`We are all prisoners of our own history'

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CROFTERS SUCH AS Alan MacCrae and John MacKenzie, his ally along the coast, took control of their own land in 1993 - acquiring the title to the 21,000-acre North Assynt estate for pounds 300,000 from a Swedish property company. The "buy-out" from an absentee landlord has been an inspiration to other Highland communities wanting to break free of feudal tenant-laird restrictions.

Mr MacKenzie does not think any of his four daughters will return to the family croft at Drumbeg. "What is happening is that our own people are leaving due to lack of economic opportunity and the indigenous population is ageing rapidly and is being replaced by people of an alien culture," said Mr MacKenzie, a Free Church elder, introducing the controversial issue of "incomers".

Assynt would be poorer with the influx of new blood, he explains, but he would be loath to see them taking over the crofts of absentee tenants. Mr MacKenzie was an absentee for years, running his own engineering firm near Glasgow, and would not have been able to return to crofting if a proposal for releasing the holdings of absentees was carried through.

"All things being equal, there ought to be an assumption in favour of our indigenous people. The reason is simple - our history," he said. "Our highland people have been subject to generations of so-called improvers who from outside have concluded what our communities need. Give our communities the opportunity themselves to fulfil their needs."

The Assynt Crofters' Trust is the means to that end. The crofters, collectively, became their own landlord. Each of the 120 croft tenants is a member of the trust, which is run by a board appointed from the 13 townships on the estate. Altogether some 300 people live in the townships, dotted along 20 miles of twisting coastline.

But though the trust is still a rent-collecting landlord, it is bent on creating a viable community rather than running a sporting playground.

Before the Swedes' brief intervention, North Assynt was part of the Vestey estate. However, Edmund Vestey seems to have found the crofts a nuisance. "Basically it cramped his sporting style," Mr MacCrae said.

The biggest immediate income earner for the trust has been trout fishing - a revenue the crofters never had. Studded with lochs, Assynt is an angler's dream.

This year has been good for sea trout. The trust has stocked the Manse loch system and hopes to build on an expected income this year of pounds 6,000.

Mr MacCrae sees the future in this type of diversification. Though he has 20 cattle and 100 sheep and still farms the croft at Torbreck that his great, great-grandfather ran after being hounded out of the interior, he knows there is no living from agriculture for Assynt. "This is poor land and we will never be rich up here," he said.

Many Assynt crofters were cynical about the buy-out, uneasy that their neighbours would know too much about their business, unlike a distant and rarely seen laird.

"We are more relaxed now," Mr MacRae said. "Crofters are prisoners of their own history and we have to try and develop things at our own pace."