It is certainly true that most people have a romantic view of Scotland and some of the most evocative images people have in their heads involve crofting. In this image a few things will always be present. There will be a man who rivals the Scott’s Porage Oats logo for ruggedness (perhaps wearing a tartan scarf), there will be a charming croft, a trusty tractor and plenty of content livestock. In essence, this is perfect. Yet romanticism has rubbed the hardships out of memory and a proud nationalist illusion has superseded reality.
Before we get onto that, I want to explain what crofting actually is. Crofting is a small scale form of farming. The crofters – those who live and work on the land – pay a small annual rent to the landowner and in return they are allowed to make a living from the land (often around 5 hectares). Today, however, many crofters are fortunate enough to actually own their crofts so they are classed as being owner-occupiers. Most crofts have a few acres next to the croft house where some crops are grown whilst the livestock is able to make use of the common grazing land that crofters have a right to use. Rights such as these are detailed in the 1886 Crofting Acts.
It emerged because of the widespread adoption of modern farming methods in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Landowners suddenly realised that if they used their land to farm sheep then it would be much more profitable. In order to be able to do this they had to move people off their land and these people either ended up on marginal coastal strips or they emigrated. This forced movement was often done in an unscrupulous manner. This process became infamous and it is now known as the Highland Clearances.
Today it is thought that there are only about 18,000 crofts in Scotland, with most located on land next to the coast that is of a poor quality. Although this number is small, the unique characteristics of this lifestyle are known by most Scots and it is culturally significant. But is an uncomfortable truth that the lifeblood of modern crofting comes in the form of subsidies. These are widely available at every level of the agricultural sector, but given the micro nature of crofting a disproportionate amount of a crofters income comes in this form. I personally believe that subsidies should only exist if there is either a realistic prospect of them one day stopping or if they are utterly necessary. As much as I hate to say it, I don’t believe that crofting will ever be viable without subsidies, and given that the amount of food being produced is so small I struggle to objectively believe that crofting is entirely necessary.
The inconvenient truth for many organisations like the SNP and the EU is that the same reasons that provided crofting with its painful birth – agricultural improvements – are the same reasons why crofting will never be economically successful. In today’s world the only genuinely successful farms are large scale ones and this is simply because the economies of scale that they enjoy lead to lower end costs for buyers.
As all branches of society now buy their food very cheaply from supermarkets there is no need to have small scale farming in Britain. There are too many people in the United Kingdom to make crofting a scalable form of living, and even if we ignore that we have to ask what the best way to put food on your table is. From a quality of life point of view it is surely something to be celebrated that virtually anyone can afford to walk into a shop and leave with chocolate from South America, wine from France, strawberries from Spain and pasta from Italy. How could anyone argue that it is better that people live off mutton and potatoes just so that their nostalgic needs become fulfilled? Insular farming is dangerous as populations become vulnerable to famine, disease and malnourishment. The Highland Potato Famine is a prime example of this and it resulted in nearly two million Scots being forced to leave the country in the middle of the nineteenth century, so we should celebrate the global nature of the modern food market which we all benefit from.
In my opinion, the way forward is relatively simple and it can be seen in practice across the Highlands already. I favour an approach where crofting becomes something akin to a professional hobby. What that would mean would be that crofters had normal jobs in the community but that they also had a respectable subsidiary income derived from their land; be that from sheep, potatoes or barley. This provides the best of both worlds as the important heritage of the industry is maintained without the need for subsidies.
I am sure that many will take issue with the fact that an ample amount of ‘normal jobs’ do in fact exist in very rural Scotland and I would understand their point were it not for one factor: the internet. Over the coming years this will revolutionise the makeup of remote areas across the British Isles. Once it has become quick enough it will enable people to work from home. As such, I envisage a world where old townships become reinvigorated once more as people from cities move to enjoy a quieter and more natural way of life. This will bring new blood into these communities and those new people will be exposed to a healthy dose of the remaining fundamental parts of crofting life like common grazing land. I have no doubt that this will inspire others to take up crofting in a way that they are able to take part in it without being dependent on it.
Crofting has an important place in Scotland. It provides many with a strong identity and it encourages good animal husbandry. Most importantly of all, it provides families with incomes and it maintains the land. Yet I believe that subsidies maintain the expensive pretence that crofting has an economic future. Perhaps it is time that facts are faced, embraced and acted upon. Only then will crofting be truly sustainable.
Before I end, I just want to say that I am more than happy to make amendments to this text if you think it appropriate. The issue of crofting is both sensitive and complicated so I am more than willing to act on your comments.
Thanks for reading,