A “not so” typical day on the croft for Commissioner, Billy Neilson.

Crofting Commission portraitsThe picture below is of six heifer calves, who in 5 seconds flat managed to cause absolute mayhem.

To identify the culprits, from the left Wave, Billys cattlenext to her is Wake, facing you is Wanda, next to her is Waive, hidden on the right is Wait and right in the corner at the back is Walls. The calves names over the last couple of years have been Gaelic, but with the 2017 Year letter being W, I couldn’t find Gaelic names.

The scene as it unfolded was one that every crofter who has cattle can visualise. Walking peacefully behind them the cattle strolled quietly along the track towards the shed, cattle and sheep pens (fanks is how most of you will know them).

Now, there was an opportunity to sneak through a gap in the stone wall, which handy enough gives you entry to the Big House gardens and woodland walks but as they have never shown interest in it before I didn’t give it a second thought.  Oh, how wrong I was!

Wave led the way and living up to her name was waving her tail in the air as she and her 5 accomplices disappeared through the gap.  I took off in hot pursuit although it wasn’t difficult to know the direction they had travelled by the screams from the walkers who were out for a pleasant stroll and by the way those people sprinted past me fleeing in the opposite direction.  They didn’t believe me when I told them the calves were really pets!

A troop of herders, including me, fellow crofter George, a non-terrified walker, Dougie and my daughter who got an S.O.S. phone call for assistance all headed after the cattle.

After a lap around the ‘Big House’, through the raised beds, which they didn’t even attempt to jump, round the side of the fish pond (thank goodness, could you imagine them going for a swim, it’s plastic and only 6 feet in diameter) and finally back onto the track and into the shed, full of innocence at all the fuss. Although I’m sure there was a smug smirk on their faces.

To the ‘Big House’ people, I just professed and admitted, diminished responsibility.  I was left breathless, but never swore (well! not much!).

I’m sure they just wanted to leave me with a lasting memory as Wait was going to a new home on the Island of Bute, Wave, Wake and Walls were off to a farm near Luss on Loch Lomond.  All of these calves will become cows on the various farms, with Wanda and Waive staying at home to become stock cows.  Although if they fancy disappearing through any more “gaps” then maybe they will be looking for a new home as well!!

 

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How Commissioner Andy Holt came to live on the island of Papa Stour.

In the early summer of 1970 three friends and I drove up the A9 in an old green Ford Popular. A vivid memory for me is stopping in the middle of Rannoch Moor. Snow still lay on the land in streaks of dazzling white. DSC_0582The air was heady; clean, pure and crisp. We drove on into the Highlands and arrived at our destination, a small community in the hills on the west side of Loch Ness below Meall Fuar-mhonaid.

In the spring of 1973, my wife Sabina and I decided to look for our own place and began searching throughout the Highlands and Islands, eventually ending up storm bound in Kirkwall on our way to the Island of Sanday.  There we met someone who offered us a ruin and a couple of acres on the Island of Papa Stour, Shetland.Papa Stour 024During our first summer on Papa we transported our wooden hut, gardening tools and basic foodstuffs, erected the hut in the shelter of the ruins and prepared for the home birth of our first son who arrived safe and well in September.

In the spring I dug out the interior of what was to become our home. The dry stone walls of the house, which had not been lived in since between the wars, stood at an average height of six foot.  The roof had fallen in and sheep had been the only occupants for over 40 years. A rich mixture of soil from what must have been a sod roof mixed with rotten timber, sheep dung, assorted metalwork and fishing net covered the stone flagged floor to a depth of around two feet. I barrowed out the rich compost to the first patch we had cleared, having initially been excavated by stripping the sod with spades.

A local couple gave us 5 cast Shetland ewes and that was the beginning of our flock which we improved over time in both quality and numbers. Whilst the children were growing we kept a couple of cows, an Ayrshire and an Aberdeen Angus, milk for the house and calves for the market. We cleared and deep dug the yard and other areas around the house and established a series of vegetable and fruit gardens.Papa Stour 006

Looking back, I am aware of what an opportunity we were given back in 1973. Surveying the conditions faced by young people hoping to go into crofting today I wonder where the openings are to be found in today’s market-driven rural economy with even small croft tenancies changing hands for tens of thousands of pounds.

Now, having been elected as a Commissioner to the Crofting Commission I’m even more aware of how market forces push up the value of crofts. There is little we can do about that but the Crofting Commission, Board of Commissioners really care about young crofters and how crofting is a good way of life for them.  Indeed for crofting to thrive young people are essential.

A year at the Crofting Commission

Crofting Commission portraitsBill Barron, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, tells us about his first year at the Commission.

It’s been a year since my permanent appointment to the Crofting Commission, and 16 months since I first arrived on a temporary basis, eager to learn more of the Commission, the Highlands and Islands, and crofting.

I quickly discovered that the Commission is a unique organisation.  Not just because crofting is so interesting – although its mix of rights and responsibilities and complexities is daunting for the newcomer.  Not because it is the only Scottish Non-Departmental Public Body with a majority of elected members, nor because it is a regulator that is widely regarded as the champion of the sector that we regulate; but because of its unique history, tracing back (through many twists and turns, and too many adjustments to crofting law) to the Crofters Commission of 1886.

Of course, the first Crofters Commission achieved great things for the crofters of its time, helping to reverse the decades of decline and despair, radically reducing croft rents, and ushering in a period of growth and success for the crofting communities.  Maybe that is why the expectations nowadays are sometimes so high!  It would be difficult to match the epic achievements of our predecessors, but we can ensure the Commission remains focused on providing a good service to crofters, promoting and protecting the interests of crofting, and providing effective regulation to aid continued growth and success throughout the crofting communities.

Thankfully, I have had many opportunities to learn about the issues facing crofting. We are fortunate to have a broad Crofting Stakeholder Forum, and an active Cross-Party Group which meets regularly in the Scottish Parliament, discussing issues ranging from wild geese and abattoirs to the future of crofting law.   I have gained a still broader perspective by attending meetings of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (COHI), I joined them in Lerwick soon after my permanent appointment as Chief Executive, and in Oban again in October. COHI looks at the full range of issues and challenges facing the Highlands and Islands, and the Oban meeting was an appropriate forum in which our new Convener, Rod Mackenzie, announced the Commission’s intention to fund a study on how subsidy systems can support crofters, and through them the land and the communities.shetland 2

Even more than meetings, I like to meet individual crofters and hear their ideas and concerns first hand, whether in my own visits to particular places, or in the questions at the end of a presentation to an SCF or NFUS event. More recently I enjoyed our roadshows in Thurso, Rogart, Benbecula and Stornoway, which again gave me the opportunity to talk directly to crofters and hear their views and aspirations for crofting and the Commission.   The range of challenges facing crofters is considerable, but I am encouraged by the energy and passion of those who have been crofting for many years, and even more by the inspirational new entrants who are just starting out. The crofting communities need their new entrants, and many people across the sector are rightly focussing on how to enable them to become the successes of the future.

As well as grappling with the work of the Commission and the complexities of crofting legislation, I wanted to learn more about the Gaelic language so, along with many of the staff in the Commission I signed up to a Gaelic learning class. I don’t think I’ll ever be fully proficient! But at least I’m able to say, “halò ciamar a tha thu?” even if it is quickly followed by “tha mi duilich nach eil mòran Gàidhlig agam!”

Mull Tea Vicar

Last year Liz Gibson told us of the alternative use herself and her husband were making of their croft in Mull.  Here Liz gives us an update on Tea production in 2016.Liz Martyn Gibson

Liz writes, “2016 was a good year for Isle of Mull Tea. The main excitement was the launch of Isle of Mull Matcha. The world seems to be divided into those who think Matcha is amazing and those who have never heard of it. At the beginning of the year we were in the latter category. Now we’re aware of the history, the health benefits, the range of uses, and importantly the taste.  It is a green powder produced by grinding the whole leaf, meaning that the whole leaf is consumed and none of the goodness left behind as usually happens when leaves are discarded.

Cafes often serve Matcha Latte – either with cow’s milk or almond milk. The traditional way would be to whisk in a bowl with hot water (boiled then cooled slightly). Special whisks are available online. This gives a strong flavour with just a hint of bitterness.

We were delighted that among the cafes serving our products Duart Castle Tearoom in Mull was an enthusiastic customer. They like to use as much local produce as possible. As well as serving Stem Tea by the pot and Matcha Latte the chef did occasional specials of Matcha cheesecake and crème brulee.

We also co-hosted an event “Cheese and Tea Pairings”, suggested by a French wwoofer (Wwoofers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who had written a paper on this concept. Less known than cheese and wine there is indeed a fair bit of information on the subject.

The Scottish Antlers Stem Tea has now sold out and we don’t intend to produce any more because it involves cutting up too much of the plant.

Perhaps when the plants are bigger there will be enough from the prunings but that’s a few years away. Meanwhile we have a good number of cuttings growing roots in the polytunnel. We’re discovering the need for patience as growing isn’t a quick process. We’ll be picking our 2017 first flush at the end of March and look forward to increasing our Matcha knowledge in the year ahead. It will continue to be available from www.weeteacompany.com

We’ll also be concentrating on the many other aspects of the croft here, including planting native hedging thanks to support from the Woodland Trust.

Isle of Mull Tea and our croft Mo Dhachaidh both have Facebook Pages if you want to follow the ongoing stories.

Liz and Martyn Gibson

The Rights of Crofters and the Duties of Grazings Committees and their Grazings Clerks

The Commission is unable to comment on current ‘live’ cases. However, with the increased focus on common grazings, grazings committees and shareholders, we do think that it is a good time to remind shareholders in common grazings what their rights are and what the duties of the grazings committee and their grazings clerk are.

The Crofting Commission wants to encourage good shared management of common Joyce Wilkinson cowsgrazings to help foster stronger communities, deliver economic benefits and to reduce the likelihood of these areas being abandoned or overgrown. The role of common grazings is central to the crofting system and properly constituted grazings committees are the most effective way to safe guard the future common grazing land for the benefit of all crofters.

We would like to provide a brief overview of the key points that everyone with an interest in crofting and common grazing should understand.  Many crofters may feel that the process is overly bureaucratic but the Commission is carrying out what is contained in the Crofting Acts and regulating crofting within current legislation.

Shareholders

Crofters who share in a common grazing have certain rights over the land.  These rights, or pertinents, include the grazing of stock, access to a house or pier or foreshore, an area for laying up a boat, the right to collect seaware, the right to cut peat and the right to use heather and grass for thatching.  These rights, shared with others, are over the whole area comprising the common grazing. There are also certain common grazings used as arable machairs, particularly in the Western Isles, where the crofters may have a right of cropping.

The Crofting Acts state that the only way these rights can be changed is:-

  • If the landlord resumes an area of the grazings for a reasonable purpose and the shareholders are compensated for their loss and obtain a share of the development value of the resumed land
  • An individual gets an apportionment when his souming may be adjusted
  • If shareholders enter into a forestry project in terms of either section 50 or 50A of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 (“the Act”)
  • If the Land Court has agreed to a scheme for development under section 19A of the Act which is binding on all parties
  • If the majority of the shareholders voting and the grazings committee or constable have obtained the Commission’s consent to use part of the grazings for some other purpose under section 50B of the Act
  • Through compulsory purchase by an acquiring authority with powers of compulsory purchase under section 37 of the Act, subject to compensation and share in the development value as with resumption
  • By a reorganisation scheme under section 38 of the Act

Any other local grazings arrangement is not binding on shareholders who, if they choose to do so, retain the right to graze stock equivalent to their souming over the whole grazings. The grazings committee and clerk should ensure that any shareholder wishing to use the grazings is accommodated.

Grazings Committees

The most important thing that shareholders in a common grazings need to understand is that the grazings committee act as trustees of the shareholders.

The Scottish Land Court has stated that:-

 …”they (that is the grazings committee) have clear duty to act as trustees of the whole shareholders in the grazings and therefore it is their duty to act impartially and judicially, keep in view what is their paramount consideration – how the common grazings can best be administered to the greatest advantage of all of the tenants sharing in the grazings”…

The general responsibilities of the Committee are to:-

  • Make regulations (which require to be confirmed by the Commission) and should be in the spirit of their primary duty to accommodate the requirements of all shareholders. Regulations cannot themselves curtail the right of any shareholder to graze his souming across the whole grazings other than in the circumstances detailed under the paragraph entitled ‘Shareholders’ or to meet any specific environmental designations
  • Hold an annual general meeting at which the clerk should give an account of the work of the committee and of the financial position.  At this meeting the committee should answer the questions of the shareholders whom they represent
  • Maintain the grazings and any fixed equipment.  They can do this without reference Common Grazingsto the shareholders and they should claim back any costs incurred from each of the shareholders whether they are actively using the common grazing or not.
  • Should the committee wish to carry out any improvements to the grazings they cannot do so unless they have served notice on each shareholder and told them how much the shareholder’s proportion of the cost will be.  This gives the shareholder the opportunity to make representations against any such proposal to the Commission.

Financial management

As trustees, any money received by the committee belongs to the shareholders and should be distributed to them as soon as is reasonably practicable.  It is not the township’s or the committee’s money and as such it is the duty of the grazings clerk to distribute any money received from whatever source, but in particular resumptions, according to each individual shareholder’s share entitlement whether or not they are active in the grazings. It is important that all monies are distributed to all shareholders timeously in order to assist correct financial accounting by each individual shareholder should they require to make an annual return to the HMRC

When the grazings committee require monies to maintain the common grazings and the fixed equipment or to carry out works for improvements, the committee must levy and recover the required monies directly from the shareholders for onward payment to any third parties.

The rights of crofters have been detailed above and there is no explicit provision in the Crofting Acts for the grazings committee or clerk to be involved in the administration or coordination of schemes falling within the provisions of IACS regulations. Any involvement or concern regarding this should be directed to the scheme administrators.

Development, renewables, or putting a common grazings to other purposeful use are covered elsewhere in the Crofting Acts and require particular actions to validate them. Village improvement works are not within the auspices of the Crofting Acts.  These activities should be kept separate from any activity relating to grazings regulations and should ideally be administered by some sort of community company or organisation. Any monies relating to these activities should be lodged in a separate bank account and administered in an appropriate way. Should townships wish to do this they should set up a separate, appropriate, mechanism to do so and gather in any necessary funds from those willing to participate. Anyone becoming involved in such activity needs to seek their own advice on the implications.

The Crofting Commission is keen to see, wherever possible, that crofting communities regulate themselves. It is important therefore that shareholders and the committee hold a meeting to discuss how to work together to ensure the grazings committee functions within the requirements of the Crofting Acts. We have created a standard set of regulations to give clearer guidance for committees and shareholders about how their common grazings is regulated.

For further information please visit our website: www.crofting.scotland.gov.uk/common-grazings or phone 01463 663439.

When is a grazings share deemed to be a croft?

Many crofters may be unaware that following the purchase of croft land, any associated common grazings shares, which remain tenanted, are deemed to be a separate and distinct croft in their own right for the purposes of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993.

This is to ensure that the right to graze is still subject to crofting controls and regulations, which is why many owner-occupier crofters will have received several Crofting Census forms to complete and return to the Commission for both their croft and for their grazings share.

The Crofting Commission has completed, as it is required to by crofting legislation, the separation of crofts and deemed crofts (grazings shares and, where appropriate, apportionments) in the Register of Crofts. 1,952 deemed crofts now have their own separate entry as a croft with their own unique register number. Where the croft has to be registered in Registers of Scotland’s Crofting Register, the deemed croft will have to be registered separately.

The practicalities of having a deemed croft has little implication for crofters in that the grazings shares remain active. However, when it does become important is with the sale or transfer of a croft and croft succession on the death of a crofter.

Where an owner-occupier crofter sells or transfers their croft, only the owner-occupied croft will transfer to the new owner. The deemed croft (whether it is a right to graze or an apportionment) remains held in tenancy and it can only be transferred by making an assignation application to the Commission. Similarly, any let or short lease of the     owner-occupied croft will not include the deemed croft. It is not uncommon for a deemed croft, comprising a right to graze in a common grazings, to be forgotten about in the sale of a croft.

The other situation where deemed crofts can cause problems is in connection with the transfer of crofting interests on death. Executors should identify whether the crofting interests of the deceased crofter include a deemed croft. Where the deceased crofter purchased their croft, any right to graze or apportionment that was not included in the purchase will be a deemed croft, and will be deemed to be held in tenancy.

Executors need to be aware that any deemed croft must be transferred in terms of the Succession (Scotland) Act 1964 and it is recommended that legal advice is sought. If the deemed croft is not transferred within 24 months of the crofter’s death, or 24 months after the Commission was notified of the death (which must be within 2 months of the date of death), the executor may lose the ability to transfer the deemed croft and the landlord may terminate the tenancy of the deemed croft. The Commission may also then take steps to declare the deemed croft to be vacant.

www.crofting.scotland.gov.uk

Mull Tea Vicar?

Mull crofter, Liz Gibson, tells her story of how her and her husband found a new use for their croft whilst building on their passion for tea.

Mention growing tea in Scotland and most people’s reaction is surprise, often disbelief.Liz Martyn Gibson The idea isn’t actually new but only in the last few years has the possibility been taken seriously. The Wee Tea Plantation, along with the Wee Tea Company, leads the way. I first read about them in an article some time before we moved to Mull. It was interesting but I didn’t think any more about it. Around the same time we went on a Fairtrade tour in Peru and got the opportunity to pick some tea on a small plantation with exotic fruit growing on trellises above the tea plants. Again, interesting but no thoughts of taking it any further.

Fast forward and we’d been living on the croft for nearly a year. How we ended up with a ten acre croft is a different story. Our intention was and is to grow soft fruit and fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs, all as organically as possible and with the hope of contributing to the local food economy. We welcome Wwoofers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) for a week or two at a time and have had a couple of seasons of international help and mutual learning. Bracken has been cleared by pulling, cutting and digging.

I read another article about the success of the Wee Tea Plantation in Perthshire. This one ended with the suggestion to get in touch if we were up for trying to grow some ourselves. So we did. It was on an area cleared of bracken that we planted our first fifty Camellia Sinensis in October 2014. Half a dozen of us worked hard to get some wind breaks up and get the plants in. We had space so we gave them plenty of room for growing. The hillside is quite exposed but being a slope meant the water would keep moving and not leave the tea sitting in puddles. Unfortunately the corrugated iron windbreaks weren’t up to the strength of the wind and themselves got blown away. When the plants didn’t revive as everything else was turning green in spring we thought we’d made an expensive mistake and were about to admit defeat.

We hadn’t reckoned with the persistence and support of Tam O’Braan of Wee Tea fame. He came to have a look and said he’d take away the original plants to see if he could revive them. Meanwhile he suggested a different spot and closer planting to give the new plants better protection. We decided to try hurdle fences. A number of folk helped create the distinctive wind breaks that our three little plots now boast. We didn’t pick more than a few handfuls of leaves in 2015 in order to get the plants properly established. They’re looking healthy and we look forward to picking the first flush probably in late March 2016.

Meanwhile the original plants got a new lease of life, but not by growing. Some did start to revive but Tam had tried making what turned out to be a delicious and delicate stem tea. A new concept for us but one which made Isle of Mull “Scottish Antlers” Stem Tea hit the headlines. It was one of four Scottish Teas given by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to President Barack Obama. Extra interest was generated because like many crofters we have more than one job. I am a Church of Scotland minister so “More tea Vicar” was almost an inevitable headline. Such interest would be the proverbial storm in a teacup if it wasn’t a good product. We’ve sold some locally and it is doing well online at the Wee Tea Company as well as garnering some good reviews. Learning about the world of specialist tea is an ongoing process and we look forward to being part of it in the years to come.

Liz & Martyn Gibson

Isle of Mull Tea and our croft Mo Dhachaidh both have Facebook Pages if you want to follow the ongoing stories.