Folk who live on the edge: The Highland crofter is traditionally a long-suffering victim of historical injustice, economic misfortune and a harsh environment. But is his way of life quite as bad as it's made out to be?

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'IF YOU CAN steer clear of the depression or the drink, you might be able to make a go of it,' says David Forbes, removing several layers of damp mackintosh. 'We're on the very edge of being viable here; I've got the sheep, the cows, the field of potatoes, the mussel farm and the tourists in the summer, but even then we're struggling.'

He is a slight, youthful man, but with that dullness around the eyes that comes from constant weariness. Standing inside a small porch in his battered waterproofs, he could be a character from Steinbeck. His wife, Carol, is in the kitchen, keeping at bay the chaos produced by two small boys.

Outside in the damp, warm dusk, the lights of nearby Kinlochbervie and the sounds of rain and a few cows - still to be fed - are all that breaks the feeling of overwhelming isolation. The Forbes's croft is two miles up a dirt track at the end of Loch Inchard in the far north-west of Scotland, and he is one of the few remaining full-time crofters left in the country.

Across the bay of the loch, a thin ribbon of crofts, some with uneven strips of field, runs down to the water's edge; most of the windows are ominously dark, showing a crofting township dying quietly as we watch. 'The man in the first house is 80, the one in the second is 70, the next is the retired minister, that one's an empty holiday house and the last one is the big house, for the builder,' Forbes says. 'When we came here 10 years ago, two of those were working crofts, but the men got too old, and there was no one that would carry it on, so the place is just going to die. See over there?' He points into the distance, to another line of small houses on the coast's edge. 'The strips have gone to bracken now, where all those crofts have been given up.

'You used to be able to scratch a living off this land, but there aren't the people willing to make that sacrifice now. You could have thousands of acres of land in this area and still be on the edge. The sense of community has gone - if I go to a young person now and say: 'Can you help me in the fank (sheep-pen)?' they'll ask 'How much?' In my mother's day, you could go to your neighbour and know that if he helped you today, you would be helping him next week. The values have changed - crofters want to sit in front of the telly and the video same as anyone else, and if the younger generation won't stay, won't put up with this kind of hardship, the whole thing becomes unviable.'

Carol, who came up to the Highlands with David 10 years ago from Doncaster, is beginning to wonder what she's here for. 'I'm 500 miles away from my family and my friends. The remoteness gets to you in the end; there's very little social life. A generation ago, that still existed - people used to cut peats together, but that's gone.'

'If you asked a local person if he wanted a house here, he wouldn't take it,' David says. 'He'd want something in Kinlochbervie or in the East. It's a Pied Piper thing - the more people that leave, the more the remaining ones get restless. It's getting to the stage now where we don't have enough fit young men to carry the coffins of the people that die. They should be paying us to live here, no doubt about it.'

THERE are 17,700 crofts left in Scotland, all concentrated in the so-called seven counties in the Highlands and Islands. Most are owned or rented by crofters who double up in other forms of employment - the roads, fishing, forestry and tourism - apart from the basic business of crofting, or small-scale mixed farming. Contrary to popular misconception, crofts are not all scenic, wee whitewashed houses - a croft is simply a piece of land enshrouded in the labrynthine crofting laws, and can vary from the old black-house - still found on the Western Isles - to the modern 'telecroft', built as recently as the ubiquitous lochside caravan parks. Probably the best definition is the old saying that a croft is a piece of land fenced around by regulations.

These regulations, which date from the 1886 Crofting Act, are far from oppressive to the traditional crofter; some would make a Londoner weep. The average annual rent is set at about pounds 30 - an economic benefit that in recent years has been bolstered by the regular receipt from the EC of a large grant, under its euphemistically titled 'Less Favoured Area' scheme, to the Highland region. In addition, the crofts are protected by legislation from too much infiltration by citified outsiders. They are also represented by the formidable combination of the Crofters' Commission, the state-run body which administers the Crofting Acts and designates land, and the Crofters' Union, which lobbies for aid and improvement. The commission's criteria for designating an empty croft to a new tenant are stringent: the incomer must be young, with a family, come from a good agricultural background, show evidence of commitment to the community and, preferably, be of local descent. Last year, more than a sixth of all applications were refused. This does not mean that crofting is flourishing, but it does suggest that the situation is not quite as desperate as has been claimed. Indeed, the EC now accepts that the traditional crofters' small-scale agricultural ambitions are still the best way to manage the Highlands; and, although people such as David Forbes might be surprised to find themselves considered at the forefront of rural hip, there are even those who claim that crofting has become fashionable. This is partly attributable to one particular crofting success story: Assynt.

In December 1992, the northern part of the Lochinver Estate, known as Assynt and comprising 21,000 acres of bitter, barren land on the Sutherland coast, was sold to the crofters who lived there. The estate had been owned since the mid-1930s by the Vestey family, who exposed themselves to traditional Highland criticism by being both too rich and often absent. The estate was sold by the Vesteys in 1988 to a Scandinavian property firm, which promptly went bust. The estate was put up for sale again, and it was at this point that the crofters dreamt up the idea of buying it for themselves. They formed a co-operative, and - with the financial and moral support of their local MP, Robert Maclennan, the rock band Runrig and several other international sponsors - eventually bought the estate for pounds 300,000. When the sale finally went through, the ceilidh went on for days.

The sale was garlanded with excited talk of a new era in crofting, and was seen as an example both of community land ownership and of the harnessing of an ideal to a practical solution. A year on, things have progressed steadily, with plans for reafforestation, a water-lily farm and salmon farming. A computer company has moved its headquarters to what used to be the estate office, and the house now hums and whirrs to the sound of computers monitoring environmental changes and radiation problems throughout Britain.

For some reason, other Highlanders have been suspicious of this revolution and, despite the proselytising efforts of the Assynt crofters throughout the seven counties, there have as yet been no further sales. Even though Assynt offers clear proof that crofting can flourish in the modern world, and despite the unprecedentedly strong legislative armour that protects them, most crofters still feel not just a sense of grievance, but of hopelessness.

SOME OF this pessimism may have less to do specifically with the problems faced by crofters than with general economic conditions affecting the Highlands as a whole. The unemployment rate in Sutherland stands at more than 17 per cent. The increase in home working and the possibilities of the telecroft, wired to the world through modem and telephone, have begun to change the age-old dependency on sheep and fish, but these developments have still to make a significant impact. Fishing, meanwhile, has been seriously undercut by the quota system; the oil industry on the east coast is unstable; and tourism is too seasonal to provide much more than summer pocket money.

The land is beautiful beyond description, yet barren, the few good areas overgrazed by generations of beasts. It is a landscape that only crofting, with its small-scale approach and community spirit, was ever able to work with. 'It's a good place for children, because crime doesn't exist,' David Forbes says laconically. 'There are only two roads out of the place, and they're so bad that you'd ruin your getaway car. What money you can earn from the fishing or whatever, you can only spend in the pub, because there are no cinemas, no nice shops. Alcoholism is so bad here they call it the Northern disease.'

The Highland region's suicide rate is among the highest in Europe; the number of 'heavy' drinkers, in a population of some 200,000, is estimated at 17,000, and social workers in the region say that 90 per cent of their cases have alcohol as a contributory factor. There is even evidence that the huge number of deaths by drowning - 10 times the national average - is a further reflection of the region's problems with drink. These difficulties are exacerbated by the lack of prospects for life beyond the daily grind. Kinlochbervie, the Forbes's nearest 'big' town, is typical of the west coast. It boasts a modern harbour development built for the fish that the EC no longer allows them to land, a series of ragged boathouses, several pubs with appropriately marine names, and a hotel, shut for the winter months. The B & Bs and the Highland craft shops (for summer visitors) are all closed, while the few shops that are open double as bars and video stores. After dark, an eerie blue flicker of television screens emanates from the scattered houses, and black satellite discs reveal the generally preferred form of entertainment.

Isolation, alcohol, long winter nights: all have contributed to a loss of morale which has lent some substance to the widespread view of the crofters and their neighbours as a bunch of moaning antiques, dependent on subsidy and so protected by legislation that they have lost their spirit. But this loss of pride, encouraged by dependence on landlords and government, is also spiked with a large measure of historical grievance, and it is often difficult to disentangle contemporary causes for crofters' complaints from mere historical prejudice.

'THERE seems,' wrote Dr Johnson, the first great English tourist, in 1774, 'to be through a great part of the Highlands a general discontent.' Little has changed. There is in the region an awareness of history's injustices as pervasive and strong as in Ireland. The deserted straths once had three times the population they have today. After the 1745 rebellion, however, the ancient clan system which had strengthened and identified the Highlands was destroyed by the English government, and with it the power of the chiefs. Their estates were forfeit to the Crown and then passed on to the Great Improvers: imported landlords, such as the second Duke of Sutherland, who considered that in order to make the land economically viable it was necessary to clear the remaining people off inland areas to make way for grand-scale sheep farms. That the duke's policy was accomplished with considerable brutality is unquestioned; its impact can still be seen in the occasional huddles of stone marked by notices informing the tourist that this was once a Clearance village. The crofters were harried into specially created fishing villages, where some stayed while others emigrated, starting the great Highland exodus. Many went to Australia or New Zealand, set up sheep farms of their own and eroded the Scottish market. The thousands of Cheviot sheep populating the mountains suddenly became financially untenable, and the landlords turned in desperation to other remedies - forestry, sport or fish- farming. The remaining crofters, meanwhile, became increasingly dependent on fishing and on farming the barren, overcrowded land by the sea. They had, literally, been marginalised - as they still are.

Such injustice is not easily forgotten. Today, though, it is questionable whether crofters can still afford the luxury of harbouring old grudges. Sutherland, where most crofts are concentrated, is the largest county in Scotland. It has a population density the lowest in the EC; 11,000 of its 13,000 inhabitants live on the more fertile, but colder, eastern seaboard, leaving the west as a place of great views and little else.

To find jobs, the young have to move south to the cities, leaving a void behind them. On one island, the depopulation problem recently became so bad that it took advertisements in the national press to attract settlers. In other areas there are welcome signs that the population decline is slowing (in the Highland region it has risen by 1,800 in the past 10 years), but the worry now is that settlers who are returning are not the 'right sort'. The majority of incomers are Scots who have made their money down south and want to retire peacefully, not people who can farm the land. Already, the number of those over 65 is far higher in Sutherland than in the rest of Scotland.

Before the Crofters' Commission began to exercise stricter control over how crofts were disposed of, many were sold off cheaply to outsiders. Areas such as Skye were bought up by 'chequebook crofters' until up to 50 per cent of their populations were incomers. Legislation now keeps the crofting population balanced, but this policy has its downside. Among the rising population of non-crofters, there has been a 100 per cent increase in homelessness in the last decade, caused largely by the sale of old council stock on the open market, often to absentee settlers, who use the houses as holiday homes that lie empty for 50 weeks of the year while locals live in caravans. Crofts themselves may have little impact on this problem, but every empty property adds to the outrage. In Sutherland, it is estimated that about 18 per cent of the available housing is empty except in the summer.

To Highlanders, there is no greater crime for a landowner than to be an absentee. Visions of rich, tweedy Englishmen expropriating the land of the people for fair-weather bouts of shooting and pillage have always been emotive, but rarely has feeling against absentee southern landlords been stronger than it is today. Much of the fuel for the Assynt crofters' cause came from the shadowy role of the Vesteys. Despite the fact that they were no longer in control of North Lochinver when the crofters put forward their bid, many people resented the family's continuing ownership of other land in Sutherland, their alleged blocking of development and, above all, their absentee status.

Many Highlanders resent the fact that so much Scottish land can still be bought and sold as mini-empires on the open market. The Westminsters, the de Savarys and the Al Fayeds have all had a stake in the Highlands, and a list of those with local property reads like a slice of Who's Who. Although the grouse-shooting industry alone pumps an estimated pounds 370m a year into the Scottish economy, these landlords continue to arouse the ire of the crofters, often simply for having money when there is so little around. In some cases this ire takes a sinister turn. The laird of the Isle of Eigg, Keith Schellenberg, has decided to sell up following the mysterious burning of his vintage Rolls-Royce and fire pump. There have also been several cases of torched boats and tyres spiked as if by ghosts, within the past few months. Often these midnight crimes are reputed to be the work of incomers taking too zealously to the culture of insularity, but none of the locals ever sees or hears anything, and there is usually a whiff of schadenfreude the following day.

Increasingly, 'white settlers' - the name given to English or southern Scots incomers - can expect to be treated as a race apart, to pay over the odds for local services and to face at best a long, weary haul to acceptance or, at worst, naked hostility. Last year, there was a furore about two newly formed ultra-nationalist groups, Scottish Watch and Settler Watch. Both aimed, through lobbying and civil disobedience, to prevent the spread of white settlers. Both were alleged to have targeted specific individuals with threats and to have conducted hoax bombing campaigns that last year brought Scotland's three main cities to a standstill.

John Prebble, Scotland's best-known historian and a prominent supporter of the Assynt Trust, sees the attitude of such groups as part of a general peevishness in Scotland as a whole at having been abused, ignored and experimented on during the Eighties. 'I'm inclined to understand it,' he says. 'The power of England is declining, and the Scots are turning back to nationalism because of their sense of injustice and unhappiness. It's based on a thousand years of wars with the English, and it ebbs and flows, but once the rest of the world moves on, it doesn't need you and you're left looking inward or backwards. If you feel that the land is slipping away from you and that other people seem to be standing on it quite firmly, it's hard not to feel resentful.'

Protest is inevitable, Prebble believes, as long as the anomaly of private land ownership by outsiders continues. 'It's not surprising that the landlords have problems now; they have to realise that they don't just buy land, they inherit what it implies to other people - its history, not just its present value. Those who want to have land should not be great behemoths owning vast tracts of the place. When they make irritating changes, they inevitably excite hostility, because they're seen as big men in big houses who don't even live there. There are new kinds of landlord now, curious, shadowy people, but it's still not the same as the crofters owning their own land.'

FURTHER down the west coast, in Argyll, one of the modern breed of lairds offers a stout defence against Prebble's views. Like many in the Highlands, John Noble has taken advantage of the recent boom in salmon and seafood farming, which now contributes around pounds 200m to the Scottish economy annually. He runs an inherited estate of 9,000 acres and an international company selling oysters and seafood, which now employs more than 60 people, providing full-time, year-round work in an area where many jobs are just for the summer.

In his opinion, 'the stereotype of a landowner like Vestey is deeply unpleasant, but so is the opposite - the money-grabbing crofter. There is great tragedy in Scottish history, and it is sad to see the Highland Gael withering, but whether anything could have prevented that, I doubt. It is and it always has been a difficult area - in many ways, it's very similar to Tuscany and southern Italy, which always needed outside money to survive. When you have great beauty and great history in one place, there isn't a single method of making money that isn't going to have its critics. Luck and good government could have seen the Highlands in better shape, but it isn't a coincidence that there are probably more Macdonalds and MacGregors abroad than there are in Scotland, because many of them voted with their feet and left.

'The traditional laird, with his sprawling acres and pots of money, is now pretty much gone. Some have no more sympathy for the crofters than the crofters do for them, but you have to remember that there is a natural antipathy already there from the crofter. You couldn't call the present crofters' situation oppressed, because they pay a minute rent, they're free to sell their crofts, and as tenants they can go on quite easily as it is. There are plenty of crofters who are intent on milking their situation for every tear they can jerk, and when that is combined with an economy that is now based on hanging the cap out for the tourists, it isn't as if the situation is as black-and- white as it is usually painted.'

This is also true, Noble believes, of Scottish history. 'The Prebble view of the Highlands is the extreme end of the spectrum. The idea that people would still be dancing reels in the glens if it wasn't for the appalling genocide of the English, and that the land would be crowded with crofters to this day, is wrong. But there are still people who go around snorting fire and brimstone and saying that the clearance of nine million Ukranians from the Balkans wasn't as terrible as the Highland Clearances.'

EVEN so, only the most hardened cynic could contemplate crofting's precarious future with indifference. Crofters are part of the fabric of Scottish history, and crofting - as officialdom increasingly recognises - is an appropriate way of using Scottish land. For many people, the croft system also represents an ideal.

It was idealism, John Prebble believes, that enabled the Assynt Trust to secure such widespread support. 'Assynt tried to do something against all reason, and I responded to that, and to their elation. Minorities are dangerous because they appeal to the conscience - they have to fight for things. What moves the crofters is not profit.

'I would like to believe that it could work,' he adds, referring both to the Assynt experiment and to the survival prospects of crofting in general, 'but I can't think of any precedents which have been a success. It didn't work in Russia or with the American Indians without outside help. There are little pockets where something similar has been done in the US, but they're largely based on religious separation. At the moment the crofters don't stand in the way of people, but you would go a long way to find an Englishman who knows where Assynt is, or would want to understand its importance for Scotland.'

Ultimately, Prebble believes, the dice are loaded too heavily against crofting. 'I think the Highlands will just become a great national park where no one thinks about the people who lived there before, they just see them as beautiful wildernesses. Man used to work out his connection to the land and the limitations of the environment. Then everyone came across market forces, and if you judge everything on the basis of money, all the emotional and moral justification have no point.

'I'm cynical about people's true interest in the Highlands. They would like it to be scenic and beautiful but all in the past. The people in the Scottish Office don't give a damn. Now the Highlanders' use as cannon fodder has gone, so they're valued in terms of the cloth on their backs, their scenery and their history. There's nothing left for them. Wouldn't you be introspective if what you had to offer the world was looked at as on the level of folk craft?'-

(Photographs omitted)

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