Brian Wilson: MSPs needs a course in rural history

The Scottish parliament building at Holyrood. Picture: Kenny Smith/TSPL
The Scottish parliament building at Holyrood. Picture: Kenny Smith/TSPL
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If the Scottish Government had sought a location in which to demonstrate insensitivity towards issues of land ownership and use, it could scarcely have alighted on a better setting than Raasay.

In the early 1960s, the Scottish Office flogged off key properties on Raasay to a strange, speculative figure named Dr John Green of Cooden, Sussex. It took 30 years to untangle that mess, during which Green thwarted development on the island.

The story became a cause célèbre, illustrative of damage wrought by a market that paid no regard to community interest. It was widely believed that Dr Green “owned” Raasay but the vast majority of the island remained with the state as crofting landlord.

Incredibly, history has repeated itself as farce. Gradually, the Raasay people have secured control of assets once held by Green. A lively community of 140 souls has taken responsibility for its own economic destiny.

One key activity has been management of sporting and fishing rights, held since 1995 by the Raasay Crofters Association. A previously worthless asset has been developed and a trade in Raasay venison and other quality products established. Now the Scottish Government has sold the rights from under them to an Ayrshire company which outbid them by the princely sum of £1,800.

When they realised what was happening, the crofters wrote to environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, pleading their case. “The island’s fragility is recognised by public bodies and, among other initiatives, they are investing in a Raasay Development Partnership in an attempt to combat the disadvantages we face,” they argued. “It is bizarre that one government department is putting money into the island while another appears to want to take it away”.

As usual, the preferred response of the Scottish Government has been to look for someone to blame. The flurry of contradictory statements have sought to cover tracks. There has been the innuendo that it is the islanders’ fault for not embracing community ownership, offered to them in 1990 when the Tories wanted rid of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland land. But why should they? They are content with the state as their crofting landlord, as it has been since 1923.

In part, these things happen because of the SNP’s relentless drive for centralisation. While no alarm signals sounded in Edinburgh, they might have in Portree or Inverness. But neither, it seems, do the minister nor his officials know the rules under which they act.

The previous Scottish Government’s land reform agenda included “commitments and principles” governing management of state-owned land. The seventh could scarcely be more explicit. Ministers must “take account of the local community perspective when considering offers for sporting rights on the Scottish Ministers’ estate”.

It is therefore clear that the Scottish Government has ignored the rules by which it is bound. The process must start again while Wheelhouse and his officials are sent on a crash course in relevant Highland history.