Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Out Skerries - crofting

This is a bit off the beaten track for the Kyles and Western Isles but I can't resist it because Out Skerries are for sale!

They're an archipelago about 10 miles (16km) east of Shetland. Covering about 1.5 square miles (4 sq km), the two biggest islands are linked by a bridge and between them support a population of 76. Boasting the UK's smallest secondary school (roll in 2010 - 3), this community of fisherman (including fish farm workers) is accessed by a 2.5 hour ferry journey from Lerwick though Shetland Island Council also runs a 20 minute flight three days a week (return fare £43 (£22 for pensioners), request stop at Whalsay).  Read about SIC's ferry and air services here.

Photo credit q3inq8
But if Skerries (as they're known locally) are too difficult for you to visit, don't worry because, thanks to top people's estate agents Knight Frank you can BUY them instead. No this isn't April 1st, "Out Skerries Estate" (as they've been branded for marketing purposes) is for sale at offers over £400,000! An entire archipelago of Scottish islands for less than half a million quid! How good is that?

Well, inevitably perhaps, not all that good. Apart from the fact the sale doesn't include the third biggest island, Grunay, (on the left in the photo above) or Bound Skerry (foreground - "Aw! Don't we get the lighthouse?"), it also doesn't include any sort of a house: all the houses (39 in all) and the infrastructure such as the pier, church, school, community hall etc. belong to the islanders or third parties such as the Council. (Interestingly, KF's brochure doesn't list the airstrip as excluded although I suspect that's an oversight otherwise they'd be painting a glowing picture of investment opportunities arising from the valuable landing slot rights at OUK!)   

The only buildings a purchaser would take ownership of, the brochure notes, are "two, now derelict, buildings formally [sic] used as a coastguard lookout and signal post." The absence of estate agent hyperbole talking up the potential for conversion into an insular dez rez speaks volumes.

But you're buying 600 acres (250ha) of choice of site for a new house, aren't you? Again, not quite and the reason for that is also mentioned in KF's brochure - the whole "estate" (except the offlying islets) is subject to crofting tenure. Crofting is something I've been meaning to write about for a while: I've never known quite where to start with it but Out Skerries provides a catalyst.  


Photo credit Donald Mackinnon
Some people think they're a type of house (above) but crofts are, in fact, a species of small-holding unique to the north and west of Scotland, particularly the islands. The typical croft is about 5 to 10 acres (2-4ha) and located in a "township" of, typically, 10 to 20 crofts. As well as their individual holdings where their crops were grown and animals wintered (known as "in-bye"), the crofters in a township share a much larger surrounding area called the "common grazing". This can be hundreds or even thousands of acres.

Skerries is a crofting township. The KF brochure informs us there are 15 crofts with about (I'm guessing) 75 acres (30ha) of in-bye between them. The rest of the islands is all crofters' common grazing.

The township and in-bye on Housay
In theory, crofters are tenants of a landlord who owns the land (in-bye and common grazing) and to whom a rent is paid under a lease running from year to year. Crofting rents are nominal - KF tell us the 15 crofters of Skerries pay just £167.18 in total between them. Croft rents are low not just because the holdings are small but also because, on most crofts, the landlord didn't provide the house and other infrastructure as is the case with a normal let farm.

The township and in-bye on Housay in the 1950s - one of a number of excellent pictures in the Shetland Museum archive
But anyone thinking of buying "Out Skerries Estate" with a view to throwing the crofters out and replacing them with something willing to pay a higher rent can think again because, ever since 1886 (in the aftermath of the "Highland Clearances"), crofters have had security of tenure. That means they can't be evicted so long as they keep to the statutory conditions of crofting. And even if a crofter did breach the conditions, it's not worth the landlord's while evicting him because he would be obliged to pay the departing crofter compensation for the value of the house on the croft and then immediately re-let it to a new crofter and so the whole process starts over again.

Crofters also have the right to sell their tenancies and bequeath them on death so, for all these reasons, crofting tenancies tend to continue indefinitely. It's misleading to think of them in terms of "tenancy" and "lease" as these words generally connote a temporary relationship. "Tenure" is a more appropriate word reflected in the fact that, since 1976, crofters have had the right to buy the freehold of the in-bye of their crofts (not the common grazing) at a price equal to 15 times the annual rent. In practice, crofters relatively seldom (compared with, for e.g., council house tenants) buy their entire crofts but most have bought their houses. From what can be gathered from the KF brochure, this appears to be the pattern on Skerries - most if not all of the croft houses have been bought but none of the actual crofts.

Out Skerries in 1877 - OS 6 inch map
As I said about the sale of Taransay, there's no such thing in Scotland as a "private island" (a la Mustique or Branson's Necker Island etc. in the Caribbean). Despite what it says in the brochure about viewing being strictly by appointment through Knight Frank, anybody is legally entitled to go to Skerries on the public ferry or plane at any time. So long as you comply with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (which is basically "be aware of and respect the livelihoods and privacy of the people who live there"), you don't have to own Skerries to enjoy the nature the estate agents wax lyrical about (even if they can't spell it):-

"In early summer the islands are covered in wild flowers; in particular Sea Pinks, but it [sic] is most well know [sic] for its bird life and as a breeding ground for Terus [sic], Kittiewakes [sic], Shags, Oyster Catchers, Eider Duck, Fulwars [sic] and Gulls."

The harbour at Bruray by Ronnie Leask

So what are you actually getting for your £400,000 on Skerries apart from that £167.18 a year of rent from the crofters?

Gold, silver, coal, oil and gas are all the property of the Crown but if there are any other valuable mineral deposits on or under the islands, these would belong to the landlord. Another perquisite of the crofting landlord is the shooting and game fishing rights: some common grazings are noted deer stalking forests and/or have salmon rivers running through them although there's scant potential for huntin', fishin' or shootin' on Skerries.

Perhaps the most significant right a crofting landlord has is to "resume" land. That means regaining unencumbered vacant possession from the crofters. However, resumption requires permission from the Scottish Land Court and it will only ever consent to release land for something planning permission has been obtained for and which doesn't threaten the continuation of crofting in the vicinity. And crucially, resumption is also subject to payment to the crofters of half of the market value of the land resumed. Yes, that's right! - you've already shelled out 400 big ones and you still have to pay more for the land to build your house, diving & birdwatching lodge, drug rehabilitation centre, crystal growing factory, etc. whatever.

Skerries at OS 1:25,000 scale from Streetmap
In many ways, the role of a crofting landlord can be a negative one in that he can block development of the common grazings. There's no reverse process whereby the crofters can "resume" from the landlord - they couldn't force him to accept, say, a community wind turbine on the common grazings. For that reason, legislation in 2003 gave crofting community bodies the right to buy entire townships complete with the common grazings. KF's website alludes to this on Skerries when it says "the crofting community have been offered the opportunity to register their interest in acquiring the property but have formally declined from doing so." But the legislation doesn't include provision for "registration" or "declinature". So a prospective purchaser should note that the tenantry could buy it off him at any time if they didn't care for the cut of his jib. And Lottery funding is available to pay for it.

Photo credit Markus Schroedr
Wonderful opportunities for fishing and sailing it says in Knight Frank's brochure. My advice if you've six figures burning a hole in your pocket would be buy a boat rather than the destination.


  1. Interesting. Been meaning to go there since I have an old pal living there. At least he was recently and for the last 8 years or so.

    Have checked my piggy bank and it won't stretch I'm afraid so can't buy them!

  2. Thorough blog, Neil. I wonder how much the value has been "blighted" by the crofting community right to buy, which as you note will allow crofts, common grazings and certain "eligible additional land" to be compulsorily acquired (for adequate compensation)? I'm guessing Knight Frank do not cover that particular algorithm in the sales particulars.