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27 September 1999

One man’s crisis, another man’s croft

New Statesman Scotland - The areas that have relied on hill sheep farming must reinvent the

By James Hunter

Following a meeting between a National Farmers’ Union-Scottish Crofters’ Union delegation and civil servants in Edinburgh towards the end of the 1980s, the crofters’ representatives, of whom I was one, got together to compare notes before starting on the long journey home. The meeting, one of several surrounding the autumn ritual of setting agricultural support levels for the year ahead, had gone, from our point of view, pretty well. We had underlined the problems (minimal by today’s standards but serious enough it was thought at the time) confronting sheep producers. And we had achieved, we reckoned, a reasonable result – one that would be reflected, we believed, in a boost to that most arcane, though vital, of sheep-producer subsidies, the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance.

Our success was, however, soured by a comment made by a crofter colleague as we wound up our debriefing session. “Doesn’t it strike you as a wee bit ironic,” he said to me, “that we, of all people, should be coming here in the company of a bunch of sheep farmers to plead the case for keeping up sheep numbers in the Highlands and Islands?”

I thought of what lay behind the remark: of the clearance and eviction of generations of crofting folk because of the installation in the Highlands and Islands of the sheep-production systems we had just spent three hours trying to sustain. “Maybe ‘ironic’ isn’t quite the word you want,” I replied. “How about ‘tragic’?”

Contemplating the crisis now threatening to overwhelm Scotland’s hill sheep sector, I recall that conversation and wonder if, rather than trying to keep sheep production going with cash injections that would be unavailable to any other industry, we should be trying to put something different – and arguably better – in place of at least some of our hill sheep farms.

As opportunities go, I admit, this one comes heavily disguised. When the products of any long-standing and once highly esteemed activity cease to find a worthwhile market (and hill lambs are no different in this respect from Ravenscraig steel or Clydeside ships), the people who turn out those products feel that they, as well as their skills, have been devalued. Hence the comment by a woman from Sutherland who, days before, had seen her lambs sell in a Lairg sale-ring for a fraction of what they would have fetched four or five years previously. “It wasn’t the price I minded most,” that woman said. “I just felt so worthless, so humiliated.”

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You don’t do a lot for people struggling to cope with such feelings by telling them their business has absolutely no future. And that is not my message here. Despite the current difficulties, there will continue to be demand, both in the European Union and beyond, for lambs of the sort we are well placed in Scotland to turn out – lambs reared to a high standard and in ways as close to natural as possible. But given downward trends in meat consumption, especially among younger age groups, it is, to put it no higher, improbable that demand will be sufficient in the long term to justify hill sheep farming on its present scale. That’s why we should be finding alternative uses for some of our hill farms.

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Crofting has something to offer in this context. Go today to a crofting area such as Skye – its population enormously up on that of 30 years ago, its townships filling with new houses – and you see some of the possibilities if comparatively large numbers of people have access to land.

Hill farming, being a full-time occupation which requires that it is conducted on bigger and bigger blocks of territory if it is to have any chance of economic viability, is bound, by definition, to provide for fewer and fewer people as time goes on. Unlike farmers, however, crofters are part-time, even spare-time, agriculturalists. They might grow some crops. They might rear some sheep. But their incomes come mostly from non-agricultural sources. This used to be regarded as crofting’s central weakness. Today it looks increasingly like a strength. It can create a situation where, irrespective of trends in farm commodity prices, rural communities gain both in numbers and prosperity.

Success of this sort depends on two things. First, on sufficiently diversifying the overall rural economy to ensure that there are worthwhile earnings to be had outside farming. And second, on creating a land-use structure that enables individuals and families to realise the aspiration – one which is increasingly common across the social spectrum – of having access to the sort of home that comes not just with a rural setting but with a few acres of land.

A home with a few acres of land is something that’s always been readily available in crofting areas. And in some places, such as Skye, a diversified rural economy is beginning to be available as well. What we need is a concerted effort, on an experimental basis initially, to replicate these conditions elsewhere.

Remember, in this context, the growing number of folk who, as the title of Charles Leadbeater’s recent book has it, are “living on thin air” – in the sense that they’re engaged in “the knowledge economy”. One of the knowledge economy’s characteristics is that, thanks to telecommunications and computer technology, it doesn’t depend on concentrating people in particular localities. At last it is feasible to break the age-old link between industry and urbanisation. That’s why we’re beginning to see headline-grabbing stories about currency dealers operating out of Hebridean crofts or the establishment of Internet service providers in places such as Lewis.

So instead of allowing every vacated hill farm in places such as the Borders and Perthshire to be bought either by neighbouring farmers or by forestry companies that will simply cover the land with conifers, why don’t we make it possible for a number of such farms to be divided into the equivalent of crofts – the occupiers being entitled to put up homes and other buildings on their crofts as is standard practice in the Highlands and Islands?

The aim of this exercise, I stress, would not be to replace uneconomic big farms with even more uneconomic small farms. It would be to repopulate farming districts by permitting people who have little or no connection with farming to get hold of farmland.

This would necessitate a change of mindset on the part of local authority planners, who have for far too long been of the view that the ideal rural landscape is one with the minimum of houses. It might also require thought being given to provisions intended to ensure first, that the homes resulting from such an initiative don’t rapidly become holiday cottages, and second, that new settlements – perhaps by involving housing associations in their development – contain people from a range of backgrounds.

Over the winter the Scottish Parliament will consider the first of several land-reform measures due to come before MSPs in the next two or three years. If these measures are to deliver concrete benefits to rural areas, they should facilitate experimentation of the sort suggested here. I recognise this runs counter to the deep-seated notion that hill farming of the large-scale Borders or Perthshire type is inherently superior to crofting of the sort that goes on in Skye. But drive through just about any bit of sadly depopulated Borders countryside. Next, drive along Skye’s Sleat peninsula – where new homes confront you at every turn. Then tell me which of these two localities looks like having the brightest future.

James Hunter’s latest book is “Last of the Free: a millennial history of the Highlands and Islands” (Mainstream, £18)