The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It)

Book Reviews

Who Owns Scotland? How did they get it? What happened to all the common land in Scotland? Has the Scottish Parliament made any difference? Can we get our common good land back? In The Poor Had No Lawyers, Andy Wightman, author of Who Owns Scotland, updates the statistics of landownership in Scotland and takes the reader on a voyage of discovery into Scotland’s history to find out how and why landowners got their hands on the millions of acres of land that were once held in common.

He tells the untold story of how Scotland’s legal establishment and politicians managed to appropriate land through legal fixes. From Robert the Bruce to Willie Ross and from James V to Donald Dewar, land has conferred political and economic power. Have attempts to redistribute this power more equitably made any difference and what are the full implications of the recent debt fuelled housing bubble? For all those with an interest in urban and rural land in Scotland, The Poor Had No Lawyers provides a fascinating and illuminating analysis of one the most important political questions in Scotland – who owns Scotland and how did they get it?


‘Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world’ (historian James Hunter, 2013).

A compulsively readable account of how Scotland has come to have a more concentrated pattern of private landownership than almost any other country in the world, how the landed elite has managed to survive for centuries up to the present day, and the reforms that are needed to address inequalities in land tenure.

Andy Wightman has written a powerful book that on first publication caused the Inland Revenue to investigate tax avoidance by Scottish landowners hiding behind trusts, offshore companies, and companies registered abroad. Some of the country’s wealthiest landowners are listed as ‘directors’ of companies that ‘own’ their estates, companies registered outside Britain, e.g. in Liechtenstein. The loss of revenue to the Treasury amounts to millions of pounds and is nothing other than tax avoidance. Nor do these estates, together with sporting estates and privately owned forestry, pay any council tax or business rates thereby receiving public services completely free of charge and ensuring that the rest of the population has to pay for the shortfall.

Now it can be argued that landowners are merely taking advantage of historically poor fiscal management on the part of local and national government. The fact is that due to their position in society, the old boys’ network essentially, they are in a position to influence the maintenance of these systems to their own advantage. As Wightman says, “Arrangements whereby the wealthy can avoid tax whilst the poor must pay have no place in a fair society.” Another example of fiscal mismanagement, but on a European level, is that EU farming subsidies amounting to £millions, aimed at helping those struggling to make a living from agriculture, are often given instead to the landowners from whom they rent their farms. Some of these ‘gentlemen farmers’ own sporting estates and aren’t involved in farming at all. They may simply rent out multiple farms on their land.

The reasons why this situation arose historically are many and complicated. On mainland Europe, “peasant” uprisings divested the crowns and nobility of their lands centuries ago but this wasn’t mirrored in Britain and particularly not in Scotland. Lands that had been distributed by the Crown (e.g. David I, Robert the Bruce) to thegns and lords in return for military support were misappropriated (euphemism for stolen) by the nobility who assumed ownership through time. British nobility wrested political, landed and military power from the Crown in the 17th century creating a powerful hegemony that the peasantry were never going to succeed in overturning. Thus we have an entrenched class system in Britain which keeps the rich wealthy and the poor poor.

It’s fair to say that Wightman has his own axes to grind but he has brought these issues into public awareness. He is a pedantic and thorough researcher, ferreting out fraud and dishonesty sometimes centuries old, and he has helped to inform the introduction of a wave of radical land reform law implemented in recent years by the Scottish Government. For this, he should be well and truly thanked but there is still some way to go before the historical tendency for the law to favour the haves over the have-nots will cease. The poor still have no lawyers.

This is a very superficial summary of a book that encompasses a very wide range of issues. Many, such as the misappropriation of commonties (land and property held for the common good), should be of interest to anyone living in Scotland. You may even find the knowledge gained to be of personal advantage. Essentially, if you live in Scotland and care about your country, I strongly recommend that you read this book. It will either shame you or anger you into supporting all efforts to reform our country’s remaining abysmal land laws.

Alan Hamilton 

An extremely well researched and informative book defining the (unjust?) reasons why so few people own so much of Scotland’s land.
The early chapters define the legal aspects of land ownership and are, by the author’s admission, pretty heavy going. They are, however, necessary to understanding the remainder of the book. The remaining chapters are much more readable (and enjoyable!).
The book concludes with the author’s suggestions for land reform, which are very thought provoking….
Overall, a very worthwhile read.
Alasdair Peterson 

Much better than the crazed polemic I had dreaded! Definitely food for thought and Wightman persuasively argues that much of the status quo in Scots landownership is the result of centuries of property law tailored to suit and buttress the landed classes, leading to an unfair allocation of land and the need for ancient injustices to be corrected.

That said, there were a couple of points where he is so committed to exposing the abuse that he, perhaps, neglects to acknowledge counter-arguments. This is particularly true of his treatment of prescription, which, far from being a peculiarly Scottish evil, is found in almost every legal system since it allows for legal certainty. I also felt his call for a land valuation tax was underdeveloped, neglecting to consider cases where unplanned-for development imposes benefits on owners who simply wish to enjoy the land as it is rather than capture its capital appreciation: would it not be permissible to skim the unearned boon at time of sale/let rather than an annual tax? Even if this was only permitted for principal residences, it would avoid the need for low income residents to sell up if their family home rapidly appreciated due to infrastructure improvements in their area.

On the whole, a very valuable and thought provoking book; essential reading for all interested in Scots Law and Reform thereof

Mick Bordet 
A fascinating read and interesting insight into the history of land ownership in Scotland. It is more of a ‘big picture’ approach than I was expecting, given the blurb, but no worse for that. There are one or two example cases where the whole story is not finished, but in general there is a good mix of history, legal background, figures and individual examples. The author clearly has his own agenda, but this is not hidden in any way, so doesn’t really detract.
Gavin McColl 
Amazed as ever by the shameless behaviour that the elites have gotten away with. Inspired at the same time by the potential paths that can be taken towards a fairer and better use of land as explained by Andy. Good use of examples from all over Scotlandto illustrate the different problems and concepts.
Carolann Harrop 
Everyone should read this and educate themselves to what actually happened in Scotland, parts are hard to get through but stick with it explains a lot of the many injustices which have happened in Scotland.
Sandra McIntier
Although I like history, this is not the sort of book I would usually read. It is really the History of Scottish Land laws. A very good read for someone suffering from insomnia. Having said that, it opened my eyes about land distribution in Scotland.



Exhaustive and lengthy history of Scotland’s land laws. Has some interesting things to say but takes a very long and winding route to get to them.

R.M.F Brown
For all my life, I have lived in Scotland, the land of my birth. I have walked the shores of Loch Rannoch, taken in the quiet beauty of Glencoe, and watched the sunset illuminate the ancient standing stones that dot the landscape from the Borders to the Isle of Skye…

And yet, I must confess ignorance to the forces that boil beneath the surface: access to land, the struggle for housing, and the opportunity for the tenant farmer to have some dignity, theirs being a hard struggle against nature and capricious landlords.

Mr Wightman does an admirable job of chronicling the sheer injustices, and at times, the blatant thievery that has permeated the issue of land ownership throughout Scotland’s history.

I was aware of how momentous the right to roam act was, but I was unaware of how much potential lies in the land, if only democracy and fairer rights were implemented.

Land reform is Scotland is the story of an old struggle that has permeated humanity since the dawn of civilization: the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, the powerful making the laws for their own ends.

Scotland is not unique in that sense, but this book is a wonderful tool to those that want to fight this injustice for the betterment of the common good.

There are a few hobby horses in the book, but as Mr Wightman says, the question of who owns the land strikes to the very core our of societies.


I had hoped it would be a bit more “who owns Scotland” and a bit less “how they got it”.

It is clearly well researched and the author very knowledgeable on the subject, but I found it a rather dry listing of the various legal changes and techniques over the centuries that have led to the current land ownership in Scotland. It was at its best when using specific examples to illustrate concepts, eg the attempted sale of the Cuillin by John MacLeod.

When the Duke of Buccleuch is mentioned we find that as his land is in the name of an offshore company nobody knows who actually owns it, and that is the hard fact at the centre of a lot of this topic. It would have been nice to read or see what specific land he may or may not actually own, rather than just reading how many acres he holds.

It is more of a 400 page plea for more effective land reform laws from the Scottish Parliament, and tries to give local communities the knowledge they need to help them in potential cases. For the general reader it could do with a stronger editorial hand to re-organise the information buried within the book into a more logical, readable arrangement.

Mark Walker 

Andy Wightman is very passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, but he is not a good writer. There are a number of very important points that come out from this book and I agree with him that the traditional political establishment pays too little heed to these points. However, the potency of his points is diluted by the book being an exercise in the author telling all he knows about land ownership in Scotland – which is a lot. He also has the fault of having far too many long quotations. His central and memorable points are about the need for transparency in ownership and the interesting idea that tax should be levied on land rather than property

Claire Mullan 

I didn’t finish it because the early chapters basically told me that, some time ago, some people made up some shit about land ownership to suit themselves and their pockets. Because they could. That’s how the world worked then. I therefore lost interest in the intervening shenanigans because I conclude that we can now make up some new shit about land ownership to suit more people in a more equitable way. Because that’s how the world works now. And if it doesn’t, it should. And that’s the job at hand.

Sally Millington 

Andy Wightman seems to have a chip on his shoulder and does not let the facts get in his way

This book is a mixture of half truths and lies. The Author’s politics shine out far beyond his facts. Not afraid to distort information, this makes a dreary read. The style of writing is poor relying on longwinded quotes rather than offering precis. I read half way before giving up. This is a day of my life wasted.


Clear, well researched, and somewhat eye-opening survey of the murkier and more esoteric areas of land and property law through the centuries as feudalism turned into capitalism. Directly relevant to the question of “who owns Scotland” and also “what is the strenght of that claim”.
Fascinating  – I admire them author who has spent many years investigating and making public their scandal of Scottish land laws. Well worth a read.