Guardians of the Environment

22 Oct 2015

Stemming from the Highland clearances, crofting is a unique social system in which small-scale food production and care of the environment play a unifying role. Crofting is a way of life that is intrinsically linked to the land, with a tradition of community working and strong cultural ties, where community languages are still alive.


Small farms and local biodiversity

A croft is a small agricultural unit situated in the crofting counties in the north and west of Scotland, held subject to the provisions of the Crofting Acts. These include Argyll, Highland, the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Since 2010, Moray and the Isle of Arran have also been added to the crofting areas.


Many of the Slow Food Ark of Taste products in Scotland come from these crofting areas: beremeal – a landrace barley still grown in Orkney and Shetland; the North Ronaldsay sheep – a rare-breed from the Orkney Islands; peasemeal – once common in Britain, but now only milled in Golspie Mill in Highland; and four products from Shetland – Shetland cabbage, Shetland black potatoes, Shetland cattle and Shetland sheep.


Many crofts are on estates. One landlord may have several crofts on his estate. The rent paid by the tenant crofter, except in fairly rare circumstances, is only for the bare land. Housing, agricultural buildings, roads and fences must be provided by the crofter. Since 1976, it has become more common for a crofter to acquire title to his croft, thus becoming an owner-occupier.


The average size of a croft is around 5 hectares, however this varies greatly: Some are only 0.5 ha, while others extend to more than 50 ha, often with a share in hill grazing, held in common with other crofters in a township. As most crofts cannot support a family or provide full-time employment, many crofters have other occupations to support their income. These occupations not only contribute to their livelihoods, but also to the rural economy. Historically, landlords deliberately kept crofts below self-sufficiency in order to oblige tenants into tied labor.


Today, there are over 17,700 registered crofts in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and over 12,000 crofting households, representing about 30,000 family members. Crofting households represent around 30% of households on the mainland Highlands and up to 65% of households in Shetland, the Western Isles and Skye. Crofts form a unique tenure system that goes back over 200 years. Approximately 2,000 are owner-occupied, but the majority of crofts remain tenanted.


Protected by law

Since 1886, a series of Crofting Acts have been passed, providing security to crofters, protecting them from being unfairly removed from their land, guaranteeing fair rent and allowing them to claim compensation for improvements should their tenancy come to an end.


Crofting Connections is a project run by Soil Association Scotland, in partnership with the Scottish Crofting Federation. The project enables children and young people living in crofting communities throughout the Highlands and Islands to learn about crofting past, present and future. The project’s objectives are to increase understanding among children and youth of the connections between crofting, food, health and the environment; support schools and communities in creating local food-growing initiatives; promote crofting to young people and encourage new entrants; safeguard the crofting heritage and traditions unique to local communities; encourage communities to reduce their ecological and carbon footprints; and increase public knowledge and appreciation of crofting.


Crofting Connections coincides with major legislative reform known as the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 to ensure crofting has a sustainable and profitable future in the 21st century. It recognizes its multiple economic, social and environmental benefits – the most important of which is to safeguard the heritage and culture unique to different crofting communities through the custodianship of successive generations.


This article was originally published in the Slow Food Almanac.

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