Galloway hutters face Carbeth-style battle

A RARE species is facing extinction on one of Galloway's sites of Special Scientific Interest.

But the creatures under threat don't have wings or fur - they are a group of eight 'hutters' whose cabins lie along Rascarrel Bay's scenic shoreline in Kirkcudbrightshire.

For years, the hutters and their families, all local people or with strong local ties, have been enjoying weekends and spare time away by the sea.

But their idyllic way of life in the SSSI could be coming to an end after the local landowner decided to impose a seven-fold rent increase.

Campaigners also say the lease he has drawn up gives them no protection against further swingeing increases.

Now a Dumfries and Galloway Hutters Association has been formed under the belief that unity means strength - and could become the south west's equivalent to the 80-strong Carbeth hutters currently fighting eviction from their cabins, 10 miles north of Glasgow.

53-year-old Norrie Milligan and wife Christine have been at Rascarrel Bay for 18 years.

Ronnie built his hut himself from scratch on the site of an old dilapidated cabin, which he had removed with the consent of the then landowner Jim Hendry. Planning permission was applied for, and granted.

“All we want is a decent security of tenure, and a rent that is a true valuation and in line with other huts in Dumfries and Galloway,” said Norrie, who first knew something was afoot when a letter from Wallets Rural Property Services arrived in January this year.

The company had instructed agents GM Thomson, Castle Douglas to carry out an 'independent' valuation of the huts, which was considered to be 'a fair and reasonable' 1,000 per year. None of the huts have running water, sewerage or electricity.

Existing rental - for the ground upon which the huts stand only - is 150. In recognition that a jump up to 1000 'could be interpreted as unreasonable', landowner Tommy McTaggart, of Rascarrel Farm instructed Wallet's to make the rent 500 for this year, the full 1000 to be paid for a three year period from 2005 under a new lease.

Nowhere in the lease is any indication of likely future increases, making hutters reluctant to sign up.

Failure to agree to the new lease would see Mr McTaggart, through his agents serving a Notice to Quit on the hutters on 31st January 2005, threatening to bring to an end an association between Rascarrel and the hutters dating back to post-war times.

One 84-year-old resident has been there since 1946 and is in no position, said Norrie, to pay 1000 a year.

“We wouldn't mind if the rents were linked to the retail price index. What we don't want is somebody coming along and just picking a figure out of the sky. All the folk down there are ordinary working folk,” said Norrie.

Rents for the 80 huts across Dumfries and Galloway average around 300, with cabins - with running water - along the coast at Palnackie paying only 250, according to Norrie.

Not wishing a confrontation, Norrie sent off a cheque for 175 after the first demand, but had his money returned along with a demand that if the 500 was not forthcoming a Notice to Quit would be served.

Norrie felt he had no other option but to pay up, but is all too aware of the vulnerability of his and Christine's position.

He said: “He [Mr McTaggart] could ask for 5,000 and we would have no legal redress. That's what the Carbeth people have been saying - they are in exactly the same position.

“It's our view he's got an ulterior motive. He simply wants to kick us off the land and then build on the footsteps of our huts. If we sign the lease we have got no redress and if we don't sign the lease we have no redress. Who would want to buy a hut with a lease like this?”

Therein would lie another problem for the hutters, according to Norrie. Under the terms of the lease, they alone would be responsible for the removal of their huts should they be forced to leave.

Should the landowner incur any costs in clearing the site, he could bill the evicted hutters for expenses.

The hutters have seen an increase in rent since Tommy McTaggart and wife Fiona, the daughter of former owners Mr and Mrs Hendry took over the running of the J&E Hendry farming business - and the hutters are prepares to contemplate any reasonable increase.

Latest correspondence from solicitors Gillespie Gifford and Brown warns Norrie and Christine that unless a response is received within 14 days 'then there is to be served upon you a formal Notice to bring to an end, as at 31st January 2005, the tenancy of the site occupied by your Beach Hut.'

But Norrie said the 500 has already been paid. “It's just scare tactics. All we asking for is a bit of fairness here,”he said.

Fiona McTaggart said: “We have no comment at this particular time. Everything is being dealt with through our solicitors and through our agents at Wallet's Rural Property.”

Alasdair Morgan, SNP MSP for the South of Scotland, has condemned the situation.

He said: “There have been huts at Rascarrel Bay since the 1930s and have provided a pleasant, if basic, place to spend time away from the pressures of everyday life. The huts were originally conceived as a means of allowing working class families from the urban central belt to get out of the city by means they could afford.

“That was the inception of the Scottish hutting movement, which survives at places like Carbeth, but which is now under threat at Rascarrel.”

“In spite of the fact that the tenants of these huts have used them since the 1930s and rarely, if ever, caused any inconvenience to anybody, the current tenants are now faced with a stark choice; either accept the vastly increased rents and accept the onerous terms and conditions of the new leases, or remove their huts from the land forthwith.”

“Even were they to comply with the new rules, the hutters still face an uncertain future, given that there is no guarantee that the current lease might not be replaced with one even more draconian when its three years are up, or indeed not renewed at all.”

“Indeed, this is a situation that I might have expected to read about in Charles Dickens' novels about Victorian England, not encounter in 21st century Scotland. In effect, my exploration of the matter has discovered, there is next to nothing that the hutters can do to challenge this manifestly unjust situation.”

“Given the length of time that the hutters have occupied the sites, and obviously harmless nature of their tenancy, I am at a lost to understand why they should be picked on now. The sad fact of the matter is however that the landowner can do just what he has done without giving a reason.”

Tim Atkinson, of Wallet's Rural Property Services said: “The rents on the hut sites have not been increased to a realistic market value level for many, many years.

“We instructed independent and impartial advisors to carry out an impartial rental valuation of the beach huts. The rent Mr McTaggart is asking is in accordance with independent impartial advice.”

He added: “It is their figure. It is not my figure, and it is not Mr McTaggart's figure.”

Asked whether such a massive increase in rent was designed to cause hardship, Mr Atkinson said: “We think it's fair and we think it's reasonable. That's our position.”