Who really owns Scotland?

Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership of anywhere in the developed world. But attempts to change that look promising

July 27, 2020
Tourists visiting 16th century Ardvreck Castle ruin at Loch Assynt in the Scottish Highlands, Sutherland, Scotland, UK | Ruine du château d'Ardvreck sur un promontoire dans le Loch Assynt, Sutherland, Ecosse, Royaume-Uni 29/05/2017
Tourists visiting 16th century Ardvreck Castle ruin at Loch Assynt in the Scottish Highlands, Sutherland, Scotland, UK | Ruine du château d'Ardvreck sur un promontoire dans le Loch Assynt, Sutherland, Ecosse, Royaume-Uni 29/05/2017

The claim that Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership of anywhere in the developed world holds considerable weight. Today it’s estimated around half of its private rural land is owned by just under 500 individuals, while the Panama Papers revealed that as much as 750,000 acres of this may be owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens.

The problem with Scotland’s land ownership is not new. It lies in a history that is long, legally convoluted and stricken by inertia. The word "feudalism" likely conjures up images of the stratified Middle Ages, but it was not until this century that feudal ownership formally came to an end in Scotland. Before the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act of 2000 was enforced in late 2004, there still existed vassals and feudal superiors in the country. Although an earlier act in 1974 gave vassals the power to “buy off” their feu duties, in 1999 around 10 per cent of landowners were still making regular payments to their superiors—one such notable superior being the Church of Scotland, which at the time collected as much as £30,000 a year from feudal lands. To get a sense of just how astonishing this is, the analogous piece of legislation that brought feudal ownership to an end in England, the Tenures Abolition Act, was enacted in 1660.

When faced with this long-entrenched inequality, it should come as little surprise that the conversation on land reform since has been dominated by the idea of creating a commons, owned by all.

Democratic property

Scotland's Land Reform Act 2003—a landmark piece of legislation passed by every party in Holyrood except the Conservatives, who infamously described it as a “land-grab of which Robert Mugabe would have been proud”—set in motion the basic mechanisms to help communities buy the land they lived on. It stipulates that such buyouts must take place through a body that represents local residents, typically a heritage trust. This is the case on the Isle of Eigg—home to one of the first modern community buyouts prior to the act, in 1997—where a board of directors is appointed to run the trust, the majority of whom are members of the Eigg Residents Association, who are in turn elected by members of the community. Aside from any suggestion of new “countryside bureaucracy,” the need to introduce democratic norms as a prerequisite for community buyouts highlights, if nothing else, just how fundamental and agenda-setting a right is property ownership: property, in other words, is power.

For the Isle of Eigg and other communities like it, this power has been transformative. It’s estimated around 560,000 acres of land is now in community ownership across Scotland, with much of the buyout money coming from the government’s own Scottish Land Fund (SLF).

This all being said, community ownership—like the problems it sets out to rectify—is not new. It was the Romans who talked about the existence of res communis, that which belonged to all as opposed to res publica, that which was owned by the government. Even within Scotland itself, the idea of the commons has existed for centuries in the form of the commonty and the old royal burghs of King David I, which for so long were chipped away by feudal charters. To talk of the commons today then is to talk in terms of resurgence rather than revolution, while more often than not it is a lack of the right political opportunities, rather than the right ideas, that has stymied this resurgence.

Scotland’s new devolved parliament at the turn of the century however provided one of those rare opportunities. At the time it was clear a different kind of settlement within the structures of landownership, distinct from both public and private alike, was desperately needed. With the recent success of community buyouts in Assynt, Knoydart, the Isle of Eigg and elsewhere in the back of everyone’s minds, the allure of the commons appeared inescapable; the idea was seen anew.

For that very same reason, events of the past few years—not least of all coronavirus—might just prove that a “return” to the commons may yet hold the kernel of something far more radical than its centuries-old history belies.

The commons vs coronavirus

This November, the Scottish Land Fund’s current spending period will be coming to an end after four years of activity. Renewing the fund will be a matter for the Scottish parliament to decide after next year’s elections. While it seems likely the fund will be renewed, how much money it gets allocated, and how far it can go with that money, will prove fundamental. Recent scrutiny has already shown much of the SLF’s current spend has gone towards urban buildings or publicly-owned property, as buying private rural land is often too expensive. All the while any decision will have to be made under the enormous shadow of the coronavirus economic recovery, when questions of what is “best use” of public money will have made their inevitable return to political discourse.

But it’s for these reasons and not in spite of them that now might be another of those rare opportunities for the commons to shine, a time for us to re-evaluate what it is for and how we might best promote and expand it. With a pandemic that has left many of us feeling acutely powerless, it’s not hard to see how the commons—through community right to buy and greater decision making at the local level more generally—might empower ordinary people in ways we haven’t done for a very long time.

For me personally however, what makes the commons feel so especially prudent is how it might contribute to the writing of a new ecological contract. In it is the chance to help change the question of property from one of how much we own, to what we do with it—as less an asset for our gain, and more something we inhabit and intrinsically share. It’s not very often a piece of legislation comes along with the potential for a whole new state of mind. With community ownership, we might just have found it.