Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

‘The minister and the factor are the cause of all the misery and ruination’, I said last week on live radio. I wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone I know personally, perish the thought. No, I was, in fact, paraphrasing a view held by many of my fellow countrymen, and especially in that context, various writers over the years about the havoc wrought by these two archetypes. 

The Highlands, explored in literary form, invariably appear to have been torn asunder by these two men: the greed of the factor and the creed of the minister. Between them, many people believe, the landlords and the church pulled down the ancient edifice of Gaelic culture and left it in ruins.

Even to this day, nothing is more guaranteed to get a social media debate going than religion or land. The latter blew up into a Facebook squall last week, with the news that Comhairle nan Eilean has taken legal advice on whether it can include crofts in the valuation of assets, when recouping the cost of providing care.

It was always going to be a turbulent discussion. You have a heady mix of poorly-understood legislation, a local authority which is damned either way, and the rampant emotionalism that seems to accompany every invocation of the word, ‘croft’. Crofters are felt by many to have a moral right to the land, and to be automatically justified whenever pitted against authority. There is a sense in which Comhairle nan Eilean cannot win this debate. Like any organisation which finds its views at variance with those of the crofting community, or even one section of it, the council will inevitably be portrayed as a latter-day Dòmhnall Munro.

Crofts and/or houses which are owner-occupied are straightforward enough. The real controversy centres around tenanted crofts. If you are merely paying rent to a landlord . . . how can the croft’s value be calculated as belonging to you?

Unfortunately, the legal opinion sought by the Comhairle states that one possible way is to file for bankruptcy against the crofter, or his estate after he has passed away. This unpalatable course of action would be time-consuming, potentially costly and by no means certain to produce the desired result for the local authority. Insolvent crofters breach the 1993 Crofting Act. Nonetheless, only the landlord can apply for an order to have them removed, and even if they do so, the events that follow are firmly outwith the council’s control.

So, this is clearly an extremely vexed question and, like everything else of the kind, may well be slogged out on Facebook, but it certainly won’t be settled there.

What the discussion does throw up, however, is an interesting attitude around the perceived intrinsic worthiness of crofting. Evidently, from the comments I have read, many of us feel that it is part of island heritage and deserving of protection. Some even accuse Comhairle nan Eilean of instigating a modern version of the clearances.

The conceit there is that crofts and crofting ought to be the province of the indigenous population. That is an argument which, in the context of language and cultural preservation (where, by ‘culture’ I mean way of life and not some tweed nailed to driftwood, calling itself ‘art’) might have some merit.

We suffer, because of our remoteness, a tension between maintaining a viable population in these islands, and protecting our increasingly fragile heritage. How do you reconcile the need for people to keep services running, and shops and schools open, with the desire to shore up these things which are unique and precious about our islands?

For too long, there has been a concentration on Gaelic as a language, and little heed paid to the fact that it has – and requires – an underpinning culture. Crofting is undoubtedly part of that. Unfortunately, the moral argument posited by many against the Comhairle’s position falls down slightly on the fact that tenancies change hands for sometimes eye-watering sums of money.

You simply cannot have it both ways. If tenancies can be sold to the highest bidder, where is the mechanism for favouring – say – young islanders? It doesn’t exist.

Crofting, like Gaelic, has been subject to a tiùrr of legislation, but there has been the same mistake made in both cases: a failure to recognise the plant in its native soil, or to take measures that might have nurtured it there. With language, experts talk about intergenerational transmission – the passing of the language from parent to child, far and away the most natural learning process. The richness of vocabulary and idiom is then preserved in a wider Gaelic community, not least because communities have an inbuilt code that is mutually intelligible to its members.

In fact, now that the language campaign is waking up to the fact that it has neglected community in its working-out, I wonder whether there isn’t greater scope for an integrated approach to the promotion of Gaelic and crofting. Not, I hasten to add, in some twee, ‘living museum’ way, but an acknowledgement that there are vestiges of both traditions still extant here, into which new life could be breathed. And that they have a close relationship with one another in the communities where they grow wild.

It would take vision to realise, of course. Some years ago, the Crofting Commission published a paper which explored the possibility of designating Scottish crofters as an indigenous people. I wonder whether, under the new Islands Act, and with an eye to further crofting legislation in the next parliament, it may not be time to rekindle that spark of an idea.

Imagine: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highland Council, the Crofting Commission, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all working together on policy for the Gàidhealtachd from the inside.

We have much still to learn from the old slogans: the language, the land, the people; and strength through unity.

Crofting, Calvinism & the Colonised Gaels

Geekery comes in many forms, but I have always been particularly susceptible to the uniquely Teuchter variety. Now, before you leap to conclusions, no, I cannot name you every model of Massey-Ferguson ever to set wheel upon the Isle of Lewis; nor am I qualified to identify a brand of dip merely by its bouquet. However, I enjoy the complexities of Calvinist theology and of crofting regulation in almost equal measure. It has been easier to indulge the former, because there are places you can go and books you can read which will help the picture clear.

Crofting legislation, on the other hand, has been a right patchwork quilt. Now, however, someone has actually written ‘A Practical guide to Crofting Law’ – that someone being the well-kent lawyer, Brian Inkster, a bit of an expert in the feannag of crofting law and all its associated vagaries. This is not a legal tome for professionals, but a very usable little book which covers all the main aspects of crofting and its relationship with the law of the land (yes, pun intended).

I warmed to it immediately when I saw that page 1 of chapter 1 contained the word, ‘therefrom’. He was only placing crofting in its historical context – something I do myself fairly frequently for bored students – but couldn’t suppress a lawyerly adverb even at this early stage in the proceedings.

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It’s a depressing feature of life in the Gàidhealtachd that any description of who we are or what we stand for must always involve talking about organisations. We are surely the most regulated people in all of Creation. Reading Mr Inkster’s description of the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Land Court, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. All our resident malcontents (and more than a few non-resident) pile the blame onto churches for the perceived stifling way of life here, but no one ever seems to wonder quite why we need so many bodies to keep an eye on our language, our land, our economy – and that’s before we even get started on the plethora of environmental designations that Scottish Natural Heritage has at its disposal. Before you put a spade in the ground, you’d better find out if it’s a RAMSAR site, an SSSI, an NNR . . .

We have accepted it, though, as our lot (pun eile) in life. Like every other endangered species on the planet, the Gael has to be subject to much monitoring and scrutiny. There are more schemes and safeguards linked to us as a people than your average violent offender.

Everything, from the air that we breathe to the words that we use is subject to policy. If I start a business, join a committee or put up a polytunnel, there is an agency that needs to know. We have island plans, community partnerships, rural networks – all designed to protect us. We are like wayward teenagers, not trusted to get the bus home by ourselves in case we talk to strangers.

Ah, but, Mr Inkster’s book brings us neatly, in chapter sixteen, to that wee glimmer of freedom – the Teuchter equivalent of turning twenty one and being given the key of the door: community buyout. You’ll have heard of it because it’s been quite the apple pie and motherhood of the Gàidhealtachd over the sixteen years since the 2003 Land Reform Act was passed. The Act afforded the crofting community a right to buy and become its own landlord – not piecemeal, croft by croft, but to purchase an entire estate as one crofting body if so desired.

Now, I’m not rubbishing this development. It’s difficult to, when you recollect the heroism of Assynt, and of Eigg, in challenging absentee landlordism before there was tailor-made legislation to assist their endeavour. What I am merely pointing out is that the crofting community right to buy is something that had also to be granted via an Act of – albeit the Scottish – Parliament. It is arguably benevolent in its tendency, but still regulation nonetheless. Mr Inkster refers to the ‘Scottish ministers’ many times in this short chapter, reminding even the most gung-ho of community trusts that they have what they have at the behest of government, and of the reams and reams of law which have made it possible.

It’s easy to fool ourselves that we are freer than we actually are. Human beings are incredibly gullible, and very liable to convince themselves that there exists no authority higher than their own. That anyone from the seven crofting counties still believes this to be the case is extraordinary, when you consider the weight of legislation under which they live, move and have their being.

When I was a child, we marked the centenary of the 1886 Act, which put the word, ‘crofting’ onto the statute books for the very first time. It has always been cited as a great stride forward and, I suppose it was in many ways. But it was also the beginning of state-sponsored interference in a way of life which had existed previously on its own terms. Yes, it mitigated against some of the worst excesses of private landlordism, but it also sank the Gael into that abiding sense of being a permanent ward of state.

I think we are more at risk than ever these days of regarding ourselves as ‘looked after’. By the time the centenary had come and gone, organisations like the Crofters (as it was then) Commission, the HIDB and even the embryonic Scottish Crofters Union were household names. The folk leading the organisations and formulating policy were known to those most affected by their decisions. Even more crucially, those leaders were affected by their own policy too – because they lived in the communities regulated by these organisations.

Quietly, insidiously, the state moves the machinery that regulates Gaeldom further and further from its beating heart. Leadership has to come from within – for our land, for our language, for our economy, for our very way of life.

I, for one, am tired of seeing the Gàidhealtachd being run like a colony from Edinburgh. It’s long past time for the natives to get restless.