A Common Treasury
When the rights for fishing and shooting on Raasay were advertised last autumn, the issue went relatively unnoticed.
Since 1995, those rights had been held by an organisation representing the local crofters, who had built up the island’s resources into a successful operation — aimed at reversing years of decline.
For decades, the island had suffered at the hands of infamous absentee landlord, Dr Joseph Green, who had earned himself the moniker ‘Dr No’ when he bought vast amounts of property on the island but refused the development necessary to help it thrive.
Raasay Crofters’ Association had been paying £650 for the rights, by now owned by the Scottish Government, but when the lease expired last year, its members were told it was being put out to tender.
The crofters duly upped their offer to £1,150 a year and although the association had been told the Scottish Government was “not obliged to accept the highest offer”, the decision was taken to award it to South Ayrshire Stalking, which had offered about £2,000 more.
In signing that deal, it appeared the Government had not taken into account the depth of anger it would provoke.
Environment minister Paul Wheelhouse, whose brief includes crofting, was accused of being another ‘Dr No’, even though in a letter to fellow MSPs he explained the Raasay Crofters’ Association’s bid had been the lowest of five offers.
He also stressed the decision had been made by officials and said in future any similar decision should be referred to ministers.
Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant raised the issue in First Minister’s Questions and the former SNP independent MSPs, John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, received support from across the political spectrum for a motion condemning the move.
Exactly a week later, the situation had been reversed. At the next FMQs, Alex Salmond told the chamber that Wheelhouse had been on the phone that morning to resolve the dispute, the new owners had backed down and the crofters were being given a one-year extension to the lease while an agreement would be reached on the future.
Anne Gillies, secretary of the Raasay Crofters’ Association, told Holyrood the crofters had been “horrified” when it appeared they were going to lose their rights “The reason the Crofters’ Association was set up in the first place was to prevent outsiders from getting the shooting rights in case of conflict between somebody coming in to shoot and the crofters out on the hill gathering sheep,” she said.
“Raasay has had an unfortunate history with, 50 years ago, the sale of most of the big properties on the island [going] to Dr Green and the anger that was felt at the time. We thought it could never happen again and for it to happen to ourselves this year, it shocked us.” She added: “We’ve got a year’s extension and the theory is that will give everybody enough time to discuss the whole thing fully and decide on a long-term future for the lease, which is certainly better than rushing something through and cobbling something together in the hope that it will work.” In the week when the issue flared up nationally, it was important that the SNP was seen to act quickly as it faced accusations of abandoning its large support base in the Highlands and Islands.
Although the initial shooting rights issue has been resolved, land reform expert Andy Wightman, author of The Poor Had No Lawyers, said it still raised concerns about where the issue of land reform was on the current SNP administration’s radar.
The Scottish Government owns 1.9m acres of land, 242,000 of which is managed by its own officials.
In 1999, the then Scottish Executive launched its Estate Charter, which included a commitment to “take account of local community perspective considering offers for sporting rights on the Scottish ministers’ estates.” But Wightman said this 1999 charter had been forgotten by the Government because of a lack of “institutional memory” among civil servants working on the matter.
And he added the value of the lease, which has been improved since 1995 by the crofters, did not belong to the Government “in any moral sense” and he said the row raised wider issues.
“To my mind, this raises two questions,” he said. “One is the question of governance — who is making these decisions and why are they being made by civil servants in Edinburgh.
“The second is the question of the Government’s land reform agenda — and in fact it simply doesn’t have one. It seems to have let it drop.
“You’ve got this big vacuum of no ministerial guidance whatsoever on how these estates should be managed. That guidance was established in 1999 and the SNP has let it lapse, like it has let the whole land reform agenda lapse.” Paul Wheelhouse was unavailable for interview, but a Scottish Government spokeswoman said she did not accept that the agenda had been allowed to lapse.
Wheelhouse, who has since been to the island to discuss the issue personally with the crofting community, said after the original decision was reversed: “Raasay is a fragile island community and ministers recognise the sporting rights are very important to the islanders.
“I share the concerns expressed locally about the way in which the contract was awarded and will ensure, as I have indicated previously, that in future the appropriate ministerial consideration is given when such decisions are being made.” The last piece of legislation passed on land reform was the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, it included formalising open access to the countryside and set up the Outdoor Access Code as well as introducing rights for crofters and communities to buy land in their area.
The Government has set up the Land Reform Review Group which will be reporting back in a draft report in December this year.
The three-person review group’s chairwoman, Dr Alison Elliot, said although the recommendations were still some way off, the balance between community empowerment and economic growth is a part of the land reform agenda and added: “I would hope we would be coming up with ways that make it less likely that kind of mess would happen again.” Elliot, a previous moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly, is convenor of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and previously prepared reports on land reform for the General Assembly in 1998 and chaired the Scottish Land Reform Convention from 1998 to 2001.
The review will take in all aspects of land reform, not just the community ownership aspect, but also how land reform can be used to address wideranging issues like fuel poverty and food banks in Scotland.
But does Elliot believe the land reform agenda had been dropped by the SNP?
“Whether they dropped the ball or not, I can’t really say,” she said.
“I’ve always had an interest in land reform but I wasn’t close enough to government to know whether that position is accurate or not.
“But I am glad they’ve picked it up again and I think it’s good to do it after 10 years. It gives a bit of distance and a bit of perspective on all the initiatives that have taken place since 2003 and we’re now in a position to assess these better than we would have been five years ago.” If the debate over rights in Raasay has done anything, it has given the issue a wider hearing.
Anne Gillies said the outcry would hopefully mean it would be unlikely to occur again elsewhere.
She said: “This could be happening to crofters all over the Highlands. But unless it’s talked about and brought out into the open, there is a tendency to just accept what has happened.”