Scottish Land Reform: The lowdown

It is said that the Camerons will only remain on the lands they have owned since the 14th century as long as there is snow on Scotland’s highest mountain, but is it land reform rather than global warming that is really the greatest threat to their tenure? Joe Gibbs considers how the legislation going through the Scottish Parliament will change ownership of castles and estates and talks to the lairds whom it affects.

In the post-lunch Q&A session of a conference for lairds in the early days of Scottish land reform, delegates settled into their seats to doze. The chairman searched with a faint air of desperation for questions from his sleepy audience, but then a young man stood up and, hardly raising his voice, politely declared that the era of great lairds was over. Their current complacence, he said, would soon be shattered into as many pieces as their land holdings; momentum for change was unstoppable. The snores ceased for a moment. From the dais, the chairman issued a measured thanks to the speaker and moved on to the next question. The young man was Andy Wightman, little known to landowners then, but soon to be reckoned with.

Scroll back 100 years to a book called Our Scots Noble Families—the ‘noble’ was heavily ironic. Therein, the young radical Tom Johnston wrote: ‘The first step in reform [is to] show the people that our old nobility is not noble, that its lands are stolen lands— stolen either by force or fraud; show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating or court harlotry; dissolve the halo of divinity that surrounds the hereditary title… do these things and you shatter the romance that keeps the nation numb and spellbound while privilege picks its pockets.’ There followed an historic indictment of 35 old Scots families and a meticulous reckoning of their acreages.

Johnston, later a Labour MP, became one of the best Secretaries of State that Scotland ever had. He regretted his earlier polemic after the London Caledonian Club blackballed him. In second-hand bookshops, he bought back all copies of the book he could find. Asked why, he muttered: ‘Times have changed.’

Despite vicissitudes of fortune and taxation, times have changed little in one sense. Many of the families Johnston dirked survive on their ancestral acreages, but the fiery cross he lit and later disowned has been borne down the years by eager disciples and now burns in the hands of an effective ginger group, among whom Mr Wightman is prominent. Mixing grievance history with redistributive idealism, they pursue the break-up of estates, far-reaching community ownership and the end of a status quo that has lasted since the normans.

There is little evidence that reform sits high in voter concerns. The only published research comes from landowners and shows that, in 2010, land issues were not top of anyone’s mind, but culling privilege is always in season in the Scottish nationalist and Labour parties, where activists have found ready followers. Until devolution, there was little chance of change being delivered, but when the Scottish Parliament convened in 1999, all bets were off on whether reform would happen.

Early measures removed feudalism as a legal basis for land ownership, enshrined rights to access land and gave communities rights to buy land for sale. So far so good; these and other reforms have since been welcomed by lairds and have left communities controlling their own destinies over 500,000 Scottish acres. A new Bill before the Scottish Parliament aims to double this figure. However, to enable this, it includes a clause that has caused more than a flutter in lairdly doo’cotes.

Ministers will be able to impose a right to buy ‘where the scale or decisions of land-owners are acting as a barrier to the sustainable development of communities’. On the face of it, and whatever the intention, this looks like an end to the principle of willing buyer, willing seller that has protected owners of property other than crofts.

‘Sustainable development is a difficult term to pin down,’ says Charles Livingstone, partner at Brodie’s solicitors. ‘It may be well understood in policy-making circles, but it’s capable of being defined in a number of different ways. The problem with communities’ right to buy being contingent on it is that, as the Bill stands, neither landowners nor communities will have certainty over the exact circumstances in which it might be exercised. It becomes a matter of judgement rather than objective fact.’

In other words, a lawyers’ charter, with threatened landowners reaching for the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Mr Livingstone sees potential for the legislation to be challenged, but George Gretton, Lord President Reid Professor of Law at Edinburgh University, says the ECHR may not be the red card landowners hope: ‘Decisions of the Strasbourg Court are hard to predict, but Scottish Government lawyers are usually very careful to check ECHR compatibility when drawing up bills to be put before the Scottish Parliament.’

Hugh Raven, owner of the Ardtornish estate in Morven thinks that ‘all sides will be disappointed—advocates of reform because their objectives are so difficult to enshrine in a legal framework and landowners because legislation is likely to leave some open definitions’.

Although grabbing headlines for its radical credentials, the current land-reform Bill is the sucker punch for a much nastier left hook the Government is planning to unleash: a Succession Bill. It will make landowners divide their land between children and partner on death, leading to the break-up of many holdings. ‘Forget feudalism or other aspects of landed power,’ writes Mr Wightman in The Poor Had No Lawyers, ‘the one factor that has sustained such a concentrated pattern of private land-ownership has been the law of succession.’ The effect, according to Susie Swift, a partner at Saffery Champness, is that larger, well-advised estates will make lifetime gifts and ‘move things around the edges’. It will have some impact and it will work away at splitting them up, but the effects will be slower than on small units and tenancies that can’t be split between a number of people. ‘Perversely,’ she adds, ‘that could accelerate the sale of small holdings to bigger units.’

Somewhat disingenuously, Mr Wightman sees fragmentation not as a problem, but ‘an aspiration…a farm can still be run efficiently by four brothers and sisters—they merely need to co-operate and run it as a single entity’. Efficiently, perhaps, but not remuneratively. A small farm supporting one family cannot be made to support four and so on, sub-dividing down the generations. ‘The obligation to subdivide land is going to be difficult to equate with family farmers who are the bedrock of communities,’ worries Mr Raven.

A stock soundbite of reformers is that just 432 people own half the landmass of Scotland. The riposte that the total acreage value probably equates to a few smarter streets in Edinburgh, and that some of these owners are charities with millions of members, is only a part answer. The real gripe is that control over a very large area in which communities aspire to live, expand and prosper is in the hands of very few bodies. The evidence is, however, that those owners are deeply concerned with the abilities of their communities to thrive, often to mutual benefit.

Donald Cameron, whose forebears escaped Johnston’s disapproval, is 27th of his line to own the Lochiel estate. He could conceivably be more worried about global warming than land reform as Camerons are predicted to remain in situ only as long as there is snow on nearby Ben Nevis, but it’s the potential for the State to encroach on individuals’ rights that keeps Mr Cameron awake.

He rejects the accusation that lairds aren’t involved in their communities. ‘The narrative that the community is set aside from the landowner, that the community is set aside from the landowner, that they are opposites, is a false one,’ he asserts. ‘I feel fully involved in our community, as is the estate.’

He accepts that, although many of the past generation of liars were concerned with community welfare, some were less so, but 20 years of land reform have had a positive effect: ‘There is a justifiable expectation now that landowners in Scotland should be engaging with their communities, and I know many are. The rules have changed, and it’s no longer possible for landowners to keep their heads down.’

Once the smoke of resentment puffed up by activists is blown away, the extent of owners’ community engagement and sustainable eco-management become apparent. On the Dalhousie estate near Brechin—comprising 55,000 acres of arable farm and hill ground—land for housing, including affordable homes, is supplied to developers; ground for a business park has been provided at the request of the local council at well below housing value to help regenerate a bypassed town that has known busier times; and, of the estate’s 70 cottages, those not housing staff are either given rent-free to retired employees or farm tenants or are let to local families.

A garden centre, restaurant and equestrian business have been developed and Dalhousie has plans for other leisure developments in a part of Angus where there are few. Besides the boost in local economic benefit, the estates employees have increased from 45 to 80. On its grouse moors and deer forests, a study has shown a rich biodiversity of more than 80 bird species, including 10 types of birds of prey and eight waders. ‘Hardly the monoculture referred to by the detractors of sporting land,’ remarks owner Jamie, Earl of Dalhousie.

The estate is also creating allotments and hydro schemes, letting land and buildings to local businesses and it part underwrites the costs of running a local folk museum started by a retired teacher in a former shooting lodge. The Blair Atholl estate stages Blair Castle Horse Trials, just one of the many activities that bring vast economic benefits to Highland Perthshire. Some 60,000 people attended in 2015 and 140,000 visit Blair Castle every year.

The estate lets 280 cottages to local residents and works constantly with housing associations to provide low-cost options for purchase. It also half-funds a ranger service, which offers nature study to local schools. Resident trustee Sarah Troughton says MSPs have every opportunity to be aware of the good work estates do and to understand how the rural economy operates, ‘but it doesn’t always suit them to acknowledge it. They will say one thing to you and another in Parliament. People are misinformed that estates do little for the community. It would be better if they knew the real facts’.

Anders Holch Povlsen, a Danish businessman and owner of Scotland’s second-largest landholding, takes a ‘socio-environmental’ approach. This mixes traditional country pursuits with eco-tourism, extending economic benefits in areas that were formerly in decline across the board. Native plants and wildlife at Glenfeshie have greatly increased since deer densities have been tackled. ‘We are fortunate to have a wealthy owner who can allow us to think differently,’ says director of conservation Thomas MacDonell. A scheme of working with locals to cull deer for their own pots is undergoing trials.

By establishing a permanent Scottish Land Commission, the Government has signalled that reform is not an issue it will drop, delighting activists whose zeal smoulders on. ‘The fire exits in this hall are there,’ said the convenor of a radical land-reform meeting in Inverness, gesturing to the back of the hall. ‘I had to say the same to a group of landowners I met, but I advised them that, in the event of a fire, they should stay in their seats.’

Landowners must do anything but remain sitting. They must stand up for their achievements or lose their country seats altogether. Asked if he thinks his great-grandchildren will own the Lochiel estate, Mr Cameron considers and then answers that yes, he is optimistic they will. Snowy conditions, he infers, will persist on Ben Nevis.