The North West of Scotland has a long history of State intervention aimed at
solving the Highland problem. A series of governmental and quasi-governmental
development agencies has operated since the establishment in 1887 of the
original Crofters' Commission; and the latest in this long line is the Highlands
and Islands Development Board (HIDB), established in 1965, with very wide paper
powers and an almost unlimited remit to promote the economic and social
development of the seven crofting counties. This article is concerned with the
HIDB's interpretation of its remit to promote simultaneously economic and social
Two definitions of the Highland problem have opposed each other since the 1880s.
One is economic, seeing the low personal incomes of the people, and, in later
formulations, the unbalanced economic structure as the major problem. The second
definition is social: here the problem is seen to be a matter of the
relationships between landlords and tenants.
These conflicting definitions were found in the events of the 1880s, which led
to the creation of the first Crofters Commission. They can also be found in the
debates of the 1950s and 1960s, which brought about the establishment of the
HIDB. Controversy centred on the powers, which the Board was given to hold,
obtain, and dispose of land; and especially to acquire land compulsorily,
subject to the Secretary of State's approval. Those who favoured the social
definition expected that the new Board would try to alter the landholding
structure: a reasonable thing to do on theoretical grounds when attempting to
promote development of an agricultural region in which ownership of land is
highly concentrated. But they were disappointed. The HIDB has made no attempt to
alter the landholding contexture of the crofting counties; it has not challenged
the rights of ownership nor the rights of crofters' tenancies. By thus ignoring
the landholding framework it has ignored the historic social definition of the
problem - that it is a problem of the relationship between tenants and lairds.
The HIDB has completely accepted the economic definition and has acted almost
exclusively as an economic development agency.
An example of the way in which the HIDB interpreted its very wide remit may be
found in its first proposals for the comprehensive development of a particular
area. The area chosen was the Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland. The published
proposals made it clear that the idea of this study was given to the Board at
its establishment and was not of its choosing. But the selection of Kildonan is
extremely interesting. It was the scene of some of the more draconian of the
Sutherland clearances at the turn of the nineteenth century, and it remains a
symbol of the ruthless exercise of power and broken obligations. The Board's
proposals acknowledged the non-economic genesis of the study: "Because of the
history of the Clearances, absentee land ownership, and apparent under use of
land resources, the Strath has frequently been cited as a typical example of
misuse of land in the Highlands … For these historical reasons, and not because
of any particular resources or combination of resources readily suitable for a
comprehensive development scheme, the Board resolved to take action."
Two suggestions to improve land-use in the Strath came from inhabitants who held
the social definition. One was that the common grazings of four crofting
townships should be extended by adding the whole of one sheep farm and part of
another. The second - more radical - suggestion was that at least twelve farming
units, with a stocking capacity of 600 ewes and 30 cows per unit, should be
established on the best agricultural land in the Strath. Once again, the Report
recognised the social origin of the suggestions: "There is little doubt that the
wish for engendering land settlement in the Kildonan community is inspired by
the emphasis placed on sport in the existing land-use and the feeling that the
local population do not have a sufficient voice in their community."
Both suggestions were rejected in the Board's proposals. The basis of the
rejection was rigorous economic criteria. The Board's programme was "primarily
economic rather than social, in the sense that a positive return is expected on
all the investment proposed." Increased common grazings were ruled out on the
grounds that the best land was earmarked for forestry, which would bring good
returns. The remaining land was not good; consequently "such an extension would
not add materially to the income base of the townships concerned, and the Board
could not support it." The same logic is applied to the land settlement scheme.
This would involve the fragmentation of the existing farms, which is against
Government policy, and it would be expensive. "The creation of small
stock-rearing farms on marginal land of only moderate potential would involve
capital expenditure far beyond what could be economically justified."
The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that no land settlement policy, on
either farming or crofting tenure, can be supported on economic evidence.
But this argument applied with equal force to the establishment of crofting
tenure in 1886. Land reform can rarely be justified on economic grounds. A
reduction in income for the cultivator and a reduction in agricultural
production are quite likely to occur; but, typically the cultivator is willing
to bear some of the economic costs to achieve the social and political goals at
which land reform aims. The HIDB's wholehearted acceptance of the economic
definition of the Highland problem means that this kind of land reform proposal
can never be seriously considered. The Board's total disregard of the historic
social definition of the Highland problem is thus very serious from the point of
view of the communities concerned. But what is even more serious is that the
Board does not appear to have any other definition of social development in the
light of which it frames its policies.