“Proud to be a hutter”, is the slogan of a new campaign called A Thousand Huts which has sprung up to champion and revive hutting as a way of life. Widespread in Scandinavia, its supporters say hutting promotes low-impact, ecological living and rural regeneration, and puts city dwellers back in contact with the countryside.
In 2012, hutters, landowners and environmental activists will launch a new Scottish hutting federation to spearhead a campaign aimed at reforming planning and land rights laws, to give hutters proper status in the planning system and protect them against eviction and exploitation by landlords.
Secretary of the Carbeth Hutters in Stirlingshire, Scotland’s largest hutting colony, Gerry Loose says the attractions are immediate and obvious. A poet, playwright and garden designer, he and his daughter Marie first got their hut 13 years ago as a weekend retreat and an escape from Maryhill, a tough neighbourhood in north Glasgow.
“I was living in a 22-storey high-rise and I had a wee daughter. I didn’t necessarily want her to see this was the only possible way to live in the world,” Loose said. “And just getting the hut meant that there was an avenue of escape; just mooching about, getting away from the city.
“As Marie grew older, she came out here with her chums and I knew she was perfectly safe. Everybody keeps an eye on the kids here. It sounds corny or old fashioned but it’s true. Everyone knows who the children are; they go around building gang huts and the older ones look after all the younger ones.”
Peeping out from a stand of conifers as Loose arrived at Carbeth was a young female red deer; the hutters often see woodpeckers, birds of prey and hosts of woodland birds. Morven Gregor, Loose’s partner and chair of the Carbeth Hutters, said that harvesting the colony’s profusion of wild raspberries for jam-making was a tradition.
The hutters hold dances in the village hall, and impromptu music sessions in the summer. “It’s just a magic, restorative place to be, for all its quirkiness,” Gregor said.
Many take inspiration from Norway, Sweden and Finland, where hutting is central to family life. In Norway alone, there are nearly 430,000 cabins and holiday chalets. Propelled partly by the Wallander detective novels by Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, Scandinavian writers have brought that culture – of remote huts overlooking lakes and beaches or in forest clearings – to British horizons.
In Scotland, the only solid estimate, made in 2000 by the then Scottish executive, suggested there were nearly 650 huts scattered across the country, some in established communities such as Carbeth, which has about 140 huts dotted across 90 acres of woodland, some in smaller colonies near towns such as Peebles, others in more isolated alternative settlements in remote peninsulas such as Assynt in the north-west.
Hundreds are believed to have disappeared in the past few decades, going out of fashion or being pushed out by rising property prices.
In an accidental parallel with the hutting campaign, the Forestry Commission has just launched an initiative to set up legally protected “woodland crofts”, giving foresters and rural people land and a building plot next to their conifer plantations and woodlands across the Highlands and Islands.
Ninian Stuart, the hereditary keeper and steward of Falkland Palace in Fife – a medieval hunting lodge and palace which is now a crown property – and one of the main forces behind the campaign, believes there has been a marked shift in mood.
“If you look back 100 years or even 50 years, there was a strong tradition of hutting in Scotland,” he said. “Over the last 25 years, there has been a serious decline, but the Thousand Huts campaign has shown there’s a real thirst to revive hutting. For me, 2012 looks to be the year when the curve turns upwards again.”
One important model is legislation introduced in the Welsh assembly that promotes low-impact and low-carbon housing, said Maf Smith, former director of the Sustainable Development Commission, and a campaign adviser. The Welsh now treat these cabins and huts as a specific class of dwelling in planning law. “That has been a game-changer in Wales,” Smith said.
In Scotland, campaigners want hutters to have legal rights of occupation and tenure after several notorious cases where communities have been evicted or faced with huge rent increases.
The 140 hutters at Carbeth – a community founded partly by socialists and communists from Glasgow and Clydebank before the second world war – famously began a rent strike 14 years ago after their landlord tried to double and triple rents. After forming a co-operative company, they have struck a deal with the owner to buy their land under Scotland’s community buyout legislation and have until January 2013 to raise £1.75m. They have raised nearly £520,000 so far and are preparing to bid for public grants to help meet the shortfall.
Hutters at Barry Downs near Carnoustie in Angus were less lucky. A handful of residents in the prewar hutting community have been fighting an eviction order by their landlord, the neighbouring caravan site owner. In south-west Scotland, there are uncorroborated reports that a hutting colony has been bulldozed by the site owner.
Daye Tucker, a rural affair campaigner who is prominent in Scottish Land and Estates, the body for Scotland’s most powerful lairds and landowners, said landowners and farmers were beginning to welcome hutting as way of reviving rural areas, using poor quality land and generating income. “Lots of us understand there’s a dangerous disconnect between urban and rural people,” she said. “We’re at a very early stage. It’s just about dropping a pearl into a pool, and watching the ripples form.
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