IMAGE: Loch Garry 2010. Source: walkhighlands

I am particularly pleased to publish this article by Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell. In light of the ongoing problems with landslips on the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful and further west in Glen Kinglas, Ron and Derek remind us that they were advocating substantial ecological restoration over 30 years ago. They pioneered, from first principles and scientific observations, an approach that would restore the ecology of much of Upland Scotland. But official Scotland and vested interests blocked their plans. 

Ron Greer is, by profession, a freshwater biologist with a 40 years specific interest in Arctic Charr, Ferox Trout and the management of the large glacial ribbon lakes/hydro-electric reservoirs that are their primary habitat. He is co-author of several seminal papers on Scottish Arctic Charr and author of the book ‘Ferox Trout and Arctic Charr’.  He is one of the Scottish representatives in the International Society of Arctic Charr and has been a participant in and co-organiser, of their international conferences over the last 25 years

As a corollary of the above, he has developed a parallel interest in strategic land use/tenure reform, riparian silvicultural management  and Boreal biogeography. He initiated the Loch Garry riparian woodland project in 1974 and was co-founder with Derek Pretswell, and others, of the Loch Garry Tree Group in 1986. He was a member of the Highland Forum team who helped organise the 1987 Land and Community conference at Drumossie and considers the outcomes from it as a work still in progress. He was co-founder and initial Convenor of Scottish Native Woods and worked with Derek in its formative years.

He is widely travelled in  North America, Fennoscandia and Northern Europe, both in relation to study trips pertinent to  freshwater  and land use issues and as a guest lecturer in these subject areas at various universities/colleges, NGO institutes and sporting organisations.

Derek Pretswell is a zoology graduate of Aberdeen and started working on forestry and landuse with Ron in 1982/3 while both of them were fishery biologists with the Department of Agriculture for Scotland.  A founder member of the Loch Garry Tree Group and Perth Bat Group, he served on the management committee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Loch of the Lowes and was a Trustee of Scottish Native Woods for 10 years. In addition, he was a member of the Cairngorm Community Circle and a member of the SNP environmental policy group which, along with Ron and under Roger Mullin’s leadership, formulated the SNP’s main policy document.  

Together with Ron, Derek founded Natural Resources Scotland in 1992 and developed the New Caledonia Project which is a holistic long term project that encapsulates the three tenets of sustainable development to bring about the ‘blossoming’ of our biological, social and economic landscape. Derek now teaches environmental education to schoolchildren from North Lanarkshire at an outdoor centre in Oban and during the summer takes to the lochs with Ron to research Arctic Charr populations.


Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell

Sitkasaurs and Contortasaurs still stalked the Earth.  There had been no substantive land tenure reform for 900 years.  A tribal confederation of the ‘Negataibh’, more especially the clans of McCannae, MacShouldnae and their even more dangerous comrades, the Clan MacWulnae, managed the landscape on behalf of the Moorland Myth Brigade, The Cellulose Factory Managers, The Starbirders and other sectional vested interest groups with a finger in the subsidy pie and a ticket for the gravy train.  Aye, such was the state of Highland Scotland in the early seventies of the last century.  A region variously described as a ‘wet desert’, a ‘wasteland ripe for development’ or ‘the last great unspoiled wilderness in Europe’.  Would anyone out there recognise this picture today?

Into this world of private and State sectional vested interests, replete with a compartmentalised bureaucratic administration (bunkered in intellectual fall-out shelters), a young freshwater biologist, blissfully unaware of the atavistic nature of most of the above, initiated a pioneering study of Arctic Charr and Brown Trout in Loch Garry, a long established hydro-electric reservoir, lying at 400 metres altitude and a cat’s spit away from Perthshire’s Drumochter Pass (of winter notoriety).  Details of this fisheries study have been published in the relevant peer-reviewed literature but even more important wider strategic issues and conclusions arose from it that not only challenged established shibboleths and perspectives in terms of freshwater ecology in Scotland, but also in a much broader, regional and national environmental sense.  Charr, previously considered a rare fish in Scotland, turned out to be very common here and indeed in many other lochs in the Highlands which begged the question – why?  Was there perhaps something wrong with the received wisdom on the perspective of Scotland’s bio-geographical realities?  A question which kept arising as the follow on from the fisheries study developed.

Image 1 – Loch Garry truncated morraine 1990

A core outcome of the study was that hydro-electric regulation causes profound and negative impacts (largely through destroying littoral zone aquatic plants) on the ecology of the lake concerned.  In similar Scandinavian lakes  classic ‘before and after’ studies revealed  that up to 70% of the aquatic invertebrate that supports higher animals can be lost (with important depressive effects on subsistence and commercial fisheries).  We are without the great detail of these studies, but recent work indicates that the barren stony shores of reservoirs like Ericht, Cluanie and Quaich are every bit the aquatic desert they appear to be.  Further background research however revealed that a massive potential (up to 90%) source of plant material to support the aquatic food-chain could be derived from riparian deciduous woodland.  The main fisheries management problem turned out to be what was happening on the land.  What was happening on the land was derived from its land tenure system and the aims and management of its owners, historically and extant. Why was that land treeless?  The then ‘orthodoxy’ was that it was because of the harsh climate and the poor soil; perhaps scrubby birch and willow?  Challenging that orthodoxy were the basic bioclimatic facts, ecological history and empirical experience in other montane ‘Arctic Charr countries.’  The challenge of re-establishing deciduous riparian woodland was taken up.  In so doing it opened up even bigger challenges in realising a wider strategic potential.

Image 2 – Loch Garry truncated morraine revegetating

The first inklings of the potential were stimulated by both a literature review related to the physical habitat requirements of Arctic Charr and site visits to Norway in 1971, 1973 and 1974. But the biggest single advances in this area, both in respect of the specifics of tree species/origin/provenance selection and the wider national strategic overview we were developing (in parallel to other initiatives we were involved in) were study visits to Iceland in 1981 and Vestlandet in Norway in 1984. In respect of the former we were lucky indeed, before his death not long after, to draw on the extensive knowledge of Hakon Bjarnasson, the father figure of Icelandic forestry who, apart from his silvicultural expertise in a country where the most favourable tree growing conditions were climatically closely akin to Drumochter Pass, had a profound interest and experience of soil conservation and environmental protection issues in challenging boreal and austral conditions.  Proud as he was of his country’s culture and living standards, Hakon was fully open about the shocking devastation that comprised much of the Icelandic environment, perhaps the most eroded country in Northern Europe and had spent much of his professional life trying to redress it.

George Monbiot has described the Scottish and British uplands as ‘sheep-wrecked’ (see for example this article in relation to the A83 Rest and Be Thankful slope failures).  In comparison, Iceland has had a thousand years of ovine-wrecking, (compared to our  mere 300 years), where a land once 40% covered in mixed broadleaved forest (of species also once common in Scotland), had been reduced to looking like a movie set from a desert world in Star Wars.  Though the cessation of headage payments may have helped us a little, nonetheless, Iceland gives a stark warning of what might occur if we don’t change our perception of what the uplands can biologically sustain. Indeed, Hakon, on seeing photographs of erosion gullies in the Grampians, opined that unless restorative, protective forestry took place, that we would, in two or three generations, perhaps 100 years at the most, have no vegetation left on the hills.  He would not be surprised to see the repeated landslips on the A83 (the Rest and Be Thankful) or the A85 at Glen Ogle, and neither very sadly, are we.

IMAGE: Slopes to north of A83, Glen Kinglas, the site of a recent landslip of 100 tonnes of soil. The red circles indicate existing slope failures on this overgrazed terrain. Click on picture for a larger image.

More prosaically, was the comment proffered without sarcastic irony, of another Icelandic forester on being presented with a fairly comprehensive bioclimatic profile of Loch Garry ‘oh you have a very good place to grow trees then’.  Which then begs the question of what else it and much of the Grampians as a whole, might be capable of more than we currently believe.  The advice on tree species and origin provided by the Icelandic foresters has been invaluable over the years as was their introduction to the potential of Nootka Lupin as a soil improvement and erosion control agent.  The future might be more blue, but not necessarily more sad.  Unless of course, we continue to go down (or rather up) the exponential Humpty Dumpty curve of deforested erodability, with the politicians shouting out ‘so far so good’ before we all pay for the splat, as the mountain comes down to the A83 and other roads like it.

Image 3 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Trees well-established.

It is almost de rigueur these days for those promulgating land tenure and land use reform in Scotland to compare our situation with Norway.  As major promulgators of that comparison since 1984, after a ‘culture  shock’ study trip with Angus McHattie  of the Scottish Crofters Union, participants in several media documentaries on the subject and providing technical support to the later Reforesting Scotland Norway Study Tour, we can hardly decry that comparison.  However please nota bene, we do not consider simply copying Norway as the final destination, but rather that it helps point the way to a ‘better place’ than we are in now.  The geobotanical, phytogeographical and bioclimatic similarities to the Vestlandet of Norway and the vibrant cultural landscape obtained within it, give the lie to accusations of the ‘McCannaes’ that there is no other end point of tenure and use possible for upland Scotland, than the current indulgence of a landed minority in what for many of the rest of us is a quasi feudal, Victorian-Edwardian nightmare-world supported by public subsidy.

In over three decades of establishing and managing grass roots organisations, e.g. Scottish Native Woods, Highland Forum, Loch Garry Tree Group, or developing the New Caledonia project or cooperating with other established organisations and individuals that arose in the euphoria of the environmental movement in 1975-1995, we have seen, shared and experienced, shattered hopes, plagiarism and sheer outright betrayal on the attempted road to a resolution of environmental degradation and conflict.  For example we were in at the grass roots level with the Millennium Forest Project and were part of a small committee to look at locations.  We originally thought committees were platforms for compromise, but our experience makes us believe that they are cul de sacs up which good ideas are lured, then silently strangled.

The agendas of Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will always prevail when individuals are outnumbered by such organisations. Our argument was based on generating a momentum that would carry past 2000 and create a platform of reforestation that everyone could be part of, based on 5 major forest centres; Glen Affric (Trees for Life), Cairngorms, Central Belt and one each in the Southwest and Southeast Borders, with a target of joining them all up creating one contiguous forest linked by forest corridors, allowing communities, local forest groups and  FC plantations and their grannies to take part and have ownership of the process.  Had we gone down this road there would have been no better way to say that we all live in the environment and it is not something that ‘happens over there’ and that we all inclusively contributed towards it.

Image 4 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Forest ecosystem restored.

We have always been centred round the idea of revitalising the soil/vegetation complex and using this landscape, when functioning as the best it can be biologically, as a platform for social and economic development.  Two things shocked us in the development of this philosophy; the complete underestimation of what is possible due to the lack of perception of where we are bio-climatically, coupled to the habitual mismanagement by generations of landowners and land managers; and the conservatism, generated by the vested interests of the resource holders and policy makers.  This includes NGOs, though there are as always exceptions at all levels.  The mismanagement is not obligate, it is facultative, and the managers choose their endpoint, having inherited their start point, for the bulk of our rural landscapes. We need rurality built into the urban environment and not urbanity into the rural one, as is happening.

Patrick Geddes talked of work people and place, sustainability models talk of environmental, social and economic factors, most of the ‘environmentalist movement’ and politicians use the word sustainable, but how many have read the Brundtland Commission Report or the earlier World Conservation Strategy that coined and defined the phrase and intend to implement the recommendations. In many cases it is a bit like the bank that likes to say yes but doesn’t understand the question. We are driven to solve problems, Loch Garry being a case in point, but our solution is to focus on the problem and this in turn exerts an enormous influence on our thinking.  What was initially perceived as an aquatic problem at Loch Garry was in fact a land problem and likewise the A83 events are not a road problem, but a land one.  Well for forestry’s sake there are too many problems for us!  If we go back to the basics of the soil vegetation complex then we need to make it the best it can be, so plant the trees that originally created the organic layers that are there and held it all in place.

Let’s work towards goals – you know, ideal situations that could make these problems disappear.  At one point in relation to the A83, there was talk of tunnels and a budget of £90 million, well for that money we can buy the land, reforest it, give it to the people to manage and still have money left over to build a better road!

We live in the world’s most beautiful ecological slum but we have the advantage that this slum is not on the northern edge of the Mediterranean it is on the southern edge of the Arctic and it has an amazing northern potential.  Our challenge is to bring about the realisation of that potential and so finally, a recommendation to politicians. If you want ideas that are outside of the box don’t go into the box to look for them!

The story so far…….

Dr Kenneth Brown wrote a guest blog (here) discussing the harassment he faced going about his lawful business at Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen, Ross-shire. This led to quite a few comments and emails recounting similar such incidents at Ledgowan over the past few year since Andrew Simpson took over ownership of the estate.

This in turn led to the revelation (to me) of the 18 km track that has been crudely bulldozed across the hills under Class 18 Permitted Development Rights whereby developments for agricultural use are exempted from the need for planning consent. Despite recommendations from Scottish Government officials in 2012 that such tracks be subject to normal planning rules, Derek Mackay (Minister for Local Government & Planning) under pressure from farming, landowning and forestry interests, refused.

Since publishing these blogs, more information and insight has come to light and I thank all those who have been in touch.

Agricultural Use

It is now confirmed that the road was built for agricultural activities. A number of hill farmers have been in touch with me. None can see any conceivable use for a road of this length, routing, construction or quality in this particular place. So what is it for? Simpson’s own website implies it is for trout and salmon fishing and wildlife safaris.

A previous application for a windfarm was refused on landscape grounds. A second application for a smaller development of two turbines was submitted and then withdrawn. Andrew Simpson currently has a live application for one 50kw turbine (Ref 12/03182/FUL). How convenient it is that there is already a road built to service it. How convenient also that any opposition to an application for a bigger scheme on landscape grounds is now much weakened by the fact that the road has now inflicted significant damage to the landscape.

Interestingly, SNH concede this fact in their comments in the current application where they point out that “the proposed turbine is located on terrace 2 within the SSSI. We agree that a turbine located here, with no need for additional tracks minimises damage to the main features of the site.” This  remember is a track that has smashed right through Terrace 1 and 2.


The unauthorised construction of this track raises questions about pollution. A prominent expert in such matters has highlighted to me the possible issues with drainage, run-off and sediment loading. The road has been hastily constructed in an inexpert manner across numerous watercourses. It is clear that substantial works have been carried out on the loch shore. Have these works ever been approved by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)?


I wrote to SEPA on 14 October 2013 and asked them,

Could you provide me please with any information that SEPA holds in relation to activities on Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen.In particular I am interested in the road that has been constructed and, for example, whether the estate has a CAR licence under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011 for the water crossings and works by Loch a Chroisg.”

SEPA replied today and told me that they held no information in relation to the track, pointing out that if the watercourse crossings had been “done in accordance with General Binding Rule 6, then SEPA would not need to be involved”. We do not know, of course, whether such rules were followed.

More interestingly, in relation to the works on the shore of Loch a Chroisg, SEPA refused to release the relevant information.

Please note that SEPA is aware of engineering activities in Loch a Chroisg undertaken by Ledgowan Estate in June 2011 which resulted in the alteration of the watercourse. The work was carried out without a licence. SEPA holds information relating to this however the information has been withheld from release at this time under Regulation 10(5)(b) of EIR which states:

’10(5) A Scottish public authority may refuse to make environmental information available to the extent that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially … (b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature.’

The Public Interest Test was carried out in relation to the information to be withheld under regulation 10(5)(b). To disclose evidence in a case prior to it being considered by the Procurator Fiscal, thus putting it in the public domain means the accused may not receive a fair trial.”

It therefore seems clear than an alleged offence has been committed under Section 44 of the Regulations and that criminal proceedings may follow.

The full reply from SEPA is here.

I have written to SEPA inviting them to investigate whether or not the 2011 Regulations have been followed in the construction of the new track.

SEPA has responded:-

SEPA will arrange to visit the site and look into your complaint. Once we have done so, we will get back to you and let you know the outcome of our findings.


It appears that the new landowner takes quite a hostile approach to the local community as is evident from this Community Council minute of February 2012 regarding a dispute over pedestrian access along a now disused public road.

The Chairman read out a letter from Helen Christie raising issues about access to Ledgowan Estate, threatening behaviour, construction of hill roads and the access across the bridge. Dave Mackenzie (an employee of Ledgowan Estate) stated he hadn’t stopped anyone and that the estate will abide by the law.”

Highland Council has now issued a Traffic Regulation Order permitting pedestrian and cycle traffic to continue to use this short stretch of the former A890 (council paper and minute).

During 2011, there was considerable disquiet among residents of Achnasheen about the construction of the new track and numerous complaints were made to Highland Council. On 5 August 2011, Dave MacKenzie submitted a Freedom of Information request to Highland Council asking for details of complaints that the Council had received. The Council complied with the request but redacted the personal details of those who had made the complaints. Mr MacKenzie asked for a review of the decision and subsequently appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner who, in her decision, stated that,

Mr MacKenzie is an employee of the owner of the Ledgowan Estate. He has explained that his request was motivated by the harassment and disruption to the progress of work that he was feeling as a result of the Council’s response to complaints, which he considered to be made by individuals or organisations that appeared to be either ill-informed or motivated by malice. He explained that he wanted to know the identities of those making complaints in order to inform them of the reason why work was being carried out.”


As is clear from Mr MacKenzie’s attendance at the Community Council meeting, he had (and continues to have) ample opportunity to “inform” people of “the reason why work was being carried out“. As for the harassment, disruption and malice which he refers to, let’s note one incident that took place just before Christmas 2011.

A number of residents noticed that their oil-fired heating systems stopped working. Upon inspection, an engineer found that holes had been drilled in their oil tanks, with the the contents seeping into the ground all over their gardens. The police investigated these criminal acts but found insufficient evidence to take further action.

In another incident, a person closely connected with the estate was caught digging a badger sett. Again the police were called but insufficient evidence was available and the perpetrators claimed that they had been looking for foxes.

Earlier this year a black-throated diver was found dead having been “shot by a high velocity projectile”.

The above incidents may have nothing to do with the estate. They may (although it appears unlikely) have entirely innocent explanations.

What’s going on?

In the previous Guest Blog, I published a piece by Dr Kenneth Brown about the hostile reception he received when walking on Ledgowan Estate. I now know one of the reasons why this might have happened – the unbelievable vandalism that has been perpetrated by the owner, Andrew Simpson. Zoom in on the map above (or preferably open it in a larger window) and see for yourself the incredible bulldozed track that has been ripped across the face of the hills for over eleven miles.
It is awesome.
There are two other photographs in the previous blog post.
Here is what Eoghain Maclean said in a comment under the piece.
He has taken advantage of his right to construct a track on his land for agricultural reasons. Laughable as it eventually arrives at a hill loch where you can catch arctic charr. I was brought up on the neighbouring estate but I like others would rather walk to a hill loch instead of being transported by an ATV (all terrain vehicle).
I am informed that there was a planning application for a wind farm but it was refused. Another one was submitted but withdrawn. There is a live planning application for one 50kw turbine just behind the Ledgowan Hotel. So has the owner of this estate built an incredible road without planning consent simply so that he (and one presumes others) don’t have to exert themselves to catch some arctic char? What is clear beyond any reasonable doubt is this is NOT an agricultural track.
Why on earth is someone allowed to build such a road for recreational purposes?
A number of environmental bodies are campaigning for such roads to be subject to planning permission. Sarah Boyack MPS and Peter Peacock MSP tried (and failed) to secure this in in 2010 (here is their campaign website). Earlier this summer, Scottish Environment Link re-launched the campaign. There is more info on the Ramblers’ Scotland website including the Scottish Link press release.
Maybe it’s time we asked Mr Simpson what exactly the point of all of this is. He can be contacted here.
UPDATE 2214 10 October
An informant has told me that the track was built under Permitted Development Rights. In other words the track does not need planning permission because it is for “agricultural purposes”. Highland Council found no evidence to the contrary (which is next to impossible to do) and thus had no grounds for refusal. Note that sport fishing is NOT an agricultural purpose. What makes the case even more astonishing is that the track runs through a geomorphological SSSI – the Achnashee Terraces SSSI – map here.
UPDATE 2323 10 October
A bit off topic, but some insight into the attitude of the current owner can be gleaned from his opposition to allow cyclists and walkers to use the old public road. Highland Council over-rode his objection. Committee paper here. Minutes here (Item 20)
UPDATE 1030 11 October Edits to paragraph about the wind-turbine development and link to the current application.
UPDATE 1433 11 October Interesting comment by Colin L in comments. On Mr Simpson’s own website it states that,
The includes 18 kilometres of track so that you can explore the local wildlife and area with a local safari company (cost on request). There is also trout fishing on the estate and salmon fishing may be available by arrangement.”
And on the Sporting Lets website run by CKDFinlayson Hughes (under sport tab),
there is now 18km of track on the estate, providing excellent access for sporting parties, sightseeing or an estate safari.”
As far as I can tell from the legislation (Class 18 exemption) this is not a track for agricultural purposes at all. Will Highland Council now demand reinstatement?

Public access to land has been a source of conflict in Scotland for a long time but matters have improved in recent years following the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which provides a right of responsible access to land. Every so often, however, stories appear that suggest there is still some way to go before Scotland can be anything like a normal country in which its citizens can enjoy the great outdoors in peace and quiet. Today, this account was sent to me by Dr Kenneth Brown from Glenmoriston. It details an encounter with the new owner of Ledgowan Estate in Wester Ross last weekend. The estate was bought in 2011 by a company called Rainheath Ltd. from Yorkshire. Members of the Simpson family are Directors of the company (though Richard Simpson who is named in the piece is not listed as a Director). Andrew Simpson owns 96.09% of the shares in Rainheath and he and Rainheath Ltd. also own the Rossie Ochil shooting estate in Perthshire.

Get off my land!

Dr Kenneth Brown

My wife and I were returning from walking on hills on the Ledgowan Estate to our car that was parked off the main Achnasheen-Lochcarron road (A890). When we arrived at our car, we were accosted by a young man who had parked his vehicle beside ours. We had previously noted the same vehicle parked beside the main road when we were higher up the mountainside and concluded that we were being watched.

He demanded, in an extraordinarily arrogant and ill-mannered way, to know what we were doing, “walking on his hill”. I informed him that we were simply exercising our statutory right of access to the countryside and that that was all he needed to know. However, he persisted in demanding an answer in a most offensive way but I refused to say more than to repeat that all he needed to know was that we were entirely within our legal rights to walk on that property.

He became so persistently offensive that I demanded to know his name and status and he described himself as Richard Simpson, the owner of the Ledgowan Estate. (An online Highland Council planning notice identifies the owner of this estate as Andrew Simpson, so I assume this person is his son or another relative).

He then began to argue that we had been disturbing sheep on the land. In fact, there had been no sheep to be seen anywhere in the landscape for the full duration of our visit. This, however, did not deter him and he claimed that our dog must have frightened them away. Not only was this untrue, but our dog is extremely obedient and is always completely under control. He is used to being out on the hill; during his 13 years he has accompanied me on many Munro climbs and is regularly walked on the hills around our home in Glenmoriston.

Simpson then informed us that deer stalking was in progress and that we could have been in danger from rifle fire. I replied that, in that case, he had a duty to inform members of the public of any potential danger to them and that, if there was any sound reason for restricting public access, notices should have been displayed and proper procedures followed for a temporary restriction of the general right of access to land. In fact there were no notices of any kind to be seen, apart from one that bore the words, ‘Ledgowan Estate, caring for the environment’.
Image © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

We decided that nothing was to be gained by arguing with him and began to unlock our car. Simpson then made the absurd accusation that we had been disturbing the environment by walking on it. (There was some irony in this because the estate owner has recently driven an enormously long and wide hill track across the mountainside, through peat, leaving boulders and other detritus strewn across it on both sides). He suggested to my wife, a retired head teacher who was telling him that he needed to learn better manners, that she needed a new pair of glasses then photographed her, photographed our car and stalked off to his own vehicle and we drove away.

Newly constructed hill track on Ledgowan Estate – photo taken from Achnasheen (click image for larger version)

We have since learned that the owners of this estate have previously behaved in an extremely intimidatory way with members of the public who have accessed their land. They obviously hold the legal rights of the public in contempt and are prepared to override them by employing disgraceful tactics of the kind described above and we believe that some action should be taken to deter them.


In the comments to this blog, Gerry Loose suggested that a mass walk be undertaken on Ledgowan Estate on St Andrews Day. He has asked me to publish the following.

St Andrew’s Day Mass Walk – Ledgowan Estate

My intention for the St Andrew’s Day Mass Walk in and around the Ledgowan Estate would be twofold:

1: to register concerns about hostility to access

2: to inspect the Estate, with a view to determining how the title-holders to this Estate are managing that part of Scotland of which I regard them to be stewards in the name of the folk of Scotland (as indeed many landowners claim to be).

That there is an absolute right of access enshrined in Scots Law is unarguable. That the Estate Managers and Title Holders have the best interests of the people of Scotland at heart, and that the Managers and Title Holders respect their duties to conform to the Planning Regulations of their local authority may be determined by this Mass Walk.

Unfortunately, time and work commitments and personal constraints mean that I can no longer take part in this Mass Walk.

I urge you all, however to be present on the day, in informal groups, as and when you can arrive, spending as much or as little time as you have and inspect the condition of Ledgowan Estate, touching on the two points above; and then make your findings public.
I’ll be there in spirit and will eagerly await all reports.

I also expect this St Andrew’s Day Inspection of (other) Lands & Estates to become an annual event.

I will be working towards this.

Good luck and happy walking
Gerry Loose

Gerry Loose

The Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003 was passed during the first Scottish Parliament. It codifies the kinds of restrictions or burdens that can be included in titles to land and property. Among them is something called a conservation burden that can be used to protect aspects of the natural and cultural heritage. One of the bodies allowed to impose such burdens is the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

Helen Finan owns a croft in the village of Inveralligin in Wester Ross. She inherited the croft from her mother, Donaldina Maclean Finan who passed away in 2011. The croft has been in her family since before the 1886 crofting act. Her great-grandfather’s family was a victim of the Highland Clearances. Helen moved to the croft in 2009 to nurse her mother in the last two years of her life.

In 2006, Donaldina had decrofted (removed from crofting tenure) the house and garden. Later, in 2009 she exercised her legal right to acquire the whole croft and, in so doing became an owner-occupier crofter.

Under the crofting acts, if the croft land is sold to anyone who is not a member of the crofters’ family within 10 years of being bought, the landlord is entitled to clawback 50% of the difference between the open-market value and the price paid to acquire it. This condition relates only to the croft land and not to the dwelling house. Helen is content with this statutory condition.

This blog is not about the croft-land. It is about the house and garden which Helen now owns outright. The house and garden are shown bounded in blue in the title plan above. The croft-land is the remaining land bounded by the red line.

At the time of the sale of the croft, NTS, who bought the estate in 1967, insisted that a conservation burden was imposed on the croft house, garden and croft-land. (1)

The burden requires the consent of NTS for the following.

– the sub-division of the house or its permanent occupation by more than one family

– the development of the building for anything other than a single dwelling house

– any internal or external alterations.

The burdens require that,

– the owner shall paint the house at least ever five years with a colour approved by NTS

– the garden be kept in a neat and tidy condition.

Helen and her late mother have done a very good job abiding by these conditions.

The most significant of the conservation burden conditions, however, has nothing to do with appearance or amenity but insists that the house and garden,

“shall be used as a private dwelling house only and as the main residence of the Proprietor, and for no other purpose, including a holiday home or let for holiday purposes.”

Helen is not in a position to reside permanently in Inveralligin and thus she wishes to sell the whole croft. But she faces a problem because the potential buyer has been advised that the burden will make it difficult to re-sell the property in future. The croft house is now difficult to sell and leaves Helen in a tricky position. She cannot live and work there as there is no work. She cannot let the house because that contravenes the conservation burden and it looks like she may not be able to sell it. Her future is in the hands of the NTS.

I understand that others are in a similar situation.

Now it may or may not be desirable that the owners of such properties be compelled to live in the house they own. Indeed Section 33(2) of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 insists that crofters should live within 20 miles of their croft (though this do not apply to the croft house if it is sold independently from the croft). The issue here is not the desirability or otherwise of such conditions but whether it is appropriate or even lawful for the NTS or any other private body to impose and police them.

Helen has therefore applied to the NTS to waive the conservation burden. The application was considered by the NTS’s “Conservation Agreement Scrutiny Panel”. It decided that it was willing to grant the waiver in respect of the residency condition but that all other conditions (the colour of the house etc) remain in place. But the panel placed a condition on the granting of the waiver viz.

the Panel recognised that the condition diminishes the market value of the property. In recognition of this the Panel requests that a payment be made to the trust equivalent to 50% of the uplift in the value of the Property arising from the granting of the waiver. The payment shall be applied to the trust’s charitable purposes which include the care and protection of the wider Torridon Estate for the benefit of the public.”

This is a quite breathtaking statement. The only reason the croft house is devalued is because of the conservation burden which NTS imposed and in exchange for waiving the burden, NTS wants to be paid a substantial sum of money!

The problem with the approach of the NTS is that it is not clear that the conservation burden is lawful in the first place. In 2002, the NTS argued for such burdens in written and oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament and made no mention of any wish to become involved in social engineering of any kind.

Section 38 of the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003 reads as follows

38 Conservation burdens

(1) On and after the day on which this section comes into force it shall, subject to subsection (2) below, be competent to create a real burden in favour of a conservation body, or of the Scottish Ministers, for the purpose of preserving, or protecting, for the benefit of the public—

(a) the architectural or historical characteristics of any land; or

(b) any other special characteristics of any land (including, without prejudice to the generality of this paragraph, a special characteristic derived from the flora, fauna or general appearance of the land);

and any such burden shall be known as a “conservation burden

What architectural, historic of other (flora, fauna etc.) characteristic of the land is preserved or protected for the benefit of the public by insisting that the owner of the house shall use it as their main residence and for no other purpose?

Answer – none.

Whether someone lives in a  house or not bears no relation to any characteristics of the land.

In this instance an absentee conservation landlord is seeking to impose its values and will on another property owner who stands to be disadvantaged as a consequence. Is this right?

It would be interesting to see what the Land Court or Lands Tribunal for Scotland would make of of this question if it were to be presented to them given both the question over the legitimacy of the conservation burden and the more general conflict arising between the rights of crofting tenants under the law and the aims of the NTS.


(1) Of course the conditions of sale were accepted by Helen’s late mother. Had she not accepted them, she may have had to go to the Land Court to contest them. She was ill and in the last two years of her life. On a reasonable interpretation of the circumstances she appeared not to have had a great deal of choice in the matter.

There are many stories and news items on land relations in Scotland that I do not cover on this blog. I have decided that I should and so, in addition to the normal researched analysis and opinion pieces, I will now be running more frequent straight informative news stories documenting issues that are of interest. This is the first.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) has hit the headlines in recent months. The above map (larger 3.3Mb version here) shows a number of sites that have been given planning consent on Buccleuch Estates land around Canonbie.  A local campaign (Canonbie Residents Against Coal Developments) has been set up. Here is their first newsletter.

The national campaign is Frack off Scotland.

Image: The British Army on exercises, King’s Park, Stirling. Pastel by William Kennedy 1889

On 15 August a ceremony will be held in Stirling to mark the transfer of ownership of the King’s Park from the Crown to Scottish Ministers. Thus ends a long and disgraceful saga from which none of the official bodies concerned can take much credit. Rather it has been thanks to the diligence of the King’s Park Community Council, local activists and others that this important historic Royal Park was not sold and Stirling’s common good fund raided to finance the acquisition.

The sequence of events is as follows.

The King’s Park at Stirling Castle is Scotland’s earliest Royal Park and the last one still to be owned by the Crown. Since 1956, this historic 140ha park has been administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC) as part of the Crown Estate, with 48 ha leased out as agricultural land, 61ha leased to Stirling Golf Club on a 30 year lease (1992-2022) and 28ha leased to Stirling Council as a public park and  other ground (See map 2.8Mb pdf).

In 1999, virtually all the historic sites still held as ancient possessions by the Crown in Scotland were transferred to the ownership of Scottish Ministers as part of the devolution settlement. These included Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, Holyrood Park, Glasgow and St Andrews Cathedrals and Linlithgow Palace and loch. (1) The King’s Park was left out of the transfer however, apart from the small area of land comprising the King’s Knot.

In 2001, the CEC increased the rent for the golf course by a substantial amount and the case went to arbitration. The arbiter found in the club’s favour at around half the amount being sought by CEC.

This led to negotiations in 2006 to explore the possibility of the club acquiring the land they rented. Negotiations were conducted in secret. However, local people found out at the same time as a detailed report by a group of Councils on the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland became available. The report set out the position over the King’s Park and controversy ensued. As a result, in November 2006, the CEC was forced to withdraw its proposed sale and instead agreed to explore alternative approaches with Stirling Council.

Those discussions led to a detailed proposal adopted by Stirling Council to establish a public trust to take ownership of the land and grant a long lease to the golf course for an up-front capital payment and peppercorn rent. A purchase price of £600,000 was placed on the land to be funded by a £450,000 up-front payment by the golf club for their 175 year lease and £150,000 from the Stirling common good fund.

This deal was resisted by the King’s Park Community Council and they commissioned some work to be carried out to develop a more appropriate way forward. The report – The Right Future for the King’s Park – was published in October 2008 and formed the basis of subsequent fraught negotiations with the Council. Meanwhile, the CEC sat tight and said nothing. Scottish Ministers were approached in October 2008 but declined to act and insisted that the transfer could only go ahead on the terms then being negotiated.

Protracted discussions continued between the CEC, Council and Golf Club during 2009 and 2010, with continued opposition from the local community. Then, in January 2011, the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland, and the proposed sale of the King’s Park was halted pending the outcome of the inquiry.

In March 2012, the Committee published its report and this is what they concluded in relation to the King’s Park.

157. The second historic site managed by the CEC as part of the Crown Estate is the King’s Park at Stirling Castle. The national historical and cultural importance of this ancient possession of the Crown in Scotland has been highlighted by the Scottish Government. Andy Wightman was very critical of the CEC’s record of managing the King’s Park:

“there has been a lot of controversy over it. That was one of the reasons I got very angry with the Crown Estate Commissioners. …. It is an incredibly important historic area which they just regard as a piece of farmland and a lease to a golf course. In 2001, they were going to sell the land to the golf course, and even the local authority did not know about that.”

158. He concluded that the Park should be the responsibility of Historic Scotland rather than the CEC with its commercial remit. Historic Scotland already manages Stirling Castle and a part of the King’s Park on behalf of Scottish Ministers as owners.

159. We recommend that the Secretary of State for Scotland directs the CEC to enter discussions with the Scottish Government, with a view to the CEC transferring the ownership of all of the King’s Park still held by the Crown to the Scottish Government.

In March 2012, the CEC / Council / Golf Club deal was still on the table only this time the remaining agricultural land was included and the purchase price had risen to over £1 million, with the common good fund to be raided to the tune of £567,000 – over 60% of its total capital reserves – to transfer ownership of public land from one public body to another. (2) But the deal could not be signed off until the UK Government had responded to the recommendations of the Scottish Affairs Committee.

A Parliamentary question by Patrick Harvie MSP revealed that Scottish Ministers had begun to take an interest in the matter.

In July 2012, the UK Government published its response to the Scottish Affairs Committee report. It rejected the Committee’s recommendations that the Crown Estate should be devolved to Scotland but agreed that oysters and mussels and the slopes of Edinburgh Castle (left out of the 1999 transfer of the Castle itself) could be transferred. On the question of King’s Park, however, the UK Government stated that, unlike the land in West Princes Street Gardens, the King’s Park was different:-

7.6 The King’s Park, Stirling cannot, however, be among these [ancient assets that could be transferred]. After lengthy negotiations, the Crown Estate recently agreed a market price for its sale to Stirling Council, so transfer at nil cost would be incompatible with the Crown Estate’s statutory responsibilities. Similarly, the rights to gold and silver and many salmon and other fishery rights have commercial values on the property market which the Crown Estate cannot disregard.

Following the Scottish Affairs Committee report, Scottish Ministers started to take a renewed interest in the matter and instructed Historic Scotland to open discussions with the CEC with a view to securing a transfer of ownership at no cost. In August 2012, the local MSP, Bruce Crawford wrote to the Council urging them to withdraw their offer in the expectation that this would clear the way for a nil cost transfer.

In Sep 2012, a group of prominent historians issued a statement emphasising the historic importance of the site. This was followed by a paper establishing the boundaries of the land in question.

In the lead up to a crucial Council meeting on 11 October 2012 (Agenda and Minutes), the CEC was still of the view that the land had a commercial value and that they expected any sale to be on commercial terms. The Scottish Green Party Councillor, Mark Ruskell tabled an amendment to secure a nil cost transfer, but this was narrowly defeated in favour of a motion remitting the matter to the Chief Executive to pursue matters further. Critical to this was a letter from Historic Scotland of 8 October which emphasised that matters were still under negotiation.

By the time of the next Council meeting on 13 December matters had moved on and at last, some sense seemed to prevail. The golf club would pay a sum to the CEC for a long lease, title would then be transferred to Scottish Ministers at no cost and the common good fund would remain untouched. Here is the report in the Stirling Observer.

This appears to be essentially the deal that has now been secured. It is not what was proposed in The Right Future document, in that the title to Scottish Ministers is burdened by a 150 year lease. However, the settlement safeguards the integrity of the King’s Park, re-unites its ownership with Stirling Castle and affirms the long argued principal that a nil consideration transfer to Scottish Ministers was the right way forward.

It is safe to assume that the fact that CEC and the Scotland Office had been arguing against this position until very recently will be quietly forgotten next week And so, when Michael Moore, Fiona Hyslop and dignitaries from Stirling Council and the CEC make their speeches, have their photographs taken, and enjoy their “light finger buffet” on Thursday 15 August, I will be paying close attention to what they have to say about how this all came to pass.

The folk who were critical in securing this outcome will probably not be at the ceremony but they know who they are. They can take credit for not only securing the future of the site in public ownership but also preventing the pillaging of the Stirling Common Good Fund to the tune of £567,000. One day, the Trustees of the Fund might think it appropriate to spend some of these savings on a light finger buffet in recognition of the efforts of those whose hard work since 2006 lies behind the ceremonies next week.

(1) The full list of properties is listed in Annex 6, page 122 of the 2007 report of the Crown Estate Review Working Group. Full report is here.

(2) See Council Agenda 1 March 2012 Item 25 (6.3Mb pdf)

UPDATE 15 August 2013

The CEC has issued a media release which reveals that the Crown is granting a 150 year lease to Stirling Council for a consideration of £817,000. The Council are granting a sub-lease to Stirling Golf Club which will contribute £400,000 of the cost. The title is then being transferred gratis to Scottish Ministers. It is not clear where Stirling Council intend to raise the £417,000 from. I have placed a request for this information with the Council’s media office.

Finally, it is interesting to note the final sentence of the CEC media release.

The Crown Estate has a statutory obligation to transfer land at market value.”

This goes to the heart of the matter. The assertion is untrue. Not only has the CEC in the past conveyed bits of harbours and the like for minimal consideration, it conveyed the 26 historic properties (including Stirling Castle and the King’s Knot) for no consideration and the CEC’s own statute does not oblige it to “transfer land at market value. There are a number of provisions in the Crown Estate Act 1961 that provide flexibility to the CEC in transferring title, the most important of which is Section 3(1).

3 General provisions as to course of management.

(1) Save as provided by the following provisions of this Act, the Commissioners shall not sell, lease or otherwise dispose of any land of the Crown Estate, or any right or privilege over or in relation to any such land, except for the best consideration in money or money’s worth which in their opinion can reasonably be obtained, having regard to all the circumstances of the case but excluding any element of monopoly value attributable to the extent of the Crown’s ownership of comparable land.”

I emphasis in bold the critical part of the section.


The terms of the deal reached between the crown Estate Commissioners and Stirling Council is as follows.

There are three ground leases to the Council for 150 years at nominal rent. The map below shows these areas.

Lease 1 (blue) covers the current public park, the public paths around the golf course and all the land adjacent to the Castle (Gowanhill, Back Walk etc.). There is no capital payment for this lease.

Lease 2 (yellow) covers the golf course. It is sub-leased to Stirling Golf Club for 150 years. They have paid £400,000 for the sub-lease, which Stirling Council has passed on to the Crown Estate Commissioners as the consideration for the ground lease of this land.

Lease 3 (pink) covers the two large areas of agricultural land. The value of this land is £417,000 and the Council has concluded an agreement with the Crown Estate Commissioners that this sum can be paid up over twenty years. There is an option at any time to pay off the balance and terminate the agreement. In the meantime, income from the use of the land is shared. Any capital investment the Council makes in improving the land (for example in creating the new parkland or the major events ground) is taken into account under the agreement. Stirling Council will pay for this lease from its normal annual budget.

The heritable title to all of the land, subject to the three ground leases in favour of the Council has passed from the Crown Estate Commissioners to Scottish Ministers for no consideration, as recommended by the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee.

In this Guest Blog, poet & novelist John Burnside reflects on the land, nature, folk and elite power. John’s most recent book is a collection of short stories, called Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape). This essay was first published in The Scotsman on 29 June 2013 and is published here with their kind permission.

Should Scotland’s environmental policies be governed by the rich and powerful?

John Burnside 29 June 2013

IN 1997, I gathered with a group of other writers at the Edinburgh Festival, gamely sporting my yes/yes badge, to pledge support for a Scottish Parliament. At the time, I had no great expectations of the radical changes I thought were needed, here and elsewhere; what I hoped, however, was that a devolved Scotland might moderate, or even abandon, the high-handed approach to government that I had come to know and despise under Thatcherism. The gathering that day was jovial, with much joking and not a little self-consciousness for some. I had only been back in Scotland for a couple years, having moved south at the age of ten when my father got a job at Corby Steelworks and, at the time, I felt a little uncertain of the territory. I had no party-political affiliations and the idea of nationalism had always rendered me queasy. Still, crossing my fingers, I pledged my support and cast my vote, then stood back to see what would happen.

Now, we are about to do the referendum ceilidh all over again, only this time the stakes are higher. The trouble is, none of the changes I want to see are even on the agenda. Well, they are, in the usual lip service, greenwashed fashion, but none of it is real.

Meanwhile, I am much the same this time around as I was then: unaffiliated, highly sceptical and wondering which compromise to make in order to avoid the lesser of two evils. I would like to be affiliated: like many people, I suspect, I am still waiting for a green party in Scotland worthy of the name, but I see no sign of that for the near future and, to be frank, I want to weep when someone like Al Gore pops round for the day to praise the current government’s supposed environmental credentials (built entirely, and rather ironically, on a flawed energy strategy that, while it lines the pockets of landowners and developers, is devastating our wild places).

In fact, it is a mark of how compromised we are that my political wish-list for today is much the same as it was in 1997: a sound energy policy based on energy saving and informed research into genuinely renewable technology; land uses governed by environmental principle, rather than developer whim; meaningful, by which I mean radical, land reform; clear policies to eliminate, or at least reduce, pollution, (rather than craven kowtowing to the interests of neonicitinoid producers); and democratic social policies aimed at effecting equality of opportunity, not ‘community’ initiatives that sneak ‘Big Society’ in through the back door. Central to all of this, and the chief cause of our failed environmental policies to date, is land use. Or rather, land ownership.

In his 1931 polemic, Natural Prosperity, the Australian economist, RF Dyson, wrote: “It is just as impossible to secure to each his full earnings and at the same time to treat land as wealth, as it is to make an omelette without breaking the eggs. For first of all the private ownership of land means the private collection of its rental value. Since the rental value, which is always collected in money, is purely a community product, incomes gained through its private collection are as morally indefensible as incomes gained through common burglary…theft is morally wrong because it enables some to live on the labour of others. The private collection of land rent is worse than burglary because it is a continuous and increasing theft, and also it keeps opportunities unequal. That is economically wrong because incomes gained in that manner are not limited by the natural productive power of the recipients, and consequently a few people receive incomes far in excess of their needs.”

If we add in the continuous and increasing theft that is the current agriculture/energy subsidy system, Dyson could be talking about Scotland today – which is not to say that all landowners in Scotland are thieves. There are many who, in the context of current practice, are both responsible and, given the temptations, restrained in the uses they make of the land. The fact remains, however, that because of the way land is owned, and because the subsidy system throws public money – our money – at any business interest that can afford the consultancy to complete the appropriate forms and doctor the Environmental Impact Assessment, (should this even be called for), the fact remains that it is the larger landowners, along with developers and corporations, who dictate Scottish environmental policy, such as it is.

There can be no more obvious illustration of this than the Menie scandal. There is not room, here, to rehash all the details, but one clear fact remains: this was a defining, even textbook case of how to override local democracy, environmental issues and the basic rights of local residents.

On the environment issue, The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s objection was clear: “The very high nature conservation value of this coastline is recognised at both a European … and national level … indeed, the whole stretch of coastline hosts a rich assemblage of specially adapted higher and lower plants and other wildlife, including a diverse breeding bird community and otters. Of even greater concern [is] the destruction of over a third of Foveran Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which is important nationally for both its biological and geological features.” As we know, these concerns were ignored by Holyrood. The billionaire developer would come first; local people, and their environment, came nowhere.

It would be foolish to suggest that this government is any more cynical or undemocratic than many others; for some reason, governments do tend to pander to the rich and powerful. Nevertheless, it’s galling when even our supposedly ‘green’ policies are blatantly shaped by the interests of landowners and developers. Take wind energy, for example. In 2012, the Spanish Ornithological Society, having conducted an independent study on the impact of turbines on birds, said: “The more than 18,000 wind turbines [currently operating] in Spain, could be causing an annual mortality of birds and bats [of] between 6 and 18 million individuals.”

Researchers working on raptors, migrating birds and bats in the United States have called for a moratorium on wind farms or, at the very least, clear guidelines and regulation that would help lower the number of birds and bats killed. With this in mind, surely it would make sense, in a country so fanatically committed to Big Wind, to do all we can to protect birdlife – but in Scotland, turbines all too often go where landowners want them to go, because turbines attract huge subsidies, (the system was, in fact, originally modelled on agricultural subsidies). As The Guardian reported recently: “The boom in onshore wind power, likened to a “new industrial revolution”, is being dominated by a small number of private landowners who will share around £1bn in rental fees over the next eight years. Rental payments vary and are secret but…landowners can now expect £40,000 a year “risk-free” for each large turbine erected on their land. Those set to benefit include senior members of the Royal Family and the Forestry Commission in Wales and Scotland.”

That our energy and land use policies should be governed by the most brutal profit motive is tragic, but this subsidy-grab is just the latest in a long history of moral and environmental crimes. In 1808, tenant farmer named Robert Burns penned these satirical lines:

Farmin, and fencin, an a

Ploughin, and plantin, an’ a

Beha’d how our kintry’s improvin,

An’ poverty wearin awa

Since then, we have continued ‘improvin’ the land for the benefit of the richest and the least socially productive, to the detriment of what should have been a shared environment. As long as it is in the interests of corporate landowners, faux-green energy companies and billionaire developers, Scotland still means business.

However, as we ask ourselves again, over the coming year, what Scotland ought to mean, and what we ought to be doing to protect the quality of life of all (human and otherwise) who live here, we must finally begin the work of making Scotland free for all, not just by redistributing a few acres here and there in ‘community’ buy-outs, but by revolutionising our ideas of how land could be used, not for the profit of a few, but for the delight of all.


At the weekend we got back to the hills after a period of enforced confinement due to work and school exams. We decided to camp high on the Lochngar plateau and stravage around the hills on Sunday before returning home. Heading off early on Saturday morning, we were delayed for over an hour in Perth due to being first on the scene at a car accident, assisting the casualties and providing witness statements to the police. As a result, by the time we got to Braemar it was time for lunch. The sun was shining and we decided to have a picnic on the banks of the River Dee.

Despite being one of Scotland’s most scenic and famous rivers there are very few places where tourists can pull off the road and wander down to the river (there’s a long history to this situation). But I know most of them and so we headed down a small track to a fishing hut and parked the car. There was no-one fishing and I parked the car in a way that did not block anybody’s access.

As we sat by the river, our dog Coire, who loves water, decided to go in for a swim. I was tempted myself. So there we were, enjoying our picnic and looking forward to getting on the hill. Suddenly, the peace was interrupted by a loud shout.

Get your dog out of the river!

We turned round. A man was standing some 20 metres away pointing at the river. He looked agitated. We were, for the moment, speechless. Who was he? What gave him the right to shout at us?

Get your dog out of the river. This is a fishing river, People pay to fish here.”

What’s the problem“, I asked as I walked towards him to find out what all the fuss was about. He was dressed in fishing gear but was not, I suspected a fisherman – more likely a ghillie I thought.

You’re trespassing“, he shouted.

He then pointed to our car.

Move your car. This is not a public highway. You’re blocking access.”

Of course, on this point he was right. I am well aware of the fact that pulling off any main road in Scotland generally places you on private land upon which you have no legal right to be. But I was not blocking access. There was no-one fishing at the time. Perhaps there was someone about to arrive in which case I would have been happy to co-operate.

At this point I wondered whether it would be possible to have a civilised conversation with this man who, by this time, had still not introduced himself or explained why he assumed the right to shout at us in such an aggressive manner.

As I pondered what to do he shouted,

If you don’t get out of here I’m going to call the police.”

At which point I concluded that there was little point in engaging him in conversation.

Go ahead – be my guest“, I replied and turned back to finish our picnic. Coire was still happily playing in the river but we were stressed and anxious about the encounter.

He stormed off.

We finished our picnic and left to head to Glen Muick, where more surprises awaited but that’s a blog for another day.

I have spent a good deal of my adult life in the hills around Deeside. I know many of the landowners and the people who work there. I also know that the estates still have a hegemonic role in the area. We were on Invercauld Estate and I presume that the ghillie is employed by the estate. The man in the photograph on the estate’s home page indeed looks very like the gentleman involved.

In conclusion, this is not simply a matter of public access. It is a manifestation of how those in authority continue to project landed hegemony.

I now plan to find out who he is, who employs him and to ask for an apology from them both.


Invercauld Estate has confirmed that the person involved is an employee of theirs. The factor, Simon Blackett, has apologised for the incident – see comment below together with my reply.


An interesting study was conducted in 2003 examining the perceived conflicts amongst user groups on the River Dee. Part of this relates to the use of language. One critic on twitter (an Aberdeenshire landowner) suggested that it was “irresponsible and selfish to let my dog splash in a fishing pool” Pools of water in the River Dee have different meanings to different people – to me and my dog this was a swimming pool not a fishing pool – actually the stretch of water concerned is NOT a fishing pool.

An enjoyable night on the Lochnagar plateau gave ample time to digest the events of Saturday.

Photo: The author working as a stalker’s ghille or pony-man on a large landed estate in eastern Scotland with my Highland garron, Brandy.

Recently I found myself in the garden of a mansion house of a large Scottish landed estate drinking a cup of tea. I was there quite legally having entered through the front gate so to speak. It is fair to say, however, that most of the people there did not know who I was. One lady (who I recognised) caught my eye and smiled as if to begin a conversation. I moved sideways swiftly. Anyhow, I enjoyed 30 minutes or so of eaves-dropping conversations between members of the landed class.

Johnny, how lovely to see you. How is Sarah keeping?

Enjoying this fine weather – how long are you up for?

Til the stalking I think. You know I was saying to Angus this morning it’s difficult to know who’s around and who’s not. My daughter says we should get onto Facebook but I don’t like that sort of thing. Who else is around?”

Well the [names withheld] arrived last week and she said the whole family were going to manage sometime over the summer.”

It is fair to say that these assembled members of the landed class comprise the absentee owners of hunting estates who arrive like swallows for the summer and depart after the end of the red deer stalking season ends on 21 October. Indeed it is the principal reason I understand why the UK Parliament traditionally opens at the beginning of November as the Monarch would be occupied at Balmoral until well into October as would many Members of Parliament. One of the highlights of the “season” is the Northern Meeting Summer Ball in August (“Coloured bow ties, coloured shirts and smoking jackets should not be worn” by men and “tartan sashes and tiaras are encouraged” for the ladies).

Anyhow, as I shuffled round the garden, I noticed a copy of the Scottish Field magazine which reminded me that back in January, I had been asked by its editor to write an article on aspects of what I had just been hearing about.

Specifically, he noted that land reform is going to be on the agenda in 2013  and “do you fancy writing me a Viewpoint column arguing that we don’t need private estates to protect the economic value of game sports? There is a school of thought that private ownership actually limits the economic potential of huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’. If you could explore that, particularly with reference to Scandinavia and Sweden in particular, that would  be great.”

I readily agreed. I am a writer. I need to earn a living.

Two weeks after I submitted the article, I hadn’t heard anything and so I emailed him asking if he had got the piece. He replied that he had but that “it’s going to need a fair bit of work before it’s ready for publication in a magazine where a lot of readers will know a great deal about this subject.” He then promised to come back to me with “some detailed thoughts on how I think we should proceed with a view to publishing in the next issue.”

Nothing arrived. I forgot about it until I was chasing up invoices at the end of March. I asked if he was still interested in the piece or not. No reply. At the end of May we finally made contact. It was clear that he was not happy with the piece and felt that it didn’t meet the brief I had been given. To avoid any further pain, I suggested that, since I had spent some time writing it, I was not inclined to re-write it and that perhaps we should just forget about it. That was agreed. I feel that the piece is worth publishing though so here it is as a blog post.

As a result of my indiscretions I shall probably not be asked to write again for the Scottish Field. Which is probably just as well since, had my article been published, rather more of those who I was mingling with in the garden over a cup of tea might well have recognised me. I don’t think they read my blog.


Shortly after New Year, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) welcomed the fact that newly qualified gamekeepers from Scotland’s colleges had all found jobs on sporting estates. Given the level of youth unemployment more generally, this is certainly welcome news and what was particularly notable about the TV and radio reports was the enthusiasm of the young gamekeepers who clearly saw their chosen profession as challenging and worthwhile.

These young gamekeepers can no doubt look forward to a rewarding life in Scotland’s great outdoors. But the job is not well paid (often little more than the minimum wage) and many gamekeepers do not even have written contracts of employment (as many as a third according to a recent survey – 1.2Mb pdf). Keepers will often live in tied accommodation on sporting estates and the opportunities for career development are very limited.

Such matters were not covered in the media reports which also, rather misleadingly, conflated the economic contribution of field sports in Scotland (around £240 million per year) with the economic contribution of sporting estates (the framework within which much of the hunting economy is currently delivered). The two are very different. Scotland no doubt has a vibrant hunting economy with people coming from all over the UK and abroad to enjoy activities such as angling and deer-stalking. But it is by no means obvious that sporting estates are the best means of exploiting the full potential of what Scotland has to offer. Indeed, such estates may well be part of the problem.

Prior to 1811, there were only around six hunting estates in Scotland but by the end of the century there were around 150 covering over one million hectares of land. Today there are around 340 extending over 2.1 million hectares of the Highlands and Islands. Two-thirds of them are owned by absentee owners and 70% have been owned by the current owners or their family for less than 50 years. Most owners are primarily concerned with the private enjoyment of hunting for their family and friends. (1)

Land use priorities are changing, however, and a report by the SGA last year highlighted how, from their point of view the traditional model of red deer stalking in Sutherland is under threat from “overambitious and ill thought through forestry and conservation projects” with the “notorious crimes” at Glenfeshie and Mar Lodge being singled out as “carnages” which will go down in history as “animal welfare atrocities”.

Other changes are taking place. New owners are appearing on the scene with Scandinavians in particular bringing a very different approach to the management of the traditional Victorian sporting estate. Across much of Europe there are no sporting estates. In Norway, a country five times the size of Scotland and where hunting is a national passion, there are a mere 23 private estates larger than 10,000ha. In Scotland there are 144. Much hunting takes place on common land owned by the state or local kommune.

Norway’s equivalent of the gamekeeper – a jaktguide – is actually very rare. Hunters simply obtain a hunting permit and off they go. Hunting guides in Scandinavia are generally self-employed. Instead of living in tied housing, they will own their own farm and will have skills in other outdoor pursuits. In Scandinavian countries hunting is seen as a recreational activity equivalent to other outdoor pursuits such as hiking and skiing. In Scotland, walkers and climbers are considered very different from hunters with interests that are often in conflict.

At a time when field sports are coming under sustained attack from various directions, it is time to think afresh about how the hunting economy could be developed to bring greater economic and social benefits to rural Scotland. Some evidence submitted to the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group suggests that it time to introduce a system of hunting permits so that red deer in particular (which are a public resource) can be managed in a more integrated way with other land uses including outdoor recreation.

New thinking should include better prospects for young people who wish to follow a career as hunting guides and whose opportunities are constrained by the limited and poorly paid jobs available on sporting estates. If the provision of hunting can be made more democratic with greater levels of participation and integration with other land uses then Scotland’s hunting economy might begin to grow and to provide greater opportunities for the many individuals and businesses who complain of how it is currently managed.

Hunting, fishing and shooting have a bright future. The way forward for the hunting economy lies in taking a critical look at how it is delivered. Scotland’s sporting estates have their origins in a very different era to serve very different priorities. In the 21st century, however, they are no longer fit for purpose and are now increasingly an obstacle to a vibrant rural economy.

Doing things differently, will involve local control of hunting, community ownership of land, integrated management of forestry, conservation and recreation, opportunities for self-employed hunting guide businesses and a proper system of permits and licensing to manage wild game according to democratically agreed management plans.

Almost two decades ago in 1995, the highland historian James Hunter, responding to the claim that landowners felt threatened with talk of land reform, opined on the BBC programme Eorpa that,

The more they feel threatened in my view the better. They need to feel threatened and they should feel threatened because there can be no future in Britain in the 21st century for a rural economy dependent on tweedy gentlemen coming from the south to slaughter our wildlife. That is not the way to run the Highlands and Islands.” (2)

I wish Scotland’s newly employed gamekeepers the best of luck in their chosen profession. But I urge them to join me and others in discussing how we can liberate them from poorly-paid employment in the service of Scotland’s privately-owned sporting estates.


(1) See Hunting and hegemony in the Highlands of Scotland: a study in the ideology of landscapes and landownership, Norwegian University of Agriculture, 2004.

(2) This quote from Hunter was not in the submitted article to Scottish Field. I felt it might be too inflammatory.