Letter to the Editor of the Scotsman
Originally published on Andy Wightman’s blog here.
Dear Professor Webb,
My name is Iain MacKinnon. I have recently completed a PhD at the University of Ulster on the topic of the Highlands and Islands as a site of colonisation, and am currently working independently as a writer and researcher.
I have pasted into the body of this e-mail for your attention a copy of a letter that I sent this morning to the editor of The Scotsman. It is in regard to the report published by SRUC last week entitled ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience‘. This report was publicised by The Scotsman and after reading the newspaper’s article I am concerned that there is a substantial error of reasoning in the original SRUC report which has allowed it to be used to make political claims that cannot be substantiated. I believe this error of reasoning risks bringing the SRUC into disrepute.
As these unsubstantiated political claims have been made in a public forum I have chosen to put my concerns forward in that same forum. However, I would welcome your response to my concerns.
le gach durachd / with good wishes
Letter to the Editor of the Scotsman
On 17th October you reported on the Scottish Rural Agricultural College’s newly published research on ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience’. The research concluded that “family estates can support rural resilience”. However, the SRUC provide no tenable evidence for this claim and it risks bringing their work into disrepute.
The research report, which according to your newspaper was co-authored by the head of SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre Dr Sarah Skerratt, interviewed the landlords of 23 Scottish country estates, asking each one whether they thought their estates could contribute to rural resilience. The interviewees were all members of the landlord’s representative organisation, Scottish Land and Estates, and the research acknowledged that SLE had filtered which of its members were chosen for interview.
The SRUC report concluded: “Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”
However, this headline conclusion cannot be sustained by the evidence in the report. As the only evidence presented in the report came from interviews with landlords, the strongest conclusion that it could have drawn was to say that landlords themselves believe they can contribute to rural resilience.
In order to validate the report’s more general claim that a “family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities” much more evidence is required. The researcher would need to investigate the perspectives of the broader range of rural community stakeholders, as well as conduct a detailed, multi-disciplinary analysis of development in rural Scotland.
The report published last week did not seek out this broader base of rural opinion and it did not offer any critical analysis of the limited range of opinions it elicited. There was no meaningful evidence in it to justify its headline conclusion and, as a result, that conclusion is at risk of becoming a propaganda tool for landowners.
Indeed, the propaganda potential of its conclusion has already been utilised by Douglas MacAdam, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates. Immediately on its publication he described the report as “exactly the sort of independent recognition landowners and estate owners have been looking for”. He added: “It is clear from the findings of the report that estates make a significant social, economic and environmental contribution to the communities of which they are a part.”
The report found nothing of the sort. No general conclusions about rural resilience can be drawn on the basis of its interviews and, for the sake of its own reputation, the SRUC should acknowledge their serious mistake and disown this untenable conclusion.
In terms of best practice in research the report should also have stated that SRUC director Luke Borwick is also the chairman of SLE, the landlord’s representative organisation that acted as filter for the research interviewees.
Dr. Iain MacKinnon