Reformers set sights on Scotland’s immense private estates

by Kevin Mckenna

The Observer

On bleak Scottish moors and soft, mossy hills, the oldest and grandest theme park in the world rose on Aug. 12. The vast and sprawling sporting estates that possess most of Scotland’s surface thrummed with the frantically beating wings of grouse and echo to the gunshot, bravo and jolly well done. The annual game-bird cannonball run has begun. Do creatures that survive to breed early next spring hold a secret ceremony down among the bracken to celebrate their escape?

Perhaps, too, there are thousands among Europe’s party elite who believe that Scotland truly is an under-populated wilderness where you shoot your dinner by day and dance on your tiptoes by night alongside men with skirts and maidens with marble bosoms. From now until the end of January this other Scotland comes to life as if emerging from another dimension. Other people, urban troglodytes that they are, forever seek to curb the rich man’s pleasures and need to be reminded of something meaningful and tangible that comes out of this summer ritual: grouse-shooting brings £30 million to the Scottish economy while some estimate that country sports can inject £350 million annually to the nation’s account.

It’s not difficult to see how those figures are reached. Last month a week of fishing and stalking in Sutherland’s Reay forest estate was being offered for £6,500. There are red stags and Atlantic salmon to be had. We are told further that two rods are available on the river Laxford, in the Scottish Highlands, and there are 10 stags. There is accommodation for 13 with the services of a cook and housekeeper.

In rural Perthshire the ultimate Scottish Highland experience is offered, where you can do a “Macnab” — stalk a red stag, shoot a grouse and catch a salmon all in one day. The name is derived from Scottish novelist John Buchan’s heather and shotguns classic, John Macnab. Thus you can mix a bit of culture while spooking the wildlife for £1,350 a skull.

You don’t need a degree in economics to calculate what a decent uptake of packages like that could do for an economy, but whose economy? Do the hedge fund managers and merchant bankers who descend on these wildernesses drive down to the nearest supermarket for their provisions and mix with the locals in a Highland ale-house of an evening? A few maybe. And are the numbers of local people they employ for these few months and the wages they pay them sufficient to underpin that grand boast of £350 million a year?

The entitlement and privilege that have driven this way of life in Scotland have been built on a system that has survived almost intact since the Scottish Reformation in 1560. The lands which bear these hunting estates belong to the most exclusive cadre of landowners in the developed world. More than half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people. According to the academic and land reformer, Jim Hunter, this equates to “the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world”.

But among the thousands hunting on Scotland’s grouse moors are several who might be experiencing what it feels like to be stalked. For the landed classes are gathering their kilts about them for the biggest challenge they and their way of life has ever faced. Land reform, for long the preserve of Edinburgh lawyers, Scottish Office civil servants and a handful of bearded agitators, is now inviting scrutiny from Scotland’s pesky political classes and some of the great unwashed.

The Scottish Land Reform Review Group (SLRR) was established by Holyrood in 2012 to “enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland”.

In effect, this was an acknowledgement that such concentrated power and wealth in the hands of so few was simply unsustainable in a modern Scotland, not to mention bad for the rural economy. For Scotland’s landed classes though, it simply equated to tanks rolling down the glens and parking up in front of the big houses. They have much to fear and even more to lose.

The initial interim report of the SLRR Group was however, met with universal derision and seen as a missed opportunity. Brian Wilson, the former British Labour party energy minister and long-time advocate of land reform, described it as “the most useless 52 pages ever committed to print”.

Jim Hunter, who was a member of the first SLRR Group before resigning for reasons unknown, soon made his position clear: “We’re now six years into an SNP government [the Scottish National Party who campaign for Scottish independence] which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.”

The big estate owners now worry that the intense criticism of the interim report will railroad the group into recommending something approaching radical. What they fear most is legislation conferring the absolute right of Scotland’s tenant farmers to buy their farms, even if the landowner does not want to sell. There are a host of reasons why the lairds (members of the Scottish gentry) will resist this with every sinew. Agricultural subsidies and forestry grants are weighted so that the largest farms, owned by the biggest landowners, receive the largest handouts. Such owners can claim five-figure sums a week in subsidies. The landowners also cash in on wind farms on some of Scotland’s most beautiful places to the tune of £1 billion a year.

Thus Scotland’s richest people are skimming off more millions from taxpayers when elsewhere in the United Kingdom benefits are being capped and housing welfare reforms are forcing people on to the street. But within the tendency of several landowners to view the U.K. as their private merchant bank with limitless cash reserves may be the seeds of their downfall. Adventurous and unusual tax arrangements, whereby ownership of estates is registered overseas and convenient charitable trusts are created, are coming under scrutiny. That sound you hear is of a black grouse, possibly a ptarmigan or two and maybe a brace of pheasants, coming home to roost.

The landowners view the absolute right to buy of tenant farmers as anathema. This will lead to the break-up of their estates, they claim, and dilute hundreds of years of expertise they have banked in maintaining the beauty and integrity of the countryside. Several have made submissions to the SLRR Group. Taken together they could form another of history’s longest suicide notes.

Most exude the sense of exclusive entitlement that says only they are capable of managing such vast expanses of land. James Carnegy-Arbuthnott, whose family owns an estate in Angus, the land lying between the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands, thinks he knows why so few people own land in Scotland: “It’s because so much of the land is unproductive wilderness.” The Earl of Seafield thinks that it is a myth that too few people own too much “and there is very little evidence to show this is a bad thing.”

The people at Scottish Land and Estates were a little more circumspect. They said: “We fully support a wide variety of land ownership models, including community-led initiatives and support the principle of extending the community right to buy to urban areas as has been suggested in the Land Reform Review Group report. However, it is a fundamental property right for anyone that the sale of an asset should be on the basis of willing seller, willing buyer.

“In terms of the absolute right to buy for tenant farmers, the farming industry — let alone landowners — has made its views clear. Such a measure would devastate the tenant farming sector, which is the proven way for the next generation of farmers to get their foot on the farming ladder. A vibrant tenanted sector is vitally important for Scottish agriculture. It is time the land reform debate in Scotland was based more on fact than prejudice.”

In the village of Braco (bordering Angus) last week, Tom Gray, spokesman and coordinator of the Scottish Tenants Farmers Association was looking out over the hills just below Perth, in central Scotland. He is an SNP member on Perth and Kinross council and says that letting tenant farmers own their own farms will revitalize the big estates: “The families of many of Scotland’s tenant farmers have worked this land for generations. They have invested money in them and made improvements, while the estate owners sit back and employ agents to raise rents every three years.

“People generate economies and it’s unhealthy to have such sparsely-populated estates covering so much of the country when more farmers owning their own little scraps of land would lead to a more vibrant economy. But we are seeing an increasing number of cases where our members are being forced out due to a lack of cooperation by the estate owners and often downright intimidation.”

Land means power, so Scotland’s few hundred aristocrats can scarcely be expected to give up on four centuries of owning more than half of the country. They are happy to support the community buy-outs, but will reject anything that smells of compulsory purchase. They do not even recognize the concept of doing so when it is deemed to be for the greater good of the larger community. This is simply because they regard themselves as the sole arbiters of what is good in the countryside. Being forced to share gargantuan and uncapped agricultural benefit payments and wind-farm income, while avoiding tax, could never be deemed acceptable in their world. Compulsory purchase orders are only acceptable, it seems, when they swallow up high-street family-run restaurants for the common good of another retail emporium.

But the specter of a mild-mannered, bespectacled writer and researcher stalks their nightmares. Andy Wightman is author of “The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (and How They Got It),” which has become the primer for those who had always felt something was never quite right about such a concentration of land and unearned privilege in the hands of so few. His book gives depth and academic rigor to the arguments of those seeking meaningful land reform.

“The land on which many of our lairds sit was stolen in the 17th century,” he says. “But these ill-gotten gains were protected by acts which maintained their hegemony after the rest of Europe ditched feudalism and concentrated land ownership.”

He describes how the aristocracy embraced the 1560 Reformation as a means of getting their hands on land belonging to the “Auld Kirk.” They needed to protect their stolen goods with a robust law. The Act of Prescription (1617) did the trick. Thus any land occupied for 40 years or more was indemnified from future legal challenge. The law remains in place and has effectively upheld the gentry’s rights to stolen goods for 400 years.

Last October, on a farm near Edinburgh, the body of Andrew Riddell, a tenant farmer, was discovered. He and his family had worked on the farm for more than 100 years and then, one day, he was given notice to quit by his landlord, Alastair Salvesen, billionaire and Scotland’s third-richest man.

The notice followed a year-long legal case which finally found in favor of Salvesen. The judge ruled that the protections Riddell thought he had in the tenancy arrangement were trumped by the landlord’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. He killed himself after collecting his final harvest.