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25 August 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:51pm

Hipsters of the Highlands: catching up with the next generation of crofters

Why are twenty-somethings beginning to take up crofting, the historic small-scale farming method peculiar to the Scottish Highlands?

By Sally Brammall

Each day at 7am, Maddy Norval feeds the chickens, checks on 22 Hebridean sheep and four Shetland cows, before starting work in her studio. The art school graduate combines an online business selling craft dolls with tending a 62-acre croft in Rogart, Sutherland. Crofting is the historic practice, unique to the Scottish Highlands, of subsistence farming on an agricultural unit of land called a croft.

Crofting has been around since the time of the Highland Clearances, which began in the 18th century. Following the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising in 1745, the Scottish feudal clan system was abolished and the Scottish landowners sought instead to derive profit from their land through sheep-farming. Their farming tenants were either forcibly removed from their land or pushed to small agricultural units at the land edges, known as “crofts. Initially, crofters had few rights to the land but the 1886 Crofters Act changed this, with the introduction of secure (long-term) tenancies.

A young crofter, Fraquhar MacRae. All photos of individual young crofters are stills from Robin Haig’s film, Crofting’s New Voices

At 25 years old, Norval is less than half the age of the average crofter today – which is 58. Norval had not heard of crofting until a year ago, but had always wanted to grow her own food and rear livestock. She is not alone. Both Norval and her partner are also representatives of the Young Crofters Group (YCG), a newly-formed branch of the member-led Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) that has set itself up as an advocate for young or aspiring crofters.

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“Crofting is a more affordable way to get a sustainable lifestyle,” says Norval. “A green revolution is what motivates me, and many of my friends at the Young Crofters. They want to be able to produce their own food and are desperate to get a piece of land to do so.”

Amid high rents and unstable working arrangements for young people, crofting can appear an attractive option, with rent for a secure tenancy from as little as £5 per annum.

The YCG found its feet during a Young Crofters 20:20 gathering at Assynt, in the northwest corner of the Highlands, in March. The event attracted over 90 young and aspiring crofters to talk about a future for crofting. Its formation is welcome news for many in the crofting community, who feared that crofting was becoming an endangered practice.

The group’s chairman is Manchester-born nurse James Shewan, 28, who became interested in crofting and socialist history while studying. An aspiring crofter, he lives in Inverness and is keen to campaign for the release of new crofts, cultivate mentoring opportunities with crofting elders and address inefficiencies in its antiquated legal framework.

“That’s really why the YCG formed,” he says. “To lobby the government and build a new roof on outdated laws.”

The YCG’s enthusiasm for helping young crofters gain access to the system appears to be matched by crofters in existing crofting communities across the Highlands. Shaz Morton, 49, a crofter from the Waternish peninsula, has organised a crofters’ networking event on the island of Skye under the banner of Scottish land reform campaigning festival #OurLand.

“For me, young crofters are very much the future of crofting,” says Morton. “If the Scottish government can move broadband and connectivity along, there will be potentially a new generation of people who work in the Highlands as well as croft in the Highlands.”

The YCG want to do a skills swap: offering established crofters social media, computer and application skills in return for traditional crofting skills. So we are going to give them a chance to meet each other,” adds Morton.

The first ever crofting census, completed this year, returned results of 14,022 crofts in the UK, and confirmed widespread crofting diversification, with 11 per cent of crofters branching out into tourism and 20 per cent into conservation. Designated crofting land accounts for more than 15 per cent of the UK land mass, but there remains significant financial and legal hurdles for those who do want to get hold of a croft.

Norval and her partner are owner-occupiers of theirs, bought for £95,000 in conjunction with another family member (current legislation prohibits buying a croft using a mortgage, requiring aspiring crofters to raise enough personal capital to buy one outright).

Many crofts pass to family members via inheritance, but crofting commissioner Ian George Macdonald would like many more older crofters to think in advance about a plan for unused crofts. “When a croft is left in testate, that’s when succession can become very complicated,” he says.

Tenancies are more affordable than purchasing a croft, ranging into tens of thousands rather than the hundreds, but demand is high and few come onto the market. Available government and EU grants tend to be for tenant crofters, and several have funds specifically for new entrants to crofting: the Scottish Rural Development Programme includes the New Entrants Start-Up grant which is worth £12,500, the Croft House Grant Scheme (under review) and the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme, which awards financial aid up to a maximum of £25,000 for individuals, and £125,000 for groups.

Previous government land reforms have had a substantial impact on the number of crofts in circulation, but the upcoming Scottish Land Reform Bill does not touch upon crofting directly. However, it does talk about community ownership, says Professor Jim Hunter, crofting historian and former crofting union director: “There is a clear overlap here because the biggest land area of community ownership is in crofting, but the Bill under consideration does not bear any relation to crofters,” he says. “That could be said to be a criticism  why is more not being done to help them?”

“If you go back all the way to 1886, when we got the Crofters Act, it’s because crofters organised themselves, caused so much struggle and hassle that something had to be done.”

The Act, which also led to formation of the Crofting Commission to adjudicate on rent disputes, followed strikes, land raids and strong support for political group Crofters’ Party. Hunter is not suggesting extreme action, but does add: “If there was more genuine, grassroots on the ground pressure, then it would have an effect – particularly if it is coming from young people.”

From left to right: Maddy Norval, James Shewan, Cheryl MacIntyre, Rob Humphrey and Chiara Boni. Photo: Megan Rowland

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