2007 - 2022

Land: Not Out of our Hands


In any economy the use of land sits at the heart of its potential success. Who owns that land is central to how that land is used. In Scotland that places key decision making about social and economic development in the hands of very few people indeed. Scotland stands out within Europe as having the most anachronistic and concentrated land ownership patterns.

The point is well made by St Andrews University academic Charles Warren in the most recent edition of his book, Managing Scotland’s Environment. “Half of the entire country”, Warren writes, “is held by just 608 owners and a mere 18 owners hold 10 per cent of Scotland. Of Scotland’s private land, 30 per cent is held by 103 owners, each with 9,000 hectares [22,250 acres] or more, and 50 per cent by 343 owners. A minuscule 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of the privately owned rural land. Thirty owners have more than 25,000 hectares [61,750 acres] each.’’

Ultimately land use is inextricably linked to who owns the land and what their personal preferences and economic objectives are, and this, in Scotland, is for the most part well beyond the influence of society locally or at large.

If the Common Weal is at root seeking to promote a future economy and society which has greater equality at its heart, then it cannot proceed very far unless it has land reform as central to its the agenda.

For many in Scotland the assumption is that the way land is owned and controlled is just the way things are everywhere, isn’t it? Few would automatically recognise that when it comes to land ownership not only are we very far removed from the norm, but what exists elsewhere is probably the result of actions taken a century or more ago by societies deliberately constructing greater equity, a wider sharing of the potential the land provides.

While the Scottish land ownership patterns have remained largely unchanged for generations, for many of those generations protected by the dominant landed interests in the House of Lords others, notably Ireland and Denmark, set out to change patterns of ownership. Jim Hunter, historian and land reform writer, pointed to Scotland’s lack of progress on these matters in a recently published paper observing on the progress, or rather the lack of it, on land reform in Scotland. He wrote;

“Scotland thus differs markedly from other European countries where, typically, the bulk of a country’s land is owned by very large numbers of people. This contrast does not go back indefinitely in time. In the eighteenth century, Scotland’s land ownership pattern (as concentrated then as now) was replicated in most European countries. In the course of the last 200 or more years, however, other countries have experienced land reforms which were intended to – and did – break up ownership patterns of the kind that Scotland alone continues to be stuck with.”

Land is of course is a finite and precious resource, and it needs to be made to provide for all our societal needs, for our homes, our food supply, our industrial space, our commercial and communal centres, our bio-diversity, our recreation and leisure, and for our energy. It is land which is, literally, the foundation on which our opportunities and potential for success are built. We have some devices at our disposal to influence land use, principally through our democratically controlled planning system. But ultimately land use is inextricably linked to who owns the land and what their personal preferences and economic objectives are, and this, in Scotland, is for the most part well beyond the influence of society locally or at large.

The imperative to change land ownership patterns, therefore, has a democratic, economic and social purpose. Land reform is not a question of seeking change to alter some European land ownership league table for appearances sake; it is a question of seeking change to make material differences to people’s opportunities and futures.

Free from the shackles of the House of Lords the new Scottish Parliament took some important steps down the land reform route when it enacted the Land Reform Act of 2003. The record will show that move was only seen as in any way contentious by the Conservative Party. The Land Reform Act was and remains important and it has helped shape a changing relationship between a number of communities and their (now former) landowners. The Act gives rights to rural communities across Scotland to purchase land when it comes on the market, and therein lies its central weakness. Change in land ownership depends upon a willing seller, even when a change of ownership would be in the community and wider public interest. Only in crofting communities in Scotland has an `absolute’ right to buy been granted by the Land Reform Act, but so complex is the law that exercising this right is very challenging. The possibility of that right being exercised, however, has already brought a number of landowners to the table to negotiate a handover of land to local communities.

Today, close to 500,000 acres of Scotland is under the control of local communities. Despite this welcome progress, it is modest by any standards and makes little impact on the total of Scotland under mutual control. That is why there are current moves to use existing powers to revisit the Land Reform Act to strengthen and extend community land purchase rights to urban as well as rural communities.

Advocates of the Common Weal point to the creation of a new economic framework which can provide for more mutuality, more local and democratic control of key assets, and which supports and drives economic transformations. In Scotland, when it comes to thinking about future land as a key national asset sitting at the heart of future potential, there is now experience of ownership and control which fits firmly within that vision of greater democratic and local control of tangible assets.

Community-owned land is owned by the democratic will of the people expressed in a ballot. That land is providing the basis for social and economic progress in those communities, and the use of that land is the stimulus for wider economic reform and local progress. After securing their land, some communities have moved to take control of their local energy needs; some are contributing to their economic futures by generating power for export, with the revenues, in part, being used to create local investment funds to help support future economic growth. Most community owners are providing land for new housing, or renovating housing to modern standards, or developing new housing themselves. Many are building work and community spaces, retailing and producing food, planting and harvesting trees, investing in the renovation of key local infrastructure, creating new agricultural and forest tenancies, all as a basis for more locally determined social and economic progress. Given the ownership model, it is the wider community that shares in all the benefits created, as profit is re-invested for future and sustainable economic opportunities.

All this new activity sits within a wider experience in Scotland which has also seen people empowered and acting for improvement. People working together, to take control of housing, or the supply of key services, or running local facilities through, for example, housing associations, community co-ops and development trusts of various shapes and sizes. These enterprises control tangible assets of some scale and value. Communities managing such enterprises, and those managing thousands of acres of land, are evidence that there are more accountable ways available to us right now of managing key assets that allow the development of economy and society. My experience is that there can be open scepticism that communities really can control and manage anything of scale, and beliefs that assert that these are matters best left to the traditional private sector and ownership models. The evidence increasingly exists to challenge those assertions.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that somehow community ownership is only about mutual and co-operative thinking. Within the framework of community-owned land many new businesses are developing, where individuals are being offered new opportunity to contribute to the greater social and economic good through their own private investment, helping create further employment, but also income to the community owner that is then turned into mutual benefit.

The early success of community ownership is just one manifestation of the need for more land reform, to allow more communities, rural and urban, to fashion a new future. There are many other ways to widen access to land and provide for its better utilisation, to create the right incentives for local economic growth. Urgently-needed reforms to tenant farming, issues with succession, the maintenance and creation of more common land are among them.

Scotland has a radical past in the struggle for access to and control of land. The only reason crofters in the Highlands and Islands attained any degree of protection was by direct struggle and the intervention of the state to create the opportunity of access to land and protection to stay on it, acting against the worst abuses of the private landlords. There is a noble tradition of the state intervening when necessary in land questions, and that is needed again now to widen opportunity. Any question of change in land ownership is bound to be controversial and opposed by the vested interests in private ownership. That is a given, but is not a reason to shy away from the need for further and radical reform in the interests of the common weal.

This article first appeared in the Scottish Left Review, a Common Weal

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply to Daye Tucker Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Barontorc says:

    Given, independence, how can our land be reclaimed? Not asking why, just what would be the most effective process?

    I am sure plenty of thought has been given to this question, but it is not well enough discussed. Can any light be shed on the matter?

  2. derryvickers says:

    I take the author is not ‘The David Cameron’

  3. Charles Patrick O'Brien says:

    If my memory of history is correct;the land was originally owned by the whole clan/tribe,and the chieftain was elected by the clan and could be ousted if he did not do what was best for all.Now at the time of the union the chieftain was the one to be signing the land ownership papers,but the way it was said and worded gave him the sole ownership,which was wrong.Again hoping memory is correct land was taken from the chieftain for some misdeed,or supporting the wrong monarch so land was in effect stolen from the whole clan,as the wording of the title deed put the land in one man’s hands.My view is that the land was stolen by sleekit means and should be returned to the clan.If I’m wrong or I haven’t written it properly,maybe somebody else can clarify for us all.(Could be I’m just looking at history in a romantic way with the rose tinted specs on,never mind going to specsavers next month time for my eye test)

  4. Edulis says:

    # Co’B You are right to say that land in the Highlands was held by the Clan with the Chieftan being first among equals, as well as being a judicial presence in clan society. However by the 19th and certainly the 18th century there had been divisions of land into large holdings held by tacksmen and small plots worked by cotters. The real theft of the Chieftans came about when the common grazings were sold off to southern sheep farmers. At that stage the Chieftans had joined the aristocracy, sending their sons and daughters to public schools in England and upgrading their houses into mansions. That is why Andy Wightman, having researched the recent attempt to sell the Cuillin could say that the Cuillin were not MacLeod of MacLeod’s to sell. He had no provable title. I would guess that most mountain estates in Scotland which haven’t been subsequently sold on from the original Clan ownership, if there are any left, would find it difficult for the titular owners to prove title. Having said that, most mountain estates have been sold over and over and it would be impossible to redeem the situation without an Act of Parliament to nationalise it

  5. Daye Tucker says:

    “How can our land be reclaimed”? At what period of time in Scotland’s human history would you start? It would certainly make that task easier if it began with the Clearances because that would cut out the Scots, Picts, Britons, Angles and Danes, many of the latter own large tracts of Scotland today their swords replaced by money. How to identify legitimate descendants of the Scottish Diaspora caused by the Highland Clearances in order to give them back their land? It’s not like the 20th century Palestinian land theft injustice, the beginnings of which are fresh and continue visibly to this day. We are where we are in Scotland no matter how much history and injustice is cast up by the academics as a reason to take land back from todays owners. In a civilised society you don’t match one injustice with another.

    In 21st century Scotland how is all that historical injustice relevant practically, beyond stirring emotions? When will historians understand the impact CAP has had on ownership and scale of land businesses? In the latter part of the 20th century, Europe, its CAP and the ECHR has and will continue to have the biggest influence in shaping land use and even ownership in Scotland in the 21st century. Beyond tinkering with tax incentives, penalties and the CAP measures to deliver outcomes at National level, our governments have little room for real actions to influence change. Brussels is now the real seat of influence, it’s the new Westminster and Brussels moves very slowly although it is starting to tackle the corporate influence.

    In the meantime, whilst apart from his support for ARTB, the justice and sense of David Cameron’s article is clear, but the noise from the extreme end of land reform continues to shut down the genuine debate needed on an issue vitally important to Scotland’s future.

  6. jdman says:

    oh so o/t
    I’m laying in bed in a semi torpor,in the half light with thoughts dreams, call them what you will, roiling around in my head like a kaleidoscope morphing from one thought to another, I’m thinking they, them, us, we? then I thinking about my my beloved wife laying next to me and wishing I could steal something from her, and then wondering (in a different state) why would I wish to steal something from my own wife, then the thought crystallizes and I realize with a sob I wish I could steal away her the constant pain from a progressive arthritis which leaves her crippled, and my anguish at being unable to help other than try not to add to her pain leaves me feeling helpless,oh how I wish to be able to take the pain onto myself, even for a day, to give her some relief.
    My thoughts move on and I see young American soldiers corpses floating on a slack tide and wonder, what the hell?
    then, again, the thought gels into a half remembered story, which I thought the only way to get to the bottom of this is to get up out of bed and go down stairs and find out what was troubling me so much on the computer,
    My cat downstairs on her bed, senses my restlessness, and the little creature appears on my bed and lies directly on top of me, shes not heavy, probably not more than a bag of sugar, and I sense her motives are pure, she just wants to settle me back to sleep, but her instincts kick in and she starts to knead my chest and knead and knead,until I am risen like a tin loaf, her need to play is greater than my need for sleep it would seem.
    Anyway I make my way downstairs with all of these thoughts still playing around in my head, it’s 4.30am
    but before I can investigate the deeply troubling half remembered story with the young dead Americans, I recall something else, it was a post on National collective made by a chap called Wayne who without meaning to, offended me into responding when he bemoaned the lack of reader comments on that site while wings has a boisterous list of respondents comments for what he perceived to be of a more light weight nature, and I have to admit I put up rather a stout defence of this site feeling personally (for no good reason) slighted, in fact the poor chap had the decency to respond to me and acknowledge my (mild) complaint and we’re good friends now, (whether he likes it or not), but the we, us, they, them character of my dream still came back,
    and it was then I recalled a keenly anticipated holiday in Devon my wife and I are really looking forward to , she booked a cottage in a place called Slapton, which rang a bell, and it was this morning when I logged in and google the place when it became so apparent why I had such a terrible confusing dream,
    I’ll let wikipedia tell you
    the loss of so many young Americans to (friendly fire) was kept quiet by (THEM) during the war for fear of causing despondency amongst the population, it would appear (WE) are not adult enough to take bad news, but hey what do I know? I was born 10 years after the war ended,
    I will pay a personal pilgrimage to the memorial to those young Americans who came thousands of miles to defend (US),
    then again the dream started to bulk out and take form we, us, they ,them?
    It was about how I personally see the UK we are and always will be us whether we be from Brighton, Bolton, Ballingary, or Benbecula (or in some peoples cases Bath)
    noone can or should attempt to take away our sense of oneness we are a people who will forever be identified as British, no matter what we are told to think by others,
    But that’s just it though isn’t it, Alex Salmond (I believe) genuinely DOES wish to retain the uniqueness of the British Isles while at the same time allowing the disparate parts of the UK to go their own way without rancor or hatred, family doesn’t stop being family just because they move away and get a home and a lifestyle of their own do they?
    But then there is THEM , the unseen faceless people who’s names we never get to know, but who control every aspect of our lives, the ones who think Cameron et al are big left wing jessies, which is why THEY are necessary because the undiluted nature of the ultra right wing unseen’s policies would turn even the most rabid of EDL, UKippers whatever, into gibbering wrecks , so THEY are needed to spoon feed a policy just about too right wing for most of England but their misjudgment (again) of the Scottish public was that we are the same and will (just about) suffer those disgusting policies, but we are NOT the same we come from the same stock but just like families we have a different outlook to our parents or even our own siblings and that is where THEY and THEM have so badly misjudged,
    there was a comment made in the msm last week? that the Scots do not (in spite of SNP policies ) dislike the austerity measures as much as the SNP would like to think,
    clearly a commentator with his finger on the pulse there then, so Im assuming because (where he/she comes from (London) no doubt where people may well be accepting of the tories slash and burn policies of hate and spite, he/she obviously thinks that venal party is secretly supported in Scotland,
    for anyone who has taken the time to read all of this you have my heartfelt thanks and for the others who looked at the length of it and said sod that , well hell mend me, now I know how Hen Broon feels when people (like me) skip past his post which are admittedly lengthy tomes, usually 4 a4 pages FRONT AND BACK, but now I realize WHY he does it, its for catharsis.

    rant over

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.