‘I WISH I had a croft,” they intone. Imagining the larks they would have raising hens and baking with fresh eggs. The lambs and the gentle house cow would be surrounded by lush green fields, giving of themselves abundantly all year round.

Like the good life, but in the country. Ideally in an idyllic Scottish island setting. The Good-Life-On-Sea.

For the uninitiated, a croft is not a house, it is a piece of Scottish land surrounded by legislation. There are Acts of Parliament which lay out how crofts are regulated, how they should be worked and who can own them.

Crofters come in two flavours these days.

First up are the Toms and Barbaras who buy into crofting as a lifestyle choice with the very best of intentions. They have the money to acquire the croft alongside the ruin they think they so desperately want. An enormous house is built on the site of the adorable wreck, and they then proceed to enjoy very briefly an expensive hobby.

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The other flavour, arguably a little more bitter, comes in the form of those who have been born into it, raised with it and have been left with it.

For those of us whose ancestors ploughed the land upon which our houses sit, there is a special kind of relationship with the land which is very hard to explain. Some are able to avoid its pull, but for many of us, that pull is in our blood. It’s our heritage.

Running through our veins is the need to look after our small patches of ground because we have been taught that our forefathers fought long and hard for them. That they are hard-won, and of incalculable value. And every word of that is true. But they are also thankless, unforgiving and expensive. Few are profitable in any impressive sense.

The National: Uist croft

Crofts were never designed to make large profits. They were designed to keep you and the kids fed – reducing grief for our feudal overlords while keeping the lords’ money flowing in.

Croft land is commonly rented from a landlord – most often a duke or other large landowner. Increasingly crofting communities are buying the estate land they live on and are becoming the owners.

In Tiree, our crofts are large and our common grazing land is often small. In most of the Outer Hebrides, it is the reverse. Large tracts of hill or moor are common grazings – shared by crofters in a community – and the crofts are much smaller, allowing for wintering of a few cows, small-scale crop production and shelter for ewes at lambing.

Mainland crofts vary widely too – from ones a Tirisdeach would recognise with little difficulty, to woodland crofts which would take a bit of getting used to for us, given our almost entirely treeless existence!

Crofting is incredibly diverse in terms of land type, size and suitability. Sadly, in many other ways, it is less than diverse. And when it comes to acquiring a croft, we have exactly the same challenges as we do with the housing market.

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As happened with my house, I inherited the croft. I am painfully aware of my own good fortune. My great-great-grandfather was part of the agitation movement that secured the future of crofting. The Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act was passed in 1886, giving tenants the right to their own parcels of land in exchange for rent.

Our land holding started as one croft, and over the years, we inherited an adjacent one, which became a combined holding in the eyes of our other overlords, the “Crofting Commission’’.

The Crofting Commission is charged with upholding the rules imposed by the legislation. It means that in addition to all the usual farm-related paperwork generated by the Department for Agriculture, a multitude of food standards authorities, our councils, Sepa, the RSPB, NatureScot and many others, we also have to comply with the Crofting Reform Act of 2010, the 2013 amendment, and jump over the multiple fences required to appear on the Register of Crofts.

Those fences are furnished with no small amount of barbed wire.

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There are many rules when it comes to croft tenancy or ownership, but there are two key ones. Firstly, a croft must be kept in good order and used as intended, for livestock and arable crops. It must therefore be “worked”. And secondly, you must ordinarily reside within 30 miles of it. If not, you could lose your right to it.

Every year, the commission undertakes an annual census. It contains two questions – whether your croft is “worked” and whether you live within 30 miles of it. It is a literal tick-box exercise.

I would wager that a croft has never been removed from someone because they answered “No” to both questions in the census. Like the US visa question which asks if you have ever trafficked a human being, it is not worth the paper it is written on and certainly not the postage required to send it out.

The National: Scottish Highlands

If the system worked well, crofts not in use would be given to new entrants – those who want to start crofting in the traditional sense, but don’t have land. For example, youngsters striking out on their own. But it doesn’t work well in these modern times.

In 1976 came the right to buy your title – as we have. With the ability to buy titles came greater security – it is much, much harder to kick a title-holder off a croft than it is a tenant. But capitalism always wins. With that greater security came the ability to sell your title. And with it came the financial incentive to sell.

So crofting families, who have either had enough of the struggle – and who can blame them – or need a cash injection, or people who inherit and have no interest naturally sell their crofts to the highest bidder. And thus the Good-Life-On-Sea often becomes a reality in places where, at first glance, crofts appear small and manageable.

Once bought, the purchasers regularly find life harder than anticipated (assuming they ever intended to live there). Their promises to the commission that they will work the croft soon fade away, and nobody checks.

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They head for the mainland more frequently and before you know it, the land is overgrown, the grazing share is lost in a sea of red tape and acrimony, the community is down a working-age member who would previously have been crofting and the youngsters wanting to buy into crofting are priced out and leave. Rinse and repeat.

A particularly egregious example of this came up in North Harris a couple of years ago, where the purchaser of a croft managed to turn it into a pod park by hoodwinking a commission which seems to have mislaid its teeth.

Crofts hold incalculable “intangible cultural value”, in addition to the obviously tangible. Every rise and dip has a Gaelic name – even if long forgotten.

The skills involved in crofting in its traditional sense would fill an encyclopaedia, and communal crofting activities – such as shearing or selling animals – are some of the last places where you will hear Gaelic spoken naturally.

Getting more crofts into the hands of local people, finding ways to ensure that crofts are actually worked, reducing the paperwork nightmare – and cost – and being clear about what is and is not acceptable use of land are all levers we have at our disposal when it comes to addressing depopulation, the housing crisis and imminent death of a minority culture.

In this case, a chunk of the legislation needed exists, and we have a Crofting Commission with the powers to enforce it. But it appears that there is no appetite to make the hard decisions. Fear of upsetting the free-market economy will take the legs out from under us all.

I’ve just had my reminder that my census return is overdue. I’m off to tick my boxes, comforted to know that we continue to focus on the important things.