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Ex-Councillor Bill Mowat On Crofting Reform Legislation

10th October 2009

The consultation ended on 12th August 2009 and is now being considered.
Updates on progress of the Crofting Reform Bill can be found at
www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2009/09/29100459

The Consultation Team,
'Future of Crofting',
Scottish Government,
Area 1D, Pentland House,
47 Robb's Loan,
EDINBURGH EH14 1TY.

Dear Sir/Madam,

RESPONSE FROM BILL MOWAT WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO N.E. CAITHNESS.

I am not a crofter, but was brought up on one (thus familiar with the hard labour involved in the 1950/60s) and was proud to serve for four terms as elected Councillor (Ward 5, N.E. Caithness) on the Inverness h.q. local authority.

It is with some trepidation that I write, but I am persuaded by the results of the survey of Crofters Grazings Committees (130 responded) undertaken by Peter Peacock MSP.

As far as the Shucksmith Inquiry goes, there is a danger of 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater', if its findings were to be refused outright.

But it would be equally iniquitous to impose a new Act on crofters with which there is substantial or, as demonstrated in the survey, majority opposition to.

I presume that the aim of this consultation is to allow Ministers and civil servants the opportunity find ground with views commonly-held amongst crofters; ones where there is a broad consensus of opinion so that any proposed new legislation should win approval across the political spectrum, and ones particularly eschewing 'dogma', prior to any new (amended) Act being laid before the Scottish Parliament.

I personally believe that, as regards the Scottish Parliament, there has been a surfeit of new legislation, but a dearth of effective implementation, over its first decade.

Older crofters are alarmed that their rights stemming from the historic 1886 Crofters Act could be extinguished, if they do not pay up for re-registry, as appears to being proposed in the draft Act.

Many crofters have a view, rightly or wrongly, that Edinburgh-based civil servants are somehow 'against them' and would prefer instead that normal market forces (at least as understood until 2008) should replace the present legislative structure for crofting, or that it should be subsumed into the wider legal framework for agriculture.

But it must be borne in mind that the present set-up has evolved after being carefully thought out by our political predecessors to meet known aspirations and needs, before being implemented by civil servants dedicated to that task.

Early adoption of the present draft as an enactment Bill would perhaps reinforce this view, and should surely be avoided.

In general terms, the Crofters Commission should retain its present legal and administrative powers, but Ministers should direct it to exercise these fully and impartially for, say, a period of 5 years; and only after that promote a new Act.

Council Ward 5 covered a number of crofting districts around the coasts from and including Dunnet, Brough, Scarfskerry, Barrock & Lochend, Mey, U & L Gills, Warse, Canisbay (part), Seater, Huna, John O'Groats, Freswick &Skirza, Auckengill & Nybster, N & S Keiss etc. Included are a number of adjacent regulated and unregulated crofters' common grazings; peat moors also widely used until relatively recently for winter fuel cutting. Some inland districts, including Kirk, Bower, Lyth, Slickly, & Brabster also contain a good proportion of crofts.

Only a handful of crofts were/are viable agricultural units on their own even with grazings access; crofts were seen from 1886 onwards as a type of 'social security', preventing dearth and adding some little variety to crofters' families diet, at a cost of hard graft. This role was, of course, somewhat diminished following the introduction of the Welfare State in the late 1940s.

What is striking about NE Caithness is the concentration of population on the ground in its typically-scattered traditional crofting districts, in comparison to the County's farming areas; the latter in the former ward lying predominantly S and E of the (now A 99) road at the Wester Bridge.

Thus the population has remained reasonably vibrant in most of the crofting districts, but had been decimated in the farming ones, due to post-war mechanisation drastically reducing the need for labour.

Big farms, by local standards, that used to employ up to 12 or more people, now use only immediate family or local agricultural contractors; however some crofters and/or their families can/do regularly supply this service to farmers.

The success or otherwise, of any new Act, or enhanced use of the existing large body of laws relating to crofting, will be determined by whether it ensures that the traditional crofting communities remain buoyant enough in the future to encourage younger people to live in them; and if possible to bolster those districts; and by moves designed to end the dereliction of (some) land held under crofting tenure.

It has, of course, been apparent for over a century that the produce of the land cannot alone support anything like the number of people currently living on crofts (or in 'decrofted' house sites) therein. The availability of non-crofting jobs in such districts will obviously be crucial and any proposed new legislation should endeavour to assist in this regards, if at all possible. It is acknowledged that some of the employment possibilities will be in the 'travel to work' area, not classified as being crofting districts.


I was brought up hearing tales of the active, and successful, resistance of our forefathers to Highland Clearances in this area and the beneficial influence of such as Dr Gavin Clark, MP for Caithness (and joint founder of the Scottish Labour Party) and local native (later Sir) Donald MacFarlane, MP in securing emancipation for the crofters. This area played a key role in the 'birth' of crofting as a legal entity.

Crofting agriculture, rooted as it is in food production, will never go out of fashion; only the emphasis may change from generation to generation. Thus the fundamental freedoms/rights/responsibilities of crofters and designations of crofts under the 1886 Crofters Act, must remain sacrosanct. This, of course, excludes land on the fringes of towns, but this should not be difficult to draft this, if necessary, for any new Act.

Such proposed legislation must contain a degree of flexibility to build on, and where necessary extend, the strengths of past enactments to cope with the above and so avoid the need for regular Parliamentary amendments.

As Councillor, I co-operated with several grazings committees in providing new or improved sheep-fanks and in one case a 'groyne' sea-wall to prevent sheep straying in winter along a beach off a common grazing on to greener 'inby' land; successfully pressed for 'bit-mac' surfacing of several crofting township access roads and provided from dedicated Council resources crushed road-stone for the upkeep of many 'unadopted roads' and I hosted the meeting that led to the formation of a local branch of the Scottish Crofters' Union.

The co-operation I received from the Duncansby Head Common Grazings Committee, the custodians of an official 'Area of Great Landscape Value', is worthy of a mention. Their well-maintained cliff-top sheep fence also acts as an obvious safety barrier to visitors; their co-operation allowed the formation of enhanced road access and parking for coaches, disabled persons and general motorists, plus the cliff-top path to the famous Stacks. This lets parties of students/schoolchildren, as well as John O'Groats tourists in general, get within a stone's throw of the country's most accessible major sea-bird colony and experience the natural wonder of the geology of the brick-red cliffs etc. To my mind, it should receive a continuing annual financial allowance for this.

I promoted and championed the crofters' housing 'grants and loans scheme' and diversification, including the provision of tourism self-catering units of the timber-frame traditional architecture type sold by a local manufacturing joinery firm for this purpose in crofting areas.

I still regard my campaign to have the EU 'Leader' scheme for this purpose extended from Skye etc. to include NE Caithness as my biggest failure in 16 years as Councillor; it offered a 50% grant per croft unit, but I was finally told 'that the area was too well-off to qualify!'. I worked closely with Assessors and had a good relationship with civil servants administering crofting in the area.

In this area, many crofts were sold off by estates covering much of Canisbay and Dunnet parishes during the 1950s and well in advance of crofters' entitlement to purchase; there was and is a feeling that such crofters have suffered discrimination in comparison to those who purchased later or remain 'crofting tenure' tenants.

The 'scattered housing' of the crofting districts as above was and is popular; indeed increasingly so. Such residences are much preferred to 'Council' or so-called 'social' housing. The crofting housing 'loan' element should be re-instated and the grant increased to mirror/track the cost of living index.

{Since starting to sketch this response earlier this week, I have been unpleasantly surprised to learn that the (Scottish) Government has apparently pre-empted the unanimous recommendation of the Parliament's own Rural Affairs Committee in this matter, while the proposed new draft Act is still in its consultation phase. Given that the latter is called the 'Future of Crofting', I find this somewhat disconcerting, as it implied to me at least that all legislative/administrative matters were up for discussion}.

The above is a viable way of providing some public support for housing in traditional crofting districts, where wage-levels tend to be below the national average; this could and should be expanded to provide a powerful bulwark against depopulation, especially in an area like this where there are no private housing estates

One 'grant and loan' should be available/applicable to a family member of any registered croft, perhaps in co-operation with (local?) Housing Association(s).

Perhaps it would be sensible that this scheme should be available to any younger person of either sex who is demonstrably contributing to the well-being of such rural communities, provided he/she can find a suitable home-site on a registered croft.

This would also help crofting areas to fully participate in the (currently) necessary boost to the building trades, here substantially based in the crofting areas. Obviously, where feasible, any house-sites should be on less-productive land.

I strongly dislike the term 'owner occupier' when used in a crofting context, as such persons have responsibilities as well as rights; there should be no discrimination against them in favour of continuing tenants.

The primary responsibility upon any registered crofter is to keep his/her land 'in good heart', with the Crofters Commission responsible for enforcement, as required. This does not mean that 7-year cropping rotations should be reintroduced. But it does mean that land that our forefathers hand-dug from heather moors should not be allowed to degenerate to dereliction.

All along the A9 road through the traditional crofting area of Latheron parish one passes by mile after mile of rushes; the biggest blot on the otherwise attractive Caithness landscape. It conveys an impression of such traditional crofting districts being inhabited by an uncaring people, ones not bothered by the pressing and increasing World need for food.

That this sad condition prevails is a sign that the Crofters Commission is not working effectively enough; Ministers should give it clear directions in this regard.

It does not and should not matter who owns/tenants such designated croft-land; it is the productive use of this God-given resource that is important.

I am not for a minute arguing that families, or those absent for years for personal career reasons, should lose their ancestral croft, but rather that (at the bottom line) some coercion may appear to be needed to ensure that such land can be let short-term to neighbouring active crofters/farmers to ensure that it regains its 'in good heart' status, that it should never have been allowed to lose in the first place.

All in-by crofting land in Caithness here needs to be ploughed up and re-sown with grass-seed plus clover at least once per decade; otherwise a spiral of neglect/seeming abandonment ensues with rushes 'colonising' the landscape

I do not favour transferring the development functions of the Crofters Commission to HIE; that latter body seems to has lost some of its lustre in recent years, perhaps due to perceived weaker leadership than it had for the first few decades and also because, in this area, some relatively recent decisions have been shown to be flawed, without the benefit of 'hindsight'.

But strong links between the Commission and the Government 'jobs agency' at both member and officials level has to be encouraged and can sometimes be essential.

The Register of Crofts is important; if it is not up-to-date this is an argument for beefing up the Crofters Commission, not truncating it.

Obviously close liaison with the new Scottish Land Register, as successor to the Register of Sasines is important; but crofters should not have to pay to be re-registered, or fear the loss of their status if they fail to do so.

The Commission has decades of experience and law behind it; this should be used effectively and with consistency across the traditional crofting areas.

My only public office these days is as vice-chairman of the community-owned body that possesses and runs Gills Harbour, in Caithness, now a busy year-round RO:RO ferry base, providing c. 50 full-time equivalent shore and shipboard jobs; it has a crofting background.

Its original 140-yard long pier was established just over a century ago under an 1897 Act of Parliament, (an adjunct to the 1886 Crofters Act) that was aimed at diversifying the economy of traditional crofting districts such as Gills. The pier was intended as the first stage of a 'steamer terminus for the Orkney trade'; despite approval this did not go ahead due to the outbreak of the Great War. It was one of a number of piers/harbours serving island communities approved at that time under the above legislation.

It is only during the past decade that the vision of our crofter forefathers and Dr Gavin Clark MP has been combined (via a partnership agreement) with a staged multi-million pound investment by a local private ferry firm (St Margaret's Hope, Orkney) in enhancing facilities at Gills.

This has been further improved by the introduction of a brand-new catamaran vessel this year, providing a year-round subsidy-free thrice-daily return service on the quickest and most sheltered crossing to Orkney; the island terminus is at St Margaret's Hope, now part of Orkney's main roads network via the Churchill Barriers.

The role of our retiring Hon. Sec., an active (tenant) crofter, was perhaps crucial in providing the 'intellectual' basis for the case to seeing though the visions of our forefathers; for a complete year, he volunteered to go hourly to the end of the pier in all weathers during daylight hours taking readings on a tide-board mounted there of sea-swell heights, plus logging wind velocity and direction. We then received a modicum of public help to test these measurements electronically, which proved fine; and then to have them professionally analysed/interpreted.

That allowed us to hire an internationally-renowned specialist transport consultancy that was were able to confirm that the location was suitable for a modern RO:RO terminus. Only a locally resident active crofter could have been able to undertake this mammoth task, by fitting it in around land-work commitments; employment constraints ruled out our other members.

The Congested Districts Board, confined to the Highlands and Islands crofting districts, was in fact the UK's first state-sponsored rural development agency; its legacy also includes the Harris Tweed industry and it served as a template for the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board decades later, and other rural official jobs agencies internationally. A partial successor was the Crofters Counties rural transport scheme from the 1930s to early 1980s.

If diversification of employment for crofters was considered to be important enough for an Act in 1897, then that is even more strongly the case in 2009, with the acreage of land-holding providing viability having steadily risen over recent decades. But if the Pentland Firth tidal stream electricity 'harvesting' develops as envisaged, there could be a dramatic downward change in what is a viable acreage for some North Coast local crofters, even within the coming decade (see below).

The above shows that crofting has an enduring legacy which may need to be updated from time to time, but never extinguished; the days when a family henhouses supplied eggs to cover the weekly grocery bill may well be in the past, but only last month a 'free range poultry' enterprise was announced for a Caithness crofting area.

For many generations, in the days before powered freighters and certificated ships' masters, some crofter-fishermen in N.E. Caithness provided an essential service to much of UK's and NW Europe's sea-borne trade as Pentland Firth pilots.

They used their intimate knowledge of the strong sea-currents in various parts of the Strait at different times in the twice-daily and 14-day lunar tide cycles and in winds of varying strengths from 'around the compass' to safely guide windjammers though the potentially hazardous Firth. Without a pilot on board here, a ship's marine insurance policy was void. They could sail 'their' vessels against the wind (by skilful 'tacking', in those confirmed waters), but never against the currents.

Now, many millions of pounds of taxpayers' funds are being spent on generic Pentland Firth surveys, with the area's potential to provide Britain's biggest single 'renewable' electricity source; perhaps round-the-clock 24/7, if my fellow Gills Harbour officer-bearer Billy Magee's hypothesis on this subject is proven. He has a lifetime's experience of using a (powered) traditional local 'yole', similar to the ones used as 19th C. pilot boats.

Much of this money is being expended to electronically regain knowledge that was second nature to those past generations of crofter-fishers here.

If, as highly possible, developments in tidal stream 'horizontal hydro' electricity (potentially the size of eight or more nuclear or coal-fired stations) proceeds but precedes the full capacity/availability of overhead or sub-sea power cables to convey it to main markets, much power may be used 'in situ' to help create employment.

That could provide an opportunity to use the heat created for specialist vegetable cultivation enterprises, aimed at the same market as lamb-producers currently supply from here. Again this could and should be an up-dated twist on the crofting theme.

Thankfully we cannot see into the future, but the consistent World demand for good quality, but relatively inexpensive, food in the coming decades for an expanding population is as good as a certainty; despite constraints of climate and soils, the traditional crofting areas can and should play a part here.

Crofting districts, as legally accepted in the past, should remain having such a designation for all legislative purposes, with the possible exception of town fringe land (as above).

Along with that, and the provision of food 'niches' (e.g. traditional sheep, although the local 'rockies' are extinct, their Shetland/Soay 'cousins' remain; bere grown for milling etc.) the future for crofting should be secure, provided that the Crofters Commission's role is not only continued, but also beefed up.

The Crofters Assessor network should remain and perhaps be expanded; I am opposed to regulatory decisions being taken by the proposed Local Boards; a recipe for allegations of favouritism, whether justified or not.

Of course the above will cost money at this time of worldwide recession.

But the EU's Common Agricultural Policy contains both flexibility and a pool of taxpayers' funding that can allow a renewed Commission to be given a period to bed in, of perhaps 5 years.

The Crofters Commission should not be burdened or involved in creating 'new' croft-land, until it has clearly shown that it has successfully used its existing powers especially towards eradicating dereliction. In the local context, it is unlikely that any 'new' crofts on the Pentland Firth shore (as above) could be needed until c. 2015.

This may involve more civil servants, but this should not be a problem given the reduction in the staffing establishment of many other state
Bodies/departments.

While an Inverness head office should remain for accessibility/transport hub reasons, modern technology could mean some staff being recruited to the (underused) Government office block in Wick, or to areas such as Benbecula, where a run-down in Government-supported posts is expected.

I would finally wish to end by bringing to your attention three croft-based based enterprises here in NE Caithness.

Don Mowat followed his late father John in running his vegetable production unit at John O'Groats; mainly potatoes, brassicas and carrots.

Starting on the family's 'Victoria' croft, Don now has access to a considerable proportion of the arable land in this traditional crofting community.

This now includes the Mains farm, historically the home of the Groat family, as well as numerous crofts. The enterprise has an impressive array of specialist harvesting, processing and packing machinery, provides employment locally, and supplies many hotels and restaurants in the Far North. The business's distinctive 'End to End' signpost logo is well known to grocery shoppers in Caithness, while he also supplies some supermarkets.

You may have heard that John 'Jockie' Sutherland's new multi-million pound slaughterhouse/meat-packing/manufacturing plant on a Mid-Keiss croft is presently being commissioned, in its run-up to full production. Mr Sutherland should be congratulated on his enterprise, as this could provide a significant new outlet for local crofters.

Another significant matter worthy of bringing to you attention is Dr Jack Dunnett's bio-research laboratory on his croft at Skirza, Freswick, near John O'Groats.

Dr Dunnett is Scotland's and the UK's most successful private potato breeder, having created best-selling varieties for supermarket 'chains', but also 'niche' tubers for specialist restaurants. Some of the varieties he has created have proved winners internationally and his Caithness Potato Breeders syndicate has a worldwide membership of specialist linked breeders and seed-growers.

In a recent paper (04.09) he postulated that an adapting of a pre-historic origin, but still continuing, natural freeze-drying' process developed 8,000 years ago by the folk of the 'Altiplano' of the South America's Andes Mountains could in future remove the fear of famine from millions in the so-called 'developing world'.

Early experiments in the hot, dry, Australian Outback, where cultivation of each plot only takes place once in 20 years, have proved that yields from one of his own varieties are very good and that edible 'chuno', as it is called can be prepared; this allows potatoes to be widely transported; at present the high moisture content of ordinary ware potatoes limits their 'shelf-life', thus effectively preventing the world's fourth-largest foodstuff (after maize, wheat and rice) from being transported to difficult access 'famine zones'.

Dr Dunnett explains his reasoning in the paper as to why, in his opinion, it will not be possible to repeat the 'green revolution' for grains that is dependent on oil-based fertilisers. Hence he champions an ancient pre-Inca technique, modified by modern 'fertigation' (fertiliser and irrigation') on parts of the world's desert zones as a possible answer to future world famines.

Although Dr Dunnett's concept, hatched on his Freswick croft, is at the early stages of proving, it appears to be well-founded; this month he is to deliver a lecture on the topic to an audience of horticulturists in Inverness.

I have deliberately left out any discussion of taxpayers' support for actual crofting agriculture; this is a complex field to which 'armchair crofters' contribute to at their peril.

The days are past where virtually all the inhabitants of Canisbay and Dunnet parishes had, of necessity, to participate in working individual crofts, some as small as 5 acres.

But it is, in my humble opinion, vital that the underlying structure of crofting tenure on the ground remains in NE Caithness into the foreseeable future.

It has amply demonstrated its resilience and its capability of absorbing and even encouraging change over the past century and a quarter and thus deserves to remain intact.

Yours sincerely,

BILL MOWAT
(b_mowat[AT]yahoo.co.uk),
Caberfeidh House,
JOHN O'GROATS,
Caithness KW1 4YR.
07.08.09

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