Published on 15 Oct 2015

Who owns Scotland? Not exactly feudal, but pretty weird

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You cannot exactly say Scotland is feudal, when it comes to examining who actually owns its magnificent countryside – but you can say it is certainly pretty weird.

In the early 21st century we have a situation where fewer than 500 wealthy people own more than half of Scotland’s privately held landscape.

We went to Islay, an island of distilleries, wintering geese, tourism, more distilleries – and vast estates.

The Margadale estate on Islay is 55,000 acres. not all that unusual across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. You can look across the sound to the wilds of the neighbouring island Jura where, for example,  a foreign landlord and David Cameron’s father-in-law hold huge swathes of treeless and deer-infested wilderness.

It is the way it is.

Except that now Nicola Sturgeon has claimed she will do something about the way it has been for centuries.

“The government intends to embark on a radical programme of land reform,” she said at an SNP rally, to wild applause.

And: “Scotland’s land must be an asset that benefits the many not the few.”

Fair enough. Except, step-by-step and slowly but surely, the SNP appears to be bottling it. Review groups set up by the nationalist government came back with all manner of possibilities such as forcing all major landowners to register in the EU to at least allow people to know who they might be. That didn’t make the bill.

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Genuinely radical ideas like limiting the amount of land  any individual or company can own – didn’t make it either.

Other plans were raised like improving the lot of tenant farmers by giving them more rights to buy their land – yup – that failed to make the cut as well.

So the bill currently trundling toward Holyrood is a watered-down affair which is arousing increasing anger among the SNP faithful as a major opportunity  lost to make a fundamental chance. To be radical, as Ms Sturgeon promised.

True, the government will impose business taxation upon hunting estates. But that is really just putting back a long-established taxation regime.

Communities will be able to buy out landowners if they can show they have a sustainable business plan for what they will do with the land.

But again, this merely enshrines the hard-won gains by people like the islanders of Eigg against oft-absent landowners and buttresses something of an established tradition across the islands.

So it is that we sit one evening in the Ballygrant Bar on Islay – whisky bar of the year no less – and hear from disgruntled SNP supporters accusing their own dear party and leader of selling them out on this most basic of issues.

“Radical to me means to the grassroots, somewhere where it hasnt been before, addressing the root of the problem.” says Margaret Rozga , from a family who did manage somehow to buy their farm in recent years.

She still supports the party of course, but is shocked at its, to her, anaemic approach to such a fundamental issue across rural Scotland. She expected better. She expected more.

Down the road we meet the estate-manager or factor from the Margadale Estate, Will Inglis.

Scottish – though with an English accent, tweedy and very much ex-army in his approach, Willy Inglis is the man who goes to negotiate new rent rates with the forty or so farmers across the estate.

He says the family he works for – like so many big landowners – has preserved the beauty of the Scottish landscape.

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“You sound like it means you don’t see the need for any bill at all on land reform?” I ask him.

“That is exactly what it means” he says straight back.

It is not just the Highland and Islands. Across to the east coast south of Edinburgh we find Andrew Stoddart, farming 900 acres of mostly arable land in the rolling pastures of East Lothian.

He has spent 22 years here building the place up: putting up a huge storage barn; draining and improving the land.

But he is on an insecure tenancy, and now his lease is up. Nobody is breaking any laws here but he faces eviction next month.

When I ask him how his children are  taking this news he lists his children and those of his tractor-driver – seven in all – and all about to lose their homes.

And then he simply breaks down, standing here in one of the wheatfields. It is too much to contemplate.

For those wanting an upending of the traditional order, it may possibly be that the SNP is not intimidated by the legal departments of Edinburgh on the one hand and the old landed establishment on the other. Quite possibly so.

For them, it may also possibly be that this is a tentative first step upon a journey that may eventually deliver the ‘radicalism’ Sturgeon has set out so publicly.

All this may be possible. Yet it is such a tentative first step. For many, it seems so little when so much could be done to set the seal of the SNP’s massive mandate upon the traditional  landscape and ownership of Scotland.

Tweets by @alextomo

4 reader comments

  1. manandboy says:

    You may find this useful, Alex:-

    This is part of the very comprehensive reply which I received recently from the Scottish Government in answer to the questions you pose in your blog.

    Conclusion
    The primary reason the Review Group made this recommendation was to increase
    the transparency and accountability of land owners in Scotland. The Scottish
    Government have come to the view that the recommendation made by the Review
    Group would not achieve this aim. The main problems being;
     There is no clear evidence to suggest that having land owned by a company
    or legal entity incorporated in a Member State will increase transparency and
    accountability of land ownership in Scotland. To illustrate, the Tax Justice
    Network began publishing in 2013 a Financial Secrecy Index17 that ranks
    jurisdictions according to their secrecy and scale of their activities. The results
    from 2013 show that Luxembourg ranks second on the index, Germany eighth
    and Austria 18th. It is also worth noting that the United Kingdom ranks 21st
    (just behind the British Virgin Islands (20th) and somewhat higher than some
    of countries that are sometime perceived to be tax havens; Liechtenstein 33,
    Isle of Man 34, Turks and Caicos Islands 63).
     Limiting ownership to EU legal entities may encourage more land to be held
    by trusts or in even more complex corporate structures, for example
    landowners may form an EU registered company to hold the title to land but
    behind this company will be the existing ownership structure, that may include
    non EU companies registered in “off-shore” jurisdictions. This may have had
    the effect of reducing the accountability and traceability of land owners.
     There is no clear evidence base to establish that the fact that land is owned
    by a company or legal entity that is registered or incorporated outside the EU
    has caused detriment to an individual or community.
     There are many examples of concerns about the actions of landowners
    where the person or legal entity that owns the land is either a UK citizen or
    has been incorporated in the UK. There is no evidence to suggest that where
    a landowner is domiciled has bearing on how the land is managed and
    whether the land owner is prepared to engage with the community at large
    when making their land management decisions..
    The Scottish Government does not consider that is appropriate to bring forward
    measures to Parliament that are known to have substantial flaws and would not
    achieve the desired policy objective.
    The challenge is to provide better information about land ownership to inform how
    the land reform agenda should be taken forward in Scotland in long term. This will
    partly be achieved by the completion of the Land Register. This will provide a clear
    picture of the individuals and organisation that own land in Scotland and how much
    they own. It will also be achieved by providing the public with better access to land
    ownership information. Both these measures are being taken forward and do not
    require legislation.

  2. John Mclntyre says:

    England has always looked upon Scotland as their place to come and retire. Also they look to Wales as just another place of little England. See so often lego houses in places of outstanding natural beauty buit by the few and of no help to the Scottish economy. We need to look to ourselves and at very least control English retirement to us. It does place a massive strain on our NHS Trust and brings little to nothing in the devolopment of our nation. We would be better off encouraging more younger family s and and looking to build a more intagrated nation with a hard working nation looking to embrace a caging world where people from all over his world are given the chance to be Scottish.

  3. Miranda McHardy says:

    What difference does it make who actually owns the ‘deer infested wilderness’? As long as its looked after somehow. We have just spent a weekend on the West coast near Skye, we drank in incredible views, walked the hills and wondered at what an incredible country we live in and are lucky to call home. How lucky we are, but not for one moment did I think I need to OWN any of it, that would inevitably cost me money, I would worry about it, whereas now I just go when I like and appreciate it for what it is.

    Interesting point you made about Willy Inglis having an English accent.. what accent did Margaret Rozga have? Why did you not mention it? We know that Willy is ‘from an army background’ Where does she come from? what is the relevance of his English’ accent because, as you said, he is Scottish!

  4. Andrew Dundas says:

    Why should the people of Scotland subsidise farming? Especially when we can’t afford to subsidise a decent life for our families and for children’s education.
    Why should farmers and their landlords enjoy protected markets for their produce when we can’t afford to protect our markets for steel, for coal and for shipbuilding? Why should farmers be able to buy their ‘red’ diesel for less than half the price all our other industries must pay? Why should we pay for their feather-bedding anyway?
    If farming were put on the same footing as the rest of us, the value of these vast estates would collapse and their tenants could take them off the Lairds for pennies.

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