Dùthchas is the gaelic word for entitlement which reflects the view that “all the members of a tribe, a clan or a community were entitled, simply by virtue of their belonging to such entities, permanently to occupy the land on which they lived”.

Iain Mackinnon reflects on the tour of the Highlands in the Seed Truck.

Duthchas: PART I

Out of the west we came, bearing news and good cheer…

For a week in August I was part of a team travelling across Scotland with The Seed Truck, a collaborative project between The Fife Diet and WWF Scotland. The truck spends most of the year going to schools and other locations through Scotland, holding workshops on how to grow and prepare our own fruit and vegetables and highlighting the importance of locally sourced food.

However, this summer The Seed Truck went on its first tour of Scotland. My role on the trip was to contribute to the tour’s ceilidh culture with piping, singing and stories, and to discuss the concept of ‘food sovereignty’. Onboard along with me were the Truck’s driving force, Fergus Walker from Skye, also a piper and a man with a passion for Scotland’s native agricultural plant varieties, and, from Leith, the storytelling cook and song-maker Marie Louise Cochrane.

Our purpose was to visit, learn about and share the inspiration of some of the local food initiatives that are growing up across Scotland. Many of these initiatives have emerged over the last few years. They are fostered by an awareness of the urgent need to respond to global ecological challenges; carried by the strength of the volunteers and activists who recognise those challenges; and nourished by being rooted in those parts of Scotland that they call home.

In this article and two others that will follow it I would like to share a little of the rich experiences of a week with The Seed Truck, and some reflections they have left me with regarding community resilience and sustainable agriculture in Scotland today.

feature squareULLAPOOL

Our first destination was Ullapool where we were hosted by the Ullapool Community Trust. To complement the Seed Truck’s activities, Mary MacKay and Cathy Higginson of the trust had arranged a full day of advice-sessions and workshops down at the busy pierhead. These were on food related topics from foraging to bee-keeping and smoking fish. Although the trust’s main focus at the moment is on energy projects, including a run-of-river micro hydro scheme, they have also been involved in a project to establish allotments in the village.

Ullapool is not a crofting township, despite being in the middle of the crofting area of Scotland. It is a planned village that was set up by the British Fisheries Society in 1788 on the ground of a small farm called Ullapool in order to create a settlement from which fishermen could exploit the west coast herring fishing. Local people were expected to be among the ‘settlers’ of the new village and the Society believed that the native population would “prefer a low standard of living to hard work”, and so if a native man “was to fish at all he must not have enough land to live on entirely”. (Munro 1994: 259f)

The land of the village was first divided according to this principle and as a result of this, and subsequent developments, the present-day inhabitants of many of the neat rows of houses in its grid of streets have very limited access to land. For several years some keen local growers made use of various growing spaces, including a walled garden nine miles out-with the village of Ullapool. The growers eventually identified a piece of Highland Council owned land in the heart of the village that they wanted to develop as allotments but an opposition group was set up to counter the proposal.

It took the Lochbroom & Ullapool Gardeners & Growers Society two years of lobbying, public meetings and an award £62,500.00 from the Climate Challenge Fund to finalise an arrangement by which they could lease the land from the Highland Council. In the meantime, however, the proposal had created divisions among some people in the village.

Yet, following the granting of planning permission, the “Riverside Gardens” allotment site was eventually created, and now there is a growing desire within the community to heal and to move beyond the divisions. Some of these hopes and aspirations for Ullapool’s future were shared in our first ceilidh of a week of rich sharings of story and song from Scotland (and sometimes beyond).

As we left Ullapool the next morning, heading south and to the east, the road passed miles of fine green fields. This good ground left me with a question: how can people possibly be struggling to find land for local food production in the Highlands?

And alongside the question was a line from a song sung at the ceilidh the night before by a lady living in Ullapool but with her roots in Dundee. It was a song of the east coast city’s jute mills and it said ‘the world’s ill-divided, them that work the hardest are aye the least provided’.

Andrew Clark, at Loch na Mhoid

Local seed saver Agric, at Loch na Mhoid


From Ullapool we travelled to Loch na Mhoid, and a secluded croft which lies a couple of miles from the village of Muir of Ord at the west end of The Black Isle. The Black Isle is a peninsula of rich agricultural land, just to the north of Inverness. The crofts in this area were the result of a migration from the west early in the 19th century, when an estate in Strathconon was cleared. At the time of the crofters’ rising in the 1880s, the descendents of those who had settled in The Black Isle complained that the ground they had taken over had previously been afforested and as they made the land more productive for agriculture – removing roots and vast numbers of stones – the landlords increased their rents. In 1883, thirty-year-old Finlay MacKay from a croft close by Loch na Mhoid, told a Government Commission into crofting that they had been given no lease “and the rise of rent was laid upon our own improvements”.

Another local delegate described how landlords and clergymen had dispossessed the crofters of their right to graze cattle on the Mulbuie common and divided the common among themselves.

They have thus become the unjust owners of land which was once a common for the benefit of the crofters and other poor people in the Black Isle. We demand an equivalent to what has thus been stolen from us.

Efforts to make land available for those without it continue at Loch na Mhoid today. Toni and Andrew Clarke, who work the croft there, have allowed some of their land to be used as a community garden for Muir of Ord and are working to develop the garden with Transition Black Isle.

There are animals as well as crops on the croft and so the garden area is strongly protected from hens and sheep. It looks well used, with a polytunnel and several raised beds for those who are part of the community group. However, Toni acknowledges that it would be much easier to attract people from Muir of Ord if the garden were closer to the village itself. Again, getting hold of land near or in the population centre to use for growing has proved problematic.

We also heard about a long struggle to get allotments started in nearby Cromartie, while members of Transition Black Isle have had more success in the village of Rosemarkie where their support ensured an area of land was ploughed and fenced, and sheds and a water supply established for allotments there.

As part of their manifesto for community growing, the Federation of Community Gardens and City Farms have written about the difficulties that growers face in accessing land. They say they hear of cases on a monthly basis. (FCFCG 2010: 3)

At Loch na Mhoid we were struck by how many of those taking part did not have local accents. One person we asked said they felt that Transition Black Isle is mainly made up of well educated incomers with good ideas and enthusiasm but who are struggling to connect with the broader population of the area. It seemed to me that as they contain so many incomers, groups like those of the transition movement also represent the transition of people into place and are, in part, a means of meeting the need for community among people who are new to an area. The difficulty of sharing ideas that such groups are keen to spread, on the local food economy, on simple-living and on sustainability, was a common theme on our journey.

This is not to say that the group at Loch na Mhoid are not making inroads. One of the big employers in Muir of Ord is the distillery and, as a result of giving away produce from their croft at a local show, Toni Clarke has been invited by the distillery manager to take part at one of their events. Toni is hoping that the community garden’s invited presence at an event being hosted by a business which is held in high regard in Muir of Ord will help to raise their profile and traction in the village. There is a strong set of skills among Transition Black Isle, with a lucid and entertaining session on seed saving one of the highlights of the day.


From The Black Isle we travelled next to Inverness and the Velocity Café and bicycle workshop which has been started there by two young women, Laura Nicolson and Penny Philips, to share their passion for bikes and local food. The venture is set up as a membership organisation and at the café we met Laura and some of the youthful and committed team.

The café is a welcoming space just a few yards from the city’s main shopping street and is emerging as a hub for many of the city’s cycling sorority. Attached to the café is a bike workshop in which maintenance classes take place and where cyclists can hire space, tools and advice to fix their bikes.

The venture opened to the public near the end of 2012 and, as with most on our trip, it has been supported by the Climate Challenge Fund. As a social enterprise financial profit is not their sole, or even primary, aim. However, Laura says that the café is already more than covering its costs and they are working on ways to diversify and increase their income stream from the bicycle workshops and classes, including outreach projects.

Although she grew up in Inverness, Laura’s family belong to the Western Isles, as do several others in the café team, and I felt a deep Hebridean energy at work during our time there – and by the end of our ceilidh in the café that Hebridean energy was well and truly manifest, with the Velocity folks’ Highland dancing and Gaelic songs among the highlights of the gathering.


After this glad evening we travelled to Forres. There we were met by the directors of the town’s transition group who showed us around the town’s community garden. It is based on the site of an old market garden and is made up of around 20 large circular pods, each about fifteen metres in diamater. Each pod is shared between four gardeners. There are seventy people making use of the garden and on the day when we were there a constant stream of people passed through. Each plot is quite small and were told that some of the more experienced gardeners could probably work a whole pod themselves. However, the group have decided that their priority should be to make ground available to as many people as possible who would like to work the land.

The driving force of Transition Forres is Carin Schwartz, a Swedish woman who turned to environmental politics after seeing Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Carin said that when Gore asked at the film’s end what viewers intended to do about the inconvenient truth of climate change she knew she had to respond. Her role as a leader of Transition Forres is part of her response.

Influenced by the Findhorn Foundation and the nearby military base at Kinloss, Forres is a diverse town. In the garden I was talking with people living in the area who are from Scottish, English, Swedish, German, Canadian and Chinese backgrounds and heard several other European accents.

The diverse backgrounds of the leaders of Transition groups may in some cases make it difficult for alternative ideas to be shared with longer established members of communities. However, in Ullapool Simon Calder, a Scotsman who has retired to the village and grows fruit and vegetables for local restaurants, put forward another view. He said he believed that the diversity of people in their village, and the breadth of knowledge and opinions that they hold, means that ecological and ethical issues may be debated more fully than in places where the population is more homogenous.

This return to the land is about more than just working the soil. It speaks also to something growing within. Again and again on this trip we heard stories of people moving to the north of Scotland to find something called ‘belonging’.

One of those who belongs to Forres is George. He is one of the elders of the garden. Seventy-seven years old, he grew up in Westminster during the blitz and told me of a memory of his auntie going out from their bunker to make pancakes while the air raid sirens were on. She would not be cowed by fear. He recalled a strong spirit of community and closeness among people at that time that he said seemed to slip away after the war was over.

In retirement he works at a gardening project in a local school, taking them to Transition Forres’ garden and planting publics spaces with rows of vegetables and bright coloured marigolds. Where others might see the empty and disused portions of ground around the town of Forres as wasteland, George sees gardens of the future…


From Forres we moved to Keith where we were the guests of the REAP Rural Environmental Action Project. REAP was set up in 1997 as a community service volunteers project and became an independent charity ten years later with a broad sustainability remit.

Its slogan of ‘Work, Folk, Place’ is that of the Scottish human ecologist Patrick Geddes who was born in Ballater in Aberdeenshire, and REAP’s wide range of work and projects reflects Geddes’ own life. Although based in Keith, REAP is involved in projects throughout Moray, including promoting the area’s food bank, responding to the needs of those who find themselves unable to feed themselves. They also have a plot at the Keith allotments and we spent our day there in sunshine next to the allotments below St Rufus’ church.

Our ceilidh in the evening was led by the young folk of Keith and the surrounding parishes. For two hours, song, music and story poured out of them. Much of it was drawn from the traditions of the north-east, but they also drew on folk traditions, old and new, from throughout Scotland. Such was the power of their performance that poor Ann, one of our hosts at Keith and the ‘bean-an-tighe’ [or ‘Mistress of Ceremonies] for the ceilidh, was left at times struggling to speak.

On the tour we had the ‘Seed Kist’ with us. This is a great wooden chest which contains seeds, mainly of traditional agricultural varieites, that were available for keen gardeners to take with them. It also stands for Fergus’ commitment to the native seed varieties of Scotland, their stories and their ongoing propagation.

In one of her tales, Marie Louise wove seeds and stories together, saying that neither should be hidden away; both must be nurtured and shared. I felt it was the same with the music of Keith, and glad I had been given the chance to enjoy it. Unfortunately, to get to our accommodation we had to leave the ceilidh before it was over. The Seed Kist was hauled out the door and into the truck for us by Penny and Dorothy, two of the REAP project workers. We said our farewells while the music continued around us. And we were off to Huntly.

7 Huntly - Rob Davidson teaches about how to save seeds 940x460

Rob Davidson teaches about how to save seeds


The Glamourhaugh allotments in Huntly are set in fine lowlying ground next to the River Bogie, the river which gives the town its other name, the ‘Rawes of Strathbogie’. While there are several well-used plots, for me, the centrepiece of the allotments is the plot that is used by the local school and the Huntly Mental Health Project, with deep raised beds holding crops that are flourishing. They also have a neat wooden hut, shed and toilet in the gardens and a big firepit which was built in collaboration with a group from Finland. Our ceilidh in the evening was round a warming fire which drew out stories, songs and lore from those around it – including how the farriers of the north-east would make a deal with Auld Hornie himself in order to get the secret word…we never did hear the ‘word’ though!

We had been told that the Glamourhaugh allotments had opened in 2009 and so, while we were walking around the town in the course of raising interest for our day of activities, we were surprised to hear a local man tell us that he had held an allotment there more than 20 years ago. He explained that all the allotment holders were evicted in the early 1990s. This had been because the local authority wanted to use the area for housing.

The man told us that it had been pointed out to the council that the land had been gifted to the town of Huntly for recreational use many years ago by a local family, members of whom still live in the town. The family had made the proviso that no buildings were to be put on the ground except in association with its recreational use by townsfolk.

This, combined with the fact that the river occasionally flooded the land when in spate, put an end to the housing plans. However, Glamourhaugh did not reopen as an allotment until 2009, when the council came to an arrangement with the Huntly Rotary Club to lease the site. The allotments are already full with a waiting list of seven. Although most plots are well used with crops getting ripe for harvest on many of them when we visited, there might be discontent among the more active gardeners as a few unused plots were filled with weeds getting ready to spread their unwanted seeds out through the allotments.

The same day we also met with a lady from Aberdeen who had just moved to Huntly. She told us that she had an allotment in Aberdeen but that it was threatened with development by the local housing association. She added that the uncertainty of whether she would be able to continue to use the land had contributed to her deciding to leave the city and move to Huntly. She was now seeking garden ground in Huntly.

St Fitticks Community Garde, Torry, where the seeds will be planted

St Fitticks Community Garde, Torry, where the seeds will be planted


We took the route east from Huntly to Aberdeen, past the prominent hill of Bennachie with the ruins of its ‘Colony’ of crofting families who were evicted when landlords divided up the commonty there in the 19th century. Like the crofters of Strathconon who moved east to The Black Isle and Inverness, some of the Bennachie people also moved east and into Aberdeen; those 19th century migrations from country to town that helped to create the big Scottish cities of today.

We spent the day at the Tillydrone Gala Day. Tillydrone is in the north of Aberdeen and most of it is categorised by the Government as seriously deprived. On our tour of the city with Andy Devine of the city regeneration charity Aberdeen Forward, only a few hundred metres from Tillydrone we were passing Jaguar and Mercedes. I’d known about Aberdeen’s wealth through oil and fishing. Now I was seeing it as a place of contrast, where money and flashy status symbols co-exist with intergenerational poverty and serious deprivation.

Yet there are other forces at work in Tillydrone and the Gala Day seeks to encourage them by offering a mix of activities for children and young people, competitions (the football tournament seemed to be particularly hotly contested), and information on healthy eating. There was plenty of energy and enthusiasm from the young people who hopped on board the bike mill which was hardly without someone in the saddle all morning. Conversations sprang up around the bike, and the medieval and pre-historic handmills that had been brought as a comparison by the Aberdeen story-teller Pauline Cordiner. A lot of young people left clutching little bags of flour that they had milled on the bike, with mothers, aunts and family friends discussing how best to make use of the young ones’ efforts.

Duthchas: Part II

On reflecting on my week with The Seed Truck, two themes in particular stood out for me. The first, which I would like to discuss in this article is that women were at the heart of each project that we visited. After relating a lineage of women-led social action in the north of Scotland, I would like to draw that history of social action into an outline of the related ideas of food sovereignty and food security.

Although men were also involved in each project of the seed truck tour, it seemed to me that their primary roles tended to be technical; advising on agricultural production or maintenance. At the heart of mobilising, organising and agitating for action and change were women. The central role of women in making community happen is commonly expressed in social movements around the world.

In Scotland, its roots go deep. Some 30 years ago the great Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson wrote a paper called ‘The Women of the Glen’ in which he showed how often it was women who led resistance to the Clearances of 19th century Scotland; a resistance which led eventually to the Crofting Act of 1886 and security of tenure.

Henderson focussed on unrest in 19th century rural Scotland, but in the cities too women seem to have played a prominent role in resistance to injustice.

For instance, in 1846 there were riots on the streets of Inverness. This was the winter of the first year of the blight that caused famine throughout the Highlands and Islands in the latter part of that decade. While most parts of the Highlands and Islands had “escaped its devastations” in 1845 the Inverness based writer Bill McAllister has suggested that the area around the town was one of those affected. The area was certainly affected the following year. (Hunter 2000: 95. McAllister 2013: 11)

Whether the threat of famine in the winter of 1845 was real or based on fears caused by reports of the blight in Ireland, when two boats arrived in early February to the town’s harbour to take a cargo of potatoes to London the citizens Invernes took action. Over several nights, a crowd led by women and young people thwarted the authorities’ attempts to put the potatoes onboard ship.

The unrest culminated in soldiers from Fort George, a garrison a few miles from Inverness, being used to prevent a crowd (one source claims it rose to 5,000 strong; at the time Inverness had a population of a little over 10,000) from overturning the carts and taking away the potatoes. Although they failed to stop the potatoes from being taken away, the people of Inverness, led by their womenfolk, won from the town authorities an assurance that a fairer system of food distribution would be set up in the town. In the same decade the people of Inverness, as well as from other east Highland towns, took to the streets again. This time in response to the export of grain from the Highlands while the area was in want of food. (Miller 2004: 214f. McAllister 2013: 11)

Hamish Henderson traced the strength of Celtic women far, far into the past.

One of the most noticeable and most easily documentable characteristics of Celtic tribal society, from the early Irish heroic sagas onwards, is the place in it of tough, strong-minded women. This is the hidden world of matriarchy, exercising power indirectly… (Henderson 1982: 256, 260)

Of the 19th century resistance, he wrote.

It was the “women’s world”, which stood in, with all its spirit, courage and resistance, when the “man’s world” faltered… (Henderson 1982: 260)

Seen as part of this lineage, the strong women of Ullapool, the Black Isle, Inverness, Forres, Keith, Huntly and Aberdeen (and many, many others), who are taking action today to renew Scotland’s local food economy and to raise awareness of the importance of the country’s food security and sovereignty, are the contemporary carriers of a vital Scottish tradition.

Food sovereignty and food security are two fairly recent additions to the language of food politics. According to a special research project convened by the main public funders of food-related research in the UK, “Food security is about having access to affordable, safe and nutritious food, today and tomorrow”. (Global Food Security 2013)

Food security is concerned with how existing systems of power and control can be used to ensure that people have access to food. It is primarily concerned with ensuring adequate consumption levels (that people have enough to eat) and ensuring that food production and distribution can meet demand. Advocates of food security, such as those involved in the UK research project mentioned above, argue that ensuring secure access to food is essentially a technical issue which can be resolved by scientific means with politics being used to ensure the appropriate availability of new agricultural technologies for farmers. For instance, the UK food security research group states:

Science must deliver new technologies which then need to be disseminated to farmers around the world – and that will require political negotiation for some market barriers to be removed and reduced.

At the same time, technology needs to be introduced at the correct pace in some developing countries to avoid the social…problems that technology can bring if deployed too quickly, such as negative effects on local prices and employment. (Global Food Security: 2013 – original emphasis)

However, as a critical concept, food sovereignty takes issue with the belief that food security can be achieved by essentially technical or technological means. Advocates of food sovereignty scrutinise the inner workings of the politics of food and its relationship with the development of food technologies. The word ‘sovereignty’ itself describes the power and control that is held by a particular body, such as a parliament, within a particular territory. By holding sovereignty, this body exercises supreme authority for political decision-making within that territory.

Food sovereignty, therefore, is concerned with how power and control are exercised over food systems within a land or territory, and how the exercise of that power and control affects the people within that land – and beyond it. So, as well as being concerned with secure access to food, advocates of food sovereignty interrogate the means by which the food economy of a land and of the planet is controlled and run.

Advocates of food sovereignty also investigate the assumptions and values by which the existing systems of power and control work, and their consequences in terms of peoples’ access to food. This investigation casts a new light on who benefits from the existing systems of power and control over the production, distribution and consumption of food. The purpose of this investigation is to create a critique of those systems as a means of trying to create a more equitable food system.

Part of this critique is an examination of who controls the resources needed to produce food and how they have acquired control of them. As land is the primary requirement for food production, the issue of land rights and land ownership is near the heart of this examination.

By keeping in mind these differences between food security and food sovereignty, it seems to me that, so far as Scotland is concerned, an essential difference can be discerned between the potato and grain riots of the 1840s, and the crofters’ risings of following decades.

The efforts of the Inverness people in the 1840s primarily tackled the issue of their food security, rather than the issue of food sovereignty. The potato and grain riots were carried out by people who had already lost control over the means of production of their food; they had little or no access to land, and therefore little or no means of subsistence. They were locked into a food system as consumers and were rioting because they believed the people who controlled that system were acting in a way that reduced the security of their access to food.

By contrast, the uprising in the west Highlands and Islands during the second half of the 19th century, while clearly also related to concerns about secure access to food, was more deeply inspired by crofters’ sense that they had a right to the traditional lands from which they produced food and had sustained themselves.

The tenor of the crofters’ claim can be found in a booklet made in 1886 by the Portree branch of the Highland Land Law Reform Association. They resolved:

That the land in the Highlands, belonging as it does to the people of the Highlands, the acceptance of leases by crofters is not necessary, and is besides a tacit admission of rights which they repudiate as inconsistent with the security of tenure to which they are entitled. (Hunter 2000: 219)

Although by the 19th century the ideology and laws of property had invested the right to control land in the Highlands and Islands to landlords, this right was being contested: the people of the area held the view that “all the members of a tribe, a clan or a community were entitled, simply by virtue of their belonging to such entities, permanently to occupy the land on which they lived”. According to the Government report that preceded creation of crofting law, this was “a belief indigenous to the country”. (Hunter 2000: 218, 220)

In Gaelic this entitlement is called dùthchas. It represents one form of Scottish ‘native title’ and, according to legal and political authorities of the late 19th century, it was enshrined in British law by the Crofting Act of 1886.

Crofting law redrew the legislative basis of land ownership in the Highlands and Islands. Crofters now held a secure and eternal right to their land, provided that they upheld their responsibilities to use and occupy that land. These rights and responsibilities were upheld by a special system of tenure and regulated by a singular legal authority that was initially called the Crofting Commission and then the Scottish Land Court.

Because it removed the powers of eviction and rent-setting from landowners to this independent legal authority it can be argued that crofting law changed the Highlands and Islands’ sovereign order. In doing so it enabled a whole body of people to maintain a subsistence mode of food production that challenged the spread of the capitalist mode of food production in which the majority of the inhabitants of a land are transformed from knowledgable and skilful producers of food into mere consumers.

The issues that food sovereignty raises go far beyond a right to grow culturally appropriate and nutritious food. Among the elders of crofting culture it is held that the loss of connection to land imperils not only the set of practical skills for living but also the whole orientation to life.

The Hebridean spiritual leader, Canon Angus MacQueen, makes this point in sweeping terms. It may be possible to quibble with the generalisation he draws. I would argue that to do so would be to lose sight of the depth of truth that is at the heart of his words. Canon Angus, who grew up on a croft in South Uist, maintains that the “crofting is about poverty with dignity”. Donald Noone, a founder and mainstay of the Inishowen Farmers’ Co-op in the west of Ireland, described this perspective to me as “frugal sufficiency”. A Gaelic term for it is ‘beathachadh boidheach’ – comfortable sufficiency.

Canon Angus added:

If you stand on your own four or eight acres you are monarch of all you survey and it gives you a natural dignity you are without the moment you walk on to the mainland. (quoted in McIntosh 2002: 49)

For MacQueen, this sense of human dignity is at the heart of the Celtic outlook on life.

The great Celtic thing too is that you musn’t lost your dignity. You must remember that you have that great dignity as a created being and never lose that dignity. (MacDonald 1994: 19)

He described the industrial revolution and the historical migrations of Gàidheal to the city as “a desparate tragedy…mentally it stripped people bare of dignity; they weren’t their own people any more”. (MacDonald1994: 20)

It did not matter that for the people who stayed on the islands “their backsides might be showing through their trousers”; their dignity came from being rooted in the land and from faith. For Canon MacQueen dignity is the product of faith, of an inner certainty that one is constantly held by the holy spirit He has said that in the traditional community faith was constantly being strengthened by life experience.

And through experience of being sent with food, quietly, to those who had nothing. From my earliest days this would happen. I would be sent off with milk to someone who had lost their cow or who had young children. This would be happening every day in life. I don’t remember ever a day when we weren’t doing this kind of practical work of charity or sitting up with people who were dying or dead. You lived your faith right from the word go. (MacDonald 1994: 18f)

In crofting communities, land is a source of dignity and its produce used to express faith. One wonders if the neglect and abandonment of croft land which is common today in the west Highlands and Islands is also evidence of the loss of faith as well as of connection with the land.

This, for me, is how crofting, past and present, can be understood in terms of food sovereignty, and how food sovereignty can be understood in a deeper sense as a means of what an old Donegal crofter once described to me as ‘making the human’. It is for this reason that I believe that crofting tenure should be spread throughout Scotland. I will try to make the case for this belief in the next article. In it I will argue that a significant cause of the neglect of croft land that can be seen in many parts of the crofting counties has been the continued imposition of policies on crofting communities which are alien to the values of dùthchas. I understand these impositions to be essentially colonial in character. However, in spite of ongoing processes of colonisation the transformed sovereign order that crofting law created has endured. As I will also try to show, in some ways it has even been strengthened.

Duthchas: PART III

My exploration of the concept of food sovereignty and its relationship with the origins of crofting have informed my reflection on the second theme that I felt was to the fore during my trip on The Seed Truck. Throughout the tour I was struck by the lack of regard that Scotland’s governance systems appear to have for the potential of small-scale, local food production.

Time and again we heard of the struggle that local groups face to access and make use of even tiny plots of land for allotment and community garden projects in their homeplaces.

As someone who has grown up on a croft on Skye, the trip has made it clear to me how privileged we are to have crofting in our part of the world. I talked to horticulturalists with far more experience than I have but whose limited access to land allows them to produce only a small fraction of their food requirements. One said his plot would allow him enough potatoes for a couple of months, as well as a few other vegetables.

Yet on our family’s croftland my girlfriend and I are growing what we hope will be potatoes and leeks enough to see us through the winter, as well as a wide range of other vegetables and herbs. One of our neighbours is virtually self-sufficient in vegetables while at the same time taking in a good crop of hay in order to feed their cattle over the winter.

Scotland is a big place, even for our five million people. Surely, everyone in Scotland, if it is their wish, should have a secure right to enough land to be able to meet their families’ food needs. This is a basic right to grow.

The question I would like to address in this article is by what means should Scotland seek to enable her people to achieve this basic right-to-grow, if it is their wish.

My own view is that the most appropriate way to achieve this is to radically extend crofting tenure. My argument is that the special nature of crofting tenure, with its individual and collective rights and responsibilities, makes is well placed to support the community oriented land reform that is already building in parts of Scotland.

Extending crofting tenure in some parts of Scotland could be relatively straightforward. The people we met in Forres and Keith during our trip in The Seed Truck welcomed the fact that Moray has been added to the crofting counties by recent crofting legislation. In both Moray and Aberdeenshire people still refer to smallholdings as crofts, although neither area was historically under crofting tenure. Crofting tenure has not yet reached Aberdeenshire, and it is too late now for the cleared crofters of Bennachie, just twenty miles from Aberdeen.

This is not to say that the extension of crofting tenure would be without difficulties. There is widespread agreement that crofting law still needs to be overhauled despite the 2010 Crofting Act. Indeed, I’ve been told that crofting lawyers have set up what they call a ‘sump’ to deal with issues that have either emerged from, or were not dealt with by, the recent legislation.

The problem is deep-seated. There are a set of principles or values underpinning crofting law that give privilege to community, place and agriculture as a means of living with the land. For reasons I will try to outline below, while Government acknowledge the importance of these values, they seem to be difficult to legislate for. I suspect this is because they are not in accord with other values that underpin Scots property law more generally.

Some provisions in recent crofting legislation exemplify the problem. In 2007 the Government were seeking to implement a crofting bill which many feared would legitimise a free market in croft land. After a long campaign against the legislation Government agreed to drop the majority of the bill, including the section on the market. A small portion of the bill went through as the Crofting Act of 2007 with a commitment by Government to try again. In the legislation which followed, the 2010 Crofting Act, extra provisions were put in place to try to prevent the speculative development of housing on croft land.

Yet elsewhere in the draft bill that became the 2010 Crofting Act the Government were introducing proposals that appeared, once again, to establish the legitimacy of a market in croft land. A proposal in the draft bill would have allowed a crofter to use their croft tenancy as a standard security for a bank loan. If they defaulted on repayment, the bank would be able to take on the tenancy. In the debate on the draft bill it was not clear where this idea had come from and it was met with strong opposition.

At a meeting held on the Isle of Skye in June 2009 to discuss the draft bill, several attendees commented on the status of the bank’s potential interest in the croft tenancy. According to a report in the local newspaper, one argued that to be able to lend sums approximating to that which can be secured against a freehold, the bank would need to be happy that the crofting tenancy itself approximates to a freehold and can be sold on the open market to the highest bidder without let or hindrance through regulation. (WHFP 2009: 7)

According to the newspaper report, in response to these concerns the senior civil servant at the meeting replied:

“It is clear that the crofts have a value on the free market — we see that from the internet.” He added that the proposal was to try to allow crofters the opportunity to realise that value for development. (WHFP 2009: 7.)

The reception of the proposal that croft tenancies act as standard security for commercial bank loans was not helped, as one attendee at the Isle of Skye meeting noted, by the fact that the British banking system appeared to be in meltdown at the time. The proposal was dropped from the final 2010 Crofting Act.

I’ve included this example as one instance of the constant policy antagonism that appears to exist between, on the one hand, an Edinburgh based governance system which habitually operates on the dominant set of assumptions and values in Scotland regarding land. These values privilege individual rights and an agenda for short-term development and economic growth. On the other hand is what remains of an indigenous system of self-governance on land use in which co-working over generations has contributed to what I think is a less self-interested and longer-term vision.

The antagonism is longstanding. In 1928 the parliamentary committee on land settlement in Scotland stated:

The problem in the Highlands involves historical, racial, economic and social considerations. We are dealing with a community which has refused to acquiesce in any of the attempts to change the method of holding or using land which have been made in the last 150 years, and the legislature has been compelled to meet the claims it has made to be allowed to live its life in its own way. (quoted in Fraser Grigor 2000: 209)

The refusal to acquiesce has continued since 1928 and is one of the reasons why crofting communities have a particular ‘community right to buy’ their lands as part of the Scottish Parliament’s 2003 Land Reform Act.

However, since 1928 the Government has not ceased from ‘attempts to change the method of holding or using land’ in the Highlands. Indeed, it has succeeded in passing legislation which many crofters believe is designed to achieve acquiescence and the universal adoption of a landholding system based on outright ownership. This legislative onslaught (perhaps most notably the individual ‘right-to-buy’ legislation of 1976) has certainly helped to erode of the principles that underlie crofting tenure: every speculative development taking place on croft land today has a crofter at its origin.

However, those underlying principles – particularly when combined (agriculture, community, place – or ‘work, folk, place’ as Patrick Geddes put it) – are, arguably, more important than ever. They are also in line with an emerging new order for global food production.

The United Nations and World Bank instigated International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development puts it bluntly: the old paradigm of industrial agriculture and society has failed. We need to support alternatives and among the alternatives ‘small is beautiful’.

The IAASTD synthesis report found that over the last half a century of “The general model [for farming] has been to continuously innovate, reduce farm gate prices and externalize costs”(IAASTD 2009: 3)

For many years agricultural science focused on delivering component technologies to increase farm-level productivity and where the market and institutional arrangements put in place by the state were the primary drivers of the adoption of new technologies. (ibid: 3)

We might think of the farming systems created by this model as part of an ‘agri-industrial complex’.

While the agri-industrial complex “drove the phenomenal achievements” in farming technology and productivity since the end of World War Two, it has been unable to tackle, and indeed is a primary cause of, a range of contemporary global challenges.

Today there is a world of asymmetric development, unsustainable natural resource use, and continued rural and urban poverty. Generally the adverse consequences of global changes have the most significant effects on the poorest and most vulnerable, who historically have had limited entitlements and opportunities for growth (ibid: 3f)

An authorised digest of sections of the IAASTD’s work states simply:

It is time to fundamentally rethink the role of agricultural knowledge, science and technology in achieving equitable development and sustainability. The focus must turn to the needs of small farms in diverse ecosystems and to areas with the greatest needs. (Greenfacts 2008).

One of the key challenges the IAASTD has raised is the need “to empower marginalized stakeholders to sustain the diversity of agriculture and food systems, including their cultural dimensions”. (IAASTD 2009: 4)

If Scotland is to take this international assessment seriously, we must consider food production in these broader terms. In crofting we have an enduring and proven model of small-scale production which has survived, evolved and in some cases appears to be prospering despite, as the UK parliament noted, centuries of effort to dismantle it.

Today, as well as being in line with the emerging global consensus on the future model for agriculture, there are hopeful signs that the Scottish Government are seeking genuine empowerment, rather than acquiescence, of crofting communities. Crofting achieved a measure of self-determination when the Government listened to calls for the crofting regulatory body to be democratised. There is now a Crofting Commission that is majority elected. It defines its purpose as promoting the active occupancy, use and management of croft land. The 2010 Act has given it greater authority to do so and it is using its mandate to try to tackle some of the issues that undermine the principles of crofting law. A recent case in North Ballachulish in which the Commission thwarted an attempt by an absentee crofter to build 10 houses on their croft indicates the resolve.

Strengthening management systems will be a key part in the resurgence of crofting; as a system of law crofting is not only about the individual portions of land called ‘crofts’. It is also about the shared management of a township’s common grazings. As Professor Frank Rennie has pointed out, common grazings committees are the smallest unit in British constitutional democracy. I believe they are also a reason for why community landownership is most common in the Western Isles, the heartland of crofting. A strong common grazings committee can be an engine for development and activism. A key factor in the North Ballachulish case was the uncompromising opposition of the local grazings committee to the proposed housing development.

Yet many townships no longer have an active grazings committee. Any analysis of why this is would need to investigate the Scottish Government’s appalling record of targetting agricultural support in Scotland (including the supposed Less Favoured Area scheme) to fertile eastern areas and away from the north-west, and the concomitant dramatic loss of livestock in the west Highlands over the last 20 years. (EFNCP nda)

This has led to abandonment of common grazings in many areas. Without land use, there is no shared land management and the collective responsibility and action it requires. This is a double blow to a sustainable Scotland as it not only has detrimental social impacts but it also weakens agriculture in areas that Government research has made clear contain most of the country’s High Nature Value farmland. (Scottish Government 2011)

Neo-liberal approaches to the agricultural economy have encouraged the development of larger and larger units and sought to find ways for agriculture to become more subject to market discipline. In consequence the vast farming units that are part of Scotland’s agri-industrial complex have become ‘high input’ systems associated with runaway climate change and loss of biodiversity, to name two negative impacts. The inputs that cause these negative impacts, such as pesticides and fertilisers, are becoming more and more expensive and yet it is clear from the thrust of the Pack Report on future agricultural support that the agri-industrial complex is not yet ready to reassess the basis of its future viability, and of how it can most usefully contribute in the long term to a sustainable Scotland.

However, there is a greater public awareness of the detrimental effects of the current farming methods of Scotland’s agri-industrial complex and of its non-viability in the long term. There is now a broad spectrum of groups working to persuade the Scottish Government to enact the country’s reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in a way that supports High Nature Value farming systems and moves away from subsidising agricultural practices that are ecologically harmful.

The prevailing agri-industrial model is ecologically harmful and has encouraged the amalgamation of farms. Spreading the crofting system throughout Scotland would break up these units and offer the prospect of the return of communal life to parts of Scotland dark and virtually deserted.

Professor Mark Shucksmith, professor of rural development at Newcastle University, has expressed the need for radical reform of Scotland’s agriculture. In a joint presentation to the rural law conference in Aberdeen in 2011 he said:

With state support and regulatory frameworks, small farms can not only persist but can contribute to the sustainability of rural places. In Norway and Scotland these reflect ‘hybrid assemblages’ of neoliberalism and other social formations. Such ideas may continue to struggle as neoliberalism endures in its zombie phase, but smaller farms’ role in rural sustainability should be recognised as a progressive, postneoliberal alternative rather than as a pre-modern obstacle to economic efficiency and productivism. (Shucksmith and Rønningen 2011)

In the same presentation Shucksmith speculated on whether the ideological vacuum created by the intellectual and moral collapse of neo-liberalism can offer an opportunity for “the (re)mobilisation, recognition and valuation of multiple, local forms of development, rooted in local cultures, values and movements”. Crofting, he stated, is Scotland’s local form and the regulatory system that expresses its values “seeks balance between the community interest and individual rights”. (ibid)

As Canon MacQueen articulated, at its best, the community interest of a crofting township is able, while making the individual human, to nurture the values of dignity and compassion as well as of thrift and a work ethic. Such is the potential of Scotland’s pre-modern cultural inheritance.

Given that community ownership of land is now blossoming in the crofting heartland of the Western Isles, my own hope is that the Scottish Government can be persuaded to radically reshape policies for rural development throughout Scotland to create and nurture strong, functional crofting communities with the shared responsibility for land, and place, at their heart. It seems to me that if the will and the passion are present, such a policy agenda could – as I believe it is doing in the Western Isles – encourage many more Scottish communities to move towards taking full responsibility for the lands around them. In a post-industrial, post banking-boom Scotland, encouraging responsibility in community would also contribute to remaking our collective humanity into something that more fully reflects the fullness and fertility of this great land we inhabit.


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Scottish Government. 2011. Developing High Nature Value Farming and Forestry Indicators for the Scotland Rural Development Programme. Scottish Government website. Available on-line at: (accessed 30th August 2013).

Shucksmith, M and Rønningen, K. 2011. ‘The uplands after neoliberalism? The role of the small farm in rural sustainability’ a presentation to the Rural Law Conference 2011 at Aberdeen University. Available on-line at: accessed 29th August 2013). See also:

WHFP. 2009 ‘Disquiet grows over crofting reform plans’ in West Highland Free Press 26th June 2009. West Highland Publishing Company.