By Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation. The SCF, based in the Kyle of Lochalsh, safeguards and promotes the rights, livelihoods and culture of crofters and their communities.
There are 18,000 crofts in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – mostly in the Western and Northern isles and in the coastal fringes of the western and northern Scottish mainland. Between them they occupy a quarter of all the agricultural land – one eighth of all of Scotland’s farmland. Some crofters have more than one holding but still there are 13,000 of them; so the total crofting population, including families, is 33,000: one tenth of the Highland and Island population.
The system is unique to the Highlands and Islands. It is both a social system and a form of tenure in which small-scale food production plays an important and unifying role. It evolved from a turbulent period in the areas’ history — the Highland Clearances — largely as a means of sustaining populations. Much of the landscape is renowned for it High Nature Value and the crofters manage it in empathy with nature using time-tested methods that are kind to the environment, to the produce, and to the consumer. For the most part the crofters eke out a living in remote areas, in harmony with the environment – yet they are marginalized both politically and practically. As it is said, crofters live on “The Edge”.
An Act of Parliament of 1886 created the crofting legislation and provided for security of tenure (most crofters are tenants still to this day). Tenants were thus empowered to improve their conditions both materially and socially because they knew that the area of ground under their control could be transferred within families and on to future generations. But also — unique to crofting – the land is regulated, whether under tenancy or owner-occupancy. Crofters are obliged to occupy and use the land — or risk having it occupied by someone else.
The crofting system is based around “townships” – communities of two or more crofts. These are typically units of 2 to 5 ha of better quality “in-bye” used for keeping animals and growing forage, arable crops and vegetables. “Out-run”, lower quality land, may also be used individually for grazing whilst the hill ground is managed as common grazing for cattle and sheep.
Crofting was characterized by its common working and thereby strong communities, but this is breaking down in many areas as livestock declines – mainly because the Single Farm Payment and low market prices have removed much of the incentive.
Crofters could be described as the first environmentalists – managing natural resources in harmony with the environment. Their small-scale and extensive agriculture has delivered some of the most stunning High Nature Value habitats within the U.K. They have increased bio-diversity and have preserved the habitats of many rare species now extinct elsewhere in the UK.
It is usually not possible to make a living from crofting agriculture alone and crofting communities do several jobs, contributing to their livelihood and further supporting the rural economy. So crofting is significant in all aspects of rural development, embodying the principles of diversification, co-operation, entrepreneurial vision and community spirit. It is this resourcefulness and attachment to the land which maintains crofting populations in some of the most fragile, remote and challenging areas of Western Europe. Crofters are justifiably proud of their way of life.
Some basic facts
- There are just over 18,000 registered crofts, and roughly 13,000 crofters (some crofters have the tenancy of more than one croft). That represents some 33,000 family members, or around 10% of the population of the Highlands and Islands.
- Crofting households represent around 30% of households in the rural areas of the mainland Highlands.
- Crofting households represent up to 65% of households in Shetland, the Western Isles and Skye.
- There are 770,000 hectares under crofting tenure, being 25% of the agricultural area in the Highlands and Islands and 12.5% of Scotland’s agricultural land. Of this 0.58 million hectares is common grazing.
- Livestock production accounts for 47 per cent of Scottish agricultural output – a figure much higher than in England. Crofters have around 20% of all beef cattle and 45% of breeding ewes in the Highlands and Islands area, though numbers are declining.
- Land use in the crofting counties is constrained by climate, soils and topography. Virtually all of the land in the crofting counties is classified as Severely Disadvantaged in terms of the European Less Favoured Area Directive, yet these areas receive the lowest LFA payments.
Further information can be found at www.crofting.org