The Crofting System

Shetland crofthouse museum

A land tenure system that has existed for hundreds of years and remains relevant even in the twenty-first century is the Crofting system. Crofting is a traditional form of land tenure and small-scale food production system, specific to the Scottish Highlands, the islands of Scotland and earlier on the Isle of Man. Croft, Crofter and Crofting – these three are at the core of this traditional small-scale agriculture practice which still forms an integral part of life in Scottish Highlands and islands of Scotland. In the context of the twenty-first century, a croft is a relatively small piece of arable land, with average size of holding being five hectares. It is technically a land lot, it may or may not have a dwelling on it. A crofter either lives on the croft or resides within 20 miles of it. Historically, a croft was held in tenancy, but in modern times many crofting townships have emerged where crofters are owner occupiers, with common grazing.

Historical Background

Tracing the historical roots of the Crofting system, we have to go back to the fourteenth and fifteenth century. The Runrig system which was a characteristic of Scottish agriculture predated Crofting, until the Highland Clearances. At the time of the transition from runrig system towards the crofting system in the late 18th century, the majority of Scottish society, especially in the Highlands mainly consisted of smallholders. These smallholders lived and farmed as tenants on small to medium sized farms (under 100 acres) where there were 6-8 tenants or in small townships, and these farms were run according to the runrig system. Several factors led to the move from runrig agriculture to Highland clearances and eventually Crofting. Highland Clearances, which began between mid-to-late 18th century, were the forced eviction of a large number of tenants in the Highlands and western islands of Scotland. The primary reasons for the clearances and resultant eviction of the small tenant farmers was creation of large single unit farms that would maximize sheep numbers, as now traditional agriculture was no longer profitable for estate owners and thus they shifted to pastoralism. The first phase of clearances began in the 1750’s and it resulted in enclosure of the open fields managed on the runrig system. Those evicted were often given separate lots elsewhere, but commonly on the less fertile land, or offered a fixed lot on the existing land. The displaced tenants were given alternative tenancies in newly created crofting communities, where they were expected to be employed in industries such as fishing, quarrying, kelp etc. As a result, almost all runrig systems in the Highlands were replaced with fixed crofts. The second phase began in the 1815-20 (continuing to the 1850s) as a result of overcrowding in the relocated crofting communities because now the crofts were not large enough to be self-sufficient. Furthermore, collapse of local kelp trade and Scottish potato famine added to the woes of the crofters. During this period many tenants emigrated or were provided assisted passages by landowners. All these factors led to a strong community feeling among the crofters and a collective crofting identity emerged. Long resentment had been brewing amongst the crofters because they had no legal rights to the land they had farmed since the middle ages, forced evictions and high rents. This resentment soon transformed into what is  known as Crofters uprising. This unrest continued in much of the late 1870’s and beginning of 1880’s. In 1885 Crofters put up six candidates in the general election. Five of the candidates of the Crofters Party got elected. These events eventually led to the passing of Crofters Holding(Scotland) Act of 1886 in the parliament of the United Kingdom. The act was based on three Fs- fair rent, free sale of improvements and fixity of tenure. The security of tenure that the Crofters Act provided, brought many positive changes in the lives of the crofters. Now there was greater desire among the crofting community to improve health and welfare. It further led to passing of the Small Landholders(Scotland) Act in 1911, which extended these rights to all small tenant farmers through Scotland.

Crofting in Modern times

Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century many legislations were passed which cemented the ownership rights of the crofters. The Crofting Act 1976 gave crofters the legal right to purchase their land for fifteen years rent. The Crofting law was codified as Crofters(Scotland) act of 1993. Later, The Land Reform(Scotland) Act 2003 gave crofting communities the right to acquire and control the croft land where they live and work. There have been substantial reforms, notably in 2007 and 2010. At present the Crofting Commission is the regulatory body for matters related to crofting. Also Scotland Crofting Federation(SCF), is actively dedicated to preserving and promoting crofting.

Relevance in 21st Century

Presently, there are approximately 20,570 crofts in Scotland spread over more than 750,000 hectares of land and around 33,000 people live in crofting households. However, usage of crofting land has changed with time. In many areas arable cropping has declined. With the changing economic scenario, animals are now usually kept as larger  herds. Despite many changes crofting has high natural value. The traditional rotation of cropped and fallow land has many benefits. Crofting is essential for the local ecosystem, community and economy. With climate change in focus, crofting is one form of sustainable agriculture. Most of all, in today’s predominantly urbanized industrial society, the crofting system has an intrinsic quality of a free and independent life.

Anahat Gill, is a Stock investor and a Literary buff, who happens to live on a farm.

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