Nearly three years ago, I brought you the story of a group of crofters who were taking on the might of the multinationals by applying to the Crofting Commission for the rights to develop wind farms on their common grazings, under a section of crofting law never used before.
That was Section 50B of the 1993 Crofting Act and the heroes of the piece were Willie Macfarlane and Rhoda Mackenzie, the representatives from the Melbost and Branahuie and Sandwick North Street grazings committees, respectively.
They are pictured above, in the first photo for what would turn out to be a considerably high-profile crofters’ campaign. It was a quick picture, grabbed on my iPhone and taken out the Pentland Road, near the proposed wind farm sites on their portions of the Stornoway General common grazings. It’s a picture that has always been treasured – but is even more precious now, because of recent events.
Many readers of this blog will know that Willie Macfarlane has passed away after a long illness and was laid to rest last Wednesday. However, other readers may not be aware, and I couldn’t write about anything else on the blog without first writing about this.
It is with extreme sadness that we have said goodbye to Willie – a true folk hero, a great friend and the strongest of allies – and the big turnout at his funeral bore testament to the high regard so many people had for him, and quite rightly.
It is difficult to pick up from his loss and carry on – but carry on we must and we are.
And it feels strange that the issue of the Section 50B applications was being considered in the Scottish Land Court in Edinburgh this week, just days after Willie’s funeral.
The Crofting Commission had, of course, announced last year that they were rejecting the crofters’ Section 50B applications and the case being heard in the Land Court on Tuesday and Wednesday was the appeal against this rejection.
Four crofting townships altogether – Sandwick North Street, Melbost and Branahuie, Sandwick East Street and Aignish – had submitted the Section 50B applications and they were represented in the Land Court by Edinburgh legal firm Gillespie Macandrew.
The lawyers from Gillespie Macandrew had argued, among other points, that the Commission was wrong to reject the 50B applications because it did so on the basis of objections that came in from the Stornoway Trust a year late.
Objections are supposed to be lodged with the Crofting Commission within 28 days but despite the lateness of the objections, the Crofting Commission upheld one of the Trust’s seven objections to the crofters’ schemes – and on that basis decided to reject all four of the 50B applications.
That is just one of the points put forward in this week’s appeal – and we will know the outcome of it next month (July).
Rhoda Mackenzie spoke of the appeal earlier in the week.
“We are glad it’s reached this stage and are looking forward to a fair hearing from the Land Court because we don’t feel we got it from the Commission. We don’t feel that they followed due process as laid down in the Crofting Act.
“This is an important case and it could be a landmark decision. We’ve always seen this as a test case, which could transform the rights of crofters across the Highlands and Islands to unlock the potential in their land.”
We are a long way down the road from that first blog post on the Section 50Bs in September 2016 – ‘Crofters take on multinationals over wind farm rights on Lewis’.
In that, Rhoda and Willie had both stressed how much better off we would be as a community across the Western Isles if we owned our wind farms ourselves – as opposed to corporate ownership, which only gives a small percentage of the profits back to communities as a sort of ‘goodwill’ gesture.
They also both stressed that there had been no consultation with their townships before Stornoway Trust handed over development rights to EDF and co by signing the lease to Lewis Wind Power.
Willie was adamant that any development on the Melbost and Branahuie common grazings should only be with the consent of the crofters of the village and stressed “that is why we have made this Section 50b application”.
He was also adamant the Stornoway Trust “never asked us” before they signed the lease with EDF / LWP, saying: “That lease was a done deal a dozen years ago and as far as I’m aware they never asked any grazings committee because they didn’t think they had to”.
He added: “It’s up to the Crofting Commission now. We have no idea how it might go but we hope that the Commission will support the development rights of the crofting community over our grazings and not favour the landowners or the multinationals.”
Yesterday one of the other representatives from the four townships remarked that Willie would have been “so up for” being at the Land Court, to hear the appeal against the Crofting Commission.
He added that Willie had “left a great legacy for us to carry on with, for the four townships and the wider community as a whole” – and legacy is exactly the word for it.
It’s also a sentiment that was conveyed very well by Calum Macdonald in his public tribute to Willie Macfarlane last week, on behalf of the community wind movement in Lewis.
Calum, the former Western Isles MP who has been working with the four townships on developing their wind farm projects, said: “The community energy movement in the islands have lost a great and stalwart champion with the passing of Willie Macfarlane on 25th May.
“Willie was a rock of the community energy movement from its very earliest days and meetings. As the Clerk of the Melbost and Branahuie Grazings Committee, he attended the very first meeting of local Grazings Clerks in the Point and Sandwick area in 2005 which led eventually to the construction of Beinn Ghrideag community wind farm ten years later in 2015.
“He wasn’t just thinking of Beinn Ghrideag, successful though it proved to be. Willie was always clear that community ownership was the right model for all the Point and Sandwick Grazings and, in particular, for the grazings of his own township in Melbost and Branahuie.
“As part of this, he successfully guided and presided over the historic decision by the township (in alliance with Sandwick North, Sandwick East and Aignish) in 2016 to apply to the Crofting Commission under the Section 50B of the 1993 Crofting Act to develop a community wind farm on their grazings. They are the first townships to attempt to use the power under the Crofting Act and, if they are successful, they will transform the powers of crofting communities right across the Highland and Islands and overturn the exclusive development prerogatives that landlords have enjoyed for hundreds of years.
“In taking up this cause, Willie knew he would have to face the fierce and intemperate opposition of the landlord and their corporate partners, EDF (aka Lewis Wind Power), but he did so with that intelligence, steadiness and resolution in his character which all of us knew and loved.
“He never wavered from the founding principle of Point and Sandwick, which is that the whole of the islands should benefit from the proceeds of community ownership, not just those townships lucky enough to have suitable land. The criticism by opponents that the crofting townships were being ‘selfish’ could not be more mistaken than in the case of Willie whose sole motivation was the good of the whole islands community which he knew could only be achieved by community enterprise, control and ownership.
“Willie’s integrity and energy will be sorely missed but those of us who had the great pleasure of working with him on Beinn Ghrideag and, more recently, on the four Section 50B community applications now going through the Scottish Land Court, will not pause or slacken until the principles of community ownership and crofting rights he stood for are recognised and established in the law of Scotland.
“Our deepest sympathy goes to Willie’s family – to wife Ann and children Carolyn and Angus. Willie is going to be a huge loss to his village and our community energy campaign, but most of all to his family. We will be thinking of them in the time to come.”
It is difficult for everyone involved in the campaign to carry on without Willie Macfarlane. But it would be much harder to not carry on. Rhoda summed it up, this week.
“It’s difficult because he was such a leading light in this movement. Whilst hurting from his passing, you just feel that you have to do it for his legacy, as well as the other reasons. You have to carry on and that’s what he wanted us to do.
“That was the conversation, the Saturday before… he was saying, ‘keep me in the loop; I want to know what’s happening…’ He wanted to be part of it and that was the week before he died.
“It wasn’t ‘I’ve got too much going on’; it was ‘keep me in the loop’.
“He felt strongly about carrying on, seeing it through to the end. If it’s a win, it will be a legacy.
“He was, as Calum said, the driving force. He fought a long hard battle for this, long before we ever got involved in it, and that was indicative of his character. He never gave up.
“It’s hard without him at the helm but not hard to carry on because it’s what he and the rest of us ultimately believed and believe in.”