In the first session of the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003, a total of 12 Acts were passed in relation to land reform – 20% of the 61 Acts passed in the first four years of devolution. There was much debate about many topics and the media took a great interest. The film above was made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (in 2002 as far as I can tell) and is interesting for a number of reasons. It was made by a foreign broadcaster so shines a fresh light on the debate. It contains claims and assertions as to the impact of land reform legislation that can now be examined in the light of what has happened in the intervening ten years.

But it is also very interesting because a couple of the key contributors are speaking from the Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland. Earlier tonight a special commemorative service was held in Kildonan Church as part of the two-week Translocation Festival which is being held on the bicentenary of the eviction and clearance of the population of the Strath in 1813. The BBC reports that exactly 200 years ago today, 96 people left Helmsdale on a ship bound for Canada after being forced from their homes in the Strath of Kildonan. (1)

Now many people take the view that the Highland Clearances should form no part of any debate about who owns Scotland today. At one level this is a perfectly reasonable point of view. But at another it is profoundly misguided. Places like the Strath of Kildonan cannot be understood today without understanding the circumstances and events that shaped them. It is also instructive to compare Scotland at this time with other countries like Norway which also experienced mass emigration. The different is that Norway, unlike Scotland was not owned by vast estates and occupied by a tenantry with no legal rights. It was a country which, one year after the Kildonan clearances adopted a constitution that forbade the creation of any new nobles and empowered the peasantry giving Norway one of the most democratic systems of government in Europe. Seven years later, the aristocracy was abolished.

So understanding history matters which is why it is very educational to hear the likes of Sir John Nutting, owner of the 23,000 acre Achentoul Estate opine on how and why the private ownership of his estate is an essential ingredient of the Sutherland economy and why he doesn’t live there because “I have to earn my bread in the south” (at 3:30).

Achentoul Estate (from www.whoownsscotland.org.uk)

This is of even greater interest since were any of the crofting tenants that still occupy the coastal areas of Sutherland to make a similar argument and be absentee crofters (by living more than 32 km from their croft), they would have to apply for consent to be absent from the Crofting Commission and, were this to be refused, could be subject to legal proceedings that could see their tenancy terminated – a situation highlighted recently by this crofter who claims he is the victim of a new Highland Clearances.

But Sir John Nutting can rest easy. The complex legal framework of crofting law is designed for those whose property interests are limited to a tenancy of a few acres of bog and rock. For a man in his position as the owner of 23,000 acres of land cleared of its human population 200 years ago, there are no such restrictions or conditions.

Which is why it is well worth watching the 15 minute film which includes local crofter Sandy Murray, a descendant of crofters cleared from Sir John’s Achentoul Estate in the Strath of Kildonan argue eloquently why, in his view land reform is a rather good idea.

It is also why it is worth posing questions as to whether landowners like Sir John Nutting have any place in a modern Scotland. His views on the current debate on land reform are available here and make interesting reading.

Suisgill Estate (from www.whoownsscotland.org.uk)

Meanwhile, if you would like to purchase the 16,523 acres of Suisgill Estate in the Strath of Kildonan neighbouring Sir John to the south (and from where many of the tenants were evicted 200 years ago), it is available for sale via Savills at offers over £7 million (sales brochure here – 3.9Mb).

The sales brochure reports that “The Strath of Kildonan has supported an active population since the Stone Age….Great changes in the way of life of the people in Kildonan took place in the early 1800s when Cheviot sheep were introduced into the Strath.”

Great changes indeed.

Don’t worry, no-body will ask you any questions. You don’t have to submit yourself for the approval of the Landowning Commission, you can even conceal your identity in Grand Cayman or some such place and you certainly don’t have to live in the Strath of Kildonan.

I am informed that Sir John will be at the famous Lairg sheep sales tomorrow. If you see him, say hi from me.

PS – Oh, and the film is also interesting because it features David Cotton. He claims that the threat of land reform back in 2002 caused two ghillies to emigrate to Canada. He and his colleagues also threatened me with legal proceedings in 2002 for a statement I made to a Scottish Parliament Committee. I can picture the letter. It is in a plastic wallet with a Recorded Delivery stamp on it. I must find it.

(1) Professor James Hunter, who is currently writing a book about the Sutherland Clearances contacted me to say that, in fact, “they left in June and sailed from the Bay of Stomness”

34 Comments

  1. I’m quite speechless after listening to Sir John Nutting, although if he cannot generate an income from all that land, I’m sure the crofters could.

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  2. Andy,

    Interesting blog on Kildonan – I missed that footage first time round. It is particularly pertinent to me as I was brought up in the Strath of Kildonan where my father was farm manager to Lady Paynter – previous owner of Suisgill, we lived in the farmhouse – the old manse. A previous incumbent of the manse was Alexander Sage who witnessed the Clearances and wrote about it in his book Domestica Memorabilia, a poignant read. He recalled that he could see the homes of 200 people from the manse, in my day, you could only see one river bailiff’s house and one lodge. The remains of many settlements up and down the Strath are still visible. Sage’s book is long out of print and I would dearly like to get a copy, so let me know if you see one.

    Nowadays I am tenant of Culmaily Farm – following in the footsteps of Patrick Sellar, the first tenant of Culmaily. Here too, you can still see the ravages of the clearances. So, I am steeped in the history of the Clearances which probably explains my interest in Land Reform.

    I am selling lambs at Lairg tomorrow so will say “Hi” to Sir John Nutting for you! Incidentally I believe the Nutting family made their fortune from inventing the wire fastening bottle tops you still get in water bottle in smart restaurants.

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  3. Andy, once again, here you are carping away at the status quo. I’m not saying it’s immune from criticism – far from it – but I think by now most people can probably predict your reaction to the owner of just about any estate so this constant negativity is beginning to get a bit stale.

    What would be FAR more interesting and refreshing would be for you to use your “market position” as one of Scotland’s leading land reform activists (is that a fair description?) to set out your vision for the future and how this might be achieved.

    The Strath of Kildonan provides the perfect case study for this as a place that was populated 200 years ago but is now sparsely populated and given over largely to large scale sheep farming, hunting, forestry etc. And even these activities (particularly the farming as presently practised) must be – I would guess though I’m no expert – pretty marginal and capital intensive.

    How would you like to the SoK used and by whom?

    Are we talking about carving these estates (farms, forests etc.) up into crofts? How do you achieve that ownership transformation (LVT?) Is there enough demand for all these new crofts? Crofts are by definition part time holdings so where does the rest of the crofters’ income come from (a question about the wider economy of that part of Scotland). Will it involve a lot of public expenditure – something the politicians will be keen on but perhaps could be achieved by a reorientation of the money currently spent on forestry grants etc.?

    Do lots of new smallholdings have implications – good or bad – for food security and/or climate change? Biodiversity? I don’t want to sound negative but what are the environmental impacts (macro and micro) of lots of new houses spread around in a dispersed way – new roads to them, vehicles driving to them etc? Maybe there are environmental positives that come out of new population centres as opposed to just the perceived threat of new pollution. I don’t know.

    I think people are getting bored with the polarised “Your article in the Observer is rubbish and mine in the Scotsman is brilliant!” tit for tat. That sort of thing just brings out the worst in people (myself included). Take a new direction and use your communication skills Andy to paint a positive picture. Do a “Kildonan Report” along the lines of your studies into LVT. Show how it could work and be brought about by addressing the concerns which nay-sayers may throw up.

    See what I’m saying?

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    • After the seminal study tour of Vestlandet in 1984 with Angus McHattie and his wife, I helped to host visits by Norwegian full and part time, owner -occupier small holders(/farmers( not crofters) to various parts of the Highlands. Quite a interesting range of reactions were elicited beyond the ‘shock and awe’ generality and one of the most memorable was on looking at places like Kildonan was ‘ my goodness, if we had so much land of this kind of potential, we would be having fist fights to get at it’
      So Neil how are you getting on with the google streetview tour of Lyngdal etc. Any plans to leave the Canaria for a visit to Rogaland and Vest Agder for a glimpse of what might be obtained in the Highlands?

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      • Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely I shall be able to visit Norway any time soon Ron (much as I’d like to) but I did have a virtual look round one of the places you suggested – it reminded me a bit of the outskirts of Lerwick or Stornoway.

        So we have two polar opposites – Kildonan and Lyngdal. What I would be interested to see are studies as to whether it is feasible and desirable to reproduce Norway in Scotland and, if it is, a roadmap as to how the transition might be achieved in political, economic, social, legal etc. terms.

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        • Thanks for engaging with this one Neil. I don’t think we should do a blanket copy of Norway, any more than the other Fennoscandian countries have a direct facsimile of each other, though there is a overall similarity. I consider our own particular version of something like what is happening in the Vestlandet counties of Norway more desirable than the present state of Kildonan or upper Glen Tilt for that matter. There is nothing in the basic geobotanical or bioclimatic profile here that is any more challenging than is faced in the Scandinavian section of the Caledonide mountain chain. The difference is down to what people have done, are doing and might yet do in terms of land tenure/use and socio-political activity.

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      • Personal attacks contribute nothing to discussion Ron. Neil’s very sensible call to move forward from the past, present and into the possibilities of another way of doing things could achieve something. Beyond the one contribution you repeat over and over again, there must be numerous others. We get it, many agree with you on LVT, but it is only one tool in the box. Surely there are enough practitioners and visionaries following Andy’s posts and Blogs that between us we can come up with practical, workable ideas for 21st Scotland? Please can we move on and be respectful.

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    • Neil, no land value tax is possible as land has no capital value, but the collection of Land Rental Value is an option with potential.

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      • Ron, while we are very close on many land related issues, I still cannot get my head round the argument against LVT and your preference for LRV.
        It seems to me that gathering LVT would take the estate agents and owners on at their own game of inflating their land values as it suits them. Property agents are forever boasting the inflated values of the estates they handle. Ok tax them on these values in similar way as we are currently taxed on house values. Tax can be fixed and adjusted until we reach the desireable balance of land use and availability.

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        • Tom,
          LVT and LRV are basically just terms for the same thing. LRV is the more accurate of the two as land has no capital value. Tax has such a pejorative, negative emotional response that it can be construed as another three letter word for BAD.
          I wish to see eventually, a 100% collection of LRV to replace taxation on labour and bricks&mortar property, because LRV is the only value land has and it is 100% created by societal demand and not the possessors of deed title to land. It is also 100% unavoidable, even by nondoms or off shore holding companies/trusts.
          As you will know from many of my press comments etc I abhor the concept of the Highlands( and indeed other areas of upland Scotland) being described and indeed exploited as a ‘wasteland ripe for development’ and instead see them as a wasted land ready for rehabiliation.
          Places like Kildonan and upper Glen Tilt are well in need of that rehabilitation. and that is going to take simple hard graft, entrepreneurial flair, and a great deal of infrastructural improvements upon the land. I do not wish to see that work and flair facing the de facto State robbery of taxation, nor do I wish to see people facing State imposts for building better quality housing or upgrading existing ones.

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  4. People generate economies in straths and glens, not monocultures, whether sheep, cattle, grouse or deer, particularly not the latter seasonal activities.
    Food production, does form a basis for stable communities simply because those enterprising in it are engaged year round. Opportunity is all that is lacking.
    Without highlighting the circumstances denying opportunities, change will never happen and Strath wherever shall remain forever a lost community.

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  5. “Well, its been our home” said Lord Burton.
    And so said thousands of emigrants.
    And so say thousands of tenant farmers today who do manage to scratch a living by improving the farms they rent from estate owners trying desperately to be rid of them.

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  6. comments like ‘this land is fit for nothing else’ sums up the lairdy attitude. But they still believe that a tenant should ‘pay up’ to work and look after the land. What do they think the farmers and crofters would do with the salmon and deer? do they think we would poison the rivers and slaughter every last stag? The lairds are not needed, no animal, habitat or local would miss them.
    The vision for a modern Scotland, a fair Scotland, must not mean its local rural people are living under the shadow of landlordisim.
    Mr McCall, you must have seen a lot of change up there in Kildonan? As a tenant farmer, would you take the opportunity to buy your farm if the government made it possible with legislation?

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    • Aye indeed, SS.

      People in those areas of Norway I mentioned above ,also go hunting for Red Deer, they shoot Grouse and Ptarmigan, they angle and net for Salmon, Trout and Charr. Farmer owner-occupiers also form voluntary cooperatives to organise Moose hunting as the territory range of Moose transcends several farm holdings. The benefits of the various forms of wildlife harvest go directly into the local economy and public funds. NAE LAIRDS REQUIRED.

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    • Thank you for this explanation Ron and glad you concede they are basically the same. I just think that a step change is required in what would ultimately be a revolutionary change.
      I too wish to see us support state requirements through those using the finite state asset of land rather than personal efforts and necessities of individuals and families. The name Shirley-Anne come to mind!
      To my mind the time to adopt the term LRV would be when the artificial value has been stripped from land.

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    • I’d go further Stirrer, not only are NAE LAIRDS REQUIRED, we need to remember that their presence not only has a negative effect on the areas they own, but their activities result in landlessness for the majority and resultant deprivation for many of our population.
      It is a get rid soon requirement and time this whole issue was back where is deserves to be, top of the agenda exciting the hungry minds of urban dwellers in anticipation of radical change in the lives of many and the use of our most treasured asset.

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      • “People generate economies in straths and glens, not monocultures, whether sheep, cattle, grouse or deer, particularly not the latter seasonal activities.
        Food production, does form a basis for stable communities simply because those enterprising in it are engaged year round.” How does all this square with your praise in the Scottish Farmer, of the Arab family who own the big estates between Stirling and Braco or are they not regarded as Lairds because their base is in Dubai? Are their tenants happy? Has there been no land abandonment around Highland Spring? Are there plans for local people to benefit from the new beef enterprise? How many tenants are left on this large land holding?

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        • Before I do answer that Daye you had better clarify for other reders my ‘praise’ as you put, in the Scottish Farmer, of the Arab family who own the big estates between Stirling and Braco.

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  7. hebrideanfarmer

    Ron,
    Your description sounds like utopia. Do you think we could ever see a Scotland like that? I sincerely hope so. We have the skills, we have the people, we have the land, but alas we don’t have the power or permission from the lairds.
    We so need to see videos like this one. I need to thank Andy for keeping it in the medias attention, I also need to thank the lairds too for giving such good evidence of what the landed elite think of Scotland ……”A wet desert” …. ” We always come back to the landowner to provide the where-for-all to provide for deer stalking and fishing”…… “There is nothing you can do with this Country”
    The higher you climb , the harder you fall lairds!
    Neil K is finding it frustrating that we are not being positive about matters, but first things first. We need to show what has gone wrong , and unravel what has gone wrong, then find solutions.
    I believe we are at the initial stages of this, and shortly we will be putting the solutions in place.
    Thanks again Andy for helping us to identify what has gone wrong by showing us this video.
    It’s hard for the lairds, after all, they have had a lifetime of privileges and don’t have the vision that most Scots do.
    The lairds would do well to take heed of a well used phrase of my Father’s……You must allow for the other man to know something too.
    NAE LAIRDS REQUIRED.

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    • Well it’s certainly no Utopia in Vestlandet and they have their own faults and problems, but they compare favourably with us, because we are so much further away from the true potential that the landscape offers us. Ketil Flatnose, the Viking, left Norway to go to Scotland, because he’d heard life was good there. Wonder what Ketil would think today?—Probably something like NAE LAIRDS REQUIRED!

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    • Guys: isn’t NAE LAIRDS REQUIRED such a pithy, tellingly accurate catchphrase for those of like mind on this issue!?

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  8. There is no doubt, the urban mass is beginning to understand the the truth about the greed and control exercised by stinking rich lairds. The grants and public money flowing into the hands of these landowners is disgusting. To make matters worse, they continually evict tenants, in an attempt to exercise total control and rid themselves of liabilities. Their cries of a poor land with limited opportunity are pathetic, do they really believe their own lies?
    nae lairds required.

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  9. Is the Auchentoul Estate in receipt of any grants from the UK Government?

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  10. SS (and Heb Farmer), if there’s no doubt the urban mass is beginning to understand, then it would not be premature to start rolling out the big plan for the repopulation of rural Scotland Scandinavia-style and how it’s going to be achieved.

    The most astute comment I’ve ever read on this blog (a game changer for me personally) was the one from Mike Vickers on the post “Scotland’s environmental policies governed by the rich & powerful” (29 June 2013) which I make no apology for repeating here in full:-

    “The Land Reform Review Group is now focusing on Community Buy-out. That’s the easy bit. There are Communities able and willing to take of the land bought out and use it responsibly. However there are much vaster tacks of land some of which have never been occupied or if cleared, cleared long ago and people scatter worldwide– Sutherland of instance.

    Given land reform and put on the open market or compulsory purchased how will such land be used and who will wish to buy it and cultivate it. Rightly or wrongly people habits have considerably changed since the Clearances. If we are not careful the land will just trade hands as happened in the Highland and Island in the 19th Century – see the chapter ‘The New Elite in the Western Highlands and Islands’ in Tom Devine’s book ‘Clearance and Improvements’.

    I would welcome a set of strategic statements on what Scotland’s Land should be used for in a more open and democratic society – I’m sure Andy can provide such a set but most of blogs concentrate on decrying the present state of land ownership rather than setting out the way it should be.

    Without such a set of strategic statements we could fall into the trap of deposing Saddam Hussein without a clear policy as what to thereafter.”

    Well said Mike. I wish I could “like” that, retweet it and do a clapping hands smiley.

    The Saddam Hussein analogy is just so apposite. And it’s easy to come up with slogans like “Nae lairds required” (anyone remember “Shock and awe” or “Job done”?), the hard part is devising the post Saddam/Lairds strategy and selling it to those who matter. (Remember also, it can’t be imposed, it has to be sold.)

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    • Okay Neil, so we have a land occupancy structure which is far from what we think it should and could be.
      If unleaded and diesel were five bob a gallon road congestion would be commonplace. Free bus passes, whether right or wrong, keep many people out of cars yet create economy activity by moving people to places they might otherwise not go.
      Fiscal means, both penalising and supportive, is how we change balance from undesired to desired outcome.
      Estates grew and prospered when the poor had no lawyers, rights, security, wealth or income but total dependence on the crumbs from the laird after he’d filled his belly and satiated his desires.
      Instead of cheap labour, estate owners now receive huge state handouts in terms of single farm payments, about to change by reform of EU Common Agricultural Policy from a historical figure of payment to one based on area of land occupied. Trading of payment entitlements also currently affects land use. ie, a farmer may keep livestock intensively on a small farm if he has entitlements and rents land from someone with a large area of non productive land.
      Problem arose when farmers’ representatives adopted policies which drew the lairds into the subsidy fold. Now the lairds and farmers’ leaders are as one with the single family farm units in the sights of both the lairds and other farmers.
      Straightforward capping of support to the individual and application of tax (sorry Ron) on occupancy of land would to my mind bring the desired balance of land occupancy and land use.
      You have obviously thought on the matter for some time Neil, how would you bring about change on this?

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    • Neil,
      We know , not only from the Fennoscandian situation, but also from various parts of Central Europe, North America etc that forms of extensive participatory private land tenure systems exist without the requirement to have the equivalent of a laird. One of the greatest exponents of NLR( nae lairds required) was Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan. If you believe that lairds are indeed required, please explain why and how that would benefit the nation.

      There are basically only two main forms of human behaviour, both at an individual and societal level: moving away from a problem or threat; moving towards an optimal situation/achieving a goal. The land tenure issue exhibits both very clearly. These posts and much of Andy’s literature are replete with views on what the problem is. This seems to come down eventually to the concentration of private landownership in so few hands. The desired optimum is more variously expressed, but it would appear to centre round communal land tenure at the local level and/or a new form of extensive private tenure, in part exemplified by comparisons with our Nordic neighbours etc.

      Problem-solution-vehicle-action, PSVA. We appear to have the P identified. We already have the V ( Holyrood/ Westminster) and the A is legislation manifesting and implementing the so far least clear element of S–the solution. That solution, in my view, will comprise two main elements: framing new or enhancing existing legislation to facilitate compulsory expropriation of land and its transfer to new individual or communal owners; the implementation of fiscal measures to mitigate against large scale land holdings/hoarding, mitigate in favour of smaller holdings and encourage economic activity within any scale of holding.

      Compulsory expropriation has to be approached with great care because it may open a can of worms that might come back as venomous vipers that will bite the very people who released them. It is also likely to incur public expense, which will not go down well with most sections of the political class and it is a political class that, for the most part, cannot intellectually engage with the simple concept of the national community owning its own national parks!

      Within the fiscal support mechanisms, as Tom Gray has outlined, we are facing a CAP reform that is actually going to enhance the rewards to those owning large individual holdings. As long as we are in the EU an easy resolution to this problem is not easy to envisage. Very sadly indeed, Tom is still promulgating the self defeating concept of a ‘land tax’ which is likely to result in a vicious return of serve resulting in a ‘love game’ breakage of serve in favour of the current land monopoly champions. However he is correct in both his concern over the inter -holding transfer of CAP payments etc. and the potential for the collection of societally created Land Rental Value to alter the balance of land holding away from the intensification of the present situation. LRV collection is a replacement for state robbery of labour( tax) and not an additional tax and thus by reducing the impost on labour and infrastructure upon land will encourage economic activity.

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  11. Neil, dont worry we are working away on that one. A MSP said to me about a year ago ‘we now need to work out how to do it’ Papers are being submitted, meetings are being arranged, organisations set up(STAG), TV interviews, short films, adverts, local discussion.
    The plan is coming together.
    by the way i think Mikes bit lacks understanding. The land will not simply fall into a system of trading and changing hands. Tenants just like other farmers and crofters long for settlement and security, hence the need for ARTB.
    the slogan is a bit of fun, supposed to be an eye catcher, suited to the web. it caught yours.
    Remember the scots didn’t want shock and awe, but thats history and thats what happens when your led from afar.
    NAE LAIRDS REQUIRED.

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    • Apparently entitlement trading will take place but only within equivalent land capability regions. The shock to intensive farmers might be minimised somewhat by this.

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  12. the estate in my area have bought a lot of entitlements, they also trade out naked acres. Some farmers also do this but the difference is, they don’t try to evict a tenant to achieve this. The system has to support people who work on the land, not those that simply own the land.

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  13. Believe it or not, the sfp introduction actually slowed the rate of tenant evictions in scotland, as the laird couldnt grab it. Regrettably, this has now speeded up as the lairds want to grab the new money.
    All of you are rather missing the point. Before anyone discusses how to repopulate the strath of kildonan, the eviction /rent racking eviction of sitting tenants must be stopped.
    We must protect those still in the countryside before bringing others in. Otherwise its a new clearance.Security of tenure for ALL tenants must be a PRIORITY.
    Otherwise it will be open season on tenants, not just grouse and deer.
    I attended a displenishing sale of an evicted tenant three yrs ago, ending 160 years of family occupation. The tenant employed 12 people in a vertically integrated egg business.
    That farm is now an empty shell, employing no one, sending no child to the local school, paying no paye, no NI.
    That is a catestrophic loss to a rural area, but all is not lost, the laird is getting double the rent now, and will be collecting the new sfp soon!

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    • That empty farm, presumably, still has the same maximum permitted use at planning permission level. With that, comes a site value, more specifically a Land Rental Value. That LRV is generated by societal demand. If LRV were to be collected as public revenue to reduce or REPLACE, income tax then the non use of the site becomes a liability to the owner and its use at full maximum permitted level becomes a tax free ( labour and buildings) incentive to either the tenant or the owner. The Land Rental Value is due from the owner, not the tenant and the owner could not rack the land component of the rent as it would be merely deducted from him as public revenue. Buildings/ improvements are zero rated under LRV so no disincentive to upgrade these. An egg production unit turning over £300,000 pa, would not pay any extra LRV for putting in machinery or upgraded facilities that increased its turn over to £500,000 and the laird would not be entitled to lay his hands on the extra profit either.

      Reply

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