Crofters win right to buy hills at affordable price

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The Independent Online
IN THE remote, windswept village of Laid close to Cape Wrath on Scotland's north coast, crofters were celebrating an historic victory yesterday.

The thousands of acres of hillside beside Ben Hope where they graze their sheep may be some of the most barren land in Britain, but they are at last to be given the right to buy it from the company registered in Liechtenstein that owns it.

The Scottish Executive has revealed what amounts to a rural revolution: plans to give Scotland's 18,000 crofters the right to buy communal grazing estates at a low fixed price, even if the landlord objects. The change means that up to one- tenth of Scotland's land mass - two million acres - could soon be owned by crofters.

Jim Hunter, chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, a state agency, said: "The sheer scale of this opportunity is maybe the hardest thing to grasp. By the end of next year, crofters could be able to initiate moves to bring into community ownership almost the whole of the Western Isles, the bulk of Skye, much of Shetland, most of Tiree and Coll, parts of Islay and Mull and major tracts of the Highland mainland."

It is an extraordinary development for crofters, whose ancient rights go back to the Gaelic clan system, when they grazed stock on the hills in return for a few bolls of oatmeal to the clan chief, to whom they also owed military service.

The mountains of peat stacked near cottages across the seven crofting counties of north and west Scotland still speak, despite the rusting machinery and dereliction, of a tradition tenaciously pursued.

The generosity of the proposed law, giving crofters greater rights than any other tenants in Britain, reflects their harsh working conditions. Under the new law, communities without crofters will have the right to buy land only if the seller is willing.

The legislation, likely to go through the Scottish Parliament next year, is considered momentous by the likes of Hugh MacLellan, whose family was moved on to his 17-acre croft during the Highland clearances 150 years ago. They own this "inbye" land, but have only tenant rights on the communal land where sheep from the village graze during winter.

"Virtually nothing has happened in Laid since the Second World War, except people leaving," said Mr MacLellan, 38, whose "inbye" land is so poor that he has recently installed three mobile homes for tourists and established an oyster farm on the shores of the salt water Loch Eriboll beside Laid.

"Development is very difficult because we don't own the hillside grazing land," Mr MacLellan said. "If we did, we've got lots of ideas for developing it and providing cheap housing. There may be a wind farm. "

The poverty of the area means only six of the 18 croft homes in Laid are still occupied. There are no shops and only a single cafe.

The 9,400-acre estate wasbought in 1988 for pounds 45,000 chiefly with mineral exploration in mind. Mr MacLellan hopes the community will be able to buy the communal grazing land, which covers 2,300 acres, for pounds 10,000 to 20,000.