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crofter woman
Back to the future

The off-grid population is growing in the Scottish Highlands at an unprecedented rate. �For the first time in a thousand years that there are more people moving into the Highlands than are moving out,� Professor James Hunter told the Financial Times. If the trend continues, the Highland population will be back at 1851 levels within 20 years, says the professor of History. By 2001 the population of the Highlands and Islands had risen to 434,000, compared with 378,000 40 years before. And, according to the Highland and Islands Enterprise Network, more than half of the newcomers are English. In a region that had been a byword for depopulation the turnaround is extraordinary.

A thousand people are on the waiting list of the Crofters Commission, a government agency that establishes whether refugees from the rat-race are in a position to herd cattle. The number of applicants has swollen by a fifth in the past two years, and some people have been waiting 11 years for a croft. Almost half registered are under the age of 40.

The most dramatic turnaround has been on the far-flung Western Isles. The same desolation and solitude that generations of Highlanders have fled is what attracts the �white settlers� from south of the border.

A new breed of crofters is reviving an ancient form of farming that was, until recently, thought to be in its final throes. Crofting is a kind of small-scale tenant farming unique to the Highlands. Crofters live and work on a few meagre acres of land, usually keeping a handful of sheep or cows while supplementing their income with paid work. Unlike tenant farmers elsewhere in Europe, crofters have an inalienable right to stay on their land: no landlord can ever evict them.

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For middle-class professionals heading to the Highlands in search of space, community and farmland, crofting has a potent rugged-romantic appeal. And thanks to broadband connections and improved roads, the new crofters no longer have to give up the work that would once have meant a daily commute to the city.

But the influx of English accents and Sassenach surnames into Scotland�s nearly 18,000 crofts has created both winners and losers. �Right to buy� laws were introduced for crofters in the 1970s, giving them the opportunity to �decroft� their land and purchase it outright from the landlord. Now that there is a demand for these crofts, crofters can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds by selling their land to the newcomers. In 2000, 67 per cent of the crofts that changed hands were passed from one family member to another. By 2005, that figure had fallen to 53 per cent.

This will greatly alter the warp and weft of crofting, according to Professor Hunter, director of the UHI Centre for History in the Highland town of Dornoch. �The real crofting life was [one of] the most appalling grinding poverty,� he told the Financial Times. �Whereas crofters were among the poorest members of the community, they are now often amongst the wealthiest. The price of crofts [is] now so high that it is out of the reach of a very high proportion of the local population. Even for people in professional jobs like teachers. In historical terms, that is extraordinary.�

Crofting was born in the political agitation that followed the 18th century clearances, when the population of the Highlands was forcibly displaced to make way for large-scale sheep farming. The 1886 Crofters Act, passed by William Gladstone�s government, protected tenant farmers from unscrupulous landlords who could summarily hike rents or issue evictions. This gave crofters security of tenure, guaranteeing the right to pass on tenancy to their children. Rents were set by a tribunal rather than the landlord.

But by the mid-20th century, this kind of subsistence farming was seen as an anachronism. In an age when self-sufficiency in food was the national goal, Whitehall saw crofts as an inefficient embarrassment. They were written off as poor-quality strips of land which could provide no more than a hand-to-mouth living. The rural young thought the choice between impoverished hard labour and urban life was no choice at all and left in droves. By the 1960s, the Highlands and Islands population had reached its lowest ebb, though the most remote islands such as Lewis and Harris continued to haemorrhage their populations until about five years ago.

Crofting seemed to be waging a losing battle between sentimental attachment to the land and the economics of the 20th century. �Back in the early Sixties nobody wanted crofts,� says John Laing, who has farmed on Skye for the past 40 years. �You would have got 50 if you�d wanted them.�

But the diagnosis of inevitable decline turned out to be premature when the population stabilised in the mid-1960s as state planning brought pet industrial projects � paper mills, aluminium smelting plants and fabrication yards for the North Sea oil industry � to remote corners of the Highlands. Numbers soared during the 1970s when a back-to-the-land invasion began, inspired by hippy icons such as the singer Donovan, who bought an estate on Skye. �Whereas now the crofting cliche is the guy with his computer,� says Hunter, �the cliche then was somebody with two goats and a pottery.� Crofters had previously been patronised as a Burns night tourist attraction. Now they were being lauded as far-sighted apostles of the new environmentalism.

On Lewis, Bill Hendry has joined forces with a native Lewis crofter, Kenny Matheson, to create the Brue Highland Cattle Fold. Together they share 25 cattle, selling the prime Scotch beef through a website and courier to hotels in Glasgow. Though there is high demand for original breeds, the economics of small-scale production means that their business is only viable through state subsidy. Hendry is part of the Rural Stewardship Scheme, which pays �1,500 a year to crofters who keep native Scottish breeds and leave the grass long when birds are breeding.

Hendry drives me in his Audi through the village to see the two young bullocks that are being fattened up for the Christmas market. Dodging stray sheep on the road, he gives a bush telegraph tour of the neighbours: �There�s the man from Uig. He�s still known as the man from Uig even though he�s been here for 20 years.�

Our journey is interrupted for five minutes by two cars stopping and winding their windows down: �This is a typical Lewis scene. Everything stops because two locals have decided to stop and have a chat. Nobody rushes here.� But though Hebrideans might be abnormally laid back about time, they are anything but relaxed about �worldly� pursuits on the Sabbath. The icy blast of Free Church Protestantism dominates here, with church attendance still almost universal. �Remember the fourth commandment: �Thou shalt not work on a Sunday,�� says Hendry. �The only time I got into slight trouble was when I was going to do some watering with the tractor and I was told, �Oh, no, you mustn�t start up a tractor on Sunday.� Just don�t annoy them.�

In a croft half a mile away I speak to Kenny Matheson about the influx of new crofters. His family has been farming sheep and cattle on Lewis for generations. �There is more failure than success. Some people won�t put the time in � they�ve just got a picture in their mind of two geese or two pigs. You get people like Bill who will put the time in, see what works, and discuss with neighbours what to do next.�

At 50, Matheson is seasoned enough to remember the old culture. �Things have changed. You grew up in a village where your neighbour is your family � you wouldn�t think of going past their house without stopping by to ask how things were. Now you have situations in the village where you don�t know who your neighbour is. Some of them make it their business not to let you know.��

Old crofting hands have their favoured anecdotes about the naive city-slickers who arrive in the Highlands with a freshly purchased Barbour and a spotless pair of Wellington boots. �We�ve got some neighbours up the glen here who moved up from Sussex 10 years ago,� says Calina MacDonald, whose family has been crofting on Skye for 400 years. �The first day they moved in I got this panicked phone call: �There are no locks on the door. How are we going to be able to secure the house?� And I said: �Nobody locks the doors anyway � we even leave our car keys in the ignition.�

Joyce Ormiston, who has 10 cows and Highland ponies on a croft in Lochaber, sounds a lament for a dying culture. �They build the most hideous, enormous houses that would look really great on the outskirts of Glasgow [but] make all the little croft houses look really small. Everyone used to get on. If your cow went on someone else�s land you just chased it off. Now even if your hen goes on someone else�s land it�s havoc. The common grazing land has now got fences over it because everyone wants their little bit, and it�s an eyesore.�

These cultural niggles are aggravated by brutal economic realities. Highlanders who want to croft but have no tenancy to inherit are being priced out of a market in which migrants from the south-east of England can always outbid locals. �I have a niece who is desperate for a croft but she can�t get one because they come on the open market and get advertised at offers over �120,000 and go for �280,000,� says Ormiston. �They get further out of reach of the native crofter who might have wanted it.�

Newcomers can leave if their dream turns sour, but hereditary crofters, guardians of their folk history, feel a duty to remain. �It�s good for places when new blood comes in � but they never stay,� says Ormiston. �When you�ve stuck at it for so many winters you know how bad it gets. We can have three months of gales and when it goes down to force eight it�s a good day. I can�t leave even though I could get such a lot of money for it. My children know they can�t leave either.�

The swarming of urban middle classes to the countryside always creates economic losers. But without the newcomers, it is difficult to see how crofting could have survived. If the demographic trends of the early 1960s had continued, the Hebrides would now be colonised only by birds. In the 19th century the enchanting Isle of Eigg, 10 miles off the Scottish west coast, sustained a population of 500 living off oats, seaweed and black cattle. By the early 1970s this had dwindled to about 50 � many of whom were old and widowed. The first wave of English settlers came soon afterwards to work in farming and tourism. In the past five years, the first �telecrofters� have arrived and the population has risen to a 40-year high of 86.

Lucy Conway, who has lived on a croft on the island for the past three years, is waiting for me when I get off the ferry at Eigg�s new harbour. She is in her mid-40s, wears a red fleece, and has a sturdy, handsome face with pinkish glowing skin from the wind and rain. Hers is the most extreme remote crofting story I�ve yet come across, combining farming with freelance work as a �creative project manager�. One of her contracts involves commissioning features for Channel 4�s 4Talent website � a job that a decade ago would have meant working in an office in Islington or Edinburgh.

Instead, Lucy�s 20-acre croft is perched on steep hillside below a promontory of volcanic rock that looks like it belongs on the surface of the moon. From the kitchen of her newly built croft house � all high windows and African wood sculptures � the otherworldly peaks of Rum loom across the water. (The same view, it is said, inspired Tolkien to create the mountains of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.)

Conway and her Irish husband Eddie were assigned the disused croft at a rent of �55 per year after an islander decided not to pass tenancy on to her family. From this base the couple are planning to grow herbal teas in polytunnels and sell them online. �We can�t compete in bulk � but with teas you don�t need huge quantities,� she says. �And [customers] want to be associated with the Hebridean brand.�

But life as a �telecrofter� is hardly proving a bucolic ideal. Conway has to spend a third of her time travelling to London, Edinburgh and Birmingham. And the reduced winter ferry timetable means that a meeting in Edinburgh at midday on a Wednesday can result in a five-day round trip.

Eigg�s erratic satellite broadband connection is frequently interrupted by low cloud. Disaster struck when the internet company that was providing the link went out of business, leaving the island marooned. �We woke up one morning and they had just pulled the plug. For five to six months it was off. I had to decamp to my mum�s flat in Edinburgh.�

The connection has been restored, although it is still painfully slow on days of low cloud. But as the world leaps forward in computing power, it could become ever harder to work from the wilds. �When we moved from dial-up to broadband we felt we�d caught up with the rest of the world,� says Conway. �The rest of the world started to go faster and we�re lagging behind again.�

Once the crofters� tweed looms are replaced by laptops and Land Cruisers, it�s not clear that much of the old culture will remain. The ceilidh involving all the generations, the collective herding of the sheep down from the hills, and the importance of feast days such as Lammas and Michaelmas in the crofting calendar are all fading. Any crofting culture that does stay intact is only kept alive by a web of public subsidies.

Though the new crofters heading north may not be horny-handed sons of toil, some do at least aspire to be part of the crofter tradition. Malcolm and Caroline Sutherland moved to a croft 15 miles west of Inverness three years ago, where they run an events management company, Caledonian Concepts, which plans large outdoor events such as the Loch Ness marathon. They visit occasional ceilidhs and ask old crofting neighbours for advice.

Malcolm, a concave-cheeked, quiet former captain in the Paras with a number-two cropped haircut, is mildly embarrassed that he and his wife have been so consumed by their fledgling business. So far they have done precious little farming on their 40 acres � other than let a neighbour graze his sheep on their land. �I�ve just ordered a whole fencing kit this afternoon � that�s the next stage, to make the boundaries secure so that the livestock don�t escape.�

Their first two years here have been spent renovating the croft house. �Before us it was lived in by an old lady who had lived here all her life � and had been running around the field with sheep until her early 80s,� says Caroline. �When we saw it in a group showing with an estate agent people couldn�t get out of the house quick enough.�

Now they�re preparing to put the ground through a cycle of crops to improve the quality of the soil and then introduce some livestock, though they are wry about their amateur status. �There is something called the Easy Sheep that has been bred specially for beginners. It�s the EasyJet of sheep. You can put it in the field and it pops the lambs out � you don�t have to worry about it.�

Why did the Sutherlands leave the city? Malcolm looks out at the snow-capped mountain in the distance, as if the view is answer enough: �You wake up, look out of the window, and you go �wow�. It�s a great environment for young children. We could never go back, that�s for sure.�

So far they haven�t encountered any problems working so far from the metropolis � but it takes some organisation. �It focuses the mind,� says Malcolm �We use Skype a lot. There are events organisers who have so many meetings and procedures � but you can easily cut down.� Their London friends are shocked by such a radical lifestyle shift, says Caroline. �They say: �What do you do there all the time?� They think that we watch the grass grow.�

Invaders from the south have at least brought a spirit of entrepreneurship to the crofts, rescuing rare livestock breeds and growing new crops rather than relying on sheep with a plummeting market price. James Hunter of the UHI Centre for History believes that the new crofters are harbingers of a new prosperity for the Highlands, creating a kind of tartan Seattle that will attract highly educated migrants looking for their slice of the good life.

�Personally I think the influx is the greatest thing that�s ever happened to the islands,� Hunter says. �If you look around the world, some of the most dynamic economies have emerged in places where people can simultaneously get a good living and have easy access to environmentally friendly landscapes � like the Pacific northwest in the US. In the past you would endlessly hear people say in the Highlands �you can�t live on scenery� � whereas increasingly, you can.�

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site

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