[Originally published at Clarity News]
Only 432 people own half of all Scotland’s private rural land. How did it get like this and what can be done about it?
Walking the West Highland Way recently, a 96-mile trail that stretches from just outside Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, I passed through Tyndrum Community Woodland. I’d be happy to pass through a community-owned woodland anywhere; repairing damaged land, forming healthy ecosystems, providing resilience against future climate change, and land used not for an individual’s profit but for the long-term health of the group of people who live and work in its vicinity. However, in Scotland community ownership is nothing short of revolutionary in a country where the feudal system was only abolished in 2004.
432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land (private land accounts for almost 90% of land in Scotland), the figure which informs a new report on land reform for the Scottish Affairs Committee in the Westminster Parliament, 432:50. Put another way, 0.025% of the population of Scotland own 67% of the private rural land. Over the past two hundred years, most European countries have introduced reforms to ameliorate similar situations and put some power back in the hands of the people. In Scotland, the situation has remained relatively unchanged until recent years, when the Scottish Government have begun using their powers to introduce incremental reforms.
Interests of private owners of land have had vastly damaging effects on the tenant communities, not to mention the long-term health of the land itself. Instead of their livelihoods and interests being supported, in many cases communities are and have historically been left to struggle. Environmental damage has been exacerbated by the introduction of vast numbers of sheep, who eat the shoots of any small trees before they have a chance to grow. This problem has deep historical roots in the Highland Clearances – but the attitudes underpinning the Clearances still exist today.
The Highland Clearances were the emptying out of the Scottish Highlands and Islands of people to make room for the landed gentry’s grouse-shooting excursions and the sheep which brought more profit than the humans. For the century between 1760 and 1860, inhabitants of the Highlands, Western Isles and beyond were forced increasingly to leave their homes as land owners began renting out the land to sheep grazing and farmers from the Lowlands and England. Any resistance to the forced evictions were met with armed response; many Highlanders died, or were forced overseas by the policy. As others were forced onto increasingly small areas of wasteland from which they were expected to subside, undernourishment and disease took hold. If you visit the Isle of Skye today, you can still see the imprints of this subsistence farming on the land – but the population of the countryside has never recovered (Tusdale glen population is currently under half what it was before the Clearances almost three hundred years ago).
Walking across Rannoch Moor, the largest uninhabited area in Britain (fifty square miles) last week, it would have been easy to delight in the expanse of moorland and plethora of wildlife around me, a land that I could kid myself had been unscarred by human pressures, a wild land left for the environment to flourish in unspoilt bliss. But the ruined cottages that crop up at points along the Drovers’ Path across the moor tell a different story. In a phrase that has stuck with me vividly since I first came across it, the Highlands are not an empty landscape, but an emptied one.
The history of local dispossession by faraway land owners has not been forgotten. Indeed, the figures above would suggest that very little has changed about the situation. Whilst legislation has ensured that a repeat of the Clearances would be illegal now – and one would hope that our society has reached a point where there would no longer be public, royal and governmental support for the armed eviction of tenant farmers – the situation in rural Scotland is still far from ideal. With such a vast amount of land held in private hands for profitable purposes, communities are still forced to live in uncertainties of their futures.
The Isle of Eigg is a prime example. In 1997 the Isle of Eigg Trust, a community group, purchased its own land after support and fundraising from thousands of members of the public. The impact and importance of this event can hardly be exaggerated: citizens standing up to take back control of their own land, their own livelihoods and futures, after years of what the island community have themselves described as “instability, neglect and lack of secure tenure”. This event kickstarted the land reform movement in Scotland. Rather than exist subservient to an absentee laird who nevertheless had the power to change rent prices and terms as and when they saw fit, the communities of Eigg wanted to take back the power over the ground under their feet.
Land reform is a question that goes to the very heart of the issue of people versus profit. Community land ownership in Scotland goes some way to addressing centuries of putting profit before people, to the detriment of lives and livelihoods across the Highlands and Islands. But it has implications far beyond the Scottish borders. In a world where corporate land grabs seem endemic and the privatisation of everything appears to be the direction that British governmental policy is heading, community ownership offers a glimmer of hope for people that would rather be in charge of their own futures than subservient to the wishes of someone else’s profit motives. And when you own the land you depend on for your home and your nourishment, it isn’t a great leap to suggest that concerns over the long-term health and protection of such land against the threat of climate change will take a greater place of priority as well.
Further reading and links:
The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland, And How They Got It by Andy Wightman – The best introduction out there to the Scottish land situation, tracing the deep and bloody roots of laird land ownership.
Soil and Soul by Alistair McIntosh – The inspiring story of the Isle of Eigg community buy-out and the fight to save a mountain on Harris from destructive mountaintop-removal mining practises.
The Highland Clearances by John Prebble – excellent historical account of the Clearances.
Community Land Scotland: http://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/