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.

More than a Destination

About ten years ago, I found myself on a small, open boat, bound for Kitchener’s Island. Before you consult the Landranger Taobh Siar map, stop, you maw – it’s in Egypt. While we were making our way, a smaller boat still came alongside us and we were joined by three tall, dignified figures. These men and women were Nubians – indigenous people of southern Egypt – and they were there to sell their beads and trinkets to the day-trippers.

They are a displaced people whose ancient culture was no defence against the march of ‘progress’ – moved aside for the Aswan Dam, they grieve to this day for the loss of ancestral lands. And many eke out a living hawking crafts to rich, white tourists making their way to an island no longer known by its native name.

I wonder what they would make of other age-old civilisations actively choosing that life. Little did they think that, among the pasty-faced travellers who bought bracelets from them that afternoon, were people whose own way of life is being willingly subsumed by the great god of tourism.

People here in the Western Isles talk about tourism in reverential tones, as though it is some sort of moral good. Whenever the prospect of other kinds of economic development is raised – wind turbines being the obvious contemporary example – there is much swooning and tutting and cries of, ‘what will it do to tourism?’ For reasons I cannot fathom, almost everything we do here in the islands has got to be measured against that particular yardstick, as though, like some hideous aping of Brigadoon, we only exist when seen through the eyes of others.

The tedious Sunday issue is the same. Those who like the six-day uniqueness of Lewis and Harris are told that they are selfish, backward and ‘what must tourists think?’.

Well, with all due respect to them – and speaking as an occasional tourist myself – I don’t see why we should actually care. If they are going to visit, they should be pleased to find that we haven’t conformed to some mass-market idea of ‘Hebridean-ness’, but continue to uphold our own traditional values and way of life. Besides, surely we are more than just a destination.

Aren’t we a living community?

In order to go on being a living community, I contend that we have to look to agricultural metaphors – cherish our roots, and encourage our young shoots to grow. That, for those of you with a more literal turn of mind, means protecting our heritage, and nurturing our younger generation.

One of the great white hopes of our recent past has been the advent of community land ownership. It has taken its place alongside apple pie and motherhood (and flipping tourism for some) in the annals of all that is good and positive. I’m not persuaded, however, that it’s the panacea some would claim. The system of crofting tenure in its current form has really meant that the Gàidhealtachd has been wresting land from private control, only to watch the open market in holiday homes and tourist development turn us back into an off-season wilderness. If the tinkers could only see how we have moved from maligning and distrusting them to positively encouraging itinerant wanderers into our midst, the irony would probably knock them off their feet. Anyone with the necessary cash can buy a croft tenancy – or several – and turn these acres over to chalets, glamping pods or gypsy caravans, and there is not one single thing the landowner (community or otherwise) can do about it.

There is, of course, room for tourism in the Western Isles economy. We have many good quality, hotels, bed and breakfasts and guest houses; we have some high-end self-catering, and some good camping facilities. In the years to come, Stornoway’s port development will ensure that we are much better equipped to welcome cruise ship traffic. I recently lunched in a local hotel, where ours was one of only three tables occupied at the peak period. Obviously, local people are not enough to keep the doors of such businesses open. Summer visitors will undoubtedly swell the numbers and fill the tills, which can only be good for the hotelier and the conscientious people he employs.

I understand, too, that people want to come and witness the beauty and the heritage of our islands for themselves. That said, I object to the attitude that manifested last summer amongst some would-be visitors, on being told that locals were reticent about the reopening of our ports in the midst of a pandemic. ‘You can’t stop us’, some (a minority, I would hope) said, ‘the islands don’t belong to you’.

That’s told the land buyout brigade, eh?

Well, no, of course the islands don’t belong to us. What any born and bred islander will tell you, though, is that we belong to them. Lewis is much more than a lovely place to live for the native Leòdhasach; it holds us to itself in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Ask the Leòdhasach abroad to explain his cianalas, and he can’t, but it is the flip-side of loving the place that grew you.

However, that love has to express itself in practical ways for the Leòdhasach (other islands are available) at home. We have to be mindful of the fact that this IS a community. People who live here all the year round want to enjoy a little summer freedom, and not to have to constantly jostle with visitors because our entire economy has been given over to tourism. Equally, we have to provide for those who do come, and we have to allow that there will always be an industry that caters to them.

So, what’s the answer? Well, think of those other two indigenous plants, Gaelic and crofting. In fact, think of economic development in general. What have they all got in common?

Regulation. There is no regulatory body for tourism, though. Indeed, there is no real definition of ‘tourism’. That’s why, despite the extravagant claims made on its behalf, it is actually quite hard to pin down in any assessment of our islands’ or our country’s GDP. There is tension between tourism and Gaelic, tourism and land use, tourism and almost every form of economic development.

Yet, it grows unchecked, like a falasgair on tinder-dry mòinteach.