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Sconser Estate -A Partnership between a Crofting Community and the John Muir Trust

Angus MacHattie



The Sconser Estate lies within the Cuillin Hills National Scenic Area in the centre of the Isle of Skye. The estate extends to 8,400 acres and encompasses the hills of Glamaig and the Beinn Deargs.

Until recently the estate has been in the ownership of the Campbell family from Sconser who acquired it in the early 1950s. Previously it had been under the control of the Macdonalds of Sleat for generations, and had been part of a wider area known as Lord Macdonald’s Deer Forest.

The estate is bounded on the north by Loch Sligachan, on the west by land belonging to the MacLeod Estates and on the south by the properties of the John Muir Trust. The land is rugged, and the hills within the boundaries are known collectively as the Red Cuillin because of their geology, which is predominantly red granite. The estate has several sites of scientific interest, including two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), one of which is of geological interest. The other, of peatland interest, is also designated as a potential Special Area of Conservation, a new EU designation.

The estate is bisected, and partially bounded, by the A850 road which is the main thoroughfare for the island. The only settlement on the estate is the croftimg community of Sconser with its Lodge Hotel and the ferry terminal for the island of Raasay. The township has a population of about 100, of whom about 30 are children. The age structure has improved in recent times, indicating a younger, more active community. The crofts are fairly small and are located at the foot of Glamaig, running in narrow strips towards the sea. Crofting activity is fairly traditional, the main output being store lambs from the flock of Blackface sheep which ranges over much of the estate. The land which was formally under crofting tenure extends to some 1,700 acres, with an informal arrangement covering individual crofters’ use of the remaining 6,700 acres.

The Crofting Community Interest

The Sconser estate had been advertised for sale and had been available for purchase since the early 1990s. However, there appeared to have been little external interest, and in 1993 the crofting tenants, with the support of the Campbell family, decided to attempt to raise funds for a purchase from within the community. This move was no doubt spurred on by the successful outcomes of community involvement in Assynt and in nearby Borve and Annishadder on Skye.

The township grazings committee successfully approached Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise, the local enterprise company, for financial assistance with the preparation of a detailed business plan, which would support the community’s attempt at purchase. An independent consultant was retained and initial soundings taken, both within the Sconser area and beyond, about the possibility of financial or other help for the purchase. The Campbell family were fully supportive of the actions of the township and co-operated fully.

The township committee eventually received their consultant’s report in 1994. It suggested an offer of 60,000, significantly less than the asking price of 100,000. The committee attempted to enlist the full support of all interested parties within the township, but this proved harder to do than had been initially anticipated, as the amount required to be raised - at 5,000 per share - was in excess of that which the elderly members of the township were judged able to afford. However the committee did make an offer, which was rejected. The smaller number of younger, active crofters, who formed the majority of the township committee, felt they were not in a position to agree to purchase at a higher price, although it is possible they could have done so with the support of the grazing regulations and the landlord. It became apparent that the township were not satisfied with the detail of the work done on their behalf, as it appeared that the consultant had looked only at obvious solutions and had not covered all the issues relating to the proposal.

The John Muir Trust’s Interest in the Estate

During the period when the township were investigating the possibility of purchase, the John Muir Trust (JMT) was already aware, from advertisements and discussions with the owners, that the estate might be available. However, when approached informally by the local agencies which funded the consultant’s work, JMT indicated that it did not wish to pursue any interest while there was a possibility that the community, having fully explored the options open to them, might decide they wished to secure an option to purchase.

JMT was itself established in the 1980s with the objective of conserving wild places. It was set up by a group of individuals who were spurred into action by the prospect of the Knoydart peninsula being purchased by the military. The trust acquired land on Skye in 1991 with the purchase of Torrin, and enlarged its landholding in 1994 when it acquired the Strathaird estate from Ian Anderson.

JMT had an interest in Sconser as it lies adjacent to its Torrin and Strathaird estates, which lie to the south and east, and which like Sconser have some fine mountain scenery. Both estates have a significant crofting interest, and Strathaird has additional in-hand and forestry ground. The two estates are managed by locally elected management committees and locally resident staff. The two management committees are different in composition, but each includes local residents, crofters, trustees and other interested parties. The wider management of the estates falls to a joint committee, Comataidh Srath Na H-Aird, which has members from the groups represented on the two estate management committees as well as representatives of the Scottish Mountaineering Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the local mountain rescue team.

Acquisition of Sconser would allow the trust to address more effectively management issues common to all three properties, such as access and red deer. Sconser also offered JMT new opportunities for community involvement.

Negotiating the Partnership

Following the failure of the local purchase initiative, the estate was once more on the open market. JMT approached the owner through its director, assisted by a locally resident trustee, and held discussions with the owner. It became clear that all parties felt strongly that the wishes of the local residents should be taken into account in reaching any agreement for the sale of the estate to the trust.

After it became clear that the trust’s intention was to secure Sconser, its resident staff on Skye made informal contact with the grazings committee to discuss issues affecting any transfer. The committee’s main concern, which had been highlighted from the outset of the community’s interest in the estate, was to obtain security of tenure over the part known as "the deer forest". The crofters’ concern was driven by their need to provide clear proof of their tenure to the Scottish Office Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Department so that they could obtain financial support for capital works and livestock premia connected with their agricultural activity on this ground. Some of the crofters had rights over this ground, but others did not, and from the information available at the time any security seemed fairly tenuous.

After what seemed like an interminable period, to the community at least, real progress was made. A series of meetings attended by the grazings committee, JMT staff and trustees discussed ways in which both the aspirations of the prospective new landlords and the wishes of the crofting tenants could be met. Discussions were prolonged and sometimes frank, but were carried on in good faith by both sides. It would have proved difficult to finalise any agreement without the presence of local dedicated leadership of the highest quality on both sides of the partnership. The fact that the individuals concerned, both JMT staff and trustees, and the Sconser crofters, lived on the island, was seen to be an advantage.

Reaching Agreement

Eventually, early in 1997, an agreement was reached between the grazings committee and the representatives of the JMT. This ensured that the interests of the crofters were protected by extending the common grazings to some 5,000 acres to include the ground most used by the crofters and regarded by them as the "better" grazing land.

A letter from JMT to the grazings committee in March 1997 confirmed the details of the discussions, and also set out the framework for the proposed management of the estate on a joint or partnership basis. At the same time, legal negotiations were started to secure the purchase from the Campbell family, who had been kept fully informed of the discussions. The sale and transfer to JMT eventually took place on 11th September 1997, some two years after initial discussions with the trust. The purchase included rights to the foreshore, but excluded some items such as identified development land and quarry rights, which the Campbell family wished to retain.

The Details of the Management Agreement

The framework for the future management of the estate included a number of important points based on arrangements which JMT has developed over the years on its other estates, together with new ideas specifically for Sconser:

bulletA local management committee was established, consisting of the township committee, representatives of the JMT and representatives of the other, non-crofter residents on the estate. This management committee meets regularly throughout the year and has an annual open meeting.
bulletThe income raised within the estate, from rents and wayleaves for example, is retained in a fund to be used at the discretion of the management committee. Early in 1998 this fund was augmented by 5,000 from JMT to be used to fund trial development projects. The only condition attached to the use of this money is that it must be used in a way which is in line with the aims of JMT .
bulletAccess rights to the foreshore are protected, as JMT has title to the foreshore on the estate, a fairly unusual arrangement.
bulletThe extension to the common grazings was formalised at no increase in net rental, and an application was made to the Crofters Commission to register the agreement.
bulletAny income arising from management agreements, such as those relating to the SSSIs, is to be made available to the management committee.
bulletIt was agreed to follow the national muirburn code.
bulletAll crofting tenants were offered free full membership of JMT, as on the trust’s other estates.

The proposals for the management of the estate were presented at a packed meeting at the local hotel in March 1997, and received approval. Sconser Estate Management Committee held its first working meeting in June. Amongst the issues discussed was a planning application, from a proposed helicopter tour company, to locate an operating base at a nearby site. This posed a dilemma as JMT opposed the development on a number of grounds which were fundamental to its objectives, whilst the local community broadly supported the development on the basis of potential employment and additional tourist-generated income. In the end, the proposal was defeated by the sheer number of objections to the planning application. However it raised the spectre of conflicting opinions even where there is broad general agreement, although in this case a compromise could possibly have been reached.

At the first AGM of the Sconser Estate Management Committee the community successfully proposed increasing the size of the committee to allow representation of the commercial and wider communal interest. This has led to the somewhat unusual situation of three members of one family being on the same committee.

Within JMT at present, there is a move to devolve more of the management of individual properties to a local level and to endeavour to create even closer links with local communities. At Sconser at least, it seems that this process has got off to a healthy start, although initially the community had some misgivings and suspicion of the motives of JMT. These arose mainly as a result of limited knowledge of the trust’s activities. However, frank discussion of the issues that really mattered to the community has led to better understanding.

Lessons Learned

The key lessons to be learned from Sconser so far are:

bulletThe transfer of ownership of the estate to the new partnership took several years. Negotiations took place under favourable conditions with no major obstacles: the landowner was willing to sell, JMT held back while the community explored the options; there was good will all around - even so things took time. In particular, it took a long period to do the ground work, "setting out the stall" and explaining the interests of both sides. The poor quality of some estate records was also a factor. It would be unrealistic, however, to expect the process to be concluded much more speedily elsewhere.
bulletA major factor in reaching the eventual agreement was the dedicated local leadership which played a key role in the negotiations. Individuals on both ‘sides’ played key roles. Although they were not always seen to be in the forefront, they were the real ‘power behind the throne’. Whether or not a community has such people in its midst is largely a matter of fortune. People with good leadership skills, who are able to articulate concerns and drive negotiations forward to successful outcomes, are very rare indeed. It is a moot point whether people can be trained to such a high level of skills, but there is a need to think about ways in which people judged to have leadership potential can be enabled to develop their abilities within their own communities.
bulletAn open approach which engendered frank discussion was encouraged, both from within JMT and by the community. Discussions were managed by the two parties with no interventions from outside. Much of the detail of the agreements was discussed at the bar, after the end of formal meetings.
bulletThe main parties were always informed, verbally and by letter, about how negotiations were proceeding - though progress was never as rapid as people would have liked. Both of the main groups involved kept each other informed of developments and made copies of important documents available to each other.

At the ceremony to mark the transfer of the estate a symbolic cromag was presented to the members of the new committee and now hangs in the bar of the local hotel. This stick represents the stewardship of the land, and it is intended that it will remain in the hands of the local residents.

No one is under any illusion that the arrangements at Sconser are ideal. However, they do show that there is a way in which a partnership can be built through discussion, and hopefully mutual respect and trust, the key ingredients being the people involved and their willingness to make things work.



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