A crofter’s perspective

In the Scottish Highlands, an ancient form of land tenure can make us rethink how we relate to the land today

“This here is all me,” Finlay waves at the pumpkin and potato plants that make up his arable—orange and green blots in the grey morning mist. “But that over there, behind that fence, is common.” I follow him as he walks to the fence and leans over. I can hear the road running on the right and smell the sea on the left. In front of me, extending endlessly over the hill, lies the treeless moorland that constitutes Finlay’s common grazing.

I travelled to the Highlands to learn about collective land ownership. Because in the far north of Scotland live the crofters, and crofters hold their lands in common.

“You know, these lands—they are all about rights,” Finlay rumbles, looking out over the land. “That’s where most people get confused, in the ownership of things. You don’t own anything—you just have rights. There’s 19 families here, and we all get to graze our sheep and well our water and cut our peat. We started a forestry project as well, and we are thinking about wind turbines. That’s all within our rights. But we couldn’t put down a parking lot or start a Tesco or something.” He scratches his salt-and-pepper beard. “Not that we would want that here anyway.”

Finlay is a member of one of the over 15,000 crofting families living in Scotland. Each of them rents a croft—a house and a plot of land that they can use however they want, often from a community trust. Crofters have to live on their croft, but also have a right to fair rent and the right to pass on their crofts to a family successor of choice. As a part of their tenure, they also get a grazing share, which allows them to make use of a shared plot of land called the “common grazing”—to pasture animals, gather wood, or even grow crops. There are almost 1,000 such common grazings in Scotland, covering over 5,000 square kilometres.

“Have you heard of basic income?” Ian asks while wiping a strand of silver hair from his steely eyes. We are sitting at his kitchen table, in the house next to Finlay’s—a shrinking mountain of shortbread on the table between us. “Most crofters have jobs: I work as a bus driver. But if the buses were to stop running, I could still get food and money and heat out of the grazing. There is security in that. For me, and all the families here.”

The common grazings are, in many ways, a modern manifestation of the ancient Gaelic idea of dùthchas. Ian grabs another piece of shortbread before explaining. “Dùthchas is all about belonging. It is the idea that land is yours, not because you own it, but because of tradition and heritage and hard work. I inherited my grazing share from my brother, and it has been in our family since 1786. My great-great-so-many-grandfathers ago already worked this land. And so will my children and their children.” He takes a bite. “These lands belong to all of us, even if we don’t own them.”

Dùthchas was a guiding principle for the clans of old. Before the clanship societies of the Picts and the Gaels coalesced into a Scottish kingdom in the 11th century, private land ownership did not exist. Instead, the lands, lochs and seas of Scotland were considered a clan’s collective heritage. All clans-people claimed an equal right to use the wood, food and building materials that could be found on their lands. And if a person wanted to close off a part of the land and use it for their individual purposes—crop farming, for example—they had to pay a form of rent to the rest of the clan. “We call it apportionment now,” Ian says, chewing. “But the principle is the same.”

If crofters are modern-day clanspeople, then Ian is a modern-day clan chief. Clan chiefs were responsible for protecting clan lands from fires, floods and overexploitation. As a member of the grazing committee—a democratically elected group tasked with maintaining the common grazing—Ian fulfils the same role. “You need to understand that it is very important to keep the land healthy. You can’t get more from a piece of land than it gives you. We are very careful not to put too much pressure on the grazing. So we plant trees and dig trenches and make sure that people don’t put too many animals on the land. You have to take care of a commons to make it work.”

Overexploitation is not the only threat to the common grazings. Throughout history, dùthchas has been under constant siege by private property rights. The most painful example of this, and one etched into Scotland’s national memory, is the “Highland Clearances” of the 18th and 19th century. During the Clearances, the indigenous communities of the Highlands and Hebrides were dispossessed by lowland landlords, opportunistic clan chiefs and English lords, to make space for commercial sheep farms. The lands that had informally belonged to the clans, were now formally owned by others. Entire townships were forcefully removed from the areas they had used for centuries. Dispossessed Highlanders were deported to all corners of the British Empire, or forced to work in the fisheries, kelp farms and quarries that now litter the Scottish North.

While these events are, at this point, a fading memory, the common grazings are still under pressure. “There are good laws now, for sure,” Ian says, picking up the last crumbs of shortbread with his thumb. “We are much more protected. During the Clearances, the laws were made by landowners, now they are made by people. And luckily we have strong crofters unions, but we have to stay vigilant. Because there are still the big energy companies, the green lairds, Airbnb.” The clash between commoner and privatiser continues to this day.

On my train ride down, from Inverness to Edinburgh, the Scottish landscape transforms in front of my eyes. The rugged, intimidating beauty of the Highlands is still there, of course, but it is a bit harder to see. My eyes keep getting drawn to the fenced off farmlands and pastures—to the shopping malls, car parks and golf courses. Parts and parcels of the planet, maimed and twisted into whatever their owners desire.

Of course, the crofting communities are not without their challenges. Their population is ageing, their children are being lured away by the promises of the big city, and newcomers do not always find it easy to find their place in the tight-knit crofting communities.

It is hard not to wonder what Scotland would look like if dùthchas was still observed. What would these rural lands look like if we—like the crofters—remembered that the world is our collective heritage? Would we live within our ecological means if we—like the crofters—understood that for the world to take care of us, we need to take care of it? That we do not only inherit the world from our ancestors, but also borrow it from our children?

Rhetorical questions, of course. But sincere ones. The crofters of Scotland show us that land ownership can be reimagined—we just need to look in the right places.

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