IT HAS been said there are only three people who understand Scotland’s crofting laws, but one of them is dead, one is mad and nobody can remember the identity of the third.
However it’s hoped all this will soon change, and Scotland’s next government will “seize the bull by the horns” and take action to simplify the notoriously convoluted legislation.
Crofting has been a way of life unique to Scotland for more than two centuries, and came about as a result of the Highland Clearances.
There are more than 17,700 crofts in the Highlands and Islands, with around 30,000 Scots involved in their upkeep.
Official estimates suggest the practise generates around £85.8 million a year in revenue for the Scottish economy.
The first legislation governing crofting was set out in 1886, largely due to persistent agitation from a well-organised group of crofters in Skye.
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The law was codified as the Crofters (Scotland) Act of 1993, but there have been substantial amendments, notably in 2007 and 2010, as part of the Scottish Government’s land reform programme. It is regulated by the Crofting Commission.
The most recent changes have come under fire for causing further confusion, with more than 120 snags so far identified and collated in what has been dubbed “the Sump”.
Now experts in the field are gathering in the Scottish capital to discuss the subject at the annual crofting law conference this week.
This year’s event has a new slant in anticipation of May’s Scottish election, with a special hustings-style session featuring representatives from all the main parties.
Environment, climate change and land reform minister Dr Aileen McLeod will give the keynote speech, and a “question time” event will allow delegates to grill politicians on their proposals.
Crofters are calling on the next government to take five key actions to support the sector, including reforming the law. They say it is “unfinished business”.
Patrick Krause, chief executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, said: “Crofting law is notoriously complicated and the waters have been further muddied after the 2010 Crofting Act.
“Crofting is unique in Scotland by having its own legislation and being a regulated system. It is therefore is essential that the legislation is fit for purpose.
“The act needed cleaning up before the 2010 changes. This is unfinished business.
“Unfortunately the 2010 introduced further errors and anomalies. The Sump gathered 126 of these and probably the only way to address them is with a new act.
“Politicians are a bit reluctant to do this, but SCF is asking parliamentary candidates to finish the job.”
Solicitor Brian Inkster, honorary secretary of the Crofting Law Group, says he hopes Thursday’s conference will set the agenda for crofting reform by the next Scottish government.
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He said: “On Monday I will be spending much of the day arguing before the Scottish Land Court the significance of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 having deleted the word ‘or’ in a section of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993.
“The result could be an unintended consequence. This is a good example of the problems that the 2010 Act has been causing since its introduction. It was an extremely badly drafted piece of legislation on top of existing complex law.
“There remain numerous problems and issues in the legislation that can trip up the unwary on a daily basis.
“The current government pledged to resolve matters, and the next government really must seize the bull by the horns and sort the mess out once and for all.
“That will involve a comprehensive new crofting act that is well drafted, easily understood and designed to resolve the existing problems and not create any new ones.”
He added: “MSP Alex Fergusson has referred to recent crofting legislation being like the Hydra. You think you have solved a problem but suddenly two new ones appear.
“The next Scottish government simply can’t afford to let that happen again.”
Around 30 per cent of households in the mainland Highlands are crofters, rising to 65 per cent in Shetland, the Western Isles and Skye.
The majority of the smallholdings are tenanted, while an estimated 2,000 are owner-occupied.
A quarter of land in the Highlands and Islands is crofted, amounting to nearly a sixth of all land in the UK.