Local agriculture office is a ‘scandal’

A crofter and respected documentary film-maker on Lewis has accused the local agriculture department of operating in a “bureaucratic vacuum” which works against the interests of the island’s crofters.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 1:51 pm
As well as being a crofter, Calum Angus MacKay established the croft diversification business, Sundown Cottages in Achmore
As well as being a crofter, Calum Angus MacKay established the croft diversification business, Sundown Cottages in Achmore

Calum Angus MacKay, who also runs self-catering lodges in Achmore, Lewis, has written a letter to Scottish Government rural affairs minister Mairi Gougeon and local MSP Alasdair Allan in a bid to address what he describes as an “unaccountable, non-transparent government department with a licence to behave pretty much as they please”.

Mr MacKay made an application last year to the Crofting Agricultural Grants Scheme – where 50 per cent of capital grant costs are awarded for approved projects – for 420 metres of fencing to create a moorland park in February last year.

A site visit was carried out at the end of July.

No problems were identified and, he says, they told him he would be informed in three weeks. Nearly two months went by and still no response.

With the winter closing in, he made a tentative start on the fencing work.

“The local officer gets in touch to inform me that I no longer qualify for grant aid because I took the decision to start fencing before costs were approved – they knew all details of my application over six months prior,” said Mr MacKay.

"I read the communication in disbelief - no mention of their own prolonged silence and constant delays in dealing with my application. Was I really expected to wait and do nothing?”

An appeal was rejected but “not one reference to their own continuous departmental failures – over eight months for 420 meters of fence”.

"In the village of Achmore I look across some 30 empty, derelict, rush infested crofts and concede that the government’s agricultural department, intended to support crofting, is actually an active part in its inherent failure,” said Mr MacKay.

"A culture of wasteful acceptance that doing nothing and neglecting croft-land is actually rewarded.

"I inherited my croft at the age of 12. I am a much better guardian of that very precious strip of land than SGRPID officers are of my funding rights and entitlements.

"I do hold a great sense of injustice as to how my basic rights to agricultural aid have been totally mis-handled. My guess is I’m not alone.

"The incompetent manner in which my two-hectare plot was dealt with is a small piece of the equation, I realise that, but it raises sizeable questions about inadequate systems responsible for the sustainability of crofting.”

Mr MacKay said that as a parent of three he will be advising them against entering crofting.

“I will not be encouraging them to accept insult and targeting as I have experienced, never fair, never reasonable, and seldom engaged in a perspective other than their own bureaucratic vacuum,” he said.

“SGRIPD is an unaccountable, non-transparent government department with a licence to behave pretty much as they please.

"This is a scandal that needs to be addressed.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Following the submission of a complaint on our standards of service, we are investigating the background to the case and will respond to the crofter directly in due course. We take any complaints around our standard of service seriously and will investigate thoroughly.”