Drew Ratter, Convener of the Crofters Commission, visited Jura last week accompanied by local Area Commissioner Cllr Robin Currie, where the two men attended a meeting to discuss the creation of six new crofts on the Rily-Smith’s Ardfin estate. Ratter told the Ileach: ‘The meeting was very well attended, particularly by young couples and families. I have found the whole Jura experience very energising with loads of ideas for diversification within the crofting communities being thrown around. I sincerely believe that it will be the creation of small crofts such as these that represent the future of the industry. ‘We must remember that crofting has never been the sole source of income for tenants – it has never been possible to make a living purely from crofting. What crofting does provide is a secure base for people to build on, and it is a Crofters Commission responsibility to make sure they have a sound support structure to enable this. Six acre crofts such as these provide the opportunity for a bewildering range of small scale local economic activities – to erect a workshop, perhaps a polytunnel, to raise a few animals and build a house and home. Having this base enables tenants to really utilise their imagination and skills – to genuinely interface with the global modern economy and not simply scratch a living from the land. On Jura you have many examples of this happening right now, from graphic designers, to plant operators to teachers to people working in the service industries. ‘This situation is underpinned here by policies such as Argyll and Bute Council conferring an absolute right for crofters to build a house on the croft – there are many other crofting areas which do not enjoy this right.’
Crofting communities on Jura were in decline for many years, with steady depopulation of the crofting townships of Knockrome and Keills. Ardfin estate manager Willie MacDonald told Ratter that when he initially arrived on Jura the population of the island had been around 250, but that there had been a steady decline to a low of 165. There has however been a resurgence in recent years – the population is back up to slightly over 200 and Willie looks forward to the day when it is back up to 250 again. Ratter sees ‘getting bums in beds’ as a central aim of the Crofters Commission saying: ‘The Crofters Commission has a responsibility to ensure the best possible occupancy of crofts. It is the Commission’s role to provide the help and support needed to make that happen, but also to work on solving abuses of the crofting system, particularly absenteeism and/or neglect.’
Local area Commissioner Cllr Robin Currie said that the creation of two crofts near Port Charlotte on Islay had been a success, and that he was hoping that more new crofts could be created on Islay. Asked why landowners would wish to allow crofts to be created on their land he replied: ‘There are a number of significant benefits that can accrue from creating crofting communities. There is the obvious financial incentive – crofts have a value and incoming tenants expect to pay a significant sum prior to entry. The ongoing annual rents are usually relatively modest, but there can be significant planning gains for an area that follows the creation of crofts, via non-crofting housing for example.’
Other aspects of modern crofting which can reassure landlords include the fact that it is now possible for landowners to opt out of the ‘right to buy’ and ‘rights of assignment’ which can protect their long term interests. ‘The most significant
benefit however’, says Ratter, ‘is the desire of a landowner to do the right thing for the community. You are fortunate on Islay and Jura in having some very progressive landowners who want to do something positive, to really make a contribution
to the lives of people. This has been the main motivation of the Riley-Smiths of Ardfin on Jura, and look at this remarkable new abattoir built by Dunlossit Estate here on Islay. I would venture to suggest that community benefit has been a significant driver in the decision making process that built this fantastic new facility… It is projects like this that really demonstrate a landlord’s commitment – and it is to be commended. When you see projects like this coming to fruition you realise that crofting has a great future in these parts.’
This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.