Land Reform: Re-Shaping Scotland’s Social Landscape

On a dreich December night in 1992, a small flint-eyed gentleman moved across a crowded school hall in the village of Stoer, north-west Scotland. As the gathering of locals hushed down, the harsh voice of the man began to address the hundred or so present:

‘Well, ladies and gentlemen it seems that we have won the land. It certainly is a moment to savour, there is no doubt about that. And certainly my immediate thoughts are to wish that some of our forebears could be here to share this moment with us’.

Allan MacRae, the son of a local gamekeeper, was the unlikely figurehead of the ambitious Assynt Crofters’ Trust who, for the sum of £300,000, had successfully completed the first community buy-back of private land in Scottish history. With donations flooding in from all around the world, this milestone made international headlines and planted the ‘seed of modern land reform’ in the minds of Scots everywhere.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of this momentous occasion. An act which, against all the odds, enabled the ordinary people who lived and worked on the land to gain control over their own economic future.

In many ways the Scotland of today isn’t so different from the Scotland of 30 years ago. While our urban centres flourish, the future of our rural heartland is in jeopardy. A perfect storm of de-population, falling employment prospects, ageing demographics, and a grossly inflated housing market is decimating communities across the country. The economic changes of a globalised world may go some way to explaining these societal shifts, but for the majority of communities the most aggravating factor is the lack of influence that they have over the land that lies beneath their feet.

Scotland has one of the most concentrated patterns of private land ownership in the developed world; just 450 people own over half of the private land in Scotland. This entitlement has survived un-challenged for 500 years, a privilege that has its roots in royal favours and aristocratic archetypes – the laird clad in tweed roaming through his shooting estate.

Economic inequality in Scotland is often portrayed through the lens of urban disparity – the boundary between Drumchapel and Bearsden in Glasgow represents a 10 year difference in life expectancy. However, the influence of landowners on their tenant community should be viewed as the country’s most archaic symbol of inequality, one that has endured from the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth century and into our contemporary world.

Many Scottish landowners are hampering sustainable development on an industrial scale and actively work against the communities who live within the borders of their estates. By handing out short-term and grossly inflated rent contracts to residents, taking unfair cuts from the earnings of tenant farmers, or simply neglecting infrastructure completely, many landowners leave a sea of derelict villages in their wake. Agriculturally rich land has been mismanaged through deforestation and overgrazing by sheep and red deer, leaving a barren and desolate wilderness of scrub unfit for purpose.

The actions of a few are having disastrous consequences for the many. Land, as an asset, has been held and hoarded to the detriment to those who have lived there for generations. It is clear that reform is needed and the foundations of this out-dated system are recast in a mould that favours local community needs over the interests of non-native millionaires. The majority of which believe swapping a top hat for a deerstalker allows them to play Monarch of the Glen, while simultaneously denigrating the everyman ‘Jock’ whose livelihoods rest in their hands.

A key strategy to combat this inequality, generating economic growth and attracting families back to our countryside, is to take back the land itself. There have been many successful and well documented community buy-backs in Scotland, none more-so than on the Isle of Eigg.

In 1997, the Community Trust bought the island from their Rolls-Royce racing landlord, Keith Schellenberg, for over one-and-a-half million pounds. Since then, the island’s population has doubled. Economic control has allowed the islanders to financially plan for the future; investment in renewable energy produces enough electricity to self-supply the island, making the once widespread use of intermittent and expensive diesel generators a thing of the past.

Economic recovery has been fast tracked with the creation of community spaces such as a shop and tearoom. Furthermore, renovated affordable housing, a new health centre and high-speed broadband has attracted young families to the region, fostering entrepreneurship and allowing tourism to flourish – in 2019 over 100,000 people visited Eigg providing an essential income for the inhabitants.

Inspired by Allan Macrae’s Assynt Crofters, Eigg exemplifies how a well-managed buyout can revitalise a marginalised community, placing livelihoods in their hands and shaping a future of their design. This catalyst for change has spread throughout Scotland where community groups now manage over half a million acres in the interests of local residents. Places like Knoydart, Gigha, and North and West Harris, pursued a community buyout to stem the tide of depopulation, and by and large they have succeeded.

Gone are the days of the ‘noble’ tenant crofter, guardian of the Highlands, custodian of an ahistorical landscape, untouched and untamed. What we need now is a radical reorientation of who controls the land and what they do with it.

Land reform should be viewed as a vital strategy to combat the social issues at the heart of Scotland’s future. Scotland is a nation built on resilience, but the ability to bounce back from adversity is worthless if you don’t have the tools to create a meaningful future. With the proliferation of remote working, a national housing shortage and young people moving away from more traditional career paths the vision of rural re-population is becoming a reality.

This isn’t about reparations for historical injustices nor is it about persecuting those wealthy enough to afford Highland estates. It’s about sustainable development, it’s about economic control, it’s about fostering autonomy for our rural communities and allowing them to flourish creatively in both social and economic enterprises.


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  1. Colin Robinson says:

    The state should take all land into public ownership, change rent at a commercial rate for its private use, and distribute the revenue raised equally and unconditionally among the population.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      when you say the State should take all land into public ownership, does that include private dwellings, are you suggesting for example that any crofter who has bought his land should have it compulsorily taken off him or her?

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yes. Under a régime of public ownership, anyone who wanted to put land to private use would have to rent it from the state.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          And, yes. private landowners would have their landownership taken from them. That’s what ‘taken into public ownership’ means.

      2. Wul says:

        I find myself agreeing with Colin on this.

        Although it sounds scary and radical Maxwell, your crofter doesn’t really “own” land. No-one does. We are short-lived mites on a billion year old rock. Ownership is just a piece of paper. It’s value is that it confers unique use of the land and property rights backed by the rule of law. No reason why renting from the state wouldn’t give as much security as “ownership”.

  2. maxwell macleod says:

    Interesting, when did Mr Schellenberg race a Rolls Royce? And why has the SNP government set its face so firmly against further land reform?

    1. Graham Ennis says:

      There is a “Lairdist” wing in the snp. Also it has a large cadre of uppoer middle class elements in it.
      Also traces of forelock tugging that have persisted unto this day. Much needs to be done.

    2. Wul says:

      I think he may have “raced” the RR about the island?

      I sometimes wonder if Schellenberg was the “tobogganist!” that Billy Connolly tells the funny “toff” story about:
      “So, what do you do?”
      “Aye but what do you do for a living like?”

  3. Dial M for Murdo says:

    I refer Dylan to the imminent Rural Land Use Partnership. it might be the game changer we’re looking for…

  4. Hector says:

    The snp currently give huge financial incentives to landlords to evict farm tenants

    1. Gordon Benton says:

      Is that correct? Evidence please.

  5. James Dow says:

    After independence Scotland should move to procure the vast estates held in private hands and return them to the nation. The process should incur an independent valuation then add extra for good faith.
    If the offers are declined were I making decisions all services would be cut off and all access made impassible, as well as closing the airspace over the estates under threat of being shot down. Sounds a bit harsh?
    Maybe but then again I’m Scottish and I don’t care about any protest as long as my beautiful ancient homeland is restored for all Scots to enjoy. I would start with the Balmoral estate.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Before or after independence, I’d rather see ALL land taken from private ownership and become part of the commonwealth, and the best way to do that would be to nationalise the lot of it with or without compensation. But that’s not going to happen, either before or after independence. But I can dream, can’t I?

  6. Helen Smith says:

    I totally agree with the need for land reform to transform life in rural communities but can’t agree with you that “cities are flourishing”. How can that be the case when so many people in urban areas are also living in poverty? Land banking and speculation around towns and cities is undoubtedly contributing to high housing costs and lack of choice. Lack of affordable housing is a huge issue everywhere. Lack of access to good quality affordable food is linked with lack of access to growing spaces. Lack of outdoor spaces for safe play is linked to poor health outcomes for children. We need to see land reform as an urban as well as rural issue.

  7. Owain Wyn-Jones says:

    Can you confirm the source for 100k visitors to Eigg?

  8. Gordon Benton says:

    Land ownership presently in Scotland is just not acceptable. Whether the Holyrood government nationalises all land, with or without compensation, or (my preference) taxes it until those who own these large acreages give what they can’t use back to the people, we have to do something.
    AT THE SAME TIME the Scottish Government has to have prepared and implementable long-term National Development Plans (25 and 50 year Plans recommended). There is absolutely no point in just regaining ownership of the land without knowing what would happen next.
    The government would in these Plans, provide the macro infrastructure and the jobs’ climate … the private sector would, I believe, do the rest.
    Let’s stop the chatter, and just do it now, before IndyRef2 , so that the people will know what they are voting for.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      That ploy seems an awfie phaff, George. Having appropriated the land to the commonwealth, why don’t we just then rent it out to folk who want to work it, build on it, or otherwise enjoy its amenity and distribute the revenue generated equally among the population?

      I’m not sure how much of a vote-winner this would be. Does the electorate (the ‘nation’) really care that much about who owns the land? Is that not trumped by concerns about its own disposable income?

      There’s no getting away from it. If you’re going to win Middle Scotland around to the idea of ‘independence’, you’re going to have to convincingly show how that ‘independence’ will make it financially better off.

      1. James Dow says:

        Hello Colin, I am an expatriate Scot living in Australia since the early fifties. I am a piper in the Rats of Tobruk Memorial Pipes and Drums and returned HOME to play in the 2005 Military Tattoo. Fairly disappointed with older Scots, but absolutely encouraged by Scotland’s bright, energetic, indomitable young adults who will certainly be the inheritors charged with establishing a compassionate, honest, financially secure Sovereign Scotland as a showcase to the world of just what an ethically decent people and nation should look like.
        For all of my life as new Scottish pipers and drummers joined the band inevitably they would eventually come out with “ You know your more Scottish than we are back home” A sad reflection on a fact, but then again we are not bombarded by BBC propaganda along with the tripe you are served that passes for newspapers that are originated in England and carry a Scottish masthead. On that subject I was a manager in two of Rupert Murdoch’s press plants for twenty years. The overall intent on England’s part is to blend us into their blandness by dissolving our identity that contains every cultural and historic marker that designates us as a distinctive people, their hope is to have us accept a secondary identity as British something no Scot has the slightest need for. I am part of Scotland’s ever growing empire The Great Scottish Diaspora and we NEVER forget our ancient homeland and remain indebted for the privilege of being born Scottish. I’m sure all of us would respond were we called apron to support our beautiful homeland in whatever way required. I know I would be prepared to donate as much as I could should an electronic transfer Scotland Fund be established by the Government as a way for the Diaspora which is estimated at approximately 50 odd million first born and generational giving something back to help secure Scotland security.
        If Sovereignty could never be restored to Scotland I would sooner see her uninhabited and all the workings of mankind scraped from her surface and deposited in the deepest ocean so that Scotland could exist for eternity restored to her original unique pristine state.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          But this is just Blut und Boden nationalist sh*t*, James.

  9. John Monro says:

    Nationalisation of land is worth investigating. But you could deal to many landowners with a wealth and inheritance tax. For instance, land bequeathed to the state in lieu of inheritance tax etc and the government should be willing to pay some recompense too. Environmental laws could also be framed to produce desirable results. Foreigners wishing to invest in agriculture or land development should not be able to buy freehold land, but purchase say 50 year leases from the Scottish state. But you cannot construct a fairer society without addressing this land ownership problem.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Again, this seems an awfie phaff. Just take all land into public ownership, charge rent to anyone who wants to work, build on, or otherwise make use of the land, and distribute the revenue to everyone equally. If we wanted, we could build environmental and social protections into the rental agreements.

  10. SleepingDog says:

    Were a system of reparations for British imperial crimes instituted, many landowners might face such large personal bills (#RoyalReparations) that they would have to liquidate their holdings in Scotland. The reparations would be used to right the wrongs of land grabs throughout the Empire, giving people in other countries a similar chance for community buyouts as the article wishes for Scots, while Scottish communities would have a renewed opportunity to buy their local land. Win-win.

    This kind of call has already been made:

  11. Wul says:

    If ‘They ain’t makin’ any more of it!” (land) then it should not be traded on the free market as a commodity. Because it isn’t.

    A country “is” it’s land. The people of that country are the people of that land. If people can be born and die without ever having any entitlement to the benefit of their own land, then they are not fully realised citizens.
    I think much of Scotland’s ill-health, depression, substance abuse, no-can-do attitude and learned helplessness stems directly from our lack of fair land use. What can you do without dirt under your feet? Nothing. Everything worth doing requires land. That’s why the toffs stole it all (and made it tax-free).

    Scotlands pattern of land ownership is a disgrace. It’s effects are a crime against humanity.

    The various community buy-outs are brilliant and inspirational, showing the huge potential of people once they have control of their own future. However, they also tie people up in the endless minutiae of civic management. The thing is; we already employ professionals and elected members who are supposed to govern and manage all of this donkey work on our behalf (local councils, and national government). They should own the land and be concerned with its fair distribution of use. Instead, they are busy stifling community action whilst packaging up and selling off our common good assets to provide a stream of development projects for private corporations who don’t pay tax.

    How to make comfortable, middle Scotland aware of the con trick played on us all?

  12. Stuart Swanston says:

    Radical land reform is required not only in the Highlands and Islands but in every community in Scotland – urban, suburban and rural.
    Our feudal landowners have made few, if any, improvements to their land in the past century but over the past one hundred years the price of a house plot which was but 5% – 10% of the cost of a house then is 25%- 30% of the cost of a house today whilst all the improvements to infrastructure such as transportation, water, sewage and drainage plus all the education, health, culture, recreation and sports facilities which make agricultural land desirable development land so attractive have been paid by ordinary taxpayers.

    If the cost of building secure, heritable social housing were to fall overnight by at least 20% overnight the money saved on loans incurred by social housing associations could be passed to their tenants who would spend it on locally produced goods and locally provided services thus boosting local employment and local incomes.

    Until the Scottish government takes advantage of the post Brexit fact that land is no longer on the free market of the EU it is limiting the well being of our citizens far more than any well intentioned equalities legislation could ever offer.

  13. Mrs Deirdre Budd says:

    Too much of Scotland is foreign owned. It is certainly time to reform our land laws. New Zealand will not allow purchase of property until you have lived and paid taxes there for a few years. Nothing wrong with that, it proves a certain level of commitment. It is appalling that folk who are born and bred in our country and want to farm in a small way have to wait years and jump through many hoops to finally, if they are lucky, get a croft and permission to farm in a small way. This needs to change. There might be a place for sporting estates but at the moment there are too many and too much land is given over to accommodating people who want to come and shoot deer and pheasant. It is time to have life brought back to our hills and valleys where pre clearance folk worked and lived. In a modern world this could be made much easier. The land will be there when we are dead and gone. No one should have “ownership” of large areas like Balmoral, Caithness and Sutherland estates. These should be public spaces with people living and working within them. It takes courage to reform land and go against the elitist and super wealthy but they are currently far to powerful, another thing that needs to change.

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