Reforming Scottish land ownership for Scotland

Reforming Scottish land ownership for Scotland

Stephen Maxwell, SCVO


Andy Wightman is Scotland’s leading writer on land ownership. Since the publication in 1996 of Who Owns Scotland? he has produced a string of publications dissecting Scotland’s archaic system of land ownership.


But unlike some of his predecessors in Scottish land studies his interest is not limited to establishing the facts about Scotland’s land ownership, critical though his contribution to that essential task has been. He is also an active contributor to policy debates on how the defects of Scotland’s system of land ownership can be remedied, most recently chivvying the Scottish Government to repatriate control of the Crown estate in Scotland.


Wightman’s latest book The Poor Had No lawyers: who owns Scotland and how they got it pulls together the various themes of his writing over the past decade. Much of the book is devoted to the story of how the present owners of Scotland’s land came to acquire ownership rights. He admits that much of this story has been told before but his account is far from a dry regurgitation. He acknowledges the inspiration of historian Tom Johnston, later wartime Secretary of State for Scotland, who in his 1909 book Scotland’s Noble Families wrote: “Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble, that its lands are stolen lands – stolen by either force or fraud; show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating, or court harlotry; dissolve the halo of divinity that surrounds the hereditary title; let the people clearly understand that our present House of Lords is composed largely of descendants of successful pirates and rogues…”


In this perspective Wightman describes the political alliance Scotland’s aristocracy made with the seventeenth century Scottish Reformers to preserve their takeover of the Church lands in the previous century and analyses the malign effects of the legal principles of primogeniture and entail which helped the noble families maintain their concentration of ownership. Nor does he spare more recent generations of the Scottish establishment, citing the failure of senior Scottish lawyers to challenge the attempt in 2000 by John MacLeod of Dunvegan to appropriate the Black Cuillins on Skye to sell for £10m, and the pusillanimous failure of the two lawyer politicians Dewar and Wallace leading the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive to intervene.


The current results of the history of political chicanery and legal collusion is that Scotland’s pattern of land ownership diverges conspicuously from the European norm.  Eighty three per cent of the land remains privately owned with 12 per cent in public ownership, 2.5 per cent owned by heritage bodies such as the National Trust and just 2 per cent by local communities.


Wightman’s proposals for reform are radical and far reaching. He calls for legislation to abolish the remnants of the arbitrary medieval power of prescription which has proved so helpful to the land grabbing ambitions of the predatory and the powerful and of succession law which still denies spouses and children the right to inherit.


He calls for a land restitution Act to enable the recovery of common land which has been appropriated by means other than due legal process, and for the abolition of all Crown rights over Crown land in Scotland. The Scottish revenues could be redirected to the Scottish budget to be used to create a Scottish Land Fund and a Scottish Sovereign Wealth Fund to offset the costs of managing the seabed and the coast, a change voted for unanimously at SNP Annual conference two weeks ago.


He would like to see community ownership of all types more widely promoted with a simplified process for community purchase. Targeting the 30 per cent of Scottish farms which are still tenanted he urges the establishment of a right for tenant farmers to purchase their farms. Council Tax and Business Rates should be replaced by land value taxation to finance local government, town councils should be restored and decision making and management of all publicly owned land should be placed in the hands of elected regional land boards. All these proposals are within the present powers of the Scottish Parliament.


I suspect that Wightman would not shy away from the charge that his reforms would represent the biggest change to Scottish society since the creation of the welfare state. But each is supported by  historical and statistical material in the body of the book. If you have a significant other or close friend who finds a combination of forensic analysis and lucid argument essential in their non fiction reading then this could be the ideal present to counter their Christmas lethargy. If they’re a bit less demanding you could wait for the paper backed edition which this book surely deserves.


The Poor Had No Lawyers
Birlinn Press Edinburgh £20