How to tackle the depopulation in our area? With the new parliamentary team preparing a paper on repopulation in Sutherland and Caithness, crofting is very much at the heart of the question.

© Russell Smith

Depopulation has been a problem for Sutherland for a long time now. Various official figures show a population of 20,774 in 1755, increasing to a maximum of 25,793 in 1851 and since declining to around half that now (12,650 in 2011). This hits the vibrancy of a community – closing schools, shops going out of business, lack of political clout, lack of critical mass of people to get things done and so on.

The reasons for the decline have been extensively written about (see for example the works of Jim Hunter) so I am going to concentrate here on a way to halt decline and the role crofting can play.

I wasn’t brought up in the crofting tradition but have spent over twenty years participating and observing. The benefits seem to me to be three fold – economic, cultural and environmental.

Firstly, economic – a croft gives you a home and a secure base. The croft itself will generally provide a part time income for part work but allows the crofter and family to expand in whatever direction their skills and opportunities take them. Glamping pods are the diversification of the day around the North Coast 500 but off-shore work, agricultural contracting, full or part time employment, hotel work, crafts have all had their day. On the croft, the crofter can stick with traditional store sheep and cattle or branch out into direct selling of meat, poultry and eggs, vegetables and fruit, goats, pigs or horses or forestry products. It is limited only by what you are good at and what you can make a profit on.

Secondly, cultural – a croft ties the crofter to the land and the legislation protects the land as well as the tenant. Dùchas captures some of the Gaelic feeling about the native land and the ties that bind the crofter to the place they live and work (maybe over several generations). This gives the crofter deep seated roots to the area and the crofting system is acknowledged over the world as being good at retaining population in remote rural areas. The legal right to assign the croft to children means that the crofter has been prepared to invest time and labour into improving the land and buildings.

Each disused croft that we get back into activity could represent a family supporting the local schools and businesses

Thirdly, environmental – small units promote biodiversity, local food production and low impact agriculture. Crofters on neighbouring crofts can adopt different practices which gives a patchwork of different habitats for wildlife and produces an attractive landscape that tourists like. Extensive hill grazing by its very nature and low stocking densities does less damage to the environment than intensive agriculture and produces quality food from land that can’t grow crops.

If you drive from Bonar to the Mound over the Loch Buidhe road then you pass through the busy, active communities of Migdale and Airdens to the deserted soon-to-be forested Strath Carnaig with the odd empty house and unused sheep folds. Crofting keeps people on the land.

There are threats aplenty to the future of crofting but also opportunities. We need to bring disused crofts back into activity – each one could be a family supporting the local schools and businesses. The Crofting Commission have the powers but not the resources to follow up more than just a few cases. Sutherland has big estates and government owned land that could be used to create new crofts – again each one could be a home for a family, possibly a local resident who wants the opportunity to build a future for themselves and their children. Some community owned estates have tried but it isn’t easy. Land reform and changes to planning law might be necessary.

But crofting can be the future as well as being the past.

by Russell Smith, Scottish Crofting Federation Director and Airdens Crofter

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