Latest lessons from crofting

Ecovillage Network UK evnuk at
Tue Jul 6 19:46:39 BST 2004

Lessons to be learned from Assynt in living with community ownership

ALASDAIR CAMPBELL reports on celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the 
Assynt buy-out, and hears a range of speakers talk about the way forward 
for the communities

Whatever the critics of land reform and community buy-outs might say, one 
thing they cannot doubt is the undiminished enthusiasm others have for the 
grand adventure of community ownership.

Time and again at last week's conference in Assynt, looking at "The Next 
Generation", founding members and recent inductees alike within the growing 
community land ownership fraternity demonstrated the pluck and confidence 
required to grasp the thistle of self-responsibility.

Old hands, such as those pioneering Assynt crofters and members of the 
Stornoway Trust, were also not slow to remind others of the need to 
maintain the momentum in the years that follow the initial purchase.

In 1993, crofters in Assynt could hardly have imagined that 10 years after 
their takeover of the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate they would be 
hosting an event attended by fellow trailblazers from Eigg and North Harris 
and talking of other major buy-outs in Gigha and Knoydart, as well as 
countless other lesser purchases.

And they would almost certainly have chuckled at the idea that government 
legislation was about to be enacted that would enhance community buy-out 
rights and give crofters the right to buy, despite the wishes of unwilling 

However, all this has come to pass, although the right-to-buy legislation 
has still to come into force. And the crofting right to buy may be more 
effective as a lever rather than as a means to force landowners to sell 
against their wishes. A negotiated sale would still be the preferred 
option, according to those who have considered the ramifications of the 
need to press ahead with a purchase against the wishes of the seller.

Assynt crofters saw the buy-out as "an opportunity to take control of our 
own destiny" said John MacKenzie

OPENING the conference on Thursday morning Kenny MacKenzie, chair of the 
Assynt Crofters Trust, said: "We're all part of the same movement and it's 
up to us to keep the movement going."

He hoped the conference would give people the opportunity to 
cross-pollinate their ideas. "If anybody expected a miracle 10 years ago, 
then in some ways they may be disappointed," he added. According to the ACT 
chair, progress had been slow and measured but it was progress nonetheless.

John MacKenzie, one of the trust members behind the buy-out, was next to speak.

"The First Minister made reference to the fact that Land Reform is not a 
drive to redress past wrongs, but to release potential in our communities 
for economic development," he said. "It is true for ourselves that this did 
not start out as an attempt to redress past wrongs. We saw an unforeseen 
opportunity to take control of our own destiny, in this life at least."

He also felt that what they had grasped was an opportunity to achieve 
something for the next generation. "Most of us were moved by the prospect 
of relief from the autocratic control of successive absentee landlords," he 

However, in a reference to the new land reform legislation he expressed 
concern that the interests of crofters were being threatened, with respect 
to the need for a community voice as well as a crofting voice in buy-outs.

"In the context of current legislation and proposals governing the Scottish 
Land Fund, we could not have done what we did in 1993," Mr MacKenzie 
maintained. He highlighted the fact that the Assynt buy-out had been 
crofter-driven and warned that the new legislation could lead to conflict 
in the future within communities.

Turning to ACT's achievements over the 10 years, he recalled that a 
representative of the Scottish Landowners' Federation had said on radio at 
the time that the estate would be on the market within a year. "The fact 
that we are still here may say more about the insight of the prophet than 
any of us who have kept things going until now," he said.

As Kenny and John MacKenzie and many others stressed, the momentum had to 
be maintained by the next generation in places such as Assynt.

Proof that Assynt will be in safe hands for the foreseeable future was 
provided when a quartet of the area's under-30s addressed the gathering and 
gave a run-down on their own hopes, aspirations, experiences and concerns 
for the area. Among the challenges they felt must be met were a lack of 
affordable housing; shortage of jobs in the winter; lack of social events 
for young people and a need for better local transport. They are all 
problems most rural communities face.

One of the four was employed in forestry locally and another through the 
trout fisheries which attract tourists to the area - both projects that 
have been cultivated since the buy-out.

Further advice came next from the relative newcomers to the community 
ownership game - the North Harris Trust. David Cameron stressed how the 
help and advice of those who had gone before them had assisted them greatly 
in making the right decision.

Speaking about their route to the eventual buy-out, Mr Cameron said: "We 
approached some of those who had spoken against the buy-out to make sure 
that we had different views on the steering group - all people in the 
community are very important. The extensive consultation process was also 
very important."

Mr Cameron also said that the land reform legislation on the crofting right 
to buy gave them an edge over other prospective bidders. Speaking about the 
20,000 acres of crofting land included in the North Harris Estate, he said: 
"There was a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the other bidders. 
We could come back and buy in so many years."

And Mr Cameron said one of the turning points for them was when a vocal 
crtitic of the buy-out from the outset proclaimed at a public meeting that 
he had changed his mind.

In addition, Mr Cameron left no one in any doubt as to the ideology behind 
the buy-out. "We've always seen this buy-out as a means of raising the 
economy of North Harris and creating jobs," he said.

Maggie Fyffe from Eigg then gave a litany of their achievements to date and 
plans - a lot of plans, for the future - in a dizzying 15 minute oration.

The last community voice to be heard on Thursday was that of Camille 
Dressler from the Community Land Action Network. As the name implies, 
Camille and the network are aiming to encourage and profit from what Kenny 
MacKenzie referred to as cross-pollination. Networking and helping each 
other towards a shared vision is the fledgling mantra of CLAN.

Ms Dressler also suggested that in time the network could provide 
communities with a voice at the political level, and she appealed to people 
to let CLAN know what they wanted as the network was taken forward.

OUT CAME the big hitters on Friday morning as Allan Wilson, the deputy 
minister for rural development, addressed the conference along with 
Crofters Commission chairman David Green and John Watt from Highlands and 
Islands Enterprise's Community Land Unit.

Mr Wilson said Assynt had marked a big step forward in the process of land 
reform, and added that it was not only important for the people locally but 
for Scotland as a whole.

"Many people have learned from the experience here in Assynt, and many 
others aspire to their community being able to do the same thing in the 
future," he said. "That is why the Land Reform (Scotland) Act is so 
important for future generations of communities throughout rural Scotland.

"The act is already encouraging people across the Highlands and Islands to 
consider whether the right to buy could benefit their community. Some 
communities - such as South Uist - have taken this a step further and 
started discussions on a buy-out as a result of the new legislation."

And Mr Wilson stressed that communities would no longer have to rely on the 
goodwill of landowners if they wanted to buy land.

The deputy minister also referred to the 117 settlements, representing some 
600,000 of Scotland's population, which he said would benefit from the 
proposed extension of the population limit from 3,000 to 10,000 in the 
community right to buy part of the Land Reform Act.

However, as land reform campaigner and writer Andy Wightman pointed out 
later in the question-and-answer session, only six of those settlements 
were actually in the Highlands and Islands, the majority being in Lowland 

John Watt from HIE's Community Land Unit gave a brief outline of the unit's 
work and awards to date and set community ownership in a political context.

"Community planning is a central focus of Government policy and is about 
agencies aligning themselves to deliver better services," he said. "What 
you are doing here in Assynt and other places is real community planning."

Mr Watt added that at present they were looking at mechanisms to allow 
communities to gain lasting benefits from renewables and ways of realising 
more community ownership of the marine resource, suggesting community-owned 
fish quotas.

According to Mr Watt, a key was working together within communities, 
between communities and between agencies such as HIE and communities. He 
said it was important that communities which had been involved in the 
movement for a while should refresh their vision and remain open and 
democratic, and engage their young people.

David Green continued the dynamic theme by recounting the new efforts to 
change within the regulatory body, mentioning the recent series of open 
meetings and the streamlining of the regulations.

He also highlighted a number of innovative projects going on across the 
crofting counties, and saw the commission as moving towards a broader 
sustainable development remit in the future. "Regarding housing strategy, 
the commission has set up a group to see how crofting land can be used to 
help this area," he said.

He also pointed to the need for increased access to the Rural Stewardship 
Scheme and the importance of addressing the issue of unused croft land. "I 
believe the commission can help play its part in sustainability," he added.

And finally Stornoway Trust chairman Kenny MacIver - it is too easy to 
forget in all the hubub of land reform that they were the first to take 
control of their own land - spoke of the "long haul".

He said that being a community landlord was no different from being a 
private landlord: "The community landlord has to make money to survive," he 
said. "Survival is the name of the game and profitability will come - some 

Mr MacIver spoke of how the Stornoway Trust had arisen out of apathy. 
Although Lord Leverhume had offered all of his land "on a plate", most 
people at the time didn't see themselves as landlords 80 years ago in a 
different political climate and a time of different attitudes. "There was 
no great mass political fervour," he said.

The Stornoway Town Council did take up the offer, however, and 70,000 acres 
including 40 crofting townships were taken into trust.

Mr MacIver gave a brief resum? of the trust's ups and downs over the past 
80 years or so, highlighting the rock quarry that had been their "bread and 
butter" since the 1940s and the success of Arnish with its steady rental 

In conclusion he said that things had not been easy, but they were still 
there. "Resolution is needed for the future," he said.

Resolution was certainly not in short supply among the conference-goers, 
and the almost evangelical use of the word movement was not wholly 

 From civil servants to agency bosses to the community acolytes, they are 
all believers - though some such as John MacKenzie from Assynt may belong 
to a different denomination. There are detractors, some within the 
liberated communities themselves no doubt, but those who do support this 
movement are genuine in their intention to help previously declining areas 
revitalise themselves.

Bill Ritchie, one of the original Assynt crofter buy-out team, was clear in 
what he saw as the goal of land reform: "It's about putting lights back on 
in the glens."

For him, all of the present buy-outs have been based on existing 
communities, but he wanted the movement to bring new people to the areas 
that had been emptied as well as revitalising ailing communities.

He suggested that if the government allowed 10 per cent of their 1.7 
million acres of land available as new crofting land, then there would be 
1,000 new lights on in the glens.

For John Watt, "the whole thrust of the land reform movement and the 
Scottish Land Fund is economic development and it is about overcoming 
obstacles and exploiting opportunities which current land tenure prevents".

The most refreshing aspect of the conference, which was after all entitled 
"The Next Generation", was that waiting in the wings, in Assynt at least, 
is the new order who appear willing to build on the work of the past 10 
years. That fact alone perhaps provides the best indication of success in 
all the other areas aimed at sustainability.

If they're "still here" in another 40 years, then they'll have a real 
reason to celebrate, and no fank will be big enough for their 50th fling.

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