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A “socially corrosive monopoly” – the truth behind Scotland’s land

When I ask you to consider who owns Scotland, what first comes to mind? My focus is instantly drawn to the verb choice. Owns.

‘Who owns Scotland’ implies that Scotland is an entity for sale, to be carved up and greedily possessed. And after not insignificant research, this rather arbitrary interpretation proves pretty close to the truth. 

You might hope Scotland could be carved up into equitable divisions to be shared proportionately among its inhabitants. Unfortunately, we know better than to adopt such naivety. Scotland is of course divided up roughly and into great bloated lumps; 70% of the nation’s total rural land was accounted for by approximately 1,125 owners in 2019. 

More poignant still, 40% of this can be attributed to the personal wealth of just 87 owners. For some colour, 87 people could fill a double-decker bus to just over half its capacity. That’s a pretty small amount of real estate required to collectively fit the individuals who hold so much of Scotland.

At risk of further reductionism (and more inane public transport analogies), the chief point that I seek to drive home is the impact of what the Scottish Land Fund has described as the “socially corrosive monopoly power”, that has for centuries afflicted Scottish landholding. 

Concentration of land ownership into the hands of few, as seen in large scale in Scotland, naturally reduces economic opportunity and diversity, not to mention hampering the effective use of land in a way that reflects the need of the population. Essentially, land monopoly is bad for the public good. 

This is one of the great lessons of history. Property has always represented, and unless we manage to upend our heavily privatized land economy, will always continue to represent, power. In Victorian Scotland, property meant franchise. Landowning defined your ability to participate in the tides of democratic change precipitated by the 1832 Great Reform Act. 

Those who can claim ownership of land have historically always been afforded access to political authority. And this is not the only insight a brief purview of Scottish land history can offer us. If we think of feudalism as a system of landholding confined to the Middle Ages, we are proved wrong. 

Feudalism in Scotland was abolished shockingly late. We’re talking 21st century late – the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act (2000) only came into enforcement in Scotland towards the close of 2004. For reference, its counterpart anglophone legislation, the Tenure Abolition Act, gained its royal assent in 1660. This meant that in Scotland in 1999, 10% of landowners were still making regular payments to their historic feudal superiors. The Church of Scotland, as one of such superiors, was collecting approximately £30,000 a year in feu from these lands. 

To this day, the Church is Scotland’s largest private forestry owner. The Church’s investment strategy centres around purchasing farmland and converting it into conifer forest. Conifers offer reliable profits for raw materials investors for their robust wood quality. What conifers don’t offer are jobs for the local agriculturalists, whose land they now occupy. This is an example of the chronic misalignment of vast swathes of Scottish land with the needs of the population. It also well demonstrates the implicit – and timeworn – links between land, politics and power. Like a well-mixed cocktail of property and inequality, the longer these elements sit together, the harder they become to distinguish from one another.

That’s not to say, however, that change (or the desire for it) is not afoot. Prior to devolution, Scotland formally introduced its current Land Register in 1981. This replaced the indexless, map-less and paper-based (!) Register of Sasines that had been in operation since 1617, and did not impose compulsory land registration until 1847. 

After all, what couldn’t be measured couldn’t be managed. ‘Compulsory’ registration itself only kicks in once land is sold, or formally ‘conveyed.’ When we consider that 25% of Scottish estates exceeding 1,000 acres have been in the same families for 400 years or more (longer than the UK itself has been a united entity), it truly begins to crystallize how it can be possible for a contemporary national land register to cover just 33% of the nation’s land area. 

The first serious catalyst for change was the 1999 installation of the Holyrood government, accompanied by a consensus of support for greater community ownership of land. In December 2015, the Scottish government set itself the target of migrating one million acres of Scotland’s rural land to community ownership by 2020. This was supported by modernising legislation – the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 saw the instatement of ‘Community Right to Buy for Sustainable Development.’ 

This clause makes allowance for community presentation of a case for the ownership of land left derelict or abandoned by its owners. All major parties supported the legislation through Holyrood, apart from the Conservatives who denounced it as “Leninism” and a “Mugabe-style land grab.” In seeking an explanation for Tory opposition, it may be worth reiterating here the connection between land, power and the implicit class distinctions that these privileges have afforded. The results of the ‘one million by 2020’ strategy are soon to be released. 

Whether it has succeeded or not will be telling, but more important than the results themselves is the reforming sentiment they represent. There is, for the first time in a long history marred by custom, convention, and what ‘has always been’, hope for change. 

As commentator David McAllister has noted, Scottish land laws now have the chance to become “working social mechanisms,” as opposed to the antiquated bulwarks against parity that they’ve long represented. Only then might we have a hope of answering the question, ‘Who owns Scotland?’ with ‘The People’. 

Image: via Pixabay

By Erin Withey

Erin is an Edinburgh-based History student, freelance writer and current Art Editor for The Student. She contributes to a variety of Scottish, student-led publications and is in constant pursuit of hot takes.