Conference focuses on reversing crofting decline

12 September 2012

A four day conference in Lewis has highlighted the benefits of community ownership and the role it can play in reversing population decline in crofting communities. The conference, called Recovering from the Clearances, focussed on the history of land use in the Hebrides, and featured a range of lectures from leading academics on the subject.

The Clearances sent crofting communities into a state of terminal decline in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people were moved off the land by landlords, and through emigration, to make way for larger-scale farming and recreational sporting activities. For example, the population of South Uist in 1883 was around 6,000. Today it is around 2,000.

The assertion that the recent crofting reforms could open up opportunities for new crofts was made by Angus Macmillan, Chairman of Stòras Uibhist, the community group which owns the South Uist Estate, which covers 93,000 acres of land in Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist. The buyout took place in 2006. The buyout has enabled islanders to realise the potential in the islands, including the development of renewable energy projects.

The Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 introduced further measures to tackle absenteeism, where a crofting tenant or owner-occupier is not resident on the croft, or within the required 32km distance.  As well as reinforcing the requirement for crofts to be worked and lived on, the Act also enables new crofts to be created, and designates the areas of Arran and Cumbrae, Nairn and Moray as crofting counties. However, as yet there have been no crofts created in these new areas.

Inksters recently visited the Uists and there is an active crofting population across the islands, with crofters keen to understand how the crofting legislation affects them and the potential impact and benefits that brings to their own crofting business. There were many crofters who had returned to the islands and the family croft after a period away and who clearly wanted to develop their crofting business. However, for younger entrants to crofting, without a family connection the cost of a tenancy can put a croft out of their reach, and even with a croft, housing costs far exceed the amount that a Croft House Grant will provide. Tenants will often find obtaining mortgage finance impossible – the idea of a Crofting Mortgage has been mooted in the past but came to nothing during the legislative reforms. Currently, it is not possible to obtain mortgage finance to purchase a croft tenancy.

While the legislative reform may encourage occupancy and new blood into crofting, the financial reality of starting to croft from scratch means that it may take further changes in the law and in lenders policies before the decline will be reversed.  

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