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The Highland Line: how words vetoed a free transfer

The 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, appropriately enough was held to be a leader of the ‘Common Sense’ school of philosophy.

He wrote: “There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.”

The 1100 islanders of Barra and Vatersay would agree. They have been seeking clarity over what would be entailed in the community taking over the islands.

In 2003,  the late clan chief Ian Macneil of Barra announced he had agreed to donate his crofting  estate on Barra to the then Scottish Executive.

However, he made clear that  if islanders wanted the 9000 acres, they were to be given the estate free of charge at a later date.

There was also more than 7,000 acres already owned by ministers, which the islanders also have in their sights as well. In total, more than 440 croft tenancies and two working quarries are involved.

When the Macneil transfer was completed in 2004, the then rural affairs minister Ross Finnie announced: "We intend to manage this land with a view to its transfer, along with our own properties, to community ownership at a time appropriate to the islanders of Barra.”

But what did that mean? It was clear the Macneil land had to be ‘transferred’ free of charge. So it was reasonable to hope that given the other 7,000 acres were to be part of a prospective transfer, that they too would be free.

Unfortunately for the islanders, it has emerged that  this part of the  transfer would involve some folding material changing hands – more Sir Alex Ferguson’s understanding of a transfer  than Ian Mcneil’s.

A Scottish Government spokesman explained: “The Transfer of Crofting Estates Act sets out that any government-owned land sold would be subject to the independent valuation applied by the District Valuer.”

The legislation was  introduced in 1997 by then Scottish secretary Michael (now Lord) Forsyth when he was going through his Celtic twilight period -  building an inter-island causeway here, and resurrecting a University of the Highlands and Islands there  – before losing office and his parliamentary seat later that year.

But two years earlier, Michael Forsyth, on the day  the Skye bridge opened in 1995,  had visited Highland historian Jim Hunter who challenged him  to demonstrate the Tories' commitment to individual responsibility by facilitating local people taking control of publicly owned crofts and woodland. 

In fact in 1989 another Tory, Scottish office minister Lord Sanderson of Bowden had offered to pass the crofting estates owned by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Scotland to local crofting community trusts. He proposed  that it should  be piloted on the islands of Skye and Raasay. However the crofters on these islands were quite happy to have the department as their landowner and showed no appetite for the plan.

But Mr Forsyth took up the Hunterian challenge and the act followed.  There wasn’t a rush to use it. Some ideas take longer to grow in appeal than others. As communities queued up to try to take over private land, whether under croft or not, crofters on publicly owned land were not so enthusiastic.

In fact, the act  has only ever been used once, and not until 2010, when the West Harris Trust completed its purchase of 52 crofts and more than 16,000 acres on the three government-owned crofting estates of Scaristavore, Borve and Luskentyre.

However, because the land was virtually all under crofting tenure with all the restrictions that entails,  the price put on the land was £59,000.

So one would assume the good people of Barra and Vatersay, where most of the land is also under croft,  would not be faced with an exorbitant valuation, if they seek to complete the transfer.

But it won’t be a free transfer.

The view of Cape Wrath from Sutton Coldfield

Meanwhile, there is also a desperate need for linguistic clarity in the north-west corner of Sutherland.

As we know, the Northern Lighthouse Board is selling off 58 acres round Cape Wrath Lighthouse and some buildings.

The Ministry of Defence is keen to move in, since it already owns the other  25,000 acres of Cape Wrath,  where it conducts military exercises.

The good folk of the Durness Development Group, which five years ago registered an interest  in the 58 acres under land reform legislation, had been unaware what the lighthouse board was up to, and we hear that some of the board commissioners were also in blissful ignorance.

But now it is up to Scottish ministers to decide whether to led the community proceed with its community buyout, which would kill off the MoD’s interest.

For many decades the MoD has closed off public access to Cape Wrath for around 130  days a year to allow the remote landscape to be pounded by bombs and naval shells.

But now a letter from  Minister of State for Defence Personnel  Mark Francois seems to confirm that would all change if the MoD obtains the last remaining part of the cape. It would mean "for reasons of health and safety, any access by the local community would be precluded".

This would not be good news as it would also seem to preclude the survival of at least three local businesses  which depend on tourists getting to Cape Wrath.

The MoD’s bid seems to be the responsibility of one of its offshoots, a body called the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) based in  Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands.

When asked to confirm that Cape Wrath would indeed become a no-go area year round, a DIO spokeswoman said there would be no change:

“The Ministry of Defence has shown an interest in the site at Cape Wrath and is aware that a community right to buy application is currently under consideration with the Scottish Government.

"The MoD is awaiting the outcome of this application and no action will be taken ahead of a decision being made.  However, should the site be purchased by the MoD, there are no plans to restrict public access further than present arrangements.”

They can’t both mean the same thing,  can they?

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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