Crofters claim a stake in estates

Highland land rights: Scores of communities want to have a greater say in how their properties are managed
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The Independent Online
AT LEAST 20 Highland communities are aiming to buy or secure a bigger stake in the estates on which their livelihoods depend. The moves come as Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has suggested that lottery money - perhaps pounds 10m over three years - will become available to help communities to buy the estates on which they depend.

Later this month, the 34,000-acre Revack estate of Lady Pauline Ogilvie Grant Nicholson, on the fringe of the Cairngorms, is expected to come on the market.

A straight buy-out is not an option - the asking price will be about pounds 7m - but the communities around the estate are keenly interested in getting more benefit from its diverse activities. The Revack and Dorbrack estate has everything from salmon fishing to grouse shooting, forestry and reasonable- quality tenanted farmland.

Though there has been a fair working relationship between locals and the estate owner, the sale illustrates the problems underlying land ownership in Scotland - the uncertainty for communities over who their next laird might be.

Last year, the 60 islanders of Eigg bought their Hebridean home for pounds 1.5m in partnership with Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust after decades of neglectful private owners - the last a German artist, Marlin Maruma, who failed to honour a promise to invest pounds 15m.

The 70 residents of Knoydart, a wild peninsula on the north-west coast reached by boat, are hoping the financial difficulties of their "English lairds" will open the way to buying the 17,000-acre estate. Stephen Hinchliffe and Christopher Harrison, who control Knoydart Peninsula Ltd, owners of the estate, are both under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. Mr Harrison is in a German jail, facing charges of misappropriating pounds 320,000 from a shoe company.

A buy-out of Knoydart will not lead to the creation of many crofts. The residents are more likely to run small businesses such as shell-fish farming, or cater for walkers and other tourists. A community-led trust has already raised pounds 800,000 and may not need much more if the Englishmen are forced to sell.

Beyond the high-profile cases are a score of communities looking either to buy parcels of land or get a greater say in how it is managed. The land may be wanted for affordable local housing, forestry, to protect a valued amenity or for agriculture.

"Communities are looking at options they would never have looked at a year or two ago," said John Watt, head of the Land Unit at Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It is a coming together of local demand and a more liberal political regime. And with land reform high on the agenda for a Scottish parliament, the pressure is on owners to look at ways in which they can interface better with their communities."

Further impetus for change is likely because of the appointment of James Hunter, a committed land reformer, as the new chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.