The Government is to "give away" Scottish crofts. Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, yesterday unveiled plans to hand over 100,000 hectares of government-owned crofting land to local people.
The move is part of Mr Forsyth's effort to use "administrative devolution" - transferring powers from the Scottish Office to local communities - to combat Labour's plans for legislative devolution north of the border. Locals will take over the first government-owned croft later this year.
Addressing the Commons Grand Committee of Scottish MPs in the Highland capital of Inverness yesterday, Mr Forsyth said that when he took office last July he was astonished to find he was Scotland's largest crofting landlord. The Scottish Office took over 14 million acres of land, including 95 crofting estates, at the end of the First World War to provide work for returning soldiers.
"I found I had over 100,000 hectares of land and 1,400 croft holdings," he said. He then announced plans to hand over the land to crofters to improve its management and productivity.
Local people could run the crofts "better than a government department which, with the best will in the world, cannot be as sensitive to a community's needs and priorities as those who actually live there". Quoting the unofficial Scottish national anthem, Flower of Scotland, Mr Forsyth said the initiative would enable crofters to secure their "wee bit hill and glen".
Ministers were so committed to the project that some estates could be handed over free. "We have a duty to the taxpayer but it may be that in some cases viability will be best secured by giving away some crofts," he said.
In recent years Scotland's 10,000 crofters have begun to take control of their small- holdings, angered by private landowners' reluctance to invest in "marginal" plots. Crofters in Sutherland, Skye and Knoydart have led moves towards community buyouts. Yesterday the Crofters' Commission welcomed Mr Forsyth's announcement as "the opening chapter in a new era for crofting which offers remote rural communities radically new opportunities for security and sustainability which could help arrest the long, slow decline of fortunes in the Highlands and Islands".