Luskentyre is now in the front line of the battle to save crofting’s soul

There is a history timeline in Talla na Mara, headquarters of West Harris Trust, which reminds us that the battle to restore cleared Luskentyre as a crofting community, waged by returning ex-servicemen since the First World, was only finally won in the 1930s.

Monday, 13th September 2021, 11:42 am
This cartoon circulating on social media sums up the situation perfectly

For decades thereafter, Luskentyre operated as a typical crofting community, in a location of great natural beauty as many crofting villages are. A few people discovered its particular charms without impinging on the crofting structure, protected as it was by legislation and regulation. Luskentyre’s fame lay in having a postage stamp dedicated to its beach and to Donald John Mackay’s celebrity as a Harris Tweed weaver.

All of that has changed irrevocably. Luskentyre has earned the dubious distinction of being ‘discovered’; featuring on every list of the world’s finest beaches; being lauded by starry-eyed travel writers and gradually drifting into the property pages. The village is now at a tipping-point – either an active, living crofting community which copes with visitors or seeing its whole prior identity subordinated to the power of money.

Like many scenic places in the Highlands and Islands, Luskentyre’s one defence barrier against the total power of money has been crofting regulation. The speed with which that defence is being dismantled – through culpable neglect on the part of those entrusted to exercise it – is close to turning the whole system of crofting tenure into an empty shell.

If it is possible to acquire a croft tenancy in Luskentyre, hypothetically defended not only by crofting tenure but also swathes of environmental designations, and turn inbye land into an ugly housing scheme, then it can be done anywhere. The belief, now widely held, that there is no point in objecting because nobody is listening – least of all the Crofting Commission – will become unstoppable.

Just as in the inter-war years, Luskentyre is in the front line of a battle – and while circumstances have changed in many respects, the fundamental conflict is the same. This is about the power of money and the ruthlessness of those who possess it, pitted against the values of a system of tenure which, for all its weaknesses, has kept living communities in these places and now faces extinction as a meaningful protection.

In this case, the role of the Crofting Commission is shameful. They were pleaded with by the community landlords not to acquiesce in the proposed sale of the tenancy for a sum far beyond the reach of any genuine crofter. They were warned very specifically about the likelihood of property speculation. They were called upon to explain how an individual who a few months earlier had been operating a kebab shop in Kirkwall could turn up in Harris and, with an alacrity normally denied to those who have dealings with the Commission, become the approved tenant of two crofts.

Like all quangos, the Commission prefers to hide behind generalities to evade hard questions. That is what it did in 2016 when the West Harris Trust, to its great credit, posted all the necessary warning signals – to absolutely no effect. That is not an “old story” but a very current one because of what is now going on, entirely in line with the West Harris Trust’s predictions. The questions which went unanswered then need to be asked afresh of this abysmal quango.

And what of NatureScot – as Scottish Natural Heritage has been groovily renamed – which used to be particularly sensitive, as some long-term Luskentyre residents recall, to anything, no matter how modest, that impinged upon the precious machair and its SSSI protection? Now NatureScot states casually: “The development footprint representing permanent loss of this habitat is small in the context of the resource in the wider SSSI”.

So is this the new NatureScot doctrine in the Western Isles – that destroying SSSIs is ok, so long as it is done a bit at a time? It sounds rather like President Bolsinaro defending the chopping down of the Brazilian rain forest on the grounds there will still be plenty left. I wonder if Stewart Angus, now Coastal Ecology Manager of NatureScot, shares his successors’ assessment of 1 Luskentyre?

Everyone I spoke to in Harris this week made the same point – that Mr Andrew Bartlett’s proposals have united opinion to an unusual extent. People realise that another line is being crossed, from which there will be no going back. The £200,000 crofts in Seilibost… the 14 structures on a single croft in Luskentyre … if it isn’t stopped now, it never will be and something that is still very precious will be gone forever in Harris and elsewhere.

Only the Crofting Commission will survive to supervise the death throes.