Crofters buyout news
Ecovillage Network UK
evnuk at gaia.org
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
Wednesday August 13, 2003
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
"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
"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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