More than 20 years ago a Tory government minister in Edinburgh offered to hand the crofters on Raasay their land for nothing, which would have included their sporting rights.

This week an SNP minister had to defend taking these rights from the crofters and giving them to a stalking firm hundreds of miles away just to earn the taxpayer a few quid. It led to comparisons with  the Crown Estate, which many hold to symbolise so much that is wrong with how the UK still operates in the 21st century.

So if there is an agent, or perhaps just a Caledonian, Sir Humphrey Appleby, embedded in the Scottish Government machine determined to make things difficult for the SNP administration, their decision on the Raasay sporting rights has been a masterstroke.

Ministers are known to have been “horrified” and SNP MSPs highly embarrassed by the episode.

A  civil servant (s) in the Scottish Government Rural Payments & Inspections Directorate decided to  tell the Raasay  Crofters Association  that while the  rights they had been developing for the past 18 years were going out to tender, Scottish Ministers were "not obliged to accept the highest offer".

Then they went ahead and accepted an offer from a South Ayrshire stalking partnership, because it was a couple of thousand a year more.

It appears that the lease with South Ayrshire Stalking had been signed almost immediately after all bids were received on December 14, despite the crofters being told later they could appeal.

The decision was taken by officials under some form of delegated or executive powers. That it was taken in isolation from other government and public agency efforts to help an island which is losing its population as holiday homes increase, is deeply worrying.

But conspiracy theorists might think that perhaps that some did indeed anticipate the furore and that is precisely why they proceeded.

At any rate Labour’s Highlands & Islands MSP Rhoda Grant asked Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions to reverse the decision as it flew in the face of the ethos of Land Reform which was to give local people control of their assets.

 She said “It is the work of the community that increased the value of these rights, which has been used against them.”

But Mr Salmond  was left to argue: “There are problems upholding the Scottish public finance principles of best value (for money) and it is not necessarily within the discretion of  ministers to overturn these, because they are principles we are bound by.” 

Nobody really believes that taxpayers got the best value for public money by taking the rights away from the crofters for a couple of grand a year, when the island’s social and economic fragility is already recognised by government and public bodies.

But to do this to Raasay of all places nearly beggars political belief.

The Crofters Association had been specifically formed to manage the sporting rights to  prevent a return to the days when, in the words of the association's secretary Mrs Anne Gillies, "locals watched helplessly when property after property was sold off over their heads to outside interests by the Scottish Office."

This was a reference to the days when the island was seen far and wide as exemplifying the worst of absentee landownership.

The government had bought the island in 1922. But four decades later the old Scottish Office, for some as yet unexplained reason, was determined to sell numerous island  properties including Raasay House, to Dr John Green of Sussex.

One after another they went from 1961 till 1979, when the good doctor sold them back to the government in the form of the old Highlands and Islands development Board at a vast profit. He visited the island only twice but obstructed the islander at every turn earning him the title “Dr No”.

It was serious. For example he refused to sell one fifth of an acre needed for a slipway for the first car ferry to serve the island in Churchton.

The shore at Churchton Bay, in front of historic Raasay House, forms a natural harbour and has been used as a landing place for centuries.

In the early 1970s, it was the islanders’ preferred location for the slipway. A public inquiry in 1973 agreed.  Instead, it went to a far more exposed location at Suisnish in the south of the island.  The public authorities weren’t prepared to fight Dr Green over the issue.

Nobody is comparing South Ayrshire Stalking to Dr Green, indeed Chris Dalton, one of the partners, seems a perfectly reasonable cove.

He was on Raasay this week meeting the crofters who accept he has done absolutely nothing wrong in bidding for Raasay’s sporting rights.

But the Scottish Government has allowed itself to be seen as out of touch with the reality of life in an island community. Indeed some on the island have compared the administration to the Crown Estate Commissioners, who are criticised by ministers as being  remote and unaccountable.

Of course it could have all been so different.

In 1989 Tory Scottish office minister Lord Sanderson of Bowden offered to pass the crofting estates owned by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Scotland (Dafs) on Skye and Raasay  to local crofting community trusts as a  pilot project. However the crofters on these islands were quite happy with Dafs, trusted them as their landowners so showed no appetite for the plan.

Had the Raasay crofters gone for it then they would have owned the sporting rights. But perhaps it is not too late, according to the Harris-based David Cameron.
He is Chairman of Community Land Scotland which represents community landowners such as Assynt, Eigg and Gigha,  is thinking along similar lines and offered some thoughts this week.

“The community owners in Knoydart, South Uist and North Harris all manage deer herds successfully for local and tourist benefit. With local people owning and managing their land it is inconceivable that what has happened in Raasay could have happened, thus keeping economic benefits local, and that really would secure best value.”

He suggested that given “the tiny sums of money involved” the Scottish Government should offer compensation to the  dealer in Ayrshire to relinquish the contract. “Perhaps it could be as a prelude to the Scottish Government offering the whole estate to local people if the community want to go down that route.”

Now there’s an idea. Or of course the crofters could yet mount a community buyout themselves. The story has a bit to run yet.