Crofters' bid for estate may set precedent: A land sale has fuelled passions in a rural community. James Cusick reports

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AT INVERNESS airport over the weekend two London accountants flew back south after a private meeting with crofters from Assynt in Sutherland. They flew home worried.

Acting as liquidators of a 21,000-acre Highland estate on the market for pounds 473,000, the accountants from the firm Stoy Hayward had the job of finding out how serious, viable and advanced were the plans of resident crofters to buy the North Lochinver estate for themselves - and perhaps set a precedent that could radically alter Scottish land ownership patterns.

John McKenzie, vice-chairman of the Assynt Crofters Trust, would have left the accountants in no doubt. 'When we first proposed the idea of the trust to buy the estate, we asked for a meeting with the sellers, surveyors John Clegg, in Edinburgh. They wouldn't see us. They dismissed us as not a serious threat. They do now.'

North Lochinver Estate in western Sutherland is described by Clegg in its sales brochure as 'an important estate of astonishing beauty and variety'. Unspoilt Highland coastal country, infinite scenic variety, wilderness, abundant wildlife, islands, coves, cliffs, sandy beaches, trout and salmon fishing, deer stalking. It is all true.

But the brochure adds: 'There are a significant number of crofts on the estate producing an annual income of pounds 2,608.' This money and the low income from sport on the estate, was not enough to stop the Scandinavian property company which bought the estate two years ago for just over pounds 1m from the Vestey family, from going bust. Clegg's asking price, less than half the previous selling price, reflects a depressed market for Scottish Highland estates and the low sporting value of North Lochinver.

Robert Balfour, from Clegg, said: 'The crofters may feel they have an opportunity not to be missed.' They do. But it is as much about self-determination, memories of the Highland clearances and plain anger, as it is with making quick bucks.

'When we learned that the estate was to be sold in seven lots, that was it. There could be different sets of ownership in one crofting township. There was simply no regard for the community here. And we are not having it,' Mr McKenzie said.

What followed was not routine for crofters: meetings, publicity campaigns, press releases, fax machines bought, business plans drawn up, an international appeal to expatriates begun, accountants and lawyers consulted.

There was also a threat. If their bid to buy the estate fails, the 150 crofting Assynt families say they will exercise their legal right under crofting law to buy their crofts at 15 times the annual rent. For pounds 39,000 the crofters could own nearly half the estate, a deterrent to potential buyers.

In addition to money raised locally, there is also money coming in from the international appeal, donations from Robert Maclennan, the local MP, and from Runrig, the gaelic rock group. Loans from the Highland Regional Council have also been agreed. The Assynt crofters were last week also given a pounds 50,000 contribution from Highland and Island Enterprise, the Government's northern Scotland development agency. The contribution is contingent on them raising pounds 80,000 from private sources. Indications are that they are not far from achieving that.

The total points to a bid from the crofters of pounds 250,000. However the Independent has learnt that lawyers in Edinburgh acting for potential bidders are investigating possible legal action against HIE if their clients are outbid, over the validity of the HIE cash. Iain Robertson, HIE's chief executive, said he would 'prefer not to consider the political aspects' of the contribution, but he may have to. Commenting on the grant award, Mr Balfour described the HIE's decision as 'odd'.

The closing date, when all bids will be examined in Edinburgh, is 16 September. The result will be eagerly awaited by the 10,000 or so active crofters throughout Scotland, mainly living on the west coast and the Western Isles. Although they own their homes, they do not own their land. But they do have legal security of tenure and inheritance rights. Annual rents are low, averaging between pounds 25 and pounds 35. Grants and subsidies for crofters are regarded as crucial for survival.

Mr McKenzie said that the trust system would allow all the Assynt families to retain their crofters' status. But that is not the sole aim of their fight. 'I feel sure that the crofters here are charting the course out of a troubled episode of land ownership which has gone on for generations in this area.'

His own ancestors ended up at Assynt after being moved on twice in the Sutherland clearances, among the most brutal of the forced migrations and evictions that marked changes in land ownership and use in Scotland during the early 19th century.

Looking out to sea from his croft house, he points to the piles of stones that have, over many years, been dug up to try to improve the poor quality of the land. 'All of this work has been rendered useless by the Common Agriculture Policy of the European Community,' he said. Five years ago he abandoned sheep farming in favour of fish farming. Now that enterprise is also at risk.

'Our political masters have never recognised the needs of a rural community. Now we are being told by the EC about their 'set aside' plans. Set aside what in this place?'

Included in the trust's business plan are building and development projects for low-cost homes to encourage the young to stay and to attract new residents. 'It may be years before we see any permanent economic benefits if we succeed, but it will give us all a sense of purpose.

'We'll become masters of our own destiny. At the moment we are just the pawns in a speculators' game.'

(Photograph omitted)