Upper Coll Grazings row continues to heat up

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The crofting row in Upper Coll is showing no sign of cooling off after a majority group of shareholders walked out of an arranged meeting with the Crofting Commission’s appointed constable in protest this week.

A new ‘designate committee’ has been established in the district in defiance of the Crofting Commission which has called for the removal of the ‘illegally imposed Grazings Constable’ with immediate effect.

Kenneth Macdonald one of four shareholders elected to form the new committee in Upper Coll insists they were forced to leave the meeting with Constable Colin Souter as they are not prepared to sit under ‘unlawful authority.’

“The majority who have no confidence in the commission or the process they have employed simply left the meeting,” he said.

“It was a demonstration of our lack of satisfaction. The minority stayed in but nobody stayed in who has signed our petition – none of the 26 crofters who signed it. The meeting continued but what they hope to achieve by working with a minority group I’ve no idea.

Although there were a number of folk in the meeting they didn’t represent a great number of shares.

“If it came to a vote we would outnumber them 5 to 1. We are looking for a rule by the majority and for democracy to be re-established here.”

He continued: “The only way forward is for the constable to go and for us all to get together again and resolve our own differences the best we can. Clearly the commission had an agenda but nobody knows what that agenda is.

“We are not going to sit under unlawful authority. The dilemma is he has legal status but he is unlawfully appointed which is clear and he is carrying out an unlawful investigation which is not part of a constable’s remit. He is letting things slip and not focussing his mind or his time on all the right things.

“We cannot suffer it any longer and the only option available to us is protest and we would ask others to join us in this protest.”

The entire elected Upper Coll grazings committee were removed by the Commission in a row over the management of communal grazings in the district.

In their place the Crofting Commission installed retired police chief inspector Colin Souter who lives in Nairn who chaired a marathon four-hour meeting in Upper Coll this week.

“It was obviously a disappointment that a number of those present made a decision to leave the meeting before it had properly got underway but  I respect their right to do so,” said Souter.

“Those remaining were sufficient in number to continue with business and to their credit, actively contributed to a very positive discussion in a number of areas. I was able at this stage, to explain to shareholders precisely what I am doing and why I am doing it and was reassured to receive the unanimous support of the meeting.”

During the meeting Souter the shareholders who remained were provided with additional new information and after discussion and debate, voted on a number of issues with the constable suggesting shareholders had declared it was the first such opportunity to vote on shareholder matters  in the grazings for a number of years and they hoped it was an indication of the way forward.

The commission appointed constable also revealed he has written to solicitor, Brian Inkster, who had been engaged by the former Committee to support them in their dispute with the Commission, seeking his co-operation to repay the fee he charged, as it had been approved only by the former Committee and not by the wider body of shareholders.

During the meeting, the remaining shareholders voted to approve the revised draft of Grazing Regulations, which has been the subject of a wide consultation process over the last three months, subject to some final amendments offered from the floor.

Commenting on the petition signed by the majority of shareholders Souter was unimpressed. He said: “How many people do you know who would be happy being door-stepped and told to sign a petition, whilst their neighbour is standing over them? It strains credibility. I would be happy to see all of those folks at our next shareholder meeting.

“There are serious issues being addressed and it’s about time some former Committee members accept their continuing agitation is not serving themselves or the grazings well.

They have a duty to fellow shareholders to accept their own shortcomings and that they have learned from them and are willing to move on. Continually misrepresenting the position in public is not helpful and does nothing to heal the rift they have opened up here in Upper Coll, between shareholders.”

Mr Souter also advised that during the meeting he informed shareholders he has requested the Crofting Commission now facilitate a meeting with the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal service to discuss some of the findings from his review of the former committee records and accounts.

Speaking on behalf of the majority shareholders Kenneth Macdonald insisted the ongoing actions of the Crofting Commission has caused nothing but ‘a great deal of harm.’

“The constable has declared a term which is until early November but then what?,” he asked. “They have no exit strategy and they are leaving us in a worse position even than when they started. They have resolved none of the ongoing issues and we will not adopt new regulations which have been carefully crafted by the commission in order to give them even greater power over grazings committees.

“The commission are in a blind alley and they have closed themselves off the minute they started departing from law.”

He added: “The grandfathers who established these kind of villages had endured a war and wanted a little bit of land for themselves and didn’t want governance from an out of control government arm. This wasn’t envisaged at the end of the line and it would be a total insult to their memory and honour for us to accept anything similar.”

A spokesperson for the Crofting Commision said: “A new committee can only take up office either following the expiry of the previous committee or constable’s term of office, or following their resignation and while there is a committee or constable in place a new committee cannot be appointed.”