December 8th, 1992 - A day to remember
The Crofter - February 1993
Third time lucky in Assynt
Press & Journal 9th December 1992
Assynt crofters toast
their historic victory
Press & Journal 9th December 1992
HISTORY was made in Assynt last night as crofters celebrated with song, whisky and champagne the winning of their fight for the North Lochinver Estaste.
Their long memories of past injustices under landlordism surfaced as tribute was paid to generations of crofters who had worked the land under other owners.
Speaking at a celebration in Stoer, Assynt Crofters Trust chairman Allan MacRae said: “My immediate thoughts are to wish that some of our forebears could be here to share this moment with us."
The news of the acceptance by the liquidator of the crofters' bid was received in Assynt yesterday afternoon.
Trust solicitor Simon Fraser flew from Stornoway to join the party after what he described as "a busy fortnight of negotiations".
A crowded meeting of crofters and supporters heard Mr MacRae promise: "There is no
doubt that, in winning the land, the Assynt crofters have struck a historic blow for people on the land right throughout the Highlands and Islands.
"When we started out, we knew it would be difficult, but crofters have never had anything easy.”
Crofters have made history, said trust secretary Bill Ritchie, through their courage and determination over the seven-month campaign.
While conceding that there had been some low points in that campaign, last night these were put behind them as crofters sang and enjoyed a case of whisky donated by a local hotel.
The trust committee has now arranged the next steps in the settlement of the deal - due to be finalised in February - but will take stock before detailing any further plans for the estate which they now own.
They accepted last night that they face plenty of hard work as new landlords, but an undaunted Mr MacRae said: "We have won the land. It's certainly a moment to savour. And I have no doubt that, in our owning the land, nothing but good can come of it."
MP Robert Maclennan, who last July publicly pledged to the crofters' cause £50 for each of his 26 years as MP for Caithness and Sutherland, said last night from London:
"This is a great day for Sutherland, and the whole of Scotland. The interests of those on the land has taken precedence over those who would speculate without feeling for its beauty or productive potential.
"It is a famous victory for the crofters."
Highland Region has offered. the crofters a £10,000 grant from its community development projects initiative, while the council's investment company, Highland Prospect Ltd, has offered £90,000 assistance.
Assynt Crofters, who formally took the North Lochinver Estate into community ownership on Monday have confirmed their first board of directors at a meeting in Stoer.
Constitutional legalities occupied much of the extraordinary general mating, with the office-bearers remaining in place from the steering committee who managed the Trust's successful bid for the land. That means that Allan MacRae, John Mackenzie and Bill Ritchie are retained as chairman, vice-chairman and secretary respectively.
The remaining seats on the board are filled by directors from each township, who were chosen by secret ballot. The results,
Assynt Crofters' Board
Northern Times 11th December 1992
announced at the meeting, confirmed Iain Macleod (Achmelvich); Jimmy Kerr (Ballachladdich); Felicity Basu (Clachtoll); Donald King (Clashnessie); Aileen Kinnaird (Clashmore); Donald Mackenzie (Culkein Stoer); Hugh Matheson (Drumbeg); John Blunt (Nedd); Michael Lord (Raffin); Ishbel MacAulay (Stoer); and Derek Macleod (Torbreck). Culkein Drumbeg township chose to elect John Mackenzie (already on the board) as their representative, and the Achnacarnin vote produced a tie, so that has gone back to the township for re-nomination.
On Wednesday, to mark the crofters' achievement, the Rev Fred Hurst, Rev Archie Macphail and Rev Neil Maclean participated at a service of thanksgiving in Stoer Free Church, and tonight there is a ceilidh dance.
THEY know how to celebrate in Assynt and they were more than entitled to be doing it last night. On a simple, human level the Assynt Crofters Trust's protracted and finally triumphant campaign to buy the North Lochinver Estate is a great story brought to an uplifting climax - the stuff of an Ealing Studios plot, and there are all too few of those about these days. At a deeper level, they have beaten a track along which others must surely be tempted to venture. At its end lies an attractive, if not necessarily universal, answer to the perpetual question of land ownership in the Highlands.
It is a question made all the harder to resolve by the emotive terms in which it tends to be couched. Raw folk memories of a feudal past make for stirring rhetoric, but do little to encourage cool assessment of either problems or solutions. Certainly, there have been landlords who have lent themselves all too readily to the popular caricature of remote, anglicised lairdlings, more interested in game and sheep than people, and steeped in that musty version of noblesse oblige which stresses the first word-more than the second. In recent years, the picture has been embellished, and further complicated, by such factors as environmental campaigners, Home Counties refugees, and overseas owners who would be denied such vast holdings in their native lands. These too are prone to caricature, and to distort the debate.
What has brought the issue to a head, however, is not pungent folklore but hard economics. Estate ownership is no longer, if ever it was, a honey pot for the monied investor. Very few of the big estates make money. Some landlords have survived by selling off odd parcels of land, some by subsidising their estates from other earnings, and some, inevitably, by neglecting necessary investment. In recent times, a glut of estates or bits of them have come onto the market, depressing prices and heightening fears of casual purchase by those with little commitment to maintenance. And some have simply gone bust.
That is what happened in Assynt, prompting the estate's sale by liquidators of the previous owners, Scandinavian Property Services. It meant that the crofters faced the daunting task of convincing financial institutions, not just in Scotland, but also in Sweden where widespread Scottish support for their endeavour counted not a jot. It is high testimony to their skill and determination that, despite the setbacks, they ultimately prevailed. In the process, they have built and consolidated a powerful consensus for the concept of community ownership in the Highlands.
None of that means that the challenge to them is over. Running an estate is a quite different prospect from running individual crofts. But the deal they have finally won places them in control of their own destiny, and the shrewd way in which they achieved it must clearly bode encouragingly for the future. We can only wish them well, and congratulate them in having created an example which others will watch with the keenest interest.
show the way
By DAVID ROSS
The crofters of Assynt met in Stoer Primary School last night as the new owners of the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate. Their historic purchase of the estate is seen by many as the single most important development in Highland land ownership since the war.
The meeting opened with accordion music and it was an emotional occasion. The chairman of the Assynt Crofters Trust, Mr Alan MacRae, whose family have been in Assynt for generations and whose great grandfather was cleared from his land to make way for a sheep farm, said: “lt seems we have won our land.
Crofters drink to land victory
The Herald 9th December 1992
"It certainly is a moment to savour, but my immediate thoughts are that some of our forebears should have been here to share it. It is an historic blow for people on the land throughout the Highlands and Islands."
Mr MacRae went on to instruct his members to begin celebrating. A case of whisky had been taken up from the Culag Hotel in Lochinver to Stoer.
Labour MP and long-time opponent of landlordlism Brian Wilson said last night the purchase gave hope that the stranglehold of private ownership of Highland land can finally be broken.
Local MP Robert Maclennan, who gave £1800 to the trust set up to buy the land, said it was a
famous victory and great day, not just for Sutherland, but for the whole of Scotland." The interests of those on the land has taken precedence over those who would speculate without feeling for its beauty or productive potential."
Mr lain Maciver. chairman of the Scottish Crofters' Union, said it was the dawning of a new era for land usage in the Highlands.
The crofters only heard the news themselves yesterday afternoon, which brought to an end a frustrating three months of negotiation which saw two of their earlier offers rejected.
The secretary of the Assynt Crofters Trust, Mr Bill Ritchie, said last night: "We are elated. There were times when we thought that we were not going to do it but the support of all the
people throughout the country and abroad kept us going.
"The response of the people in their donations and continuing support was quite fantastic. But now we have done it. We have got our land."
The purchase price for the estate. which was on the market at just under £500,000, remains a secret, but it is understood that the successful offer was an increase on the two earlier offers which were known to be around £250,000.
The crofters had said they would not go higher but the key to the new offer were the mineral rights which, until recently, had not been thought to be part of the sale, being retained by previous owners the Vestey family. They were, however, included which allowed the crofters to table a new offer.
Assynt Crofters’ Trust
Board of Directors
By Tom Morton
The Scotsman 9th December 1992
HISTORY was made yesterday when the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate in Sutherland was sold to 100 of its tenant crofters.
After three weeks of confidential negotiations, the third offer by the Assynt Crofters Trust - believed to be about £300,000 - was accepted yesterday afternoon.
The deal is well below the original price of £475,000 asked by the liquidator, Stoy Hayward, and the Stockholm bank Ostgota Enskilda, which is the main creditor of the former owner, Swedish Property Services.
It means that the crofters, who will gain possession in February, own all the land's sporting, fishing and mineral rights as well as the croft land itself.
Last night, as the crofters celebrated in the village school at Stoer with a case of whisky, the success was hailed as a watershed in crofting history.
`It has been a hard slog, it has taken a lot of pressure, but the support
we have had has been fantastic. When it came to the crunch, the people
backed us all the way. They had the courage to stay with us.'
Bill Ritchie, Assynt Crofters' Trust Secretary
1st February 1993
Today, with your help, we have created history as we take over our croft land and embark on the great challenge of managing our resources free from the burden of absentee landlords.
Your support has been vital to our success and the Assynt Crofters will never forget that. We are creating a Register of Support to be placed in Stoer Post Office to let everyone know who supported us.
All of the crofters thank you for your support end hope that the changes you helped to create will lead the way In crofting throughout the Highlands and Islands.
Crofters ready to dance for joy
Smile of success: John Mackenzie, Allan Macrae and Ishbel Macauley look forward to tonight’s Ceilidh to celebrate the official take-over this week of the North Lochinver Estate by the Assynt Crofters’ Trust
'TONIGHT 200 people from all over the country will gather in the Culag Hotel, Lochinver, to celebrate the historic achievement of the Assynt crofters in gaining control of the North Lochinver Estate.
On their way to the ceilidh, which may itself go down in history, many will gaze at a fresh sign outside Torbreck House: the notice stands proudly, so new as to be less than perfect in its execution: Assynt Crofters Land, it reads.
The Assynt Crofters' Trust on Monday took legal possession of the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate in Sutherland. "At last we have our land - although all that really happened on Monday was that we received the keys to Torbreck House," Bill Ritchie, the trust secretary, said.
The trustees have had a quiet look around the empty house, but the real sense of triumph, according to Mr Ritchie, has come, after the long struggle to raise more than £300,000 to buy the estate for its inhabitants, from a new appreciation of the land itself.
"The scenery is so spectacular, among the most spectacular in Europe. The fact that we have been able to wrest control from the system of landlordism is a spectacular achievement, I think one that matches the spectacular landscape. We've all been quite emotional."
Financial contributions to the fund set up by the crofters to buy the estate have come from major agencies. But individuals from the United States, Canada and Australia as well as the UK have committed cash
The estate's new board of management will meet for the first time this month.
"There have been all kinds of ideas put forward as to what could be done with the land, but what is likely to happen first is the compilation of a kind of atlas of what resources are available, as in fishing rights, tourism possibilities and the like."
More immediate questions are exercising Mr Ritchie's mind for the moment, though. "Everyone's thinking about the ceilidh, really. We expect it to be a great night," he said.
Assynt crofters to
reel with success
By Tom Morton
The Scotsman 5th February 1993
Crofting trust warms Scots
hearts around the world
The first successful challenge to near-feudal use of land in
Scotland may face difficult times ahead. James Cusick reports
A CROFTING co-operative that became the new owner of North Lochinver Estate in Sutherland this week has received congratulatory telegrams from all over the world.
12th December 1992
The Assynt Crofters Trust and its £300,000, purchase of the 21,000 acre (8,498 hectare) Sutherland estate is being heralded as a new era in land use for the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The trust has become the first group of crofters to end what many regard as a near-feudal system of land management.
However, with surveyors and estate management experts only now beginning to examine the economics of the deal, the consensus is that the trust may be in for a tough time.
Niall Graham-Campbell, a partner of the surveyors Finlayson-Hughes in Perth, which specialises in Highland estates, said: "I should think the crofters in Assvnt will live to regret buying the estate." He said no one could manage a crofting estate and make money. "It'll cost them money."
Mr Graham-Campbell went on: "The cost of collecting the annual crofting rents - £2,608 - used to be more than the rent itself. It is a beautiful place, but there will need to be more than the pleasure of ownership."
Beauty proved to be not enough for the Scandinavian property company that bought Lochinver nearly two years ago for £1m. It went bankrupt and the estate was put on the market for offers over £460,000.
The crofters formed a trust to try to buy the estate outright. Fax machines were bought and a world-wide appeal for money was begun to expatriate Scots.
After lengthy negotiation, the trust's bid of around £300,000 was accepted. The crofters take over as owners in February when their ability to service a substantial debt will come under intense scrutiny.
Many believed that the Scottish land-owning fraternity would not allow them to attain their dream. Having
woken up to their success, others may follow suit.
Iain McIver, Scottish Crofters Union president, said: "We supported this bid all the way. It is a well-deserved success and the start of a new era in land use in the Highlands and Islands. The time is right for a fresh look at land tenure and use."
A central tactic of the Assynt Trust was to threaten to remove their crofts from the sale by legally buying their land under crofting law. For a mere £39,000, based on the rent of each of the crofts, 15 per cent of the 21,000 acres would have been removed.
For £300,000 the trust has gained a small area of sporting rights, forests and mineral rights. Under the trust system, the tenant farmers retain their crofting rights, but the rent, instead of going to an individual landowner, goes to the trust. In effect, the crofters pay rent to themselves.
Forsyth seeks Assynt advice on trusts
"Should we do what you did?" Secretary of State asks
Bill Ritchie, secretary of the Assynt Crofters Trust, told Michael Forsyth, Scotland's leading politician, that while he was delighted that the minister had proposed handing over government-owned crofting estates to community trusts, there was a need to convince tenants that real benefits would follow. "There is a certain burden attached to the ownership of land," Mr Ritchie pointed out at their historic meeting in Stoer, "and those considering taking it on need to know that they can balance their books."
The astute Tory minister, who had completely wrong-footed opposition parties that morning with his announcement, said he had been surprised when he took over the position of secretary of state for Scotland and found that the Scottish Office owned 109,000 hectares of croft land.
"What I want to know," he said, "is whether you have found ownership has made a real difference, and if it has, can we do what you did ten times over?"
Vice chairman John Mackenzie told him that "people who want
to start new ventures could go to the trust for support, including collateral" In the past that was impossible, he said. "Assynt's crofters had done what they had to" and now commanded the full resources of the estate, he pointed out.
Mr Forsyth, who had had a guided tour of Assynt by helicopter before the meeting began, indicated that enhanced agency support for trusts would be looked at.
Afterwards trust chairman Allan MacRae commented: "No matter what your politics, it is no small honour that the secretary of state
for Scotland would see fit to visit us here in Assynt. I'm hopeful that this visit may be seen as an endorsement of the idea of crofters taking control over their land."
The Scottish Crofters Union, still sensitive to the partial rejection of its 1989 lead on community ownership, has given a muted response to the secretary of state’s announcement, as have the Scottish Landowners Federation and Labour MP and anti-landlord West Highland Free Press journalist Brian Wilson.
NOVEMBER 1995 / AM BRATACH
Today the crofters of Assynt loin the ranks of seigneurial Scotland taking legal possession of the 21,000-acre North Lochinver estate, giving many real hope that the sad story of Highland land has finally turned a page in the process
Their successful campaign to buy the land they had lived and worked on caught the imagination of people throughout Scotland and far beyond, whose extraordinary support for the crofters was a popular statement on land-lordism in itself. But their efforts even drew applause from two Government ministers who could see nothing but good coming from it. Indeed one, Lord James Douglas Hamilton, has stand publicly his hope that other crofters will now follow suit
Meanwhile, on Friday night the Assynt Crofters Trust will host a ceilidh in the Culag Hotel In Lochinver to mark the occasion. Fiddle tunes have been specially written by local musicians: the jig, A Treat in Stoer, and an as yet unnamed reel, will ensure that the people of Assynt will have their place In musical tradition.
It will be a night to remember but then comes more hard work, as the trust's acting secretary, Bill Ritchie, fully appreciates. He is sure they are ready: "There are some who are just waiting for us to fall flat on our faces. But we have virtually all the money in now, certainly enough to cover all our liabilities to date, including the purchase of the land. All the details of the grants and the loans have been agreed and we are anticipating the transfer of these funds over the next few days."
The actual purchase price remains a secret but most believe it to be around £300,000, well short of the £473,000 asking price sought by the liquidators of the bankrupt Scandinavian Property Services Ltd. SPS had bought the estate for more than £1m four years ago from the Vestey family.
The crofters' major funding sources were a £50,000 grant from Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise; a £90,000 low-interest loan from Highland region's development company, Highland Prospect. plus a £10,000 grant from the council itself; and a £20,000 grant from Scottish Natural Heritage.
The crofters raised the rest through donations from individuals and bodies. There were the well-publicised contributions from rock band Runrig (£1000), MP Robert MacLennan (f1300), and the West Highland Free
Press (£1000). But there were others. "Sutherland District Council also gave us £1000, but quite literally we received hundreds and hundreds of donations from all sorts of people, some from as far away as Canada and Australia. Some even managed to pledge several thousand pounds.
"The crofting community itself dug very deep into its pockets although nobody has made much money out of crofting. So much was down to the crofters, their extended families, and friends."
Simon Fraser, the Stornoway solicitor who has been with the crofters from the start, has been appointed company secretary. A dozen directors of the trust have also been appointed to represent the different townships. such as Clachtoll and Balchladich, while the triumvirate which led the campaign is still in place.
The chairman, Allan MacRae is the stuff of Assynt. His father was a shepherd/stalker, his great-grandfather was cleared from land at Ardvar to make way for a sheep farmer - "and now the land has been cleared of the sheep. There used to be 500 ewes but there is nothing on it today." His eyes still shine with the same determination that held throughout the campaign, even when it looked as though the odds were stacked against the crofters. "At one point it seemed that they didn't want us to have our land. But I was sure we would have it - one way or another."
Vice-chairman John MacKenzie, who trained as a marine engineer and was in business, grew up in the south as part of the Highland diaspora, but his roots were in Culkein, Drumbeg, and he decided to
move back. "My mother's people had been cleared as well and I decided to go back to try to contribute something worth while to the community, which I haven't managed to do until now."
Bill Ritchie, meanwhile, had no connection with Sutherland. A native of Edinburgh and an Oxford graduate in jurisprudence, he arrived in Lochinver 20 years ago. Now he is a respected figure in the Highlands, a member of the Crofters Com mission, a member of the northwest area board of Scottish Natural Heritage and prominent in the Scottish Crofters' Union.
They were able tacticians, now they will have to lead the crofters through the uncharted waters of estate management. Allan MacRae, however, is confident. "Everybody is saying how difficult things are going to be for us. But what management did SPS do or the Vesteys before it? Now owning the land, this is a powerful new starting point for us. We have nothing to lose."
One of the first decisions the board of directors will have to take is to appoint someone to take responsibility for running the estate day by day. This could be one of the directors, certainly someone with a commitment to the whole project.
"The only sure thing is that the job title will not be that of factor." according to Bill Ritchie. There has also been discussion about an estate office.
They will also now embark on drawing up a management plan. They will be looking at the sporting assets but will certainly not be in the business of selling shooting/fishing to
"toffs" Allan MacRae stresses: "This was all crofters' common grazing. At one time there were no deer on it. We will not be treating this as a sporting estate, although we will have to manage the fishing and the deer. If the sporting rights can be used to the benefit of the community, good and well, but they won't be in competition to the crofters.”
The mineral wealth o the area will be examined and they see woodland regeneration as an area of great potential. It can been held back elsewhere by landlords' reluctance to grant crofters the necessary permission, but this will little trouble the lairds of Assynt now.
There is a deep commitment of concern to the environment, but they believe that their success or failure will depend on restoring the human element. Allan MacRae feels this very strongly: "Fundamental to the long-term future of the crofting community will be attempts to bring young people into our townships. They will be the most important asset. Considering all the land that is up here it is ridiculous that the only hope young people have is to get a flat stuck in Lochinver.
"There is a registered demand for-crofts here and I would hope that we would be looking to encourage some of the older, less active crofters to give up their tenancies to help meet this demand. Now that might not make the trust very popular with some of the crofters but, as I have already told them, if crofting does not have the courage to face up to these facts, our communities are heading for oblivion."
There is still talk of crofters following Assynt's example. Certainly
the new interpretation of crofting law, which holds that crofters buying their crofts under the 1976 Act no longer have to share the development value with the previous landowners, will encourage others.
Messrs MacRae and Ritchie will give what help they can, but are determined just to make North Lochinver work.
They obviously look back on their campaign with justifiable pride to those packed meetings in Stoer Primary. It was, after all, the first time since the days of the land raids that crofters had taken control of their own destiny.
In addition there is the lasting irony that it was their powers of purchase from the '76 Act which were the strongest weapon the crofters had, the very powers which many believed in the mid-70s would preclude the community ownership of croft land. Whether it will all finally leave crofting legislation specifically framed to protect crofters from landlords is however unclear.
It was a largely public campaign, although now they confess to a secret meeting with liquidators Stoy Hayward in Inverness in September. "It didn't achieve anything. They still refused our second offer and obviously thought our determination was going to evaporate. I think the crucial point was when they realised (The Herald, November 9) that we had resolved to buy Torbreck House and the nearby Manse Loch river system - the jewel in the crown. Without those assets nobody would have wanted the estate," Bill Ritchie recalled.
But Allan MacRae believes there was another factor: "I think we made it clear that if we failed to buy our land we would be in a very unforgiving mood."
They had been prepared to go to Sweden to knock on the door of SPS's main creditor, the Ostgota Enskilda Bank, which had been holding out for more apparently unaware of the complexities of crofting law, or to London to the offices of Stoy Hayward. Now they only have to go to the Culag Hotel on Friday night, a better place by far.