The crofter, the tourist and the black, black Commission

There is yet another story this week about a croft tenancy for sale in Harris, inviting offers in the region of an eye-watering £200,000. It is obviously with a view to the development value of the croft that this price has been set – acres of glamping pods rather than potatoes are all that could justify such a hefty ticket.

And that’s fine. One person can sell his croft and he’d be a mug not to ask the very highest sum buyers are willing to pay.

The issue here is not with the individual- it’s with the law that permits such a thing to happen at all. In fact, it’s not even that. All over the country, for many years, developers and speculators have brought up prime real estate for all kinds of money-making projects. That’s the kind of malarkey capitalism approves. So, some people scratch their heads, puzzled at the hissy fits being thrown across the Long Island over what is, after all, the legitimate sale of land.

Therein, though, lies the rub. 

Negative reactions to this sort of thing stem from the confusing presence of a relic from a bygone age: crofting legislation. It was created in the nineteenth century to protect our ancestors from landlord whim – the economic imperative (or ‘greed’, if you prefer) that had led to a long period of clearance across the Gàidhealtachd. 1886 was a seminal year, then, with the first Act to protect crofters landing on the statute books.

Read that last sentence again. Notice anything? That’s right – the law was designed to protect crofters, not crofting: the people, not the system; the community, not the commodity.

Over the years, we have become more financially secure, as successive generations left the land to work for the man. Yet, some people continued to work their crofts, until the excesses of headage payments saw everyone packing the acres with sheep and cattle. When I was growing up in the nineteen eighties, the CAP had made it all about subsidy. Then, the greener nineties, with their hole in the ozone layer and their Earth summits, started pushing for better stewardship of the land.

And now, there is tourism. Where the nineteenth century displaced communities for the sheep, our century is doing the same for the visitor. 

For many people, the villain in this piece is the Crofting (no longer ‘Crofters’’) Commission. They exist to regulate crofting as a system of land use and, like opponents of selling crofts as real estate say, it ain’t happening. Social media is full of half-formed opinions which coalesce around the notion that the Commission isn’t doing its duty. But the Commission is subject to the same laws that crofting is, and to woeful underfunding from government.

The problem is that we don’t all agree on why crofting is important. For me, its primary value has been in the way it ensured people could build homes in areas that might – without the grants and loans that used to be available – lie empty. Most of these board houses were built here in Lewis and Harris, anyway, by young islanders wishing to establish themselves in the place they grew up. During those years, ‘community’ in this place was synonymous with the notion of extended family, of continuity and connection with place.

Now, as the progenitors of these homes age and die, they are sold on to strangers. The children of these families are often elsewhere – many went to the mainland for education or work and have made their lives there. It isn’t always possible to keep the family home; and so the houses pass into the hands of those who can afford them.

Times have changed, but crofting legislation has not recognised this. It is a confused mish-mash that actually protects little that is worth having. 

People buy tenancies now in order to make easy money from tourism and related activities. ‘Diversification’ is a bit of a misnomer as far as I can see because non-traditional use of the land is rapidly becoming the norm. The guys with the hay and the cattle or sheep, they’re the real experimentalists. You can even forget about the sanctity of common grazing because you don’t need to be a crofting shareholder to run a business on pasture that was once intended for communal animal grazing. Literally anything goes in some townships.

So, the moment has definitely arrived for hard decisions to be made. We have so-called crofting laws that encourage the destruction of community, and of crofting itself.

It’s time we shifted the emphasis back to the protection of crofters, as opposed to crofting. In doing so, there is a need to define what a crofter is – and that most certainly has got to be a bit tighter than just some fly-by-night who happens to hold a tenancy. Only then will we know what the laws are meant to protect, and evaluate whether they’re still worth the ink that’s been spilt.

And only then will we know if we have any right – or reason – to be outraged by the things that are done under the guise of crofting.