The crofting century: how Scotland's small farms continue to feed the nation's appetite and heritage


Lewis-based food writer Barry Shelby argues that, far from clinging to a dying way of life, crofting's time is right now.

Crofting can be a conundrum. It was a modern improvement to subsistence farming on the mostly marginal lands of the Highlands and islands, but it neither fitted into the mainstream nor ever quite managed to shake off a bias against it as inefficient. Though crofts are indeed a type of small farm or smallholding, very few crofters have ever been full-time agriculturalists: in the past they also fished or collected kelp and today might be joiners and weavers. Yet official solutions to the perceived problems have nearly always offered only agricultural prescriptions – and then they have tended to favour large farming systems over small.

Yet I would argue that crofting's time has come. Consider various current issues: whether concerns over food security or demand for locally produced food, environmental issues or the reassessment of the values of self-sufficiency and sustainability. Crofting essentially offers a tick in all these boxes, though very real issues of reasonable profitability for crofters linger. Crofting systems need to be accepted as a fair and perhaps even equal partner by agri-business – and in the eyes of government policy makers who acknowledge that crofting keeps rural areas populated where, elsewhere, vast areas are controlled by only the wealthy.

'Crofters can't feed the entire country, but they can contribute in a healthy way,' says Lewis-based shepherd, weaver and retired engineer Neil Macleod, who is chairman of the Scottish Crofting Foundation (formerly the crofters' union). Macleod is bullish if realistic. But he thinks crofters need to do more to promote the elements that people increasingly hold dear, for example food produced in pristine environments, offering traceability and, generally speaking, additive free.

Crofting counties represent a third of the Scottish landmass, a quarter of which is in the hands of crofters. One traditional contribution that crofting has made to agriculture across the UK has been the breeding of 'store lambs' – that is livestock sold for finishing down south in lowland Scotland or England. While that must continue – 'crofters are good at breeding hardy, healthy stock,' says Skye crofter Donald Murdie – it also puts crofters at the bottom of the food production chain, subject to low prices as everyone above them trims margins. Murdie has looked at food policy from various angles. He and wife Susanna Robson have been part of the Highlands and Islands Food Network and run fruit and veg box schemes (delivered sometimes by a local GP).

One answer is more finished products: whether local staples for the local market or speciality goods for a wider audience. Murdie, who has worked as the Crofting Foundation's land use project manager, says that means less centralisation of the processing, particularly abattoirs – a topic that 'consumers don't really want to hear about,' he adds. But neither do they want to hear that live animals have been shifted huge distances, suffering stress as a result.

Another solution may be the Crofting Produce Mark (see side panel), certifying the provenance of crofting goods. Still, the reality of most crofting lives is that their plots are not large enough to provide a full income. So Murdie says they need to be 'flexible' as they traditionally have been. That means local economies have to provide the part-time jobs, too.

Up on Shetland, Ronnie Eunson – who has some 675 hectares at Uradale Farm for organic sheep and rare breed cattle – has met first-hand local resistance to his attempts to set up a local abattoir ('A million and one hoops to leap through,' he says). He believes that the crofting brand, to really succeed, will need a bit of the PR juice that someone like HRH Prince Charles can give to his Mey Selections products. Alas, says Eunson, a relatively recent appointment to the Crofting Commission, 'crofters are not always good at organising themselves.'

In the end, crofting has its limitations, for sure. Yet, it has proven that it can keep people (and not just the wealthy) on rural land; it can provide produce to local consumers as well as niche or speciality goods for the wider market; breed livestock for mainstream farms; and help to ensure bio-diversity in the countryside – sometimes spectacular landscapes – for people to visit and enjoy. Today it is less of an anachronism than it has been for over a century.

For more information

Crofting Produce Mark

Crofting Produce Mark
Crofters are building consumer confidence with a label that promises wholesome, environmentally friendly produce, while celebrating the crofting lifestyle.

One recent innovation to help promote crofting goods is the Crofting Produce Mark. While essentially a branding exercise, European regulation means that it cannot technically be called a brand. But with this label, crofters are hoping that consumers will develop the confidence that whatever they buy – whether soft fruit, honey or Shetland lamb – comes from a system of farming that is wholesome, environmentally friendly, and trustworthy. It's also an opportunity for crofters to sell their oft-admired lifestyle. The mark can be applied to textiles made in the crofting regions, too.

While it is unlikely to assist the wholesale livestock market – once 500 live lambs have been shipped to central UK for finishing, the provenance is largely lost – the Scottish Crofters Mark should aid in many ways.

When he attaches the mark to his meat, crofter Neil Macleod says he 'gets such a thrill.' It is a 'tremendous opportunity' for crofters, he says. It doesn't cost them much (£20 per annum) and it shows that they have achieved a discernable standard of quality, animal health and welfare, hygiene and total traceability.

But as Laurent Vernet, senior manager of marketing for Quality Meat Scotland, warned the annual gathering of the Scottish Crofting Foundation on Barra in 2008: 'A brand is a promise, a moral contract between the producer and the consumer. With a collective brand, you are only as strong as your weakest product. If someone has a bad experience with one single product … this consumer will often be resistant to trying others.'