The other side of crofting

I don't pretend to understand the place that land use and land ownership has in the psyche of Scotland, but the clear message is of an emotional battle played out against the backdrop of its people struggling against privilege.

Various newspaper reports of an action in the Scottish Land Court in Fort William this last week confirm the impression, with headlines such as "Defiant crofter defeats impresario" (The Times) "Crofter wins land fight with Mackintosh" (The Herald) and "Sir Cameron Mackintosh left Misérable after battle with crofter" (The Scotsman). Thus the doughty 81-year old crofter, Mr Donald Cameron, had seen off the wickedly rich landowner, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, and all the usual stereotypes had been reinforced.

Yet the more I read about the background to this court action, the more I realise that the real story has nothing to do with these stereotypes, and has everything to do with the future of Scotland's landscapes. And, ironically, many of those stereotypes are stood on their head in this story.

At dispute was Sir Cameron's claim that the crofter had agreed to a small proportion of his 711 acres of tenanted land be given over to tree planting under a woodland regeneration scheme. The crofter denied he had ever made such an agreement and therefore did not want this part of his croft included in the larger area of Sir Cameron's overall estate, proposed for rewooding under the Crofter Forestry Scheme.

The crofting system in Scotland is said to preserve unique cultures and a way of life, and maintains a foothold of population in the remote areas of the Highlands and Islands. The land tenancy provides a crofter with a living from the land; but the often remote or upland location gives agricultural conditions (and an organisational structure) that restrict this living to livestock grazing. The Crofter Forestry Scheme is meant to gradually widen that by opening up the land use of crofts for areas of woodland planting (see later).

Cameron, the crofter in this dispute, may have eventually decided against any rewooding of his croft under the scheme because it would have reduced his area of grazing and thus his potential income. However, the proposal was for only 25 acres of his croft (less than 4%) to be rewooded, this strip of land completing what would have been a logical area of the overall estate to be rewooded. Because it was such a small area of the croft, it would appear that an argument of decreased stocking doesn't quite stack up.

The crofter is probably reliant on agricultural subsidy for a good part of his income, and maybe he feared a reduction in subsidy payment. But again, this should not have been a factor since from the beginning of this year, agricultural subsidy is no longer paid per head of livestock. It is a Single Farm Payment that is now decoupled from productivity - and the crofter gets this whether he continues to keep his 300 sheep or not. The crofter must therefore have just taken against the rewooding. Why should he allow change on his croft, when it has been in his family for over 100 years, and he had been born there?

What about the landlord? Sir Cameron inherited the 13,000-acre estate, on which the croft is sited, from his aunt. I suspect Sir Cameron is a less-than-absentee landlord than most, since his name crops up in support of new training initiatives for young people, a community centre is named after him, and he is developing a reputation as a significant benefactor in the Mallaig area. Mr Cameron, the crofter, on the other hand, doesn't live on his croft any more, preferring to commute the 25 miles or so from his home in Caol in the Fort William area. Perhaps this is an additional reason why Sir Cameron first took Mr Cameron to the Scottish Land Court some six years ago, when he judged that the land no longer constituted a croft tenancy. It does also seem to breach the spirit of the crofting system when Mr Cameron doesn't live on his croft.

Why does Sir Cameron want to plant trees across his estate and include part of this croft in the planting? The Crofter Forestry Scheme that he intended to use started out as a private members Bill in 1991 and was subsequently consolidated in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. The Act allows for tree planting on the common grazings of crofts provided that the necessary approval has been obtained from the Crofters Commission, and consent is given from the landlord. In another piece of irony, it is not usually the crofter that denies consent for tree planting. If the information guides on the Crofters Forestry Scheme are any indication, the normal situation is a denial of rewooding by the beastly landlord.

The Act was a recognition that the overwhelming condition of livestock grazing as the agricultural use of crofting was becoming less viable. Moreover, the restriction on other land uses prevented the planting and exploitation of woodland for timber products, it's planting as shelterbelt, its use in fuelwood, or its value for natural refuge, leisure and recreation. The Crofter Forestry Scheme addressed this by funding woodland planting or regeneration on crofts through the Woodland Grant Scheme and the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme. So maybe Sir Cameron wanted to harvest some of this grant aid for planting woodland for himself, along with a proportion of it going to the crofter? Perhaps not. Whatever grants the landlord would have received would be insignificant compared to a personal fortune that is estimated at £360 million. But why did the crofter forgo some grant aid and, crucially, some financial support offered from the estate in the early development of the woodland?

Sir Cameron's motivation for woodland planting was expressed at an earlier hearing of the case. He claimed that he was pursuing the action to enforce the agreement he thought he had with the crofter so that the woodland could be a benefit for future generations. The Times quotes him as saying "It's an emotive point of view when I feel my duty is to be looking forward to the next generations of people who are going to enjoy this absolutely beautiful part of the Highlands". In that, Sir Cameron was echoing the sentiments of the many woodland initiatives that have been spawned in the Scottish Highlands and which seek to regenerate areas of the natural woodlands that once would have covered this area.

Maybe Mr Cameron, the crofter, should have a chat with David McPhail, a young forestry contractor based in Lochinver. David was interviewed for a report in Am Bratach, the North West Highlands news magazine. David swapped his work as a mechanical engineer in a marine company, for an outdoor life of tree planting. The many crofts that are taking part in the Crofter Forestry Scheme around Assynt are giving him a steady stream of work.

David has some very strong views about land management on crofts. "I don't really like sheep. Cows, yes, they're good for the land. But sheep eat everything. It is amazing inside the forestry fences to see the range of plants that grows when the stock is kept off." David sees the diversification into forestry as an important aspect of managing common grazings. After the trees have established the fences can come down and the woodland will provide shelter for livestock.

David's current work future looks pretty secure after a recent announcement from the Scottish Executive doubled the amount of land that can be put under the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme. It is likely that there could be a doubling in area of the many crofter forestry schemes on common grazings in northwest Scotland. Coupled with food production looking to become even less viable, the long-term security of grants for forestry or native woodland regeneration may become much more attractive to many farmers and crofters in the northwest.

David McPhail does not have a croft himself, but you get the feeling that this young man would bring a freshness and a vitality to new ways of crofting if he was given the chance. Another David in Scotland works 30 acres of Argyll woodland for his living. David Blair is a director of Reforesting Scotland, an Edinburgh-based charity. Its vision is to transform deforested Scotland back to a landscape that contains a mosaic of ecologically healthy forests, and well-managed farmland. David's particular passion is developing a forest crofting model for communities, which includes designs for affordable housing using local timber. David is greatly interested in seeing natural regeneration of woodlands given a chance. He has joined the Woodland Working Group of the Permaculture Association, and says that his mind is always open to new ideas and ways of managing woodland.

So, who is the villain in this Scottish Land Court action between the landholder and the crofter? Is it the landlord who has a long-term vision and action plan for the health and beauty of this landscape, or is it the crofter who no longer lives on his croft but by all accounts continues to live in a past that is no longer viable for crofting and which continues to impoverish the land.

Mark Fisher, 25th February 2005