‘Who Possesses this Land?’ – The Growing Momentum for Land Reform

For those of us with an unhealthy obsession with land reform, it’s been an exciting time. The Land Reform Review Group released their final report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good. It was significantly more feisty and radical than their interim report, to my great relief, and if its recommendations are seriously pursued by the Scottish Government we could see some definite progress on land in Scotland in the coming years.

LRRG Final Report

LRRG Final Report

This can’t come soon enough.   The phrase ‘432:50’ has become shorthand for the extreme concentration of land ownership in Scotland, to the point that the Scottish Affairs Committee, in our other more distant Parliament, used it as a title for their own report on land reform. It refers to the fact that 50 per cent of Scotland’s privately owned land is held by just 432 landowners. The report points out that the way in which subsidies and tax loops are structured means the buyer of a 28,000-acre £11.4m Argyll estate will automatically receive taxpayer-funded subsidies of £12,000 a week – 200 times the amount you’d get on the dole. “Perhaps it is perfectly proper”, the report coyly suggests, “But the issue merits, at the minimum, some enquiry.”[1]

It’s impossible to justify this status quo. Abolishing feudalism in 2001 seemed like a progressive, if embarrassingly late, step. But in reality feudalism in Scotland had become a largely symbolic order, underneath which was outright property law, as elsewhere. Feudalism, though in principle ‘legalised servitude’[2], did incorporate some notion of the social dimension of property, being based (in theory) on patronage rather than ownership. By the 18th century though this had been ‘re-interpreted’ by lawyers to bestow outright ownership, a symptom of the clan chiefs having gained power over, and distance from, their people. The strange and twisting history of Scotland – and particularly the continuation of primogeniture until mid-20th century – produced land ownership in the Highlands 1,000 times more concentrated than in Western Europe.[3]

Abandoned Crofts

The Clearances loom large in any discussion of land in Scotland. Behind the ‘empty glens’ – the romanticised (and politically useful) imagery of the Highlands – lie violent histories. The ‘Massacre of the Rosses’, in 1853, is one of the most notorious episodes, in which it’s said that locals of Greenyards, Strathcarron – mostly women – stood up to the police sent in to evict them and were brutally beaten, some to unconsciousness, one to death.[4] Of course this is to take the most extreme example. The Clearances had many factors and voluntary migration to escape economic hardship was certainly one. But the class politics of this, the concentrations of power and wealth, are inescapable. A quick search for Gruinards/Greenyards shows it is now a luxury fishing location, complete with baronial lodge, where the services of a ghillie and housekeeper are at your disposal. Rates are in the thousands. Rural Scotland is for the rich, with the tax loopholes and subsidies to help them along.

Who has access to the land? Who is it for? Or as Norman McCaig asked:

Who possesses this landscape?
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?[5]

A ‘false question’, he adds, ‘for this landscape is masterless’. But essentially this issue is about power, and as so often in this stratified and grossly unequal society, about class power. Who gets to enjoy the countryside? Who gets to live in it? 50% of heather moors are used for grouse shooting by large sporting estates.[6] The proliferation of second homes and holiday homes and consequent rural housing shortage is driving depopulation and draining communities of their young folk – and with them, their hope. What is the future of rural Scotland? An empty shortbread façade, ecologically barren through overgrazing, with dwindling and ageing populations dependent on seasonal and unreliable tourism? I’m being melodramatic, perhaps, but this isn’t a million miles away from reality.

B896 (1 of 1)

Coigach

Land is a common resource. It is also a finite one, so massive monopoly control blocks any progress, and further entrenches the power of Scotland’s elites. Land is arguably the most crucial aspect in our development – social, environmental, economic and spiritual. The targets for community ownership by the Scottish Government are welcome, but without the far-reaching structural and legal changes proposed by the Land Reform Review Group, they will not be achieved.

The LRRG report is emphatic on an important point – reform so far has been ‘characterised by periodic review and piecemeal intervention.’ Land, the authors argue, must become a separate policy area. There are already clear conflicts between the SNP’s neoliberal ‘competitive business tax’ mantra and the LRRG’s proposals to end business rate exemptions on sporting estates. But the momentum is there for change. Land reform is essentially about democracy, as is, incidentally, a yes vote. Many of the recommendations LRRG sets out are possible within the Union, but some are not. However, regardless of the referendum outcome, the momentum for land reform will not die down, just as the growing demand for greater and more meaningful democracy is here to stay too.

All photographs taken by the author unless otherwise specified

[1] James Hunter et al., 432:50 – Towards a Comprehensive Land Reform Agenda for Scotland (Scottish Affairs Committee, 2014)

[2] David McCrone, ‘Land, Democracy and Culture in Scotland’ Scottish Affairs 23 1998. p.14

[3] Andy Wightman, Scotland: Land and Power – The Agenda for Land Reform, 1999.

[4] Donald Ross, The Massacre of the Rosses of Strathcarron, Ross-Shire, 1886.

[5] Norman McCaig, The Poems of Norman McCaig, 2005.

[6] Alison Elliot et al., The Land of Scotland and the Common Good (Land Reform Review Group, Scottish Government, May 2014).

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