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Melness Crofters Estate, Sutherland - A New 'Crofting Community Landowner'

Mark Brennan

bulletIntroduction
bulletA Positive Approach
bulletLocal Management
bulletIncome Generation
bulletFurther Opportunities
bulletSummary and Conclusions

Introduction

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.

A Positive Approach

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.

Local Management

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.

Income Generation

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 (CTDS).

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.

Further Opportunities

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 their projects.

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.

Summary and Conclusions

In retrospect, it appears that several major factors enabled the successful take-over of Melness Estate:

bulleta strong crofting community
bulletan effective Grazings Committee and Grazings Clerk
bulleta realistic and sympathetic proprietor
bulletsubstantial agency support and funding
bulleta new, business-like local crofting land management company
bulletclear, practical objectives: namely, to generate income, create jobs and invest all profits back in to the community
bulletsubstantial new community funds
bulletnational publicity.

Furthermore, the practical benefits that the take-over has made possible have been substantial and wide-ranging:

bulleta new local Estate Office/ Business Facility
bulleta new local Company Secretary's job
bulleta new democratic and effective local crofting land management system
bulletnew native woodlands, providing some employment
bulletincome from croft rents
bulletincome from the shooting lease
bulletincome from The Peatland Management Scheme
bulletincome from house site sales
bulletincome from land rights and sales
bulletincome from the lease of rooms in the Business Centre
bulletincome from the FWPS
bulletnew houses for rent
bulletsubstantial grants from the Highland Council, the Crofters Commission, and the Scottish Executive
bulletnew proposals for a small wind farm, a hydro-electric scheme and a local electricity company
bulletnew proposals to re-develop the Pier
bulletnew proposals for a sports facility.

It is therefore quite obvious that there are many substantial benefits to be gained by crofting communities from taking over their crofting estates. The author's experience of working with crofting communities over the past few years suggests that many of the 900 or so Grazings Committees throughout the Highlands and Islands are quite capable of managing their land for the greater benefit of their communities. Unfortunately, however, many crofting communities may never have the chance to manage their own land if, despite the existence of the Scottish Land Fund, they have to raise large sums for purchase.

The importance of Melness's experience is that it highlights the advantages for crofting communities of acquiring their land without the burden of the high capital expenditure involved in purchase.

 

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