SHAREHOLDERS in the Upper Coll common grazing have hit back at the claims of the 'constable' now standing in place of – and investigating – their elected grazings committee.

Last week, following his scrutiny of the Upper Coll accounts going back several years, that constable, ex-policeman Colin Souter, laid out where, in his opinion, elected officials had strayed from their narrow legal remit to maintain and improve the grazings. 

This week, the Upper Coll shareholders struck back by noting that, under the same strict reading of crofting's rulebook, Mr Souter's own appointment was illegal, and further that his dossier of supposed wrongdoing was a mixture of the petty, the inaccurate and the "grossly untrue", all of which failed to take account of the realities of local croft administration.

"The constable seems unable to understand that in the spirit of openness and transparency over the years in Upper Coll, all meetings were advertised and open to all shareholders, that all decisions were taken by the majority of those attending and that all these decisions were minuted," said a statement backed by the majority of shareholders.

"He is also under the mistaken impression that the clerk took actions on his own initiative. That is untrue. The clerk's actions were always as a result of decisions and actions approved by the majority of shareholders. If the clerk was at fault so were all those present at meetings who asked him to act on their behalf. 

"The constable seems to place blame on successive committees, when in fact all actions were approved at open shareholder meetings. The clerk, unlike the constable, only took action after being instructed to do so by shareholders.

"This constable has interfered in things he should not have and left undone the things he should have."

Turning to Mr Souter's individual complaints, the Upper Coll crofters poured scorn on his criticism on the past use of of grazings funds and assets for charitable purposes: "Mr Souter has questioned the validity of a donations of £100 to both the War Memorial and the Back Junior Gaelic Choir. How can you respond to this? This practice is common in many island communities and not just Upper Coll!"

The more serious charge that the Grazings Committee agreed to match substantial grant funding for improvements to the Gearraidh Ghuirm Road was described as "grossly untrue": "The village did not put any money into this. The Councillors then in office helped facilitate the financial match funding from sources including contributions from residents."

Deeper into this very detailed row over the grey areas that emerge between written legislation and practical application the shareholders expressed alarm at Mr Souter's stance against their grazings being VAT-registered.
"Mr Souter has questioned the legality of the village being registered for VAT.

Our VAT reclaim was set up in the nineties and returns submitted each year. These were passed by HMRC who would have stopped this if they were illegal.

Other Grazings Committees in the island are also VAT registered and yet we are the ones, according to this Constable, who are going to suffer – yet again!"

Referring to the disputed £600 paid out by the under-fire grazings committee to hire a lawyer to fight its corner, the shareholders added: "It is ironic that Mr Souter finds fault with Upper Coll shareholders employing a legal expert to successfully show the injustices of the Crofting Commission whilst he himself, while acting for the Upper Coll shareholders – in his opinion – seeks the counsel of a QC to enquire as to the legitimacy of the Upper Coll Grazings being VAT registered."

Most importantly, the shareholders highlighted that the vital business of running the village had been put on hold while Mr Souter sat in authority, putting investigation of years past ahead of urgent administrative tasks that the committee would now be doing, had it not been deposed.

"What has he not done? Has he processed the IACS for the village? Has he submitted an application for the Agri-Environment Scheme that could have taken in some funding to the village? Has he worked out a Summer and Winter Grazings Timetable?" they asked.

"And what efforts has he made to heal the tensions and differences experienced within the village? Surely that should have been one of his first tasks!"