The community of Melness is situated about 100 miles north of Inverness on the north
coast of Sutherland. It is a community of small crofting townships, comprising about 70
households (or about 100 houses), stretching for about five miles around the beautiful
Kyle of Tongue. Melness Estate extends to some 10,500 acres of generally poor hill
grazings and crofts, sloping from Ben Hutig down to the Kyle of Tongue and the Moine. The
estate includes a couple of burns, several beautiful beaches, a sheltered harbour and
pier, several lochs, a couple of islands, and extensive peatlands.
The community of Melness has survived mainly as a close-knit core of indigenous
crofters, many of whom are descended from the original folk who settled there after being
removed from their holdings during the Clearances. They have a close relationship with the
land, which they have worked daily for generations, and their community was built stone by
stone by their forebears. Melness crofters are very proud of their heritage and extremely
proud and supportive of their own folk. They have a keen sense of belonging to Melness and
like to maintain their roots there. Indeed, many folk who have left Melness return
regularly to visit their relatives and friends and to enjoy the local hospitality, whilst
many others retire to their roots in Melness. In short, as one local person rather aptly
put it, "You can take a local person out of Melness, but you can't take Melness out
of a local (person)!"
Particularly in recent years, the local economy in Melness has been characterised by a
limited range of small-scale employment opportunities, mainly in public and local
services, but also in crofting, forestry, shell fishing, fish farming and estate work. As
in most other remote rural communities, there has been a disproportionately high number of
retired residents, compared with younger working folk - many younger folk have left to
pursue better socio-economic opportunities elsewhere, and many older folk have retired to
Melness, attracted by the quiet and natural way of life there.
In the autumn of 1995, the Melness crofters were offered a unique opportunity to tackle
local problems for themselves when the wealthy proprietor of Hope and Melness Estate,
Michael Foljambe, approached the Melness Grazings Clerk with a proposal to split the
estate in two and offer the Crofting Estate of Melness to the local crofting tenants (the
remaining two-thirds of the estate - the sporting estate at Hope - would be gifted to his
nephews in London). The proprietor said that the idea had been with him for some time and
that he was finally encouraged to make his offer by the example of the Assynt Crofters
Trust. He referred to his offer as "social engineering" at the time, and it
proved to be quite inspired.
The Melness Grazings Clerk, Frank Gordon, took the Proprietor's offer to a meeting of
the local crofters. He informed the crofters that they had an opportunity to secure the
estate for themselves and for future generations. He highlighted the fact that the
relatively good relationship that existed with the proprietor would be lost if the estate
was transferred to another owner, and that there could quite easily be difficulties with a
new owner. He had invited to the meeting a representative of the Assynt Crofters Trust who
also encouraged the crofters to accept the offer. The combination of the trust that the
crofters had in their Grazings Clerk and the encouragement and reassurance they received
from Assynt won the day. A steering group, comprising Frank Gordon, another life-long
local crofter, Ian Findlay, and the author, was elected to negotiate the detailed offer
with the Proprietor.
Shortly afterwards the group met with the proprietor and his advisors in Inverness
where we were informed that the offer was qualified by two main conditions: firstly, that
the salmon fishing rights would be transferred to the North Atlantic Salmon Fishing Trust;
and secondly that the shooting rights would be leased back to the new proprietors of Hope
Estate. It was obvious that the proprietor was "keeping the best bits to
himself" (as Ian put it), but at least the lease of the shooting rights would provide
an immediate (if limited) income which would be vital towards taking-up the offer.
Furthermore, the proprietor was already fixing fair rents on the estate prior to the
handover, since he realised that it would not be popular for the crofters to start off by
increasing their own rents.
The Crofters' new found solicitor, an expert in crofting law from Inverness, explained
at the meeting that the deal could be done without much difficulty or expense for the
crofters. He referred us to the then newly-formed Crofting Trust Advisory Service (CTAS),
set up as a partnership between the Crofters Commission and Highlands and Islands
Enterprise, which soon awarded us a grant of 80 per cent of the fees for the legal work
involved in the take-over.
The Steering Group did not need to commission an initial feasibility study because
their objective was quite clearly to "secure the land for the crofters".
Furthermore, we realised that, as long as we could generate a few thousand pounds per
annum to run the estate properly, we could hardly fail to improve on the little that had
been achieved by the previous proprietor. The offer was taken back to the crofters who
took a unanimous decision to accept the proprietor's offer.
It took only a few weeks for our solicitor to set up on our behalf Melness Crofters
Estate (MCEL), a Company Limited by Guarantee without a share capital. 59 of the 61
registered crofters paid a nominal membership fee and became entitled to one vote. Seven
Directors were soon elected to represent their local crofting township(s), and the author
became the first Company Secretary. The company structure reflects the overall aim - which
is not to divide the profits between the company's members for their individual benefits,
but to use profits for local community purposes. (In fact, as shareholders of the
Grazings, the crofters can still benefit individually, if they so wish, from money
accruing to the Grazings.)
The Board of Directors comprised both local crofters, who were also local business
people, and also employed and retired folk. It was agreed that the Directors would provide
the first point of contact in their small local townships for anyone (not just crofters)
who wished to deal with the new 'proprietor' on any matter, and that these contacts could
now take place whilst folk were going about their daily business, together in the
community. It would be the responsibility of the Directors to bring any relevant matters
to the Board for further consideration and, if necessary, action. Indeed, it was obvious
from the outset that this would provide a much better local management system than in the
past when folk had to deal with an absentee landlord and his advisors. At the time, we
found a useful analogy for running the estate - it was like "owning your first
house", and we proceeded to put our house in order.
Board meetings were held - and continue to be held - each month to conduct routine
crofting and company business as well as to deal with development proposals for the
estate. The new management system proved to be very effective, primarily because the new
Board were very much at one with the needs and desires of local folk. For example, aware
of local housing needs, the Board contacted the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust,
with whose help six new, flexible, low-cost rental houses are to be built in 2001. This
development was negotiated and encouraged by MCEL in an attempt to provide suitable
accommodation for local folk. It will provide the first such houses in Melness since a
small 'street' of council houses was built some 30 years ago. It is also very significant
that the whole of the proceeds of the sale of the house sites now accrues to the local
community, which was not the case when the council house sites were sold. MCEL has
received a substantial amount of money which has gone into its community fund (rather than
disappearing south as in the past).
In more recent times, MCEL has adopted a very practical and effective development
policy. Rather than forming its own development company to undertake projects, it has
encouraged local interest groups to form steering groups or committees to develop projects
identified by the community. MCEL are very much the driving force behind these initiatives
through their regular meetings, and they can support projects with considerable resources,
particularly by contributing land, as well as capital. So far, new committees have been
elected to develop two very significant new projects for the community.
Firstly, the Talmine Pier Committee commissioned a feasibility study to consider
redeveloping the Pier for local fishermen, and to attract the pleasure craft that
regularly sail around the north coast. The study concluded that the benefits of such a
development would be wide-ranging and substantial indeed, with improved local employment
and income opportunities likely to accrue over time. It now appears that this £1.2m
project is likely to be funded by the current Special Transitional Programme for the
Highlands and Islands.
Secondly, the Sports Committee is now working on a project to provide a multi-purpose
sports and recreation facility in Melness. The aim is to create a modern-day village hall,
with a sporting bias. Again, the land will be contributed by the crofters, and it is hoped
that electricity from the proposed local power generation scheme (see below) can be
utilised, free-of-charge, to reduce the running costs of the building and help make the
project financially viable. Outline planning permission has already been gained, and it is
envisaged that this facility will strengthen the community by providing new employment as
well as leisure opportunities.
As already mentioned, the compromise deal struck between the proprietor and the
crofters meant that, from the outset, the loss of outright salmon and shooting rights by
the crofters was tempered by the gain of a guaranteed income from the lease-back of the
shootings, and also from new fair rents from the crofting tenants. It was soon realised
however that this income would only be enough to cover the basic running costs of MCEL
which had to pay a part-time Company Secretary's wages, solicitor's and accountant's fees,
and public liability insurance, as well as meet other regular administration costs,
including the cost of hiring a room for meetings. It was obvious that other sources of
income would have to be tapped in to.
Not only was MCEL limited by income, but there was absolutely nowhere in the whole of
Melness suitable to use as a permanent Estate Office (a temporary office was set-up in the
author's spare room). Several options were explored, but we soon realised that the whole
community, not just ourselves, suffered from the lack of business accommodation, and we
set about trying to provide a communal business facility that could be shared by the
Board, the Grazings Committee and other organisations.
We became interested in the vacant former Nurse's House right in the centre of the
community, and, after some investigations by our solicitor, we discovered that MCEL had
inherited a legal Right of Pre-emption over the house, or, in other words, the right to
buy the house back at market valuation before it could be sold on the open market. We soon
had the house valued by a local surveyor, and eventually negotiated a good price with the
local Health Trust.
At this point we were informed of the Scottish Office's Rural Challenge Fund (RCF)1 by
The Highland Council's Economic Development Manager for Sutherland. It appeared that the
RCF offered the potential to fund the majority of the costs of our Estate Office/ Business
Facility Project by matching all other approved funding. Unfortunately, and quite
incredibly to our way of thinking, it transpired that if we attracted Rural Challenge
Funding, we would automatically exclude Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise (CASE), the
Local Enterprise Company, from assisting us since our total agency assistance would then
exceed CASE's ceiling of 40 per cent of the total cost. We did however eventually manage
to scrape together sufficient matching funding, courtesy of a considerable grant from The
Highland Council and funds from local sources, and so were able to purchase, refurbish and
fit out the Estate Office, and to part-finance the wages of the Company Secretary for the
first three years.
Making an application to the RCF was by no means easy, since it involved an academic
exercise which required the production of quantified outcomes, outputs, full-time
equivalents (FTEs), etc., etc. Eventually the application was pieced together, with
further help from the Economic Development Manager, but it was too difficult an exercise
for a small community. On the bright side, though, the task did attract much-needed
funding and inadvertently provided us with the basis of a local community development plan
which, in turn, attracted further funding from the Crofting Township Development Scheme
MCEL negotiated another useful annual income at an early stage from the Scottish
Natural Heritage (SNH) Peatland Management Scheme (PMS) already in place, from which both
the Grazings Committee and the previous proprietor had been receiving an income. After the
transfer of ownership the agreement with SNH was re-negotiated so that the proprietor's
payment accrued to MCEL for its own use. Other incidental income was derived generally
from small sales of land or rights over land, as well as from wayleaves. It is also
significant that the process of taking over the estate encouraged the Grazings Committee
to support the effort by planting some 86 hectares of woodland under the Woodland Grant
Scheme (WGS), thereby raising considerable annual income from the Farm Woodland Premium
Scheme (FWPS). This scheme not only provides some occasional local employment, but also
constitutes a considerable investment in the estate and will, hopefully, result in a
valuable asset for future generations.
To date, not only has the Estate Office become the combined MCEL and Grazings Committee
office, but part of it has been rented to the neighbouring Highland Council sheltered
housing facility. It has also been suggested that the former surgery could be rented to
visiting opticians, chiropodists and others to save folk having to travel to the new
Health Centre in Tongue.
Furthermore, MCEL can now afford to employ a Company Secretary entirely from its own
income. The job of Company Secretary is a very interesting and rewarding position which
carries much of the responsibility for the administration of the estate. It involves
dealing with legal and financial matters with the help of the Company's solicitor and
accountant, and also attending to the Company's development role. This latter role
involves progressing development proposals with locals, developers and agencies - a role
that arose from the need to manage the Company's profits for the benefit of the community.
Like most folk, we were very reluctant to deal with the press, but unfortunately we
were inundated by national television reporters, who, sadly, tended to treat us as a
quaint 'filler' for the end of "News at Ten" and the like. One national radio
interviewer even asked Michael Foljambe whether he was "betraying his class" by
giving his land away to ordinary crofters. Fortunately, we received much more mature
coverage from the local press ("Am Bratach", "The Northern Times" and
"The Press and Journal"), and also from BBC Radio Scotland.
The remarkable thing was, though, that the coverage - in particular national television
coverage - appeared to bring the Melness crofters to the attention of developers from
south of the border, and within a few months there were a couple of development proposals
involving several million pounds on the table at MCEL. Unbeknown to us, both developers
had already surveyed the Highlands and had earmarked Melness as a preferred location for
The first development proposal was, unfortunately, not successful. MCEL were approached
by two young marine biologists who proposed to build a tropical shrimp farm in Melness.
They informed us that the techniques of the farming process, although relatively new, had
been tried and tested abroad, and that one site in Melness offered both the high quality
of water and the particular coastline formation that would be required for their factory.
Unfortunately, it turned out that their preferred site was not suitable to build on, and
that was the end of that.
The second proposal was, however, much more encouraging. An alternative energy company
from Cornwall came forward with an exciting proposal to develop a small wind energy
project on the estate, and also a small run-of-stream hydro-electric scheme on the Strath
Melness Burn. When approached, MCEL were very interested in looking at the possibility of
creating enough energy to satisfy all local needs, and/or to sell to the National Grid, so
creating another significant income stream. They were, however, more interested in
creating good, new, long-term employment opportunities to further strengthen the
community, since it was envisaged that a couple of part-time technicians would be
required, and also possibly an administrator if the community decided to run their own
local electricity company. At the time of writing, the government has granted Scottish
Renewable Options Two (SROII) approval for the project. It is interesting that this
company told us that they preferred to work with the community-owned estate because of the
positive reaction from MCEL compared with the previous 'sporting' proprietor.
In retrospect, it appears that several major factors enabled the successful take-over
of Melness Estate: