A Knitter’s Guide to Land Ownership in the Outer Hebrides

Why a knitter’s guide? Well, heck. I can’t guarantee an accurate understanding of all I was told. And I have no dates, historical anecdotes or names of legislation. What I do have is a rough understanding based on questions posed and answers received over the course of the week. I’m sure there are pieces of this story I’m failing to include. So, with these important caveats in place, here goes my explanation.

You’ve heard me use the term “croft”. I stayed on one during my trip in 2016, way up north in Scoraig. Here on the Western Isles, crofts abound. You can substitute the words “small farm” or “family farm” and you’ll have an approximation. A croft is a small plot of land, usually with a house on it, large enough to support a small garden and perhaps other agricultural endeavors. On these islands, it also comes with rights to communal grazing lands and other resources.

A crofter doesn’t own their croft. Or couldn’t until recently. You could substitute in “peasant”, “sharecropper” or similar term to describe the person living and working the farm. So who owns the land, the house, the resources surrounding the community?

You guessed it. A landlord. A single owner. In fact, most of the islands are owned by individuals. Mostly aristocratic families. It’s almost absurd. All these people living, working, farming and caring for land for which they historically had no ownership rights. In fact, crofters had very few rights at all. (See Scotland>History>Clearances) This was the case until fairly recently. At some point along the way (last fifty years?!?!), Scotland passed an Act related to crofting which finally allowed individuals to own their own crofts. Also, family members could inherit an owned croft. But the land underneath and for miles in every direction was still owned by the local aristocrat. (Try getting a mortgage for your croft with THAT arrangement.) Sometime later, large estates became unwieldy for owners. They often could not afford the required for taxes and upkeep (no more rent from crofters = no more income stream). Large landowners began to sell great chunks of or entire properties. The danger to crofters in these kinds of sales was that land used for communal purposes could (and did) disappear from their access. Not good.

So, another Act was passed. Now, when large lands would go up for sale, they could be sold to the community itself. A collective, made up of crofters, business owners, village residents and other locals could purchase the property and administer it as a collective. The community had to pay the purchase price, though. (Try getting a mortgage for a collective!)

So, crofters on different islands in the Hebrides have different rights and ownership status. South Uist is owned by a Lord. So is Barra. Benbecula is owned by the residents. So is Berneray, where Meg and Andy have their croft. Every island is different. And there are varying categories of ownership. Our driver on South Uist owned her home and the property on which it stood. However, it was not a croft, so she had no rights to community land. Meg and Andy, as crofters, have rights to keep their sheep on several of the tiny islands surrounding their Island, Berneray. Andy serves on the committee which oversees grazing rights, capacity and access for all the islands under Berneray’s commission. However, half the islands surrounding Berneray are administered by the nearby island of Benbecula. Which has a different ownership status. Our other driver, Peter, owns his croft but had to buy a second one for his younger daughter. Because on North Uist you cannot divide a croft into smaller pieces of land. So if you have multiple children, you cannot leave it to multiple heirs. You have to pick one. And then buy a few more to distribute among your other children. But on other islands, you CAN divide a croft.

Got that?

Well, just nod your head and hang in there with me. It’s a complex business, this land ownership in the old world. Let’s continue on with our visit at Sunhill croft and Birlinn Yarn Company, shall we?

P.s. I really should double check the ownership status of the islands I’ve just mention. It’s highly likely I’ve got them mixed up. However, it’s dinnertime and I have a pork and apple pie waiting for me. You’ll excuse me to eat, instead. Yes?

10 comments

  1. Hi Suzy:

    I have been enjoying all of your posts on the blog. Looks like a great trip! As a real estate attorney, I compliment you on your description of croft ownership. Well done!

    I think I saw both Anne and Annie in your photos. Please say “Hi” for me to them as well as to Heather. As a Facebook holdout, I haven’t kept up with anyone other than you, but I still have fond memories of the Cotswolds.

    Safe home.

    Maureen

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    • Maureen! So wonderful to hear from you. Yes, both Annie and Anne were on this trip. Hope you are having a good summer. Sending you a big hug from the north of England (housesitting at present, near York).

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      • Hi Suzy:

        Just discovered that you replied to me (I have no blog skills – yours is the only one I follow). Very happy for you about the housesitting gig, but also very jealous! Have you been to York Cathedral? The needlepoint kneelers are beautiful. Enjoy the weather, even if it’s raining – right now it’s 97 here, and that’s the actual temperature, not the heat index!

        Maureen

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  2. WHAT? No shearing or mucking this year? Of course food takes president (not he who not be named)! Oops , I used an exclamation point !! Pardon me.

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  3. How astoundingly complex! Makes my head spin. And I thought it was nuts when I bought my first house in Bisbee. For my previous houses, I got title to the land and “from the sky above to the center of the earth.”
    In Bisbee it was “from the sky above to a depth of forty feet, the balance of which is owned by Phelps Dodge Corporation.”

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  4. You might like the book ‘The Soap Man’ by Roger Hutchinson which tells the tale of Lord Leverhulme’s ownership of Lewis and Harris. One thing that really intrigued me in this book was that when eventually he gave up on Lewis he offered the crofters ownership of their land for free. Surprisingly (both to him and to this English reader) very few of them took him up, most actually preferred to continue holding their crofts as tenants of a landlord. It seems the traditional relationship between crofters and landlord was unlike the highly asymmetrical power balance experienced by, say, someone renting a house in a English city. Traditionally it was much more symbiotic and flexible. Only in the 18th century with outsiders buying up estates for sheep, then shooting, did this degrade into something much more exploitative, culminating in the terrible clearances of course. Now in places like West and North Harris, and, as you say, Berneray, which are community-owned, something like the traditional symbiosis is back. Interesting blog, best wishes, A

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