's crofters to buy the land on which they live and 
work at any time, even if the landlord does not want to sell.

While the legislation does not officially take effect until the end of this 
year, it has emboldened Scots to ask if they too might own the land on 
which they live. Before South Uist, there was the island of Harris, where 
the 800-strong community paid more than £2m for 9,000 hectares (22,000 
acres) of the Amhuinnsuidhe estate, which was put on the market last year 
by the cider heir Jonathan Bulmer.

"The biggest impact of the bill is psychological, because it has made the 
topic mainstream," says Andy Wightman, one of Scotland's leading land 
reform campaigners.

"It is having an important effect on the outlook of people in the country 
in the sense that they can talk about it and can aspire to exercise what 
limited powers there are. It is very important because new citizens' rights 
don't come along every day. They do represent quite a shift of power from 
the landed classes to ordinary people."

But Wightman believes the legislation is too narrowly drawn to make any 
significant change to the pattern of land ownership north of the border, 
even in the long term. Crofting communities only represent 7% of Scotland's 
land, and historically they have always wielded more power than their 
lowland counterparts.

"What we are really seeing is Hebridean land reform," he says. "There is a 
big awareness-raising job to do in the rest of Scotland. And to see a 
change in land ownership we need to have further reforms; of inheritance 
law and tax law that would start to have a bigger impact."

Maurice Hankey, of the Scottish Landowners' Federation, says the lairds 
recognised the legislation was now in place and had to be made to work for 
the benefit of everybody, but still questioned the need for it. "To a 
certain extent we believe that a great deal of what this legislation seeks 
to do could have been achieved by using more voluntary principles," he 
said. "There are instances of crofters buying out land that go back way 
before this legislation. We have never been opposed to such deals; we have 
nothing against communities owning and managing land."

For Wightman, the biggest concern is funding. "It is not sustainable to 
fund this from the lottery," he said. "In the longer term, the money is 
going to run out. We need to think how this is going to be financed."

Wightman also doubts there will be a flood of applications for buyouts once 
the legislation is fully in place. In recent years, only a handful of 
communities, such as the Assynt crofters and the residents of the island of 
Eigg, have been able to organise and finance the purchase of their land.

On Eigg, they are under no illusion about the difficulties communities such 
as South Uist will encounter. Four years after they bought their freedom, 
the residents are arguing over the running of the island.

Maggie Fyffe, secretary of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, said they did 
not appreciate how much work would be involved; but despite the squabbling, 
they would not have it any other way. "You need absolute commitment," she 
says. "But to see the benefits and achievements, it is all worthwhile. Land 
reform is really, really important for places like this."

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