A Crofting Experiment

Colin Grant, fifth generation farmer in Glengarry. Photo: Murdo MacLeod

This article written by Severin Carrell appeared in the Guardian today, 10 January. Normally I would post a link on Twitter but for protectors of our land it deserves reproduced in full. The intention is to see if the community experiment might lead one way to repopulate the Highlands.

There are various schools of thought on how best to achieve this end, the cleared Highlands saw not a penny of wealth created by the British Empire invested in the Highlands, and successive UK governments have seen the vast tracts of land as nothing more than forests in which to invest for profit, and shooting reserves for game rented to wealthy tourists including English visitors.

Some readers will be specialists, their opinion of interest to other readers in the comments section.

It’s very exciting,” said Colin Grant, a fifth-generation farmer in Glengarry near Fort William. Grant has seen his community dwindle over the decades but now the village is at the centre of a novel experiment that could help repopulate the Highlands.

Local people in Glengarry are creating woodland crofts in nearby forests – affordable family homes designed for craftspeople, carpenters and small-scale farmers, using a shared ownership model designed to combat the soaring costs of scarce rural homes.

Glengarry’s experiment is being watched closely by rural housing and land reform campaigners across Scotland, as well as Scottish government ministers, curious about whether this model could help solve rural Scotland’s housing crisis. There has been a recent surge of interest in woodland crofts, caused by the Covid crisis, Brexit, and a growing desire for low-carbon living, said Jamie McIntyre, who co-founded the Woodland Crofts Partnership, an advocacy and advice campaign.

“The Covid pandemic caused a lot of people to reassess and look for a different lifestyle and we see that in the rural housing market as well,” McIntyre said. People now realise they can work remotely. “On an individual level, living and working on a woodland croft is low carbon living par excellence, ideally in a timber-built house, heated with fuel and eating food grown on land around you.”

“It’s very exciting, this project, because there has been a need for affordable housing for quite a few decades,” Grant said. “There’s a positive feel about it amongst a vast majority of the community. It’s seen as strengthening the community.”Over the decades, he said, Forestry Commission workers moved out, as did the hydro engineers. The village shop closed 30 years ago. In a trend repeated across rural Britain, cottages were bought up for second homes and holiday lets, driving up prices; around a quarter of local homes are frequently dark and empty outside the holiday seasons.

“Jobs have just vanished and while tourism has grown, it’s not enough. There’s a need for more job opportunities.”

So Grant and his neighbours, about 100 of them, set up a community-run company called Glengarry Community Woodland which now owns 78ha (193 acres) of forest and open land, backed by £193,000 from the Scottish Land Fund, a government body that part-finances community buyouts.

Tom Cooper, right, development manager for Glengarry Community Woodlands, and Bruce Kocjan, community woodland officer, on a forest croft site overlooking Loch Garry. Photo: Murdo MacLeod

In collaboration with the Community Housing Trust, an affordable housing charity that bought 19ha immediately beside Glengarry’s largest 47ha plot, they plan to build four affordable homes and create six woodland crofts, offering those as a mixture of tenancies and self-build projects looking south over Loch Garry.

It will be partly financed by income from six new off-grid forest cabins for holiday lets the community group is building, with larch from their forest, after raising just under £250,000 from crowd-sourced equity funding in December, to cash in on the growth of eco-tourism.

Tom Cooper, Glengarry Community Woodland’s development manager, said these homes would mix the strict rules of crofting tenure where crofters, registered by the Crofting Commission, have to actively work and live on their land, and the principles of shared equity. The community trust will part own the land.

“We’re expecting crofters to be able to manage the woodland, and will have to demonstrate that when they apply for the croft,” he said. “They’re not just going to be open to everyone.Very few crofters want to make their sole income from the croft. You might work part-time in tourism, which is a very seasonal industry here. You might work at weekends on the croft, to bring in additional income.”

There have been numerous privately owned woodland crofts dotted around Scotland, and the first community-owned scheme began in north-west Mull in 2012.

McIntyre has recently tracked projects springing up across the Highlands and islands, including on Skye, at Kilfinan in Argyll and Tiroran on south-west Mull. Near Ullapool, Loch Broom Community Renewables, which already runs a 100kw hydro power station, is buying 94ha of surrounding forest for woodland crofting. It feels like a tipping point, he said.

The Crofting Federation, a campaigning group, wants 10,000 new crofts built in Scotland: half should be woodland crofts, it believes. McIntyre has lobbied Forestry and Land Scotland, the state-owned forestry agency, to allow crofts on its land. “You should do woodland crofts on the national forest estate: that would be a really important natural next step,” he said.

Ronnie MacRae, the Community Housing Trust’s chief executive, said Glengarry’s model could provide proof that collaborative, mixed-tenure crofting works. It met several needs: affordable rural housing, net zero living and sustaining rural economies. “We know that there’s demand and I think that’s growing,” he said. “There’s a big appetite from most small rural communities to get more housing choices.”

Grant said Glengarry hoped to become a pioneer. “The thing which is exciting us, if it goes well, it could be a model for others to follow. That’s what we really like about it. Its reputation and a proven track record could go a long way.”


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5 Responses to A Crofting Experiment

  1. Brian Watson says:

    Good to have such a positive story at this time of unremitting negativity from all media sources . Well done Grouse Beater for flagging this up

  2. Jan Cowan says:

    New crofters, unless they are from crofting people, need to be educated before they are let loose among sheep and cattle. Often they’ve come from a city, usually from the heart of England, and carry a romantic vision of crofting. They buy half a dozen ewes and a collie pup and soon find they don’t know how to train the pup which enjoys chasing the poor sheep at will. And cattle! They put their lives in danger trying to lift an new-born calf in spite of the mother’s obvious protective instincts. Perhaps we’ve simply been unlucky in these parts but in any case a course in “Crofting for Beginners” would help matters in any crofting township.

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    Incomers looking for a copy of BBC’s comedy series ‘The Good Life’ are most definitely advised to stay in their motherland.

  4. arayner1936 says:

    Do the existing communities in these areas get a say in who is selected to buy/rent and work these crofts? Will there be any restrictions on who they can be sold on to?

  5. Alan Gordon says:

    Jan Cowan, There is, within crofting counties, croft management education for new entrants already set up. This was to address a surge in new croft entrants some years ago. A surge that was embraced and welcomed by crofting communities as it helped keep some rural schools viable and brought in a variety of new ideas, some good.

    Arayner1936, If they are indeed crofts they are legally bound to have a grazings committee set up. It is now mainly in theory only, but the original crofting act gave the power to the grazings committee to say aye or naw to who the future tenant would be. This power was still in use till recently, now the grazings committee seem to be kept in the dark, in regards to new tenants. The change from Crofters Commision to Crofting Commision coincided with the change in communication with the grazings committees.

    I say, if they are indeed crofts because, I think it was 1957 that legislation was passed, No New Crofts. Existing croft boundaries can be extended and existing crofts can be subdivided and that is the only way to make new crofts now, extend and subdivide.

    I’ll not go into the history of the Crofting Act, but suffice to say that when the reasons, the impetus for the Act’s creation had waned (guilt, need for fresh blood?) they, the government, didn’t want crofts. Too much power and control given out and what’s the use of land that can’t be sold, if it can’t be sold it is worthless. Where would that end?

    The next piece of legislation to weaken croft laws was in 1967, The Decrofting Act. Prior to this act registered croft land could not be sold, improvements could be sold but the land would always remain in feu/tenure and the tenant, feu holder can only be one person. By decrofting your house site you could apply for a mortgage and if you default on the payments the bank could now repossess. A very clever move by government to erode crofting. A decrofting act allows human avarice to do it’s worst, the tenant can sell off house sites to the highest bidder, instead of house sites being made available to local born children.

    I’ll stop there, before the emergence of a rant.

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