John’s Speech on The Role of Crofting in the Highlands and Islands

Below is the text of John’s speech during the Members’ Debate secured by his colleague Jean Urquhart MSP. The text of the motion was:

“That the Parliament understands that there are 18,027 crofts in the Highlands and Islands and across Scotland, housing over 33,000 people; considers that crofters play a key role through the production of store animals for the agricultural supply chain and in maintaining land in remote areas; believes that crofts are a valuable source of high-health status animals for larger agricultural food producers; considers the work of crofters to be vital to Scotland’s national food and drink policy and to the continuing success of the sector; understands that most crofters rely on common agricultural policy subsidies to earn a marginal income and that they have to take on second jobs; believes that, by bringing in new inhabitants and because of the economic links that crofters have with the rest of the agricultural sector, crofting has helped maintain population levels in remote communities, considers crofting to be of paramount importance to the environment, food and drink sector and economy, and would welcome the interests of crofters and their communities being championed.”

John’s speech was as follows.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I thank my colleague Jean Urquhart for securing this debate. I want to talk about the connection between people and the land, which is difficult to put down on paper the world over, whether we are talking about native Americans or aboriginal Australians. It is incumbent on legislators to shape policies that recognise that connection, whether with regard to the older people of north-west Sutherland not wishing to be institutionalised and coming up with models that will retain them in their own area, linked to the land, or with regard to crofting. Legislation on land reform has helped, but parliamentary draftspeople are not always capable of capturing the very essence of that relationship.

As a native Highlander and former police officer, I give the poaching laws as an example. Highlanders have great difficulty recognising that someone who is resident in London for 50 weeks of the year, or a multinational from the Netherlands, can own wild fish or wild deer, so it is important to remember that things have to be relevant.

The Highlands have a troubled history connected with land, and women have played a significant role in that history, for example Màiri Mhòr with her role in the Battle of the Braes. The crofting legislation and land reform have helped, but as recent events in Harris have shown, we are not quite there yet. Attitudes of greed and ownership need to be resolved.

Crofting has a distinguished past and it has to have a distinguished future. The motion talks about crofts being

“a valuable source of high-health status animals for larger agricultural food producers”.

For me, the link to the local butcher is more important than that. Our earlier debate on food policy covered a lot of issues that affect crofters. Some of the things that were mentioned included the modern globalised food supply chain, an unsustainable food culture, the domination of multinational corporations, and community-driven initiatives. I think that we all recognise that the community around crofters is the one that we want to see promoted.

The motion also talks about the key role of crofters

“through the production of store animals for the agricultural supply chain”.

It is about quality and it is about staying local—it is vital for the planet that food production and consumption take place as close to each other as possible. The Scottish Government’s food policy recognises that.

The Scottish Crofting Federation produced a report in 2008 that prompted some discussion about the indigenous people of the Highlands and Islands. It contains a lot of pleasing radical language. It says that sustainable local agricultural systems such as crofting must be supported ahead of unsustainable agri-industry, which the UK Government would export, along with the environmental consequences for places overseas. It goes on to say that crofts have a vital role to play and that there is a fear in some quarters that the very idea of crofting is the subject of official hostility.

Other members have alluded to the fact that most crofters rely on common agricultural policy subsidies to earn a marginal income. In 2008, there was talk about the less favoured area support scheme, a policy that saw areas such as East Lothian and the Black Isle, with fine agricultural land, being treated the same as the rocky slopes of Harris, as the report mentions. Of course, the farmers in East Lothian and the Black Isle did not have second jobs—most crofters do. In Lochaber, I well remember neighbours who worked for the Forestry Commission having crofts and having time off to work on them.

We have moved on in some areas. There has been talk of efforts to remove the bull hire scheme, but that scheme will be retained. I hope that community use can be made of Knocknagael, where land is being freed, and ideally there will be a combination with what is in the existing plan.

Recent events on Raasay have led to a high level of interest in crofting. I ask people to act with good grace, in the terms that Dave Thomson outlined, in relation to those events. The situation was not ideal, but I think that the best has been made of it. There is a future for crofting.