The Assynt Crofters who shook up history 25 years ago

Assynt Crofters''Left to Right, John McKenzie, vice chairman, Bill Ritchie, secretary, and Alan McCrae, chairman of the Assynt Crofters. Pictured at Clachtol, part of the disputed land. PIC: Herald and Times.
Assynt Crofters''Left to Right, John McKenzie, vice chairman, Bill Ritchie, secretary, and Alan McCrae, chairman of the Assynt Crofters. Pictured at Clachtol, part of the disputed land. PIC: Herald and Times.
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It’s been 25 years since the Assynt Crofters captured the public’s imagination with their audacious bid to shake up centuries of Highland history and buy the land where they worked and lived.

The deal, sealed by this group of hardworking and razor sharp crofters, broke new ground in land reform and paved the way for other rural communities to take back control of their livelihoods from their landlords.

The Assynt bid was judged as lunacy by some but the crofters, headed by the late Allan MacRae, continued with a sense of determination that the land of their forbearers was rightfully theirs.

The tone of their campaign won support from around the world, with donations coming in from countries including Brazil and Zimbabwe, as their fight to buy land once owned by the Vestey family, whose meat and transportation fortune was for years second only to that of the Queen, intensified.

As the 25th anniversary of the buyout of the estate is marked with a week of celebrations in the north west Highlands, Ray Mackay, vice-chair of the Assynt Crofters’ Trust, is clear of the organisation’s biggest achievement.

“The big thing that we have done is survived – nobody thought we could,” Mr Mackay said.

The land of the Assynt Estate was included in that forcibly cleared of around 15,000 people by the Duke of Sutherland to make way for sheep farming in the 19th century.Today, the estate is home to around 600 people and 187 tenanted crofts. A further 50 or so owner occupied properties can be counted.

Crofters bought 21,000 acres after the Vestey family sold the land to a Swedish land speculator, who then went bust, with liquidators proposing to break up the estate and sell it to potentially seven different owners. There have, of course, been challenges since. It has taken many years for the trust to pay off its various debts, including those created by setting up the Loch Poll hydro scheme, which is now a major source of income.

Other revenue comes from the stalking season and trout fishing. More than 1,000 hectares of woodland has been established, with more to follow.

With the investment in this side of estate business, it wasn’t until 2012 that the trust got its own office.

Mr Mackay said: “We now have part time staff and we are now giving bursaries to local kids to help them continue their education. We can put money back into the estate in a variety of different ways. Only in the past few years have we paid off our debts – now we have money in the bank.”

Community-owned broadband to encourage young people to stay in the area and home working opportunities is now planned. The creation of campervan parks and food businesses demanded by the rising numbers of visitors exploring the North Coast 500 is hoped for.

The goodwill shown to the Assynt Crofters by the public, whose donations accounted for around half of the £300,000 needed to buy the land, continues to influence the work of the trust.

Mr Mackay added: “To fail in any of its ventures would mean disappointing all these people.

“We have meetings and people have come up with ideas and then someone says ‘that’s not what people give their money for’. Lots of things we could have done, we backed away from.”

Crofters were met with “several spontaneous acts of generosity” during the celebrations, which included a Peat Road hill race and an all-night music festival.

Mr Mackay said: “Someone travelled from Birmingham to live stream the Allan MacRae Memorial Lecture online, while the winner of the Peat Road Challenge gave his £100 winnings back to the trust.

“He said he didn’t want it, that he wanted us to have it. There has been an awful lot of goodwill on show. You live away here in a fairly remote part of the Highlands but you feel that the Assynt Crofters mean something to a lot of people.”