Librarians are important people. They provide order to what would otherwise be chaos in the world’s store of knowledge. The most common way this is done is by the Dewey Decimal Classification system which ensures that you can find information on any topic in a standardised manner in libraries across the world. Land Reform is classified under

3. Social Sciences
33. Economics
333 Economics of land and energy
333.3 Private ownership of land
333.31 Land Reform

Definitions matter. Otherwise, we live in Wonderland with Alice, the Mad Hatter and Humpty Dumpty.

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

I was forcefully reminded of this at the Community Land Scotland conference on Skye this weekend. It convened in the wake of the publication of an Interim Report by the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) that has had a less than enthusiastic welcome from land reformers (see for example, here, here and here).

Alex Salmond gave the first speech ever by a First Minister on the topic of land reform and set a target of one million acres of land in “community ownership” by 2016. He promised legislation this parliamentary session to sort out the mind-numbing complexities of the 2003 Land Reform Act and announced a further £3 million for the Scottish Land Fund. Listen to the speech in full here, text here and a brief media interview here. I will blog separately on this ambition (he provided no target for how he would like to see the pattern of private ownership by 2020). (1)

The important thing about his speech was that it belatedly re-vitalised the land reform debate. In May 2007, after forming a Scottish Government for the first time, Scottish Ministers instructed civil servants that “enough has been done on land reform“. On 1 June 2007, the Land Reform Branch within the government was wound up and replaced with the Community Assets Branch.

In their 2011 Manifesto, the SNP made the following promise

We believe it is time for a review of Scotland’s land reform legislation. For example, we believe the current period for three months for communities to take advantage of their right of first purchase is too short, and we would wish to see it extended to six months. We will establish a Land Reform Review Group to advise on this and other improvements which we will legislate on over the course of the next five years.”

In July 2012, Alex Salmond announced the formation of the LRRG which was given its remit in August. What became clear when the Group published its Interim Report was that a wide-ranging remit that sought radical proposals had evolved into a Group considering solely matters to do with community ownership (and a selective definition of that term). See my original critique here for further background.

And this is where definitions and meanings come into play. Alex Salmond’s speech was, of course a highlight of the conference but much of the interest was also focussed on the speech by Dr Alison Elliot, the Chair (and sole surviving original member) of the LRRG. The most significant revelation was that her definition of land reform is, in best Humpty Dumpty tradition, just what she chooses it to mean.

The classic dictionary definition of land reform is the redistribution of agricultural land to (usually) landless people. Most development agencies and non-governmental organisations, however, deploy a wider definition. The United Nations, for example, describes it as “an integrated programme of measures designed to eliminate obstacles to economic and social development arising out of defects in the agrarian structure.”

Peter Dale, former President of the International Federation of Surveyors, described land reform recently in the following terms.

Land is a diverse concept that depends on whether you are looking at it from a legal, financial, land use or social perspective i.e. its ownership, value or use. Reform may concern the changing of land rights (land tenure reform), the redistribution of ownership or use rights (including land consolidation and land reallocation, i.e. reforms to the pattern of ownership), alterations to land use (e.g. physical changes in agricultural practice or through inner city development), changes to land tax (that bring about changes in land ownership, value or use), or changes in how land is managed, etc.

“In summary, the term ‘land reform’ embraces all those processes that alter the pattern of land ownership, land rights, land values or land use within a specified area.” (My emphasis.)

Mainstream framing of land reform is characterised by two features – it is broadly defined and it is programmatic (that is it involves a series of interventions forming part of a coherent programme).

This is precisely what the Land Reform Policy Group did between 1997 and 1999 when they published a programme of proposals which ranged from public access legislation through tenement law reform to the establishment of National Parks. The roots of the current confused stance of the LRRG can be traced back to then. One of the products of the 1999 programme was the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which included the right of public access, a community right to buy and a crofting community right to buy. At the time I argued against using the term “land reform” as the title of the 2003 Act. I argued for two acts – a Public Access Act and a Community Right to Buy Act (in two parts). In her speech, Dr Elliot stressed how this one element of the earlier programme was the starting point for her Group’s deliberations.

If that was always the intent, then the remit given to the group compounded the confusion by appearing to provide a wide ranging remit to examine radical proposals. I and many others welcomed what appeared to be this broad programmatic approach. But it is clear now that we misunderstood matters. There are conflicting reports as to whether this fits with the original remit as envisaged by Ministers. On the one hand I hear reports that some in the Scottish Government are mystified at this turn of events. On the other hand, Alex Salmond has now endorsed the Interim report and given the group a vote of confidence. We are where we are.

The most significant practical impact of of this narrow focus on community ownership (and a restricted interpretation even of that term) is that other potential beneficiaries of land reform will gain nothing from it. In many parts of Scotland there are vast tracts of land with few or no people living in them. There is no community to even begin to consider community landownership.

The real economic potential of land reform lies in providing opportunities for individuals (who after all are what make up communities), co-ops, businesses and other collective groups to obtain rights over land and resources and to invest capital, skills and energy in developing enterprises. The other key potential relates to developing an appropriate fiscal environment in which land speculation is eliminated, levels of private debt minimised and productive investment can be made by young people in particular in urban land, housing and business assets.

In Orkney, for example, Udal law meant that land was inherited by all children. (Children under the rest of Scotland’s land tenure system do not have any legal rights to inherit land.) The fragmentation of holdings and the subsequent development of a plural pattern of owner-occupation in the early 20th century provided the basis for the islands’ future prosperity. It is this potential which appeared to be encapsulated by the first of the LRRG objectives, namely to “enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land …“. It remains a source of some bewilderment how “people” in this context can be taken to mean only groups of people acting through a corporate community body.

So where now?

This restricted definition is of course only that of the Chair of the LRRG. I argued back in July 2012 that the value of the LRRG depended on its definition of land reform and its remit. There remains the possibility (indeed the hope) that it is widened following discussion with other members of the expanded Group. If not, then it will be up to others (perhaps a real land reform review group) to explore and deliver the full potential of land reform for Scotland.


(1) Alex Salmond noted that “Land ownership is currently overly concentrated” but appears to believe that more community ownership will resolve this. There is no evidence that the two are linked in any way.

UPDATE 14 June 2013

In a written answer (S4W-15291) to Rhoda Grant MSP, Paul Wheelhouse said that the remit of the LRRG has not changed.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish Labour): To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the interim report of Land Reform Review Group focuses on community ownership and whether this reflects a change in the group’s remit(S4W-15291)

Paul Wheelhouse: The remit of the independent Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) has not changed. The consultation, which yielded 484 submissions, has brought forward a wide range of issues on a broad range of subjects, including farm tenancy issues and issues regarding access. In the view of the LRRG, as set out in its interim report, issues raised regarding farm tenancies represent an area already being considered by the Tenant Farming Forum and as such, the review group, as its interim report states, will now concentrate on taking forward a number of issues in respect of the implementation and geographic impact of community right to buy legislation in order to support communities throughout Scotland in achieving their social, economic and environmental potential. The work of the LRRG will also help to formulate potential approaches to extending right to buy to urban Scotland and will inform consideration of the Scottish Government’s community empowerment and renewal proposals.

As was stated during the Land Reform debate on 5 June 2013, issues regarding farm tenants will be considered as part of the review preceding the Agricultural Holdings Bill proposed for later in this parliamentary session.

Photo: Roxburghe Estate Photo reference Library


Yesterday in Parliament there was a debate on land reform (Official Report here and watch here) initiated by the Labour Party. Congratulations to them for doing so. Eighty years ago, in 1923, when Labour was elected to government for the first time ever, their manifesto contained a section on the land.

The Land

The Labour Party proposes to restore to the people their lost rights in the Land, including Minerals, and to that end will work for re-equipping the Land Valuation Department, securing to the community the economic rent of land, and facilitating the acquisition of land for public use.

We are still waiting.

The day before, there was an announcement that the Duke of Roxburghe (pictured above), the owner of 55,136 acres of land (some of which is held in trusts in the Bahamas), had agreed to lease 2 of them to the people of Kelso for a period of ten years to use for allotments. The Head of the Scottish Government’s Food, Drink and Rural Communities Division attended the opening ceremony and Paul Wheelhouse, the Environment and Climate Change Minister provided warm endorsement.

Quite why a 2 acre cabbage patch should attract such attention from Government Ministers and officials is a mystery. I can’t quite imagine other Cabinet Ministers in the UK, Denmark or Germany getting quite so excited. But this modest redistribution of land for 10 years sums up the land reforming ambitions of this Government quite well.

In the debate yesterday there were some interesting contributions from MSPs with Claire Baker and Patrick Harvie standing out for their clear and focussed speeches. It was left to Mr Wheelhouse to try and breathe some life into the dying corpse that is the Land Reform Review Group (it’s membership will increase from 3 to 5). I would rather have seen it wound up, given a clearer, unambiguous remit and a membership of people with a background, understanding and commitment to land reform. It is to bumble onwards though.

In 1999, out of frustration at what I then considered (but now look back on with fondness) to be Labour’s timidity on the land question, I wrote a short book called Scotland. Land & Power: the agenda for land reform. I have several copies left if anyone wants one free of charge.

Much of what I wrote then could be reproduced today and still be relevant but one passage caught my eye as I skimmed through the pages. I quoted Jim Hunter, whose intervention on Monday was noted in Parliament yesterday. In a conference on land reform in 1998 he said that,

The process on which we are embarking could, if we make it so, be far-reaching in its implications … It could certainly result in very basic alterations in the current pattern of ownership and control [of land].”

I then proceeded to argue that whether or not such alterations were well in hand by the end of the first or even the second or third terms of a Scottish Parliament was open to doubt.

As it happens I was proved right. Such alterations are not well in hand. Nor do they look as though they will be anytime soon.

The land reform debate is over for the moment. What we now have until April 2014 is a debate about community ownership.

Now, I don’t so much mind about that (it is an important topic) if in fact that was what Scottish Ministers always intended. It’s just that it would have been more honest of them never to pretend that this was going to be about land reform.


The title for this blog post is taken from the Land Restoration League Manifesto.

Yesterday in the UK Parliament, the Prime Minister confirmed that he would co-operate with the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to establish “who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy milking.”

In a debate following a statement on the recent European Council meeting called to discuss energy policy and tax evasion, Ian Davidson MP, the Chair of the Scottish Affair Committee raised the topic of transparency in landownership in Scotland (Column 1254 Hansard)

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The draft Bill that we produced also had huge amounts of pre-legislative scrutiny. We have to recognise that there will always be civil liberties concerns about this issue, so we should look at how we can start moving the debate on, recognising that there is a block of telephony covered by fixed and mobile telephony that is dealt with. As we move to more internet-based telephony, how are we going to help the police deal with that? We may have to take this in short steps, so that we can take the House with us and listen to concerns about civil liberties, but I am convinced that we have to take some steps, otherwise we will not be doing our job.

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement from the European Council and the Government, which says that proper information on “who really owns and controls each and every company” will be provided. Will the Government co-operate with the Scottish Affairs Committee in establishing who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy milking?

The Prime Minister: That is the intention of this move. Having all countries sign up to an action plan for putting together registers of beneficial ownership by companies and the rest of it will help tax authorities to make sure that people are paying tax appropriately. That is a debate that we are leading at the G8 and in the European Union, and that should apply—we hope—to every country.

This is a topic I raised with the Scottish Government in my evidence to the Land Registration Bill last year in which I argued that we should simply make it incompetent to register a title in the name of any corporate entity incorporated in a tax haven. This was rejected by Fergus Ewing on the basis that it would deter inward investment.

Given that the Land Reform Policy Group has decided to rename itself the Community Ownership Review Group, lets hope that David Cameron and Ian Davidson might be able to advance matters.



Professor Jim Hunter, Highland historian and former chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, was a member of the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group until early April 2013 when he left the group for personal reasons. On Monday 3 June 2013, Jim Hunter was asked by The Herald to comment on the possibility of the Review Group being restructured. The resulting Herald item was published today.

 A fuller 8 page commentary is available here.

Jim Hunter’s full statement to The Herald was as follows:

“If the Scottish Government are serious about land reform, Ministers and the government machine more generally must be involved directly in the work of the group.

“The relevant Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, should himself chair regular meetings of the group and its advisers. And the group should include senior civil servants with expertise in shaping legislation. This would be to follow the highly productive precedent of the 1997 Land Reform Policy Group which paved the way for the Land Reform Act of 2003.

“The Government should commit right now to legislating in 2014-15 on community land ownership. What needs to be done in this area is clear from lots of evidence already available to the LRRG. The process of getting land into community hands needs to be simpler. And there have to be powers – of the sort to which Johann Lamont has committed the Labour Party – to ensure that moves to community ownership can’t be blocked by existing landlords.

“Beyond that, Government needs to tell the group to explore how council tax and business rates might be replaced by a land value tax – something the Scottish Parliament could introduce with existing powers. Such a reform would benefit Scots right across the board by reducing greatly the cost of land for housing and other development.

“And the Scottish Government has to get serious about giving tenant farmers a right to buy their farms. That’s been basic to land reform all across Europe. Danish farmers got a right to buy more than 200 years ago, Irish farmers more than 100 years ago. How much longer are Scottish tenant farmers to be denied a similar right?

“The SNP Government says over and over again that it’s committed to social justice. But there’s precious little that’s socially just about a Scotland where fewer than a thousand people own more than half the country and where tenant farmers, as the LRRG have discovered, are frightened to speak out for fear of repercussions from their lairds.

“Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said recently of Denmark that ‘it gives us a glimpse of the kind of country we might be’. Well, if she and her colleagues truly want Scotland to be more like Denmark, a country where big estates were long ago confined to history books, then land reform is where they need to start.

“As it is, we’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.”

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.


[UPDATE 30 May 2013 This blog is an edited version of the one published yesterday (pdf copy here) in which I incorrectly argued that there was only one review promised in the SNP manifesto. There were in fact two as explained below. However, this fact does not change the substance of my argument. Why are farm tenancies being removed from the scope of land reform to be dealt with on their own?]

Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment for the past six years, told a conference yesterday that “the future of land tenure is one of the biggest issues facing the future development of rural Scotland“. Here is his speech in full. He was speaking at a National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) seminar entitled A Vision for Land Tenure: 2020. (1)

In his speech he announced a new review of farm tenancy legislation.

Now this is interesting because the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) has been given the task of coming up with radical proposals to take forward land reform but, in its Interim Report published last week, it said that it would be taking no further interest in land tenure as it affected Scotland’s tenant farmers (see my previous post for a fuller discussion). This was a shock to all those who had submitted evidence on the topic and particularly to tenant farmers some of whom, as the report noted, were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” They thus (mistakenly as it happens) placed some faith in this independent review of land reform to address their concerns. Yesterday, Mr Lochhead announced a separate review of agricultural tenancies.

All of which is rather confusing. The rationale for a separate review was that two separate reviews were promised in the SNP election manifesto in 2011. The relevant part of Lochhead’s speech is as follows.

11. This event is very timely, because we are at an important stage of the government’s work in this area.

12. That work includes two separate reviews, as set out in our election manifesto back in 2011.

13. The first review is the one being run by the Land Reform Review Group, who recently published their interim report.

14. That report set out a range of areas to be investigated more fully during the next phase. The group’s intention is to collect more evidence, by speaking to   those involved at the heart of those issues, before presenting recommendations to the Scottish Government.

15. Meanwhile, the government has also been committed to a separate review of farm tenancy legislation.

He then continues,

22. However there’s one thing I can make clear even today.

23. We were always committed to two separate reviews, and now the Land Reform Review Group has decided to focus on other issues for the remainder of their work.

24. So I want to confirm today that all the issues on farm tenancies raised during the Land Reform Review Group’s work will not be lost. They will be carried forward and looked at very carefully in the farm tenancies review.

I have read the SNP election manifesto carefully and the topic is covered on page 39. It states that,

We will amend the Agricultural Holdings Act to support tenant farmers and will work to encourage new entrants. We also believe that when a farm business is being passed from one generation to the next it should be easier for the successor to build a home on the farm where required.”

So no mention of a review there – simply a clear commitment to amend the legislation which most Governments do by holding a consultation, drafting legislation and introducing a Bill to Parliament.

On the same page, under the heading “Land Reform” it states that,

We believe it is time for a review of Scotland’s land reform legislation. For example, we believe the current period for three months for communities to take advantage of their right of first purchase is too short, and we would wish to see it extended to six months. We will establish a Land Reform Review Group to advise on this and other improvements which we will legislate on over the course of the next five years.”

Scotland’s land reform legislation is the body of statute that emerged from the work of the Land Reform Policy Group chaired by Lord Sewel from 1997-1999. it is all laid out on the Scottish Government’s website and it includes the question of agricultural holdings legislation which also formed an explicit part of the remit of the LRRG (Annex A here). The task of the LRRG is to “review Scotland’s land reform legislation“.

However, the SNP also published a farming manifesto which states that.

We will work with the sector to increase the amount of land available for rent and bring in the legislative changes already proposed and review the effectiveness of the amended act within 18 months.”

The legislative changes referred are now included in the Agricultural Holdings (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2012 which received Royal Assent on 12 July 2012. The review promised in the farming manifesto is only of this amended Act and does not address the many issues tenant farmers raised with the Land Reform Review Group.

All of which gives rise to a number of questions.

Given that the LRRG has dropped the issue, will the remit of this second review be broadened out beyond a simple review of the effectiveness of the 2012 Act?

Why exactly has the LRRG dropped this topic from the mainstream of land reform?

Why, if farm tenancies were indeed “always” to be the subject of a separate review, was this not made clear at the beginning of the LRRG process?

Why, if farm tenancies were “always” to be the subject of a separate review, were tenants led to believe that the LRRG would be considering these issues, were encouraged to provide evidence and indeed were involved in face to face meetings in the field?

Did Scottish Ministers exert any influence over the LRRG to drop any further consideration of farm tenancies?

Land reform is an integrated programme of work designed to do four things.

1.reform land tenure

2.redistribute land

3. provide a fiscal framework for land & property

4. establish appropriate governance arrangements for land relations

That, more or less, is what the Land Reform Policy Group did in 1977-1999.

Why is the Scottish Government messing around with this issue and passing one of the most pressing land reform issues to another as yet unknown review process to be announced “after the summer break“?

What on earth is going on?


(1) two of the presentations given at the seminar are available – Phil Thomas, Chair of Tenant Farming Form and Clive Phillips of Brodies, Solicitors.

UPDATE 30 MAY 2013 2115hrs

The Chair of the LRRG gave a speech to the AGM of Scottish Land and Estates on Tuesday 21 May. It was given from notes and no written speech was published but I understand that she said that the farm tenancy issues was dropped due to “timescales and lack of specialist knowledge”.

The timescale of the LRRG from July 2012 to April 2014 is a generous 20 months. Members & advisers were appointed by Scottish Ministers who presumably were fully aware of what specialist knowledge the members and advisers have. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that the lack of specialist knowledge was by design not accident. The Scottish Government press release of 24 July 2013 states clearly that advisers would be appointed “with expertise in areas such as property and land issues, economics, legal issues, community-led organisations, landownership, forestry and access“.

This guest blog is reproduced with the kind permission of the Daily Record.

This land is our land.. so let people have their say

Torcuil Crichton 27 May 2013

ON a rare, dry Friday on the Atlantic coast of Lewis the whole community of Bhaltos turned out to dedicate a monument to their shared past and future.

A brilliant stone sculpture, designed by Will MacLean and Marian Leven, commemorates land raids of a century ago and the recent community buyout of the island estate that will open a new door.

Places like Bhaltos, where the people own the land, are living proof that the land reform agenda is alive and matters.

Someone ought to nail to a fence the message that radical land politics can change people’s lives, over a “Yes Scotland” sign. The SNP government’s Land Reform Review Group was meant to re-engage lost momentum for change in a country where the most important resource, the land, is in the hands of the very few.

Their report is a disgrace from beginning to end. Instead of reigniting the debate, it tries to extinguish land reform. On community ownership it recommends some tinkering. On moving seabed rights from the remote Crown Estate Commission to local control, nothing. On tax avoidance, nothing. On absentee landlords, nothing. On land for housing, nothing.

There is a galling betrayal of tenant farmers across Scotland who put faith in the process. Some of their stories about treatment by modern lairds echo the days of Patrick Sellar.

Distinguished land campaigner Andy Wightman says the cause is effectively dead in the water, thanks to this government.

I understand the frustration.

Alex Salmond has squandered a parliamentary majority, which was a real chance to change the face of Scotland.

He threw the opportunity away to pursue independence, which, as he is at pains to assure us, would change “nothing”.

The SNP have talked constantly about getting control of the levers of power. So why don’t ministers give control of the land to the people who live on it in Scotland?

Following yesterday’s Guest Blog by John Bryden, former land reform adviser to the Scottish Office, we are delighted to publish the thoughts of Brian Wilson on the topic. Brian was one of the founders of the West Highland Free Press, a newspaper established in part to expose the iniquities of the land question and whose masthead still carries the slogan borrowed from the Scottish Land League “An Tir, an Canan ‘sna Daoine – The Land, the Language, the People”. Brian was Minister of State in the Scottish Office from 1997-1998 and, within weeks of being appointed had set up the Community Land Unit in Highlands and Islands Enterprise which, together with the Scottish Land Fund, was one of the keys to unlocking the latent demand for community ownership of land in the region. (1)

This Guest Blog reproduces with permission Brian’s column in the West Highland Free Press today

The most useless 52 pages ever committed to print

Brian Wilson, 24 May 2013

When the Land Reform Review Group was established by the Scottish Government last year, I predicted that it would turn out to be a waste of time; an exercise in kicking the whole thing into touch until after the referendum. The timetable was the giveaway.

While that judgment stands, I am now tempted to think of it as a practical joke – a last mocking laugh at those who were still deluded enough to believe that anything as interesting as land reform might feature in a Scotland where radicalism has been replaced by the constitutional obsession.

The interim report of the Group is quite difficult to find even on its own web-site.  I can only put this down to cyber-embarrassment. In the long history of reports about what used to be called the Land Question in Scotland, this must surely be the most useless 52 pages ever committed to print.  If a Question exists, then it has entirely escaped the notice of the authors.

Andy Wightman, the campaigner on land issues who gallantly seeks to keep the flag flying, headed his own assessment of the Group’s report with the indictment: “Land reform withers on the vine of complacency and ignorance”.  I fear he is right. Nothing of value will emerge from the remit that the Land Reform Review Group has taken refuge in.

The group is chaired by Dr Alison Elliott, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who is doubtless  a well-intentioned soul. But she seems to have approached this task with a knowledge base close to zero and the report suggests little sign of having advanced from that starting-point.

There is no trace of historical context and little attempt to define the status quo, in order to understand why there is even an issue to address.  The nearest we get is the recognition that “Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to the people who live their lives on it”.

But, having made that statement, there is no attempt to quantify the scale of what it describes, far less offer any indication of doing anything about it. It does not seem to have dawned that there might be a moral, social or economic issue inherent in the fact that Scotland continues to have the most extreme maldistribution of land ownership in Europe. That would be to bring politics into it, and we mustn’t do that.

Some of the passages are laughable in their naivete.  “Large private estates were quick to invite the group to visit,” the report recounts proudly, “and so the group spent time at the Atholl, Moray, Buccleuch and Annandale Estates”.  I wonder if they spent any time investigating the vast, empty acreages to which they were not invited and to which access might have presented rather more of a challenge?

Sadly, it took them five months to communicate what they were doing due to an unexplained delay in hiring public relations consultants. And it appeared to astonish them that they received nearly 500 submissions as opposed to the 100 which might have been more manageable within the proposed timescale.  Gosh! Are there really 500 people interested in this stuff?  Extraordinary!

The report devotes a lot of space to describing matters that it is not going to concern itself with.  The poor old tenant farmers, who had apparently placed quite a lot of hope in the Land Reform Review Group,  probably due to the bogus rhetoric that surrounded its launch, have been given the complete bum’s rush. “This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention,” the Group declares boldly – before running a mile from having anything to do with it.

In a glimmer of recognition that all may not be absolutely perfect in Scotland’s rural idyll, the report notes that some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlords hear they were expressing these views in public”.  How awful!  But absolutely nothing to do with Land Reform, you understand. One wonders what has happened to the unfortunate tenants who spoke up!

As Andy Wightman points out, the remit has been narrowed down to the point where it is “not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group”.  And that, frankly, is a cop-out. Of course community ownership is an option in certain places and circumstances but in those areas where the grip of landlordism is tightest, it is pure fantasy to suppose that depending upon  the word “community” is going to change anything.

Reading this report, it is difficult not be scathing about its contents because they are so insipid and contain so many cop-outs. But it would be unfair to lay all, or even most of the blame at the door of Dr Elliot, who was certainly not chosen due to any identifiable track record on the imperatives of the land issue. It the people who put her in this position who should really be called to account.  If land reform is a political issue then it must be tackled by politicians, on the basis of conviction.

The last group convened by Government to come up with a land reform agenda was in 1997 and the difference was that we meant it. The group was not chaired by a lay novice but by a Minister, John Sewel, whose day job had been as a land economist.  It did not have three members but ten, all of them with a serious background in the subject.  It had as its principal adviser John Bryden, who had been intensively involved in land use issues for the previous 30 years.

In other words, it was a politically-driven initiative with a clear objective – to come up with a land reform package which could be handed over for the new Scottish Executive to turn into legislation, which is what happened (though even then it was watered down).  But Scottish land reform was always meant to be a process rather than an event and, since then, there has been nothing – until the setting up of this Group which has little expertise and no political direction.

It does seem remarkable that there appears to be no politician in the current Scottish Government with the remotest interest in land reform as a cause.  The interim report must be –  so many words in the past and so little action in the present.


(1) See page 259 (first edition) 350 (2013 edition) of The Poor Had No Lawyers for the details of his which happened.

We are delighted to host this Guest blog from John Bryden who was External Adviser to the Scottish Office Land Reform Policy Group (LRPG) 1997-1999. John delivered the 3rd John McEwen Memorial Lecture in 1996 and now lives and works in Oslo. Further details of John’s involvement in land relations are detailed at the end of the blog. Further publications by John together with contact details can be found on his website and he can be contacted via email

Scottish Land Reform: A Comment

John Bryden Oslo, Norway. May 23, 2013

Land Reform in Scotland was always going to be a big mess, and it is! It’s not the fault of the SNP, or Labour. Scotland badly needs a redistribution of property if it is to build the kind of social democracy, and more equal society, that Norway has. The sentiments and history that could encourage such a society are much more ‘present’ in Scotland than they are in England, or indeed in many other countries of the world, but the political, social and economic conditions need to be built over time. In my view this is essential for the kinds of policy reforms that I – and I think many others – believe Scotland needs, whether as an independent nation within the EU, or whether under ‘devo-max’ or a federated structure of some kind. We cannot evolve distinctive, just, and fair policies under present UK political conditions, which are deeply affected by the structures of inequality of wealth, income and opportunity that those same political conditions have created.

It was the equal distribution of property that gave Norway its large number of voters in the first half of the 19th century, and which shaped its political, economic and social advances after that. Norway’s ‘exceptionally liberal’ constitution of 1814, adopted following independence from Danish rule, gave the vote to all owners of land, making about 45% of males over the age of 25 eligible to vote. This compared to a mere 4,500 male property owners out of a population of 2.6 million who had the parliamentary vote in Scotland after the much-lauded British Reform Bill of 1831. The important point is that Norway’s political settlement on independence from Denmark, its relatively large number of property owning small farmers and hence voters, together with the creation of strong local government shortly afterwards, established the political conditions necessary for Norway’s extraordinary development over the following 150 years or so, a period when it moved from being among the ten poorest nations in the world to being in the top ten.

However, the world has moved since the 19th century, and we now have – irony of ironies – a European ‘Human Rights’ legislation that protects property owners, and under present conditions makes it impossibly expensive for any government to make radical changes to landownership directly.

So radical land reform in Scotland has to be started mainly through an indirect approach, through land taxation and other measures that progressively limit the land market in ways that inhibit speculation and investment in land as a store of (great) wealth, and encourage ownership by individuals who work the land with their families, and by communities working together.

In a more autonomous Scotland, there would be a battery of possible measures to achieve this that would not breach Human Rights legislation, but which are not normally at the forefront of discussions of ‘land reform’ as such. First among these, and by far the most important, is land value taxation which should be collected and used by local authorities (and hopefully much smaller ones than we presently have). This would scare off the speculators and lower the price of land, which will be a good thing for nearly everyone in Scotland, and make it easier to get into the necessary major redistribution. If land taxation were augmented by local income tax, using the Norwegian system whereby local authorities are responsible for collecting it and retain an agreed share before sending the balance to higher levels, there would be no need for a Scottish central government to subsidize local government in general, although there would be a need for a Nordic-style fiscal equalization scheme. (1)

Other supporting measures would speed up this process. These could include

(1) a requirement that purchasers of land should be ordinarily resident on their land for more than 6 months in the year, and should be a Scottish income tax payer, and

(2) that they should be ordinary persons and not limited companies or corporations, and that they should demonstrate appropriate skills and training. There would be a lower size limit on these rules to avoid negative effects on the crofting community.

I would add that nothing I have said changes my support for the key measures of the limited reforms undertaken after devolution (and, let us remember, only possible because of devolution). Small steps indeed, but steps in the right direction. The Land Reform Policy Group (LRPG) was inhibited on the topic of land taxation because of the limited tax powers in the devolution settlement, and the sensitivity of the taxation issue at that time. The LRPG also received legal advice on the impact of the EU Human Rights legislation. The report of the current review group must in my view be judged not by its ability to tinker with existing reforms, but by its future vision and the practical measures it proposes to reach that vision.

John Bryden was external advisor to the Land Reform Policy Group established by the Labour government in 1997, and which reported in 1999. Most of the LRPG proposals were implemented by the Scottish Parliament after Devolution. He also served on the first Scottish Land Fund until its absorption into the ‘Big Lottery Fund’.  He was earlier largely responsible for the HIDB Land Reform proposals in the period 1976 to 1979, while head of the land development division. In 1996 he gave the John McEwen Memorial Lecture on Land Tenure and Rural Development in Scotland where he argued, among other things, for the introduction of Land Value Taxation. Between 1995 and 2004 he held the Chair of Human Geography at Aberdeen University, and was co-Director of the Arkleton Centre for Rural Development Research. John read Political Economy at the University of Glasgow, and took a PhD in Development Economics at the University of East Anglia, where he also taught for some years. He currently lives and works in Norway where he is collaborating with a number of Scottish and Norwegian authors on a book that seeks to explain why Norwegian and Scottish development paths took such radically different directions after the 18th century.

(1) Note as a matter of interest that kommunes in Denmark levy a land tax which is also owned on land owned abroad. This means that the 290,000 acres of land in Scotland owned by Danes is contributing to municipal services in Denmark but none in Scotland.

It is probably quite appropriate that today, within 24 hours of publishing her Interim Report, the Chair of the Land Reform Review Group, Alison Elliot, is giving the keynote address to Scottish Land and Estates AGM at Perth racecourse. (1) No doubt she will receive a warm welcome and a rousing cheer from the landed class and its legal and financial advisers as the latest attempt at kick-starting land reform withers and dies on the vine of complacency and ignorance. See previous blogs on the topic and, in particular the immediately previous one for a foretaste of developments today.

The Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) was announced by Alex Salmond at a meeting of the Scottish Cabinet on Skye in 24 July 2012. On 23 August it’s remit was published and on 8 October the Group’s advisers were announced. Given that nothing had happened on the land reform front for a decade, this development was widely welcomed at least among those who believe that Scotland needs land reform.

Yesterday, the Group published its Interim Report together with an analysis of the evidence submitted to the Group. Following the previous resignation of Professor James Hunter, it was also announced that the one other member with (limited) experience of land reform has also resigned – Dr Sarah Skerrat. She is the co-author of the report along with the one member left from the original Group – the Chair Alison Elliot.

The Interim Report fails to deliver anything meaningful and effectively kills off any prospects of radical land reform due to one significant (and for those unfamiliar with the topic not immediately obvious) and devastating revelation in the report.

wrote at the time the group was established that whether any of the wicked issues like “inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.” got looked at depended on 1) a definition of land reform and 2) the remit of the group. Last August, I welcomed the remit as wide-ranging and I did so because on a straight reading of the words, it was just that. For the avoidance of doubt it is worth re-stating the preamble and three key tasks that the Group was set.

The Scottish Government is committed to generating innovative and radical proposals on land reform that will contribute to the success of Scotland for future generations.

The relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country. The structure of land ownership is a defining factor in that relationship: it can facilitate and promote development, but it can also hinder it. In recent years, various approaches to land reform, not least the expansion of community ownership, have contributed positively to a more successful Scotland by assisting in the reduction of barriers to sustainable development, by strengthening communities and by giving them a greater stake in their future. The various strands of land reform that exist in Scotland provide a firm foundation for further developments.

The Government has therefore established a Land Reform Review Group.

The Group will identify how land reform will:

1) Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;

2) Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;

3) Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland

The emphasis is mine and I interpreted the three tasks as relating broadly to 1) individuals 2) communities and 3) governance. Others may read it differently of course but it appears to provide a wide framework of analysis. It follows on from a preamble that highlights structural problems, progress to date and community ownership as representing one strand of land reform.

Yesterday that remit was ripped up.

Section 4.4.2 contains the first clue in a passage that tenant farmers across Scotland have reacted to with a sense of anger and betrayal.

This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention. For the LRRG to address these issues would be to interfere with the work of the TFF [Tenant Farming Forum] and to stray considerably away from our remit which focuses on communities rather than relationships between individuals. Having spent time on the issue during the first phase of the review we would be interested in sharing perspectives with the TFF through our advisers as appropriate but we do not intend to report further on this matter, except where it can be addressed within the context of community ownership” (my emphasis).

This a kick in the teeth for Scotland’s tenant farming sector. As the Group noted, some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” (2) Now they learn that, after patient and diligent engagement with the Group, their concerns are to be addressed by a talking shop in which the lairds have a veto.

But the revelation goes way beyond the immediate concerns of tenant farmers

It redefines the remit of the group as focussing on “communities rather than relationships between individuals“. This redefinition is confirmed by Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 of the report which interpret each of the three aims in the remit as relating solely to community ownership. Section 4 opens with the claim that,

The group was given a wide-ranging remit which entailed a review of the legislation of 2003 as well as the task of considering how the benefits of community ownership could be extended to more communities through the exploration of new relationships between land, people, economy and environment in Scotland” (my emphasis).

It concludes by announcing that “some more technical issues that are frequently raised in discussions of land reform – the position of the Crown Estates, common good land, taxation and succession” have not been considered but the Group “may do so if they are likely to throw light on the other topics on the Phase 2 agenda.”

So these important topics (not to mention tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, housing tenure, land information etc.) will only be considered if they have a bearing on advancing community ownership.

I was thus wrong when I welcomed this wide-ranging remit because I failed to understand what it meant.

Either that or, effectively, the Group has re-written its remit so as to exclude concerns relating to anything other than community ownership.

Has the Scottish government approved of this redefinition or was I alone in having interpreted the remit wrongly? From the Media Release issued, it appears that the Minister, Paul Wheelhouse agrees with the Group that the Review is, in fact, about community ownership.

“The LRRG has made good progress over the past few months as they have travelled across Scotland meeting a wide range of people with an interest in land reform and in an effort to understand how Scottish Government can utilise Scotland’s land and assets to empower Scotland’s communities – both rural and urban.  The interest in the review has been great with the Group receiving over 475 responses to their initial consultation.

 “I now very much look forward to the next stage as the LRRG move into the second phase of it’s work looking at radical options for community land ownership before the final report in 2014.” (my emphasis)

So it must be me then. I just misunderstood the remit. This is not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group.

Given the coverage in the media today (a few sentences in the Herald’s farming page and a brief interview with myself on BBC Radio Highland (itself quote a reflection on the marginal significance now attached to land reform), it is clear that land reform is effectively dead as a matter of public policy. That does not reflect my own experience of speaking to thousands of people across Scotland over the past couple of years (during which events less than a handful of people ever appeared to have heard of the LRRG) but it does sit comfortably with elite Scotland’s view of the world.

What makes the report hard to understand is that there are flashes of radicalism like this.

Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to people who live their lives on it. While many of these will be good decisions, it is an expression of the material inequality in the country that this situation obtains.”

But then there is a complete and utter failure to say anything at about how this is to be dealt with.

Perhaps it is time that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament called the group in for another chat.

Finally, as I have made clear in the past, I remain concerned at the lack of transparency in the proceedings of the Group and in particular its refusal to publish the evidence being submitted to it until April 2014. I thus submitted a Freedom of Information request for this information – something that respondents were made aware was a possibility in the Call for Evidence. I was thus rather surprised to read in Section 2.5 Alterations to timescale the following claim.

Immediately after the deadline for submissions in January, a Freedom of Information request was received that the full set of submissions should be made public. This request was dealt with by the Secretariat but it did have an impact on how the group approached analysis of the submissions. Uncertainty over whether confidential responses would be made public worried some respondents and did nothing to enhance the trust some people felt towards the group or the process.”

For the record I never asked for confidential responses to be released and there is a perfectly legitimate exemption under FoI legislation to cover this. To blame an FoI request for undermining trust in the group is frankly pathetic.

(1) Perth racecourse is on Scone Estate – land subject to a heritage tax exemption for allowing public access (map here).

(2) Interim Report page 14

UPDATE – further media reports.
BBC Highlands & Islands online 21 May
BBC Naidheachan online 21 May
Herald 21 May
Herald 22 May