Raasay highlights problems with external ownership in crofting communities

28 February 2013

The Island of Raasay has become the latest focus in the increasingly heated debate over land reform in Scotland, following the Scottish Government’s decision to grant the sporting rights on one of their estates to a company from Ayrshire, despite the asset having been built up by the crofters of the island for almost 20 years. The crofters were required to re-bid for the rights they had acquired in 1994 as the Raasay Crofting Association (RCA). Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP stated that the RCA’s bid was ‘substantially lower’ than the winner.

As it transpires, they were beaten to the tune of just £2000 by the Ayrshire based South Ayrshire Stalking. Meanwhile, The RCA had not only improved the sport but generated a solid trade in venison and fishing permits, thus being a success story in a small island economy.

The decision was, apparently, in the interests of best value for the taxpayer but the move caused consternation not just within the crofting community but from land reform commentators across Scotland, at a time where the Scottish Government is making attempts to address land reform and empower rural communities.

However, in a U-turn today, it appears the Environment Minister has listened to the chorus of disapproval and reversed the decision. First Minister Alex Salmond said the withdrawal of the lease had been with mutual consent between the Scottish Government and South Ayrshire Stalking. RCA have been given the lease back until the end of the sporting season, with further review thereafter. Mr Wheelhouse has stated that Ministers will be directly involved with similar future decisions. He said:  “this will extend the islanders’ existing lease by a year and will allow us to work with crofters and the wider community to find a satisfactory long-term solution.”  The move will cost the taxpayer considerably more than the savings made by granting the lease in the first place.

Raasay has a well documented history of problems relating to absentee landlords exerting control over the crofting community. In the 1960’s the Scottish Office sold off property on the island to an individual named Dr Green from Sussex. Subsequent development and the ambitions of the local residents were repeatedly blocked due to conflicted views on developing the community. While these problems were overcome with the departure of Dr Green, the latest decision may raise questions as to whether the community should be looking to purchase the land and the sporting rights, as is possible under the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Act 1997. They had been offered an opportunity to do so previously by the Scottish Office; they declined at that point, understandably thinking that the Government as landlord would be a safe option who would protect the interests of the crofters. 

If the Islanders of Raasay have had some faith restored in their current Government landlord today, what further options are open to the crofters, or others in a similar situation, to protect their rights long term? Much has been reported recently of the use of Part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 to force a landlord to sell – the recent Pairc decision is an example of this. Where the landlord is the Scottish Government, the best course of action may be to use the 1997 Act to enable the crofters to buy. They would have to first form a properly constituted community body. The body formed must be representative of the crofting community in the district and must have the promotion of persons residing on the land as its primary objective. The purchase can include sporting rights. In the case of Raasay, the work the crofters have done to increase the value of the sport would, unfortunately, be reflected in an increase in price but the right would be theirs.

Inksters are experienced in advising crofting communities who wish to purchase their land, and are currently acting for clients who are in the process of purchasing their crofting estate under the 1997 Act. Whether you are a crofter looking for more information on the subject, or a landlord of a crofting estate, then Inksters can assist you. Contact Brian Inkster in Glasgow or Eilidh Ross in Inverness

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