Obituary: Simon Fraser, lawyer and land reformer

Lawyer and leading light in land reform and community land ownership

Simon Fraser. Picture: contributed
Simon Fraser. Picture: contributed

Born: 28 April 1955 in Glasgow.

Died: 26 January 2016 in Stornoway

Simon Fraser, who has died aged 60 after a long illness, played a major role in in the movement towards community land ownership in the West Highlands and Islands over the past quarter century.

A lawyer in Stornoway throughout his professional life, Simon was also the driving force behind many initiatives of lasting value including an award-winning visitor centre at the Callanish Stones and the promotion of Gaelic-medium education. He was a Depute Lord Lieutenant of the Western Isles.

Simon’s background ensured early initiation into crofting law and reflections on the role of landlordism. His father, Dr Alistair Fraser, had a deep interest in crofting and, after the family settled in Lewis in 1971, joined a generation of island schoolmasters who held firm views on politics in general and crofting politics in particular.

Simon was born in Glasgow where his father worked in the zoology department at Glasgow University. The family moved briefly to Copenhagen and then Argyll where the young Frasers attended Oban High School.

After the move to Lewis, they completed their schooling at the Nicolson Institute.

Simon’s career preference was the Merchant Navy and he won sponsorship from BP as an officer cadet. Having successfully completed his examinations, he failed an eyesight test and was obliged to look at other options. He graduated in celtic studies and Scottish history from Aberdeen University and thereafter completed a legal apprenticeship with the long-established firm of Anderson MacArthur in Stornoway, under the tutelage of Douglas Kesting.

They acted as factors for most estates throughout the Western Isles. It was not the least of Simon’s achievements that he fulfilled his duties on behalf of the firm, in which he became senior partner, with total integrity but while never being seen as “the estates’ man”. His empathy lay on the other side of the table and ultimately, his familiarity with crofting estates in the Western Isles was of value in guiding their owners towards accepting community buy-outs.

Simon married Ann Campbell, from Breasclete, in 1980 and they raised four children.

In younger days, he was – along with his brothers – a formidable Highland Games athlete. (Their mother, Betty, had been a Commonwealth Games javelin thrower).

He was the first chairman of Urras nan Tursachan, which established and runs the Callanish Centre and then vice-chairman for 19 years to Bryan Barrett, who recalled: “Simon was involved from the very first meeting in Breasclete School. We worked together for 25 years, the first five planning it, and there was never a cross word. He was impossible to fall out with and just wanted to get things done. The wider contribution he made to this community was immense”.

Both Ann and Simon were strongly committed to the Gaelic language and therein lies a precious legacy. His advocacy was crucial in ensuring the establishment of a Gaelic-medium unit at Breasclete School in the 1980s and their son Alasdair was one of the initial intake. Breasclete continues to flourish as a centre for Gaelic-medium education; as close as any school in the Western Isles has come to having Gaelic as its first language.

He was Clerk to the Lord Lieutenancy of the Western Isles from 1993 and became a Deputy to Sandy Matheson, the Lord Lieutenant, who said: “I knew Simon professionally in business, court and voluntary service. He was highly ethical with a passion for promoting Lewis, its way of life and values. We shall miss him. Far too few of his quality and devotion remain”.

Simon’s involvement with the community land movement grew out of a 1989 initiative prompted by Jim Hunter, then director of the Scottish Crofters Union. Jim persuaded Russell Sanderson, the Scottish agriculture minister, that DAFS tenants on Skye and Raasay should be offered the chance to buy their crofting estates. Simon was part of a team commissioned by the SCU and HIDB to advise on the mechanics of this option.

In the event, the DAFS tenants rejected the offer but the documentation on how community buy-outs might be implemented would soon come in useful. When the Assynt crofters, in 1992, decided to make an effort to buy the land on which they lived and worked, it was to Simon they turned for advice. Over the next six months, he dedicated himself to that cause and ensured that every legal obstacle was overcome.

The significance of the Assynt buy-out cannot be overstated as it encouraged others to contemplate the same option – particularly in places which had long suffered at the capricious hand of the free market in land. The island of Eigg offered such an opportunity and Simon’s services were again vital to the cause. No buy-out gave him greater personal satisfaction and he maintained his involvement with the Isle of Eigg Trust until the time of his death.

It was at the handover of Eigg in 1997 that I was able to announce the establishment of a community land unit at Highlands and Islands Enterprise with a fund to support it.

This encouraged a steady stream of buy-outs, mainly in the Western Isles, though the Argyll island of Gigha was another spectacular example of a community that had suffered grievously.

At the Gigha handover in 2002, Simon introduced a ceremony of poignant significance into proceedings. He revived the tradition of “giving sasine” by passing a handful of stone and earth to the new owners – a powerful symbol of the changed prospects for these communities. A year later, he performed the same ceremony when the 55,000 North Harris Estate – hitherto a bastion of Hebridean landlordism – was secured by its people.

Simon was involved from the outset in the biggest buy-out so far, South Uist Estate. The chairman, Angus MacMillan, recalls him addressing the first public meeting when sceptics were determined to make their voices heard. It was Simon’s calm, firm rebuttal of their arguments that won the day. Angus says quite simply: “Without Simon, it would probably not have progressed”.

That is a familiar story from around the islands and beyond. While politicians could set a framework for community buy-outs and local visionaries might argue their merits, it was the persuasive pragmatism of Simon Fraser which invariably helped win the day. That is a large part of the reason more than 500,000 acres of Gaidhealtachd land is now under community ownership and why the best memorial to Simon’s work will be for many more to follow that lead.

Sympathy is extended to Ann and the family of which he was so proud; Alasdair, a journalist with the BBC; Simon, a helicopter pilot in Stornoway; Anna, a Merchant Navy officer; and Cara, a cadet training officer with a shipping company in Glasgow.