January 30, 2024
An exceptional lawyer
One of the few lawyers to understand crofting legislation and, most importantly, how to turn it to community advantage, was Simon Fraser, who died in 2016 at the age of just 60. He was by all accounts a remarkable man but it was as a lawyer and for his work to enable the early community land buyouts that he will be best remembered. The inaugural Simon Fraser Memorial Lecture, organised by Community Land Scotland, was held last week where we learned a little more about the man. Those of us who never knew him left wishing that we had.
Obituary of Simon Fraser Born: April 28, 1955; Died: January 25, 2016
SIMON Fraser, who has died on Lewis aged 60 after a long illness, was a solicitor and one of the most important figures in the land reform movement. Relatively few in Scotland would have known of him or his immense contribution to the communities who sought to control their own land, but without his navigation of the deals, very few of those who now own more than 500,000 acres of Scotland, home to 25,000 people, would have succeeded.
Mr Fraser’s great friend Dr Michael Foxley, former leader of the Highland Council, is clear that without Simon’s professionalism and tactical wit, little progress would have been made on land reform.
Perhaps ironically, it was a Tory government that led to his direct involvement. In 1989, Russell Sanderson, a Scottish Office minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, took up the suggestion from the Scottish Crofters Union (SCU) that government-owned crofting estates be given to their tenants. In 1989 Lord Sanderson announced piloting of the idea on the Skye and Raasay estates.
In the end, the crofters there were content to remain tenants of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. But the SCU had commissioned rural development charity the Arkleton Trust to report on the legal and practical implications for the crofters.
Simon Fraser was one of two lawyers involved and he developed a model of a community trust as a company limited by guarantee, which would work for local people seeking to buy their land.
Just a few years later in 1992, 100 tenant crofters in Assynt called on his expertise. They had just learnt that the 21,000-acre North Lochinver estate was being broken up and that they could be dealing with seven different landlords. In February 1993, against all the odds, they finally took control, clear they could not have done it without Simon Fraser’s guidance and negotiating skills.
Mr Fraser would recall that the stakes were higher on Eigg, where so many residents did not enjoy crofters’ security of tenure. If things went wrong they could be evicted.
The German artist Maruma had bought the island from Keith Schellenberg for £1.6m, only to take out loans immediately against it at punitive rates. Eigg was a pawn in a game of international land speculation.
Yet when it came back on the market, the Heritage Lottery Fund refused to assist the buyout if the local people were to control the island. The islanders were not trusted.
To get round that, Simon Fraser came up with the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust with a membership of the island residents’ association, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Highland Council. But a massive anonymous donation meant lottery funding was not needed for the purchase.
They took ownership in June 1997, and the remarkable transformation of the island, after years of decline and decay, began with Mr Fraser as trust chair for the first seven years.
He loved Eigg, and on buyout day he spoke of what it represented to him: ”It is a triumph for all that is good in humanity and certainly one in the eye for everything that is mean-spirited and self-seeking.” His many friends would describe Mr Fraser’s own sense of commitment in similar vein.
Knoydart, Bhaltos, Abriachan, Fernaig, Kylesku, Gigha, North Harris and other communities were to follow with his guidance. It meant a great deal of travel and work for him. He did not get rich out of it.
“I don’t think he even sent us a bill, despite having done so much for us,” Maggie Fyffe, the secretary of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust observed.
He also spotted early a loophole in Holyrood’s 2003 land reform act, whereby landowners could circumvent the impact on their assets of a community buyout, by arranging long leases with companies, established or newly created for the purpose. This ‘interposed leases’ loophole was subsequently closed by legislation, in no little part because of lobbying by Mr Fraser.
He served as chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage’s North Area Board, underlining his unique position as someone who was trusted alike by crofters, environmentalists and the landowners for whom he acted as factor.
A Gaelic speaker, he was immersed in the human heritage of Lewis and the wider Gàidhealtachd. His beloved Molingonis retreat in North Harris was a place of hospitality and adventure for his extended family and friends.
Born in Glasgow, the family moved to Howwood in Renfrewshire when his father worked in the zoology department at Glasgow University. They also lived in Appin and North Connel in Argyll when Simon attended Oban High School.
He was in his mid-teens when the family moved to Stornoway where his father taught biology at the Nicolson Institute. They built a house on a croft at Breasclete on the west side of Lewis. His father served with the Crofters Commission.
Mr Fraser went to Aberdeen University and studied Celtic studies and Scottish history. Afterwards, he completed his legal apprenticeship with Anderson MacArthur in Stornoway, becoming a partner in the firm.
His wife Ann recently retired as a district nurse and midwife. He is survived by Ann and his sons Alasdair and Simon, and daughters Anna and Cara.