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.
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?