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February 27, 2013

Govt needs to practice what it preaches

Fifty years ago, the community on the Isle of Raasay lived with an absentee landowner who was notorious for the way in which he controlled the use of land and properties on the island. He was nicknamed Dr No. Ownership of the island has since passed to the Scottish Government.  With its current commitment to community empowerment, one imagines that the Scottish Government would be the very embodiment of an enlightened landlord. Not so. Recent actions have infuriated local crofters and drawn comparisons with the dark days of Dr No.


Crofters have accused the Scottish government of acting like an absentee landlord after granting an island’s sporting rights to an Ayrshire firm. The lease to manage fishing and shooting on Raasay, an island off Skye, had been held by Raasay Crofters Association since 1994. The association was out-bid by South Ayrshire Stalking in the latest tendering process.

The government said it was aware of local concerns. Girvan-based South Ayrshire Stalking met crofters on Monday and offered to work with them.

First Minister Alex Salmond was challenged on the matter by Labour MSP Rhoda Grant during First Minister’s Questions on Thurday. Mr Salmond said the government was bound by ministerial rules in dealing with the lease.

But Raasay Crofters’ Association secretary, Anne Gillies, has said the government’s handling of the lease recalled the way land and properties on the island were controlled by a Sussex-based landowner in the 1960s. Dr John Green was nicknamed Dr No by islanders after blocking the sale of some houses to locals and preventing the construction of a car ferry pier.

Islanders on Raasay are objecting to the decision to lease shooting rights on the island to a firm after 18 years. Mrs Gillies said: “It seems incredible that we are facing the same situation that Raasay faced 50 years ago. We thought these times were past in the age of community buyouts and local control.”

Her husband, crofter Andrew Gillies, said islanders had been successful at managing the rights and also building up business around the sale of venison locally.

Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse said the crofters’ association bid for the lease was “substantially” lower than the winning bid. He added that safeguards were in place to protect islanders if the lease was not managed appropriately. Mr Wheelhouse said: “We have made sure that the successful bidder is going to work with the local community. If there is a breach of the contract in any way the lease could be reopened for new tender.”

Raasay Crofters Association was launched 18 years ago to manage the rights on behalf of local crofters after public body Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise told the then Scottish Executive that it no longer wished to lease them.

A land reform expert charged with advising ministers has issued a stinging indictment of a Scottish Government decision to take the lease of sporting rights on the isle of Raasay away from local crofters. Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter said ministers should try to buy the rights back from the South Ayrshire Stalking partnership.

It bid £2000 a year more than the crofters’ offer of £1150 for the rights when the old lease expired, and the bid was accepted by civil servants. Mr Hunter, a vice-chairman of the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group, said the Scottish Government had, in effect, transferred the rights from Raasay crofters to “external and absentee” interests. He added: “This runs counter to the Government’s stated commitment to empower communities and to expand community control of assets.”

Mr Hunter said what happened on Raasay was all the more dis-appointing because the crofters’ 18 years of deer management had boosted the value of the sporting lease “which the Government has now cashed in”.

“Ministers in Edinburgh should immediately acknowledge a bad mistake has been made – one that can in no way be defended or excused. But they should do much more than that. They should open discussions with the new holders of the sporting lease with a view to buying it back and restoring it to its previous crofter holders.”

He said they should also tell Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) to press ahead with getting its woods on Raasay into community ownership. FCS said the community will get first refusal on 711 acres of island woodland, including the sporting rights in the woods.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said the stalking bid was accepted by officials without ministerial involvement. Anne Gillies, secretary of the Raasay Crofters’ Association, said what has happened on the sporting rights was “quite simply wrong”.