In the light of the Scottish Parliament’s inadequate Land Reform legislation, Iain Robertson looks at who owns Scotland and what is needed to ensure access to all.

The day began like many others. It was too early, too cold, and too dark to be getting up and we were still tired from the previous evening’s socialising but the short daylight hours of winter meant that if we were going to complete the round of the Strathfarrar Munros then a seven-thirty departure from the bunkhouse was essential. Throughout our breakfast conversation turned to the overcast skies, the inevitability of rain, sleet and snow as we gained height and of the condition of the snow and ice underfoot. The depressingly familiar rain started soon after we left the cottage but we comforted ourselves that perhaps it might be clearer by the end of the seventy-five mile journey ahead of us up to Inverness then south-west to the glen of Strathfarrar in the heart of the Grampian mountains. As it turned out the rain was the least of our worries. The entrance to the 19 kilometer-long glen was barred by a padlocked gate. A notice advised that arrangements could be made to have the gate unlocked provided walkers and climbers phoned in advance between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm Monday to Friday. It was now 9.00 am on Saturday morning and we had just driven 75 miles to get here. This was not the first time that we had been barred from access by a landowner, or had obstacles put in the way of access.

Increasing numbers of people, especially from the cities, quite literally seek their recreation in the glens, hills and mountains of this land only to come hard up against the chilling reality that, collectively, we still own barely a handful of earth; that we have next to no say at all in the economic use of the land of Scotland; that we derive very little economic benefit from the land; and that the right of even access to the land hangs by the finest of legal threads. In reality, legally and historically, the land that was stolen from the common people by a process that began 900 years ago is still going on now. We are allowed to call it our land only in song and poetry, or when we are to be cynically manipulated by appeals to our patriotism in times of war.

Legacy of feudal land ownership

For ramblers, walker and climbers the land access problem is a long running sore. It reminds us of second class status in our own country and exposes the hypocrisy of Blair’s classless society. We are corralled into the central belt, and most of us into high density schemes within that, while vast acres of hill and glen, denuded, firstly, of their trees and, more recently in the last two centuries, of their original inhabitants (the fore-parents of many of us), are set aside for the occasional pleasure of a tiny but wealthy minority. This is the legacy of the feudal system of land ownership that has been consolidated with very little change during the last 900 years. During the last 200 hundred of these years, for much of the increasingly urban population in Scotland it has meant living in the high density, low amenity, high rent, low health record reservations we call cities. For much of the rural population it has meant clearances (which, of course, swelled numbers in the already overpopulated slums), high rents for those able to stay, diminishing economic activity and subservience to the local laird. For hundreds of thousands this subservience has meant armed service to the crown in the name of British imperialism. Even today rural populations are in decline. While in rural Ireland Irish Gaelic is widely spoken and welsh continues to thrive in North Wales, Scots Gaelic is on the verge of collapse. And this is attributable to the pattern of land ownership in Scotland which is unique to Scotland. In no other European country, perhaps the world, has this 900 year old feudal system persisted so unchanged as it has so in Scotland even into the 21st century.

And this is despite frequent tinkering by various governments over the last two centuries. It is a measure of the entrenched and backward nature of the system of land abuse and misuse in Scotland that British governments have felt compelled to modify it. Of course, we now are devolved and our ministers on the mound are working their way through another reform – to land access this time. If previous reforms are anything to go by we are in for a huge disappointment. The last great reform attempted was the right to buy reform.

Media disinformation

Media interest in crofter buy-outs in Knoydart and Eigg were masterly examples of disinformation concerning the land reforms of recent times. The images presented to the public are of bad landlords on the retreat, of caring government on the side of the people, of government on a quest for justice, and, worst of all, of a brave new world where the big issues of the right to own the land of Scotland have been addressed. The reality is quite different.

The media coverage to buy-outs was out of all proportion to the scale of the buy-outs. The areas of land involved in right to buy sales are a tiny fraction of one percent of the land area of Scotland under private ownership. The right to buy legislation protects the landowner’s financial interests – the crofters had to raise the market value price. The legislation protects the great landowners of Scotland – only a tiny proportion of the population of Scotland (registered crofters) have the right to buy and only the tiniest fraction of the great landowners estates are at risk. The estates in Scotland that were stolen from the common people nine centuries ago have been and continue to be protected by statute and law and every government from the 19th century Liberals to 20th century Labour has assiduously side stepped the central issue of Scotland’s feudal laws governing the control and use (and sadly, mostly misuse) of the greater portion of the land of Scotland.

So who exactly does own Scotland and what is the system of land ownership?

Who owns Scotland?

The answer to the first question is We don’t know. There is no centrally held, publicly available, completed register of land ownership for Scotland. Even where ownership is known, the boundaries and acreages are often either unknown or concealed. Several researchers have reported being blanked by representatives of estate owners upon enquiring about the accuracy of such information as they had obtained. However, what is known makes the picture clear enough. Take Lanarkshire, the most populated Authority in Scotland with Glasgow, East Kilbride, etc. as well as the Leadhills and Clyde valleyto the south. Out of a population of around 627 000 (in 2001), 150 landowners own one third of the land. The average land holding is well over 1000 acres with the Earl of Home on top walking his dogs around some 30 000 acres. (Actually he doesn’t as he lives on one of his other estates near Coldstream in the Scottish borders.) Everywhere the picture is similar. The common people are herded into the central belt and coastal strips while huge areas of Scotland are misused and mismanaged; rural economies continue their decline; and rural depopulation threatens one community after another with slow death.

The issue of Who Owns Scotland should be of huge importance to the
SSP. It is not an issue of envy. It is not even an issue of moral outrage or of righting past wrongs – well justified on their own though these are. It is an issue of our economic and social well-being as many have comprehensively argued.

The impact of the land tenure system goes far beyond land use. It influences the size and distribution of an area’s population; access to housing; access to land to build new houses; the social structure; and the distribution of power and influence. In many areas of Scotland, large land owners play a crucial role in local development: they are the rural planners.

Bryan Mcgregor, 1993, Aberdeen University, Professor of Land Economy

This is abundantly illustrated in Scotland’s largest county (as was), Invernessshire. This county stretched from the Outer Hebrides in the Atlantic, through Skye and across to Inverness by the North Sea. Yet it occupied the smallest number of pages in the 1872 Return* such was the huge size of the estates held by a relatively fewer great landowners than was common in other counties even then. Now that Invernesshire, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross counties have been amalgamated into Highland region, an area close to one quarter of all Scotland has a single planning authority under the influence of a handful of very powerful families. The economic and demographic stranglehold that these largely anonymous families wield beggars belief. [*The 1872 Return was an attempt by the Victorians to account for land ownership in Britain. It was regarded as being about 90% accurate. Astonishingly, the best information on England and Wales 125 years later is only guessed at as being about 60% accurate, with figure for Scotland being marginally less scandalous. Those who own Scotland, England and Wales don’t want us to know.]

So why do these secretive few cause such economic decline? After all, it might be argued that they surely stand to benefit more than the common people of Scotland from a more vibrant rural economy. Ironically the opposite is often true. In the first place, an increasing number of estate owners do not derive their income from their estate. For example, the current Earl of Rosebery (Neil Primrose to his friends) is an entrepreneur with a company worth £65 million in 2001. Viscount Cowdray (estate in Aberdeen) made his fortune via the Pearson plc media conglomerate. Numerous newcomers bought into estates using fortunes made earlier or are actually not nationals. Much of Glen Etive and the Blackmount is owned by the Flemings (London Bankers); the largest known estate in Kirkcudbrightshire is owned by Fred Olsen, Norwegian shipping magnate. (His other claim to Scottish fame? He owns Timex. Remember Dundee?). Although many estate owners do manage their estates on a commercial basis, what is profitable for them causes economic devastation not only to those who live locally but even more so to those who aspire to live in rural areas. This is true both for those young people forced out through lack of jobs; of affordable housing (or just any housing); as well as for those who want to move from urban centres.

For most estate owners it is the absence of people that equates with economic viability for most are run as pleasure grounds for other wealthy people as well as for themselves. Like the feudal barons (from whom many are descended) they insist the common people must be kept off of their playground to allow the grouse, the deer, the salmon, the foxes, the pheasants and the trout to be plentiful in numbers and reserved for themselves. And like their robber baron ancestors, they are not fussy about the methods they use to keep things the same now as they have been during the last 900 years.

William the Slaughterer (1066) began the process of converting land held in common by the people into private estates held by the few at the point of a sword – initially, then by the fiction of bits of paper called titles. The legal system of land tenure in Scotland today would be completely recognisable by the Norman Bruces and Comyns of the 14th century and even earlier. There we have it. Alone in Europe, Scotland still has an archaic legal framework for its land tenure based on feudal absolutism where the feudal superior (the landowner) is the ultimate authority under god.

So why has so little changed?

Since the beginnings of parliamentary democracy all governments have been composed principally of the landowners themselves and/or their allies. Although Cromwell led an army against Absolutism of the monarchy, he soon turned his army against the Levellers. Reforming governments of the last 150 years have strained themselves to minimise land reforms in the face of agitation from Chartists, Land Leaguers, crofters, and, more recently ramblers, socialists and academics. Despite the grandiose language from the Scottish Executive on land reform the enduring power, secrecy and economic stranglehold of the landowning mafia was assiduously left untouched. A Land Reform Policy Group was set up by the new Scottish Executive to address the issues raised by the many groups pressing for fundamental change that would bring the land tenure system into the 21st century and into line with the rest of Western Europe and Scandinavia. It consisted primarily of civil servants who ignored the feudal legal framework, the secrecy and tax evasion scams of the landowners, and even the models of every neighbouring country. These civil servants glorified consensus and blocked criticisms of their fundamental assumptions. Hence, as so often in the past, the archaic and anti-democratic legal framework was never subject to examination, the enormous power without accountability of landowners was never questioned, and rural economic stagnation never allowed to be discussed.

One reason, perhaps, why the Scottish Executive has been able so far to escape major unrest is the low priority accorded to the land issue by much of the left. It is not seen as a major campaigning issue. The left itself has gone along with the propaganda that land is a crofting issue, peripheral to the interests of the central belt working class. Quite apart from preceding social and economic arguments to the contrary, the biggest single anti-democratic, anti working class power block in Scotland is the centuries old intermarried landowning class. End the corrupt and destructive land tenure system and their power as a class goes with it. Another reason for the Executive’s smooth path through the parliamentary processes and media scrutiny has been the disunity among the various groups and organisations that have been fighting their sustained but private campaigns against the draft land reform bill.

The need for a united opposition

There is great scope here for the SSP to provide a focus for united opposition to this woefully inadequate bill. Two actions are needed. First, the politics of land ownership and the economic and democratic deficits of the present system need to be put at the top of the agenda – the Scottish Executive has buried these. Second, a genuine countryside alliance of the common people needs to be established bringing together the rural jobless and homeless, the Ramblers Associations, the Mountaineering Council for Scotland, the beleaguered crofters and tenant hill farmers, and the thousands of workers in B&B’s, pubs, hotels, bunkhouses, petrol stations, village shops throughout the Highlands, the Islands and the Southern Uplands of Scotland who depend for their livelihoods on thousands of workers from the cities, like the Creag Dhu climbers from red Clydeside in the 20’s and 30’s, escaping their confines to breath clean air, walk, cycle, scramble and climb; or to rest, sightsee, picnic and camp among the hills and mountains. The land issue is our issue; the land is our land. We need control over it for our economic, social and recreational well-being.

Iain Robertson

Books consulted in the writing of this article included:

Scotland: land and power – the agenda for land reform, Andy Wightman, Luath Press Ltd.

The Rich at Play: Foxhunting, land ownership and the Countryside Alliance,

Land, People and Politics,1878- 1952, Roy Douglas, Allison & Busby

Who Owns Britain, Kevin Cahill, Canongate

Our thanks to the anonymous local who unlocked the padlocked gate to Glen Strathfarrar that Saturday morning. As we struggled to the top of the third Munro (mountain over 3000 ft) the mist cleared briefly to reveal a setting sun illuminating the snow-capped mountains to the far North – an unforgettable sight.

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