Crofters band together to win control of the retreat a poet loves

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The Independent Online
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'Who possesses this landscape? -

The man who bought it or

I who am possessed by it?'

NORMAN MacCAIG, Scotland's greatest living poet, wrote those lines about Assynt in Sutherland. By the middle of this week it should be known whether a sizeable chunk of MacCaig's beloved summer retreat is to be owned for the first time by the crofters who live there.

Noon on Wednesday is the deadline set by the Assynt Crofters Trust in its revised bid for the 21,000-acre (8,499 hectares) North Lochinver estate. The crofters - whose first bid was turned down a week ago - say this is their final offer. If their buy-out fails, they will invoke a little-used law to acquire their crofts individually. 'By hook or by crook we are determined to take control of our destiny,' said Bill Ritchie, secretary of the 100-member trust.

Mr Ritchie said the former landlord, Scandinavian Properties (a Swedish speculator which has gone into liquidation), had 'stifled local enterprise and initiative'. By acquiring the land, the trust hoped to encourage developments which would benefit the local community and stem the population loss.

The crofters are understood to have bid around pounds 250,000 last week, well short of the pounds 470,000 asking price but a fair reflection of market conditions, according to the trust. 'Vast tracts of the Highlands are up for sale and traditional landlords are no longer in the market,' Mr Ritchie said.

But the agents, based in Edinburgh, claimed last week to have received 11 offers for North Lochinver. They said that other potential purchasers may have been put off by the publicity surrounding the sale.

The Scottish media have certainly swung their weight behind the crofters' cause, which has received financial backing from several public bodies as well as private donations.

Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness and Sutherland, has made a sizeable cash contribution to what he described as 'one of the most exciting and imaginative opportunities for transforming the face of crofting'.

The Assynt initiative marks a major departure for Scotland's 18,000 crofters, the vast majority of whom have been content to remain as tenants for the past 100 years.

The Crofters' Act of 1886 established security of tenure and fair rents through an independent Crofters' Commission. Crofters were also given the right to pass on their tenancy to their offspring.

Largely because of these safeguards, few saw any advantage in becoming owner-occupiers rather than tenants, a right granted to them in a 1976 Act.

The Assynt crofters intend to use the 1976 statute as a 'fall-back position' if their straightforward bid fails, whereupon they would quickly convert their individual purchases into the collective ownership of the Trust.

Such a manoeuvre could in theory give the crofters control of virtually the entire Lochinver estate, where only 50 of the 21,000 acres are not covered by crofts.

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