15 Oct 2015

Who owns Scotland? Not exactly feudal, but pretty weird


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.


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.


“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.

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