Crofting trust warms Scots hearts around the world: The first successful challenge to near-feudal use of land in Scotland may face difficult times ahead. James Cusick reports

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The Independent Online
A CROFTING co-operative that became the new owner of North Lochinver Estate in Sutherland this week has received congratulatory telegrams from all over the world.

The Assynt Crofters Trust and its pounds 300,000 purchase of the 21,000 acre (8,498 hectare) Sutherland estate is being heralded as a new era in land use for the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The trust has become the first group of crofters to end what many regard as a near-feudal system of land management.

However, with surveyors and estate management experts only now beginning to examine the economics of the deal, the consensus is that the trust may be in for a tough time.

Niall Graham-Campbell, a partner of the surveyors Finlayson-Hughes in Perth, which specialises in Highland estates, said: 'I should think the crofters in Assynt will live to regret buying the estate.' He said no one could manage a crofting estate and make money. 'It'll cost them money.'

Mr Graham-Campbell went on: 'The cost of collecting the annual crofting rents - pounds 2,608 - used to be more than the rent itself. It is a beautiful place, but there will need to be more than the pleasure of ownership.'

Beauty proved to be not enough for the Scandinavian property company that bought Lochinver nearly two years ago for pounds 1m. It went bankrupt and the estate was put on the market for offers over pounds 460,000.

The crofters formed a trust to try to buy the estate outright. Fax machines were bought and a world-wide appeal for money was begun to expatriate Scots.

After lengthy negotiation, the trust's bid of around pounds 300,000 was accepted. The crofters take over as owners in February when their ability to service a substantial debt will come under intense scrutiny.

Many believed that the Scottish land- owning fraternity would not allow them to attain their dream. Having woken up to their success, others may follow suit.

Iain McIver, Scottish Crofters Union president, said: 'We supported this bid all the way. It is a well-deserved success and the start of a new era in land use in the Highlands and Islands. The time is right for a fresh look at land tenure and use.'

A central tactic of the Assynt Trust was to threaten to remove their crofts from the sale by legally buying their land under crofting law. For a mere pounds 39,000, based on the rent of each of the crofts, 15 per cent of the 21,000 acres would have been removed.

For pounds 300,000 the trust has gained a small area of sporting rights, forests and mineral rights. Under the trust system, the tenant farmers retain their crofting rights, but the rent, instead of going to an individual landowner, goes to the trust. In effect, the crofters pay rent to themselves.

(Photograph omitted)