Scotland’s landowners are a regular political Aunt Sally and the 2014 independence referendum presents critics with ample opportunity. Landowners are already feeling the heat from the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group, whose remit is to diversify ownership: its May interim report noted that 11 land transfers had been made in nine years and called for a quicker pace.

Now, historian Dr James Hunter has written in Scottish Field that landowners are awash with government grants and subsidies and nifty at wrapping their kingdoms in shady legal titles to duck proper taxation. He praises community ownership as a better model, quoting the eye-catching statistic that half of Scotland’s privately owned land is controlled by only 432 owner bodies. Douglas McAdam, head of Scottish Land & Estates, says that Dr Hunter and his supporters ‘continually drag the debate backwards to their narrow agenda of wealth and property redistribution’ and calls for a more constructive debate.

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Individual landowners are also bristling. At a public meeting, Dr Hunter called for the takeover by the community of one Highland estate in the presence of the owner, Ross Peters. Citing his role in the £10 million private investment programme in Isle of Arran Distillers, Mr Peters points out: ‘We have created a valuable export. I have paid more in tax than I ever received in grants. Why should I hand over my land? Expropriation of land for political reasons is a form of Communism I hope we never adopt.’ The group raises concerns over funding- communities seeking to take over local land have frequently failed for lack of money; although a Scottish Land Fund has been set up to launch aspiring landowning groups, it may be in conflict with EU State Aid rules.

The group also wonders whether the cost of land could be lowered; this could violate European Court of Human Rights legislation. The sustainability debate for land on the periphery appears fraught with the same difficulties debated during the Highland Clearances, when large-scale sheep farmers replaced subsistence smallholders.

Architect Lachie Stewart has been involved in creating new sporting lodges in an investment wave that has affected Highland estates no less than that seen in south-east England. Mr Stewart supports community ownership as an ideal, but adds that the pioneering visions of community bodies could face a dilemma with a new, less motivated generation.

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