UPDATE 19 APRIL 2020

This blog, together with a subsequent one published on 24 February 2016, were the subject of defamation proceedings brought by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC against myself in a citation from the Court of Session served on me on 21 March 2017. Since 30 March 2017, following legal advice, the blogs have been password protected. The case (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC vs. Andy Wightman A111/17) was heard by Lord Clark at the Court of Session from 29 October 2019 – 8 November 2019. A Decision by Lord Clark was published on 11 March 2020 which rejected all of the pleas of the pursuer in what was a comprehensive victory for me. As a matter of law therefore neither of these two blogs are defamatory. The Pursuer issued a statement to the media on 11 March stating that “we will certainly appeal the decision”. However, the 28 day period in which to appeal has now expired and no appeal has been lodged. I am pleased therefore to now remove the password protection and enable them to be read as they were published subject to one caveat.

Lord Clark concluded that in the blogs (and a few tweets which were also complained of) I had made four untrue statements. Contrary to claims by my detractors, none of these was a lie. Indeed Lord Clark made clear that I was a “credible and reliable witness” who “gave his evidence in an honest, straightforward and coherent manner”. Lord Clark stated that “I accept his evidence about what he knew and did not know at the time of the various publications” and that “the suggestion he made statements that he knew were untrue simply has no proper basis.” [Lord Clark at 73]. I have thus edited the two blogs with a footnote marked in red to indicate the relevant untruths and why they arose.

Finally, what was revealed of this case in Lord Clark’s decision was a fraction of what was revealed in Court. What was revealed in Court was a fraction of the evidence assembled in the 1494 Productions (written documents lodged as evidence) lodged in the Court (59 by the Pursuer and 1435 by Defender). And what was revealed in the Productions was a fraction of what I have learned in the course of extensive preparatory research over the past 3 years about the activities of Highland Titles and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. I will be publishing a detailed blog revealing what really went on over the past three years. Given the litigous nature of both parties, I will, of course, have these blogs legalled before publication.

UPDATE ENDS

If you plan to set up a fundraising campaign for an environmental project, it is a good idea to think carefully about who is involved and what techniques you plan to use.

Wildcat Haven is a project designed to protect the Scottish Wildcat by preventing hybridisation with feral cats and providing a network of reserves to manage as wildcat habitat. (1)

Yesterday, it launched its campaign. Sponsorship has been provided by Volkswagen, a company responsible for polluting the environment with nitrous oxide emissions that it attempted to conceal through one of the biggest corporate frauds of recent decades. The other sponsor is our old friend Highland Titles, a company based in Alderney that is wholly owned by a charitable trust (Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland) registered in Guernsey. See my blog of February for further information on their operations.

Some time ago, Highland Titles Ltd. blocked my IP address but it came as something of a surprise to discover that I have also been blocked from Wildcat Haven’s website despite only having just seen it. Despite this, I have access via a proxy IP in Germany.

Highland Titles appear to have established a very close relationship with Wildcat Haven which operates via Wildcat Haven CIC (Community Interest Company) and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. The Registered Address of both is in Cornwall. One of the defining features of a Community Interest Company is the asset lock – provision that in the event of winding up, the assets must transfer to a nominated body that is a community interest company, charity or Scottish charity; or a body established outside Great Britain that is equivalent to any of those persons.(2)

In the case of Wildcat Haven CIC, the nominated body is a community-based company, Sunart Community Company. The money, however, is being raised by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC and the nominated body here is Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. Thus, in the event of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC being wound up, its assets will be taken over by Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland in Guernsey.

Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC was incorporated on 30 June 2015 with two Directors, Mrs Emily O’Donoghue and Mr Douglas Wilson. Wilson is a Director of Highland Titles Ltd (1) and a Trustee of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. (2)

Wildcat Haven has adopted Highland Title’s dubious methods of selling small souvenir plots of land and claiming that the purchaser is the owner (see extensive faq to this effect). This claim was comprehensively debunked in February this year by legal blogger loveandgarbage. If there remains any doubt, here is the content of a letter written by Professor George Gretton, Lord President Reid Professor of Law at Edinburgh University to the Daily Record newspaper.

Dear Mr Ferguson,

Under Scots law, ownership of land passes from seller to buyer by registration in the Land Register of Scotland. No registration? Then no transfer. This is currently set out at section 50 of the Land Registration etc (Scotland) Act 2012. (The previous law was essentially the same.)

(“Souvenir plot” is a term defined in section 22 of the 2012 Act.)

Therefore, if a souvenir plot is sold, registration is required, if the buyer is to acquire ownership of the plot.

But the Land Register does not accept souvenir plots: this rule is set out at section 22 of the 2012 Act. (The previous law was essentially the same.)

So if a company sells a souvenir plot, the sale cannot be completed. The buyer of the plot does not become owner of the plot. Ownership of such plots remains with the company.

Whether buyers of souvenir plots are informed that the seller will retain ownership is something I have no information on.

Sincerely, George L Gretton

Lord President Reid Professor of Law University of Edinburgh
School of Law
Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh 
EH8 9YL

Professor Gretton should know – he wrote the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012. See also, a recent academic paper by Jill Robbie and Malcolm Combe which reviews the law in this area.

The plots being offered for sale by Wildcat Haven cost from £30 to £250 for one square foot of land which purchasers are assured, gives them a “personal right to a souvenir plot of land in Wildernesse Wood and the opportunity to change their name to Lord or Lady Wildernesse. Wildernesse Wood is described as “part of the first Wildcat Haven”. “We are asking you to help us by actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve.”, the website claims.

So where is Wildernesse Wood? The Wildcat Haven website does not say, but from this promotional video, it is clear that it is a plot of land above Loch Loyne on the A87 between Invergarry and Glen Cluanie.

In the video, Dr Paul O’Donoghue is filmed standing in the wood. He claims that “Every square foot of land we buy has a direct positive impact on the Scottish wildcat. By supporting this project, you’re helping save the Scottish wildcat step by step.”

There are two problems with this claim.

First of all, this land is, in fact owned by Highland Titles Ltd. who are already selling souvenir plots in a “nature reserve” they have named Bumblebee Haven where you can purchase plots ranging from 10 square feet (£49.99) to 1000 square feet (£499.99) and call yourself Lord or Lady Glencoe (even though the land is 50 miles north of Glencoe).

The land was acquired in February 2014 and the title can be seen here and the plan here  The land is 75ha in extent which, if all sold in 10 square foot plots would generate £40.35 million in sales revenue paid to a company in Alderney in the Channel Islands.

But the more fundamental problem is that the Wildcat Haven project is in Ardnamurchan and Morven – see map below.

The land that supporters are being invited to acquire is not only already owned by a company in Alderney and being sold plot by plot for bumblebees, this “first wildcat haven” is 60 miles to the north of Ardnamurchan and Morven and well outside the area being promoted for wildcat conservation.

I offer this information in the spirit of consumer advice to anyone considering taking up the offer to become the owner of a square foot of land to create a Wildcat Haven.

AN ADDENDUM

As an addendum to the Highland Titles blog in February, I contacted the Chief Minister of Guernsey Jonathan Le Tocq to ask whether it would be possible to examine copies of Annual Returns and Accounts of both Highland Titles Ltd., registered in Alderney and Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, registered in Guernsey. As I argued then,

Revenue is paid into a company registered in Alderney but as no accounts are published, it is impossible to be sure. The sole share is held by Wilson and McGregor as Trustees for the Guernsey charity. Under the law of Guernsey, no charity is obliged to provide accounts for public inspection and it need only file accounts under certain circumstances.

Thus nobody knows if in fact the charity is in receipt of any funds whatsoever. As the sole shareholder it is not entitled to have any of the revenues of Highland Titles Ltd. transferred to it. These revenues may well be paid out by the Alderney company as management fees or any manner of other payments to third parties.”

Mr Le Tocq informed me that under Guernsey law, the charity is not required to submit any financial returns and access to the Alderney company records would only be available to law enforcement agencies if there was evidence of criminal conduct.

Thus, because this land is owned in an offshore tax haven, we are unable to obtain any information about what happens to the money generated by selling off souvenir plots.

(1) There is some disagreement over the appropriate strategy to be adopted to save the Scottish wildcat. An official project, Scottish Wildcat Action is being run by 20 organisatiosn with the support of the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission among others. Those behind the Wildcat Haven project, however, have criticised the official programme.

(2) The Community Interest Company Regulations 2005

UPDATE 1500hrs 30 Sep 2015

The following response was emailed to me by Emily O’Donoghue and posted on the Wildcat Haven website here. The response is also contained in a comment below this post together with my follow up questions.

Dear Andy,

Just hoped to respond briefly to your primary concerns about the Wildcat Haven project.

Highland Titles Charitable Trust is currently listed as our nominated body, it is acting as a placeholder whilst we agree with a few local organisations in the West Highlands who would be best placed to become the ongoing nominated body. Of course, you’ll have to wait and see on this one, but we have already sent in paperwork replacing HT with another organisation, I’m sure records will be updated shortly.

Our website repeatedly states that the plots being sold are souvenir plots and “a bit of fun”, our own FAQ outlines that registration of souvenir plots is legally impossible so this seems little revelation.

In terms of location, the current Haven fieldwork area is in West Lochaber (Ardnamurchan, Morvern and Sunart).  We have been highly successful in neutering feral cats in this area (we have neutered 50 in the last 7 months alone, leaving close to 500 square miles free of intact feral or pet cats) and are now ready to expand. You are right to highlight that the land in Loch Loyne is north of the current Haven area, however that is the very point, we are expanding northwards and the the long term goal has always been to cover the entire Highlands west of the Great Glen. Loch Loyne is ideally situated being to the east of the Knoydart peninsula and near to a major land bridge to the rest of the Highlands, which needs to be protected from feral cat migration. Wildcat monitoring activities are already underway in the area, we are also looking to start operations in Sutherland which you will note is also well north of the current Haven zone, as well as looking to buy land within the current fieldwork area.

Part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to us by Highland Titles and no plots in the area provided to us have been previously sold, so it was free for them to pass on, allowing us to offer actual physical plots to customers immediately, rather than just a promise of buying land in future.

Wildcat Haven has been around protecting wildcats since 2008, our team comes with considerable scientific and conservation credibility, we are currently the only effort to protect wildcats in the wild rather than place them in captivity and our work has been commended and supported by organisations such as Humane Society International for its exceptional standards of animal welfare and delivery of humane feral cat control, as well as receiving considerable coverage across national media recording our work with feral cats, wildcats, local schools and communities for many years.

We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for providing us with reduced rate access to the Who Owns Scotland database around 2008/2009 when the project was starting up and needed to start communicating with landowners; you helped us get where we are today, thanks a lot for your support and promotion of the Wildcat Haven project.

Emily O’Donoghue,
Director,
Wildcat Haven

I replied as follows.

Emily, 

Thanks for your response. 

1. It may be a bit of fun but you are asking folk to help you by “actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve” You need to be much clearer that people who spend £100 do not become owners of the land.

2. You say that part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to you. Can you tell me when this transaction took place and when it was submitted to the Registers of Scotland for recording? Can you advise the extent and location of this land?

3. Are there any wildcats on the Loch Loyne land?

4. Why is my IP address blocked from viewing your website?

5. What is the role of Highland Titles in your fundraising? Do they receive any payment? Do they receive any commission on each plot sold?

Thank you.

UPDATE FOOTNOTE 19 APRIL 2020

(1) Douglas Wilson in fact was not a Director of WHE at the time of publication of this Blog. He was a Director of Wildcat Enterprises CIC from 6 June 2015 to 21 August 2015 (when he resigned) and again from 21 October 2015 until 17 February 2016 when he again resigned. Guernesy does not have a very transparent, publicly accessible registry of companies being one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the world. Thius, in order to obtain information about when a Director was appointed or resigned, one has to contact the Registry with a specific request. During my research for this blog, I thus phoned the Registry to find out if Douglas Wilson was still a Director of WHE and was informed that he was. I thus made the claim I did in good faith relying upon the only official source able to provide the information.

(2) Douglas Wilson was in fact not a Director of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland at the time of the publication of this Blog. Unlike the Guernsey Registry of Companies (see footnote (1) above), the Registry of Charities is publicly available online. I checked the entry for HTCTS during research for the Blog and noted that Douglas Wilson was recorded as a Director of HTCTS. I therefore relied upon this official source in good faith in writing the Blog. In fact, Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of HTCTS on 6 July 2015. This was not reported in the Guernsey Registry of charities until an update was published on 20 June 2016.

Image: Badinloskin, Sutherland

This is the Keynote Address by Professor James Hunter given to the Community Land Scotland Annual Conference, New Drumossie Hotel, Inverness, 21 May 2015.

James Hunter

In September 2009, the best part of six years ago, I was opening speaker at a Community Land Conference held in Harris.

The people there – some of you here today – were mostly from localities – from islands and estates – that, since the early 1990s, had been bought by the folk living on them.

We recognised in that a big achievement.

Our purpose, though, was not to celebrate success.

But, in a way, to do the opposite.

That’s clear from my own words that day in Harris.

I spoke, of course, of what had been accomplished.

More homes. More jobs. New businesses. Locally controlled renewables. Rising populations.

And above all else, what’s always seemed to me by far the greatest gain that comes from effort of the sort you’ve been, and are, engaged in.

What, at that Harris gathering, I called: ‘The boost community ownership gives to the self-esteem, self-confidence, of everyone involved with it.’

‘All this you know,’ I said then, ‘and I don’t propose to dwell on it.’

What I said next was this.

‘What I want to focus on is the public policy environment in which community ownership has taken off and prospered.’

‘For while community ownership,’ I said, ‘could not have succeeded in the absence of the tremendous efforts made by groups represented here, neither could it have succeeded without support from government and its agencies.’

‘It’s my belief,’ I said, ‘that, since the present Scottish government took office, this support, which grew steadily under previous administrations, has lessened very markedly.’

The government I spoke of was the SNP administration that took office two years earlier.

And since, let me be clear, I’m an SNP member, I wasn’t motivated by hostility to that party.

I was, I think, expressing what was then a common worry in community land circles.

A worry that, while in the early years of Scotland’s restored parliament, land reform, community land ownership, had been way up there in bright lights, those things – politically at any rate – had somehow ceased to matter.

That’s why, I guess, that Harris conference was called.

To work out what was needing done to put community land ownership, the wider cause of land reform, back on the Scottish government’s agenda.

Well that, for sure, ain’t something that need worry us today.

With a Community Empowerment Bill well through the Scottish Parliament …

With a Land Reform Bill being published in the next few weeks …

With all of that going on right now at Holyrood …

If anything, you wonder – now that land, and who controls it, is so central to our politics – just how the Scottish government’s got time for other things.

Why exactly this has come about is a big question.

It’s bound up, very clearly, with the wider politics of Scotland – with the way that, over the last year or two, for reasons we all know about, there’s been far more engagement, than for several generations, with where Scotland should be headed.

And not just constitutionally.

What’s been, what is, central to the thinking of an awful lot of people who, this last year or two, have got involved in what’s been happening … is something that goes way beyond where sovereignty’s located.

That something is, I think, a feeling that unfairness, inequality have of late become so glaring, so destructive … that this unfairness, inequality, need one way or another reining in.

This feeling’s not peculiar to Scotland.

Nor is concern about the damaging effects of inequality confined to people on the left.

Over the last year or so, there’s been growing recognition, in very many quarters, that extreme concentrations of wealth are not just damaging the world’s poor.

They’re hampering development across the board … by undermining the effectiveness of every capitalist economy.

Gobally, that view’s repeatedly expressed now by, for instance, International Monetary Fund president Christine Lagarde.

More locally, here in Scotland, to repeat, demands for greater social justice are increasingly bound up with politics of the sort that brought about the electoral drama that unfolded just two weeks back from today.

What, down the track, might a socially just Scotland look like?

Well, I’ve no exact idea.

But it wouldn’t be a Scotland, I believe, where half the country’s privately owned land is controlled by just 432 owners.

A lot of folk think likewise.

And that, I reckon, is one reason why the cause of land reform has of late been getting the attention that it has.

But it’s not the only reason.

Another one is you – Community Land Scotland.

From that conference in Harris, there emerged one main conclusion.

That the community land sector – the individuals, the local groups involved in it – had somehow to get organised.

The sector, it was thought, required a means of working out, and getting over, its collective – and distinctive – point of view.

A means of influencing public agencies and politicians.

A means of pressing the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government, to recognise that the need for land reform, for more community land ownership, had not at all been satisfied by what had been accomplished in the Parliament’s first session.

Important though that was.

Well, that means of getting over a community land sector viewpoint, it isn’t missing any longer.

You, to repeat, are it.

And I reckon you’ve been doing pretty well.

For starters, you’re encouraging, assisting, continued effort on the ground.

More and more of it – and this is heartening – in parts of Scotland where community land ownership is new.

Which is not to say that things are at a standstill in the areas where community land ownership – as we know it here in Scotland – first began.

In the Outer Isles, for instance, the most endangered species isn’t any more the corncrake. It’s the Hebridean landlord.

But like six years ago in Harris, it’s the politics of land reform I most want to touch on – what I called, back then, the public policy environment.

The institutional back-up to community land ownership.

The stuff that doesn’t of itself take more land, more resources, into local, and community, control.

But the stuff – like legislation, public agency support, the cash that’s needed for land purchase – the stuff that makes it easier for people to take charge of what’s around them.

Community Land Scotland’s made a difference – a big difference – in that area.

The arguments you’ve developed, the contacts that you’ve made, the influence you’ve managed to exert – all that’s helped greatly to re-energise the land reform process – a process that, six years ago, we felt had almost stalled.

In doing what you’ve done, if I may say so, you’ve been helped by your leadership.

And not least by your chairman.

He told me that on no account was I to say this.

So I reckon that’s my dinner out the window.

But David Cameron, I believe, has helped enormously to get community land ownership to where this cause now is …

Some milestones:

First, the Scottish Land Fund.

It’s re-establishment was something we called for in 2009.

Now it’s back.

And with more money. Not enough of course. It never, ever is enough. But that the Land Fund’s up and running once again is evidence that progress is being made.

The same’s true of the setting of a target of one million acres – nearly twice the present total – in community hands by 2020.

Still more significant was the setting up by government of the Land Reform Review Group.

With which I had a brief connection.

And which, after I left … and I hope the one thing didn’t follow from the other … and which after I left produced a report that’s both a good analysis of what wants doing and a pointer as to how it might be done.

From that there’s followed legislation.

The Community Empowerment Bill owes quite a bit to Land Reform Review Group recommendations.

The Land Reform Bill will owe a great deal more.

A word now about that Bill.

Uninformed, I stress, by any inside knowledge of what it might, or mightn’t, look like.

But informed by the consultation paper that was issued late last year.

And especially by what I think is the paper’s key suggestion.

In its Chapter Two.

Where you find what’s called a Draft Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement.

‘This [draft] statement,’ I quote, ‘ proposes a vision and a set of principles to guide the development of public policy on the nature and character of land rights in Scotland.’

I leave aside, for present purposes, the vision.

And of the consultation paper’s seven principles, I’ll touch on only one.

The first and – I believe – the most important.

It reads: ‘The ownership and use of land in Scotland should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland.’

By way of underlining that, a borrowing from Donald Dewar.

When, in 1998, he introduced the Scotland Bill – the devolution Bill – he read out its first sentence:

‘There shall be a Scottish Parliament.’

Donald paused then for a moment, and said, ‘I like that.’

‘The ownership and use of land in Scotland should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland.’

I like that.

Because it makes the point that ownership of land is in no way absolute.

What owners do, or don’t do, with their land, that statement says, is not, and can’t be, wholly up to them.

It’s contingent on the agreement, the consent, of the society, the community of which they’re part.

In some ways, to be sure, there’s nothing new about such thinking.

Although Scotland’s never experienced land reforms of the sort that long ago rid other European countries of the concentrated ownership that we alone still have, more limited reforms have several times been put in place.

Reforms made in the public interest.

Like giving crofters security of tenure in the 1880s.

Like giving tenant farmers similar – though less generous – security in the 1940s.

But reforms of that sort have had specific, limited and clearly stated purposes.

As did the Scottish Parliament’s Land Reform Act of 2003.

The new Land Reform Bill, if it includes a Land Rights Statement of the sort set out in last year’s consultation paper, will signal the arrival of a different approach.

One that opens the way not just to one or two particular measures but to an ongoing and evolving programme of reform.

A programme predicated on this powerful notion:

That the ownership and use of land in Scotland should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland.

So how might a long-run programme of reform be developed?

Well, December’s consultation paper gives a steer on that as well.

Where it suggests that, in line with a Review Group recommendation, the Scottish government should establish a Land Reform Commission.

Which will have the job, presumably, of working out exactly what, beyond next month’s Reform Bill, will still need tackling if the public interest is to be secured.

Which is why the Land Reform Commission, if indeed we are to have one, has got to be got right.

This from Andy Wightman:

‘Key to the success of any such Commission will be its structure and remit. Clearly it needs to be autonomous and independent … [Members] also needs to be free of vested interest and [be] able to respond to a clear statutory remit without compromise.’

What might that remit be?

Well, I offer this from guidance given to the first Scottish Land Fund.

Not the present Fund. But the Fund launched in 2001 and afterwards – inexcusably – wound up.

One of that Fund’s objectives was simply this: ‘To diversify the pattern of land ownership in Scotland.’

Beyond that lay a recognition we need now to get back to.

A recognition that to have half of our privately owned land in the hands of 432 owners is, in itself, plain wrong.

 

Which is why a Land Commission needs to test, to scrutinise, each land-related measure to see if it’s …

Contributing to the collective benefit of the Scottish people … AND …

Helping to diversify the pattern of land ownership.

One more thought.

Arising from my having gone, on a Saturday in mid-April, to Glenfeshie.

Where Dick Balharry, who did so much for nature conservation, was being presented with a Geddes Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The day was, weather-wise, spectacular.

Some sun. Some cloud. Near perfect visibility. Snow still on the high tops that separate Glenfeshie from the upper part of Deeside.

The place a place of beauty. Seen that day at its best.

Which was good.

Because Dick, whom I’d known for a long time, was dying.

And just days later would be dead.

What Dick had meant to say that day was said for him by his son David.

There was media coverage of Dick’s message.

And if you didn’t catch it, you should maybe look it up. Because that message is important.

It has to do with how we might restore and rehabilitate environments and habitats that have been desperately degraded by misuse.

Evidence of just such restoration was all around us that day in Glenfeshie.

I hadn’t been around there for maybe 20 years.

And what I saw was truly heartening.

The rebirth of a native pinewood that, despite it’s having existed for millennia, appeared, until quite recently, to be headed for extinction.

Because of the priority given for ages in Glenfeshie – the priority given everywhere on properties like that – the priority to keeping up deer numbers.

With the outcome, in Glenfeshie, that no scots pine seedling there had reached maturity for at least a hundred years.

That the Glenfeshie pinewood’s now returning – without planting, without fencing – is down to stringent deer culls.

Conducted by a management team led by Thomas MacDonell – a local, Badenoch, man.

This team advised by Dick Balharry.

A team in place there in Glenfeshie because it’s owner is Anders Holch Polvsen – now in charge of more of Scotland than any other individual – except for the Duke of Buccleuch.

Mr Polvsen’s objectives are: ‘To purchase wild land to protect it against exploitation and to preserve as much wild nature … as possible for future generations.’

What might our prospective Land Reform Commission make of that?

Will what Mr Polvsen’s doing be judged to be, or not to be, ‘to the collective benefit’ of Scots?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that putting right the past misuse of Highland land requires more subtlety than seems to be allowed for in attempts to map what’s wild.

Not long after my trip to Glenfeshie, I was in Strathbrora.

I’ve been there quite a bit of late because, as David mentioned, I’m writing something presently on Sutherland.

My destination was a place called Ascoilemore.

Whose community, I think, I’ve got to know a little bit.

Which is a wee bit odd, I guess.

Because no-one’s lived in Ascoilemore for the best part of two centuries.

This being one of sixty-two Stathbrora townships destroyed in the course of the Sutherland Clearances.

There were eight, nine, ten, eleven dwellings there in Ascoilemore.

Now reduced to little more than squared off undulations in the turf.

I don’t know which of these vestigial ruins were once part of the house that – until Thursday 31 May 1821 – was home to a woman by the name of Jessie Ross.

I do know something of what happened there when, at two o’clock that Thursday afternoon, the house was entered forcibly by around a dozen men.

Those men, headed by a sheriff-officer called Donald Bannerman, were there to evict this young mother, her two small daughters, aged five and three, and her two-month old baby girl.

They were also there to empty the building of everything the Rosses owned.

Jessie’s baby, whose name was Roberta, had been born less than a year after another baby, a boy who hadn’t lived.

So Jessie Ross, then 27, had gone through, in twenty months, two pregnancies – one of which had ended tragically.

Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t in good health.

To Bannerman and his subordinates, this mattered not a bit.

They began by ordering out the little girls, Elizabeth and Katherine.

Their mother, unwell and hoping to safeguard the family’s belongings, refused to join them.

‘She would not leave … until the furniture was off,’ it was afterwards explained.

On Jessie Ross also refusing to help move the wooden cradle in which her baby was sleeping, one of the party, William Stevenson, picked it up – angrily it was said – and made to carry both cradle and baby outside.

Perhaps, as was later alleged, Stevenson was drunk – he and his colleagues having got through ten bottles of whisky the previous night and another three that morning.

Or perhaps he was just clumsy.

At all events, he somehow ran the cradle up against the house’s door or doorframe.

The baby, though not tumbled out, was badly shaken – and started crying in alarm.

She was still in distress when her cradle was set down in such shelter as a nearby dyke provided from a chill wind out of the north-east.

Here Roberta was found by someone by the name of Mary Murray – on her way to offer help to Jessie.

Like Jessie, Mary was a nursing mother.

Doing something we’d think unacceptable – but which, from the way it was reported, must have been common practice then – Mary Murray lifted the crying infant and quietened her, as a bystander put it, by ‘giving the young child a suck’ at her own breast.

The older Ross children weren’t so readily comforted.

Not long after the evicting party got to work, Elizabeth, the five-year old, was struck in the face by a piece of planking thrown from the house – Stevenson again responsible.

Elizabeth began to cry and, her injuries aside, neither she nor Katherine, her sister, could have been anything but traumatised by what was happening to them.

Both were said to have ‘looked cold’ and to be ‘trembling’ or shivering – their misery compounded by the fact that they already had, or were incubating, whooping cough.

Now rare, whooping cough was once a common childhood illness.

Its symptoms – a fever and the drawn-out cough from which the infection got its name – were always unpleasant, sometimes severe, occasionally fatal.

So what happened to Katherine Ross, might arguably have happened anyway.

But when, some three weeks later, the little girl died, it’s understandable that her father, Gordon Ross, unavoidably elsewhere when Ascoilemore was cleared, should have attributed her death to what he called the ‘inhuman treatment’ she’d experienced when the Rosses’ home was taken from them.

That, then, is how Strathbrora got to be the way it is.

From the hillside above Ascoilemore, the middle reaches of Strathbrora are laid out in front of you.

Devoid of habitation.

But awash with indications of there having for a long time been a lot of people here.

A mile or so away, at Kilbraur, another of the strath’s cleared townships, you can pick out the remnants of a broch.

From perhaps two thousand years back.

And in the shape of hut circles and the like, there are plenty signs of older settlements nearer hand.

Which is to say that, out of the last fifty centuries, this part of Strathbrora’s been lacking people for just two.

In relation to what went before then, Strathbrora’s present emptiness is very, very new.

And being new, might it not also, in the end, prove temporary?

Getting a new community, or new communities, established in Strathbrora, and the many places like it, will be more challenging than getting pines back in Glenfeshie.

It won’t happen this year.

Or next year.

It might not happen this century.

But my plea to Aileen MacLeod, who’ll be speaking here tomorrow, is this:

Don’t let any Wild Land Map close off that possibility.

Scottish Land and Estates, the organisation that represents some landowners in Scotland, attracted a fair bit of press coverage last month for their claim that potential reforms to Scotland’s agricultural tenancy laws could leave the Scottish Government open to compensation claims of £600 million (see Telegraph, Press & Journal, Herald). (1)

The claim was made in written evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 25 March 2015. The £600 million figure was derived from a study undertaken for SLE by estate agents Smiths Gore which purports to calculate the potential loss faced by landowners were reforms to be enacted.

The heart of the matter, however, is not the quantum of any possible claim. Compensation would only be relevant if there is a breach of the rights to property enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 1 of Protocol 1). Moreover, such rights are not the only human rights that come into play when the Scottish Parliament enacts legislation.

As Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, noted in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 3 December 2014,

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment..” (2)

Professor Miller expanded on this point at a very well-attended Scottish Parliamentary meeting was last week hosted by Michael Russell MSP on the topic of land reform and human rights. In attendance were several MSPs, a Government Minister and more than six civil servants including one from the Crown Office.

The meeting was addressed by David Cameron from Community Land Scotland and Professor Miller. In their presentations and in the discussion that followed, it was evident that convention rights of the sort being deployed by SLE are only part of a much wider spectrum of human rights that Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament have to balance in framing legislation. Section 7(2)(a) of the Scotland Act 1998 obliges the Parliament to observe and implement all international obligations including a wide range of human rights that are not covered by the ECHR such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This perspective is diligently and authoritatively explained in a paper by Dr Kirsteen Shields from Dundee University’s School of Law published in the current edition of the Scottish Human Rights Journal entitled “Tackling the Misuse of Rights Rhetoric in Land Reform Debate”. (download available here) All with an interest in the topic and, in particular, MSPs, would be well advised to read this carefully.

None of these arguments will be new to anyone with any experience of international development where, since 1997, the rights-based approach has been adopted not only by the UN but by Governments and NGOs around the world.

Indeed the UK Government is an enthusiastic advocate of such an approach in its overseas aid programme. The Scottish Government is also bound by the terms of the Scotland Act to do all in its power to further the realisation of international human rights obligations.

The claims by SLE that landowners could be entitled to £600m of compensation is predicated on there being a breach of ECHR. Crucially, SLE has not published the legal advice upon which the £600m claim is based. During the Parliamentary meeting, I called for the organisation to do so and share this with MSPs. I await developments with interest since only by understanding the legal basis upon which any claim rests, can we judge whether any financial consequences might flow. Moreover, as the above paper makes clear, there is more to human rights than the ECHR.

All of which led Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, to dismiss such claims at the Rural Affairs meeting on 1 April 2015. In response to suggestions that compensation claims might be as high as £1.78 billion, he said,

First, the cabinet secretary is too broke to afford £600 million, let alone £1.78 billion. It would be more constructive and helpful in moving the debate forward if we had fewer silly reports such as that. SLE’s intervention and the figures in its report – which came when we are supposed to be saying that there is unprecedented collaboration and understanding of some of the key issues facing tenant farming – were unconstructive and unhelpful. It escapes me how those figures were arrived at. Given that we have not even published the legislation yet, there is no way for those with a strong view on one side of the debate even remotely to begin to work out any potential figures.”

Now that Parliament has been made aware of the wider human rights context in which it is, by law, required to work, it is to be hoped that such speculative and outlandish claims can be put to rest.

NOTES

(1) SLE is the representative body of 1351 landowners in Scotland who own 29% of Scotland.

(2) A fuller extract of his evidence..

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment. I will just make a couple of points about the perception of human rights and its relevance to the committee’s consideration of the bill, because I am sure that others have more value to add.

The language that is being used – I heard the term “absolute right to buy” being used again this morning –  is very unhelpful, although I understand why people are using it. The European convention on human rights is not understood as providing a framework in which the legitimate rights of landowners and the public interest are reconciled and a balance is struck, with compensation being paid to the landowner if necessary. The right to buy is a qualified right: there has to be a competing public interest to override the right to peaceful enjoyment by the person who owns the land. Therefore, language such as “right to buy” or “absolute right” polarises the debate in an unhelpful way and does not reflect a clear understanding of what the ECHR contributes to the debate.

The bigger frustration that I have with the policy framework is this: human rights does not begin and end at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; there is a much broader framework of international human rights that are relevant to the Government and the Parliament, but which are largely invisible.

The Scotland Act 1998 calls on the Scottish ministers to observe and implement international obligations, of which one—but only one—is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which places a duty on the Scottish ministers to use the maximum available resources to ensure progressive realisation of the right to housing, employment, food and so on—that is, it sees land as a national asset, which is to be used for the progressive realisation of what we might call sustainable development.

Therefore, what human rights provides is a broader impetus for land reform, rather than an inhibition, as is suggested in the way that the issue is currently couched—that is, in questions about whether a landowner has a red card that can be used with reference to the ECHR to stifle discussion about different use of the land. That is what is missing from the policy framework.”

 

 

Highland Titles Ltd. is one of those websites that offers you a small plot of land as a souvenir purchase. Yesterday, on twitter, some merriment was had by challenging the claim that such plots conferred any ownership of the land. Highland Titles Ltd. claims that you will become a landowner in the absence of any recording of title in the Land Register. It backs up this assertion by reference to this legal advice from J&H Mitchell WS. But a series of lawyers on twitter challenged this. See this Storify by Malcolm Combe, his subsequent blog, and this lengthy legal explanation by @loveandgarbage.

So if these “plot-owners” don’t own the land, who does? The answer is Highland Titles Ltd. It owns two parcels of land – Keil Wood near Duror extending (originally) to 90.7ha (see map below) and Paitna Green Wood, near Invergarry (to west of A87 above Loch Loyne), extending to 75.1ha. Keil Wood was acquired in 2007 by a company called Lochaber Highland Estates (CI) Ltd. This company changed its name in February 2012 to Highland Titles Ltd. See here for a Scotsman Business video.

Keil Wood title here and plan here.

Paitna Green Wood title here and plan here.

Several half-acre plots have been sold at Keil Wood reducing the extent owned by Highland Titles Ltd. to approximately 75ha meaning that the company owns around 150ha of land which it is offering “for sale” in plots from 1 square foot to 1000 square feet in extent.

What makes this story that little bit more interesting is that Highland Titles Ltd. is a company registered in Alderney and, in a phone call today to the Greffier of the Court of Alderney, it was confirmed that Highland Titles is owned by Douglas Wilson and Helen McGregor as Trustees for The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, a charity registered in Guernsey.

According to the five-year plan of Highland Titles Ltd., over 100,000 plots have been sold. Each plot costs anything from £29.99 to £499.99. The larger plots are all in Paitna Green (or BumbleBee Haven as Highland Titles calls it) which is little more than a high altitude sitka spruce plantation on the A87 from Invergarry over the hill to Cluanie (see below)

The revenue from over 100,000 plots is at least £2,999,000 and probably a good deal more. This revenue is paid into a company registered in Alderney but as no accounts are published, it is impossible to be sure. The sole share is held by Wilson and McGregor as Trustees for the Guernsey charity. Under the law of Guernsey, no charity is obliged to provide accounts for public inspection and it need only file accounts under certain circumstances.

Thus nobody knows if in fact the charity is in receipt of any funds whatsoever. As the sole shareholder it is not entitled to have any of the revenues of Highland Titles Ltd. transferred to it. These revenues may well be paid out by the Alderney company as management fees or any manner of other payments to third parties.

The 150ha owned by Highland Titles is enough to provide over 16 million square foot plots which, at £29,99 per plot is a potential gross revenue of over £479 million. And, because the “plot-owners” do not legally own their plots (their ownership is limited to a few bits of paper and perhaps a tartan teddy), these plots can, in theory be sold multiple times.

I find it odd that such an arrangement appears to be lawful in Scotland. Because the charity does not technically operate in Scotland, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has no role (see ruling from May 2014). And, because the company that owns the land is registered in Alderney, it pays no taxes to HMRC.

In December 2014, another company by the same name – Highland Titles Ltd. – was registered in Scotland. it is unclear what role this company plays.

Finally, the Directors of this Scottish company are Peter Bevis and Helen McGregor who live at Tulloch Farm, Spean Bridge.

Tulloch Farm is owned by Quexus Ltd., a company registered at Trident Chambers, PO Box 146, Road Town, Tortola, British VIrgin Islands.

Which leaves an obvious question. Where is all the money going?

Image: Steven Camley Cartoon, The Herald.

It’s been a remarkable few days.

Last Wednesday, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced a legislative programme that included a Land Reform Bill and other land policy measures on harbours, domestic property taxation and inheritance laws.

The following day the Smith Commission published its report on further devolution for Scotland. After decades of campaigning on the topic by many activists, the Crown Estate is to be devolved in its entirety together with other powers such as the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction.

Then, today, the Scottish Government published a consultation paper on land reform in Scotland which provides more detail on the measures that are to be incorporated in the Bill. This all amounts to the most significant political advance on the topic since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the series of reforms implemented in 1999-2003.

In the words of the Scottish Government,

The aim of this paper is … to ensure you and everyone in Scotland are given the chance to influence this debate, provide your thoughts and suggestions, and to shape both Scotland’s vision for the future of land rights and responsibilities policy and future land reform.”

The Paper begins by proposing a Land Rights and Responsibilities policy statement (page 7). This in itself is very significant. It provides a draft statement of principles that will inform the development of land policy for the years ahead. One would hope that the final version will be agreed and adopted by whatever political parties are in power in Holyrood. Such a statement puts Scottish land reform firmly in an international context where land rights are seen as an important means of strengthening communities and individuals. It opens the door to the Scottish Government adopting the UN Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure that have already been adopted by the UK government.

The paper then goes on to highlight some further detail on the eleven measures that are proposed to be included in the Land Reform Bill. Some of these were highlighted in the First Minister’s legislative programme last week – see previous blog  but some are new.

Here follows all eleven proposals.

1. A Scottish Land Reform Commission

Announced last week and implements a key recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group.

2. Limiting the Legal Entities that can own land in Scotland This is a new proposal and very welcome. Again it follows a recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group  and previous debates around the Land Registration Act (see my evidence here)  It also addresses the concerns of law enforcement and taxation authorities about money-laundering (1) There has been a long-standing problem of land owned by companies registered in offshore tax-havens. Some own large tracts of rural land and some own urban property – including quite a bit of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh near the First Minister’s official residence. It is quite ludicrous to permit this state of affairs to continue any longer.

3. Information on land, its value and ownership

Announced last week and implements a key recommendation of the Land Reform Review Group. We need to move towards a comprehensive and freely available system like the State of Montana.

4. Sustainable development test for land governance

Again, announced last week but this is the opportunity now to consider how this might be designed and implemented. As the Paper argues,

The vast majority of land in Scotland is owned by the private sector. Landowners are instrumental in promoting sustainable local development and supporting communities. However, in some instances the scale or pattern of land ownership, and the decisions of landowners, can be a barrier to sustainable development in an area. Providing mechanisms to address such situations could allow for potential barriers to sustainable local economic and social development to be overcome.”

5. A more proactive role for public sector land management

This is a new proposal and welcome. As the Paper notes,

It is clear public land should be managed for the greatest overall benefit, balancing a number of differing and sometimes conflicting public needs. … However, the legal framework for some public bodies can be a significant constraint on the range of operations that they can undertake to deliver these benefits.”

If the legal framework and governance of all public land can be modernised and made more flexible, it will help to deliver many of the objectives of land reform can be met.

6. Duty of community engagement on charitable trustees when taking decisions on land management.

This was highlighted last week. What the Government propose is a new duty on the trustees of charitable bodies to “engage with the local community and consider the potential impact on the local community before taking any decision” Such a power would be useful but it does not go far enough. Where charitable status is granted to private landowners who then restrict membership of the organisation to a tight group of family and friends, what is needed is not better engagement but better democracy.

7. Removal of the exemption from business rates for shooting and deerstalking

Announced last week, the Paper makes clear that the proposal relates to the so-called sporting rates abolished in 1995. It would be helpful if the term “business rates” was done away with. It has no legal meaning and is misleading. Such rates are not a tax on businesses (mainly concerned with income tax and corporation tax), they are a levy on the rental value of non-domestic property. The Scottish Parliament is assessed for non-domestic rates (NDR) as are bus stops. Neither is a business. Much though needs to be given to how such rates are to be assessed. I will be arguing strongly that it be done on the rental value of land – an approach that the Mirrlees Review (Chapter 16) recommended should be applied to all NDR.

8. Common Good

I particularly welcome the plans to reform the law around common good land. This is land owned by towns and cities across Scotland that is for the benefit of the residents and os often of great antiquity forming part of the original Royal Charter of the burgh. The legal framework around is complicated and out of date and leads to conflict between councils and communities. Common Good is the oldest form of community landownership and the vast majority of Scotland’s population who live in towns and cities deserve a better system of managing it.

9. Agricultural Holdings

Scottish Government confirms that the recommendations that will be made by the Agricultural Holdings Review Group (which is due to report later this month) will be incorporated into the Land Reform Bill.

10. Wild Deer

This is a new proposal to strengthen the powers of intervention of Scottish Natural Heritage over the management of wild deer. As the Paper notes, wild deer are a public resource but they are managed exclusively by landowning interests. I suspect many will be arguing that the proposals need to go further and introduce a modern system of wildlife management with proper democratic governance of this public resource.

11. Public Access

There are proposals here to make minor amendments to existing access legislation.

Conclusion

These proposals, together with the Community Empowerment Bill, reform of council tax, succession law reform, harbours reform and devolution of the Crown Estate and onshore oil and gas add up to a substantial package of powers that will reform land relations in Scotland. Reform is not going to happen quickly. This is the job of a decade or more but this is an important start

All of these proposals will be subject to extensive debate over the coming months and already there are powerful vested interests engaged in trying to derail them. Scottish Land and Estates issued a press release through Media House in which it expressed “disappointment that the Scottish Government continues to miss an opportunity to create modern and meaningful land reform.” I think modern and meaningful land reform is what is in fact beginning to take shape. There is a long way to go of course. But Scotland is changed now. Thousands of people were energised by the referendum campaign and now want to use the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament to secure a fairer and more prosperous country.

This blog is a brief overview of what is covered by the Consultation. I will be publishing further detailed blogs on individual topics as well as a series of briefing papers to assist people in responding to the consultation.

NOTES

(1) See Chapter 29 in The Poor Had No Lawyers

02. October 2014 · Comments Off on The Theft of Ancrum Common · Categories: Land Registration, Land Rights, Who Owns Scotland

Over the past 20 years, I have uncovered many examples of areas of common land across Scotland – remnants of commonties, greens, loans and the like. Unfortunately, little is being done to protect them from land-grabs by an assortment of avaricious individuals. If such claims go without challenge, a legally watertight title can be obtained. Such claims are open to challenge but there are three key difficulties.

Firstly, local knowledge of common land rights is often limited and the institutions don’t exist to maintain awareness and prompt action. This contrasts with the situation in England and Wales where there is a well-developed framework of law. (1)

Secondly, there is often no title for common land, leaving it open for land-grabbing.

And thirdly, where such land-grabs take place, there is no way that local people can know about it. Despite claims being lodged in a public register (the Register of Sasines or Land Register), no local publicity attends the lodging of documents with the Registers of Scotland by solicitors via DX Mail.  Thus the only way one could stay abreast of any such developments would to spend thousands of pounds per day searching the registers every day all year round just in case someone had submitted a  title claim.

For example, in the course of research for my book, The Poor Had No Lawyers, I found a number of examples of such grabs. One, which I have yet to fully document, involved the appropriation of 393 acres of commonty in Perthshire in 1986 by three landowners whose agent (the solicitor), according to a note in the Register of Sasines was “aware that granters apparently only have title to rights in pasturage in xxxx commonty.” The local community was not consulted and today, many locals are angry that a valuable part of their heritage was stolen from under their noses.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog.

Ancrum Common consists of three parcels of land extending to 35 acres in total to the west of the village of Ancrum in Roxburghshire. The lands have been subject to a long history of communal use and there is no evidence that there is any title held by any private interest over the common. In recent years, however, the land has become the subject of dispute although much of what has happened has only very recently become known to the residents of Ancrum.

In 1988 a company called Cranelg Ltd. recorded an a non domino (2) deed in the Register of Sasines. Cranelg Ltd. had two Directors, a Mr Nicholas W Cranston and a Mr William F Elgin (a Chartered Accountant). According to sources, this company specialised in land-grabbing. The company was wound up in 1998.

In 2001, Mr James George Montagu Douglas Scott, the owner of Kirklands Estate, Ancrum then recorded another a non domino deed in which he disponed the Common from himself in favour of himself. In a Court of Session ruling in the case of Aberdeen College v. Youngson [2005] CSOH13,  it was found that such a deed from a person to themselves was invalid. (3)

Finally, in May 2006, Mr Scott conveyed Ancrum Common via an a non domino disposition to his spouse, Sophie Mary Montagu Douglas Scott. And here matter rested until discovered by local residents in the past two years. There is now a quiet fury that the Common has been stolen.

I have found no evidence that Mr Scott has any legitimate claim of ownership of Ancrum Common. I spoke to him at length on the phone and he claimed that the land belonged to him but was unable to provide any account of why this was or to provide any evidence. At one point he claimed, “Listen, I don’t know what I’m talking about. You need to speak to my lawyers – Anderson Strathern. It was they who suggested I do this.”

Understandably, Anderson Strathern was unwilling to discuss its client’s legal affairs.

Evidence that has been uncovered suggests that there was a title to the Common in the name of the Feuars of Ancrum. In the Inland Revenue Survey of landownership in Great Britain and Ireland conducted in 1910 under Section 26(1) of Lloyd George’s Finance (1909-10) Act, the land is noted as being owned and occupied by the Feuars of Ancrum (see images below).

Further research is underway.

Image: Map extract from 1910 Inland Revenue Survey. Part of Ancrum Common (Parcel No. 200)

Image: Extract from IRS Survey Field Book for Parcel 200 (Ancrum Common)

Meanwhile, a Public Meeting has been organised for 7pm on 15 October 2014 in Ancrum Village Hall.

 

For legal reasons no comments will be allowed on this blog.

NOTES

(1) See for example a recent dispute over Garway Common in Herefordshire

(2) An a non domino deed is a disposition (transfer of land) literally “from one who is not the owner”. Professors George Gretton and Ken Reid describe the circumstances in which this used as follows.

“It sometimes happens that someone notices that a piece of ground is unoccupied and apparently abandoned. Using prescription, it is possible to acquire ownership. What happens is that the person gets a friend to grant to him a gratuitous disposition of the land and the disposition is recorded..”

(3) This Registers of Scotland note covers the implications for recording deeds in the Register of Sasines and Land Register.

The above is the audio-video commissioned from myself by Emma Rushton and Derek Tyman as part of their Flaghall installation in the Where Do I End and You Begin exhibition in the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh 1 August-19 October 2014 as part of the Edinburgh Arts Festival. (Click on ‘Vimeo’ and watch full screen for best effect).The exhibition features work by artists from across the Commonwealth exploring and interrogating the ideas, ideals and myths that underpin notions of community, common-wealth and the commons. This audio-video lecture explores these themes in the context of Scotland and the British Empire and invites the viewer to consider how we can reverse centuries of colonialism and ideas of exclusive possession and move toward a world in which our common-wealth is reconstituted and governed for the wellbeing of all.

There are three events on this Saturday 30 August discussing the UK work in the exhibition including a talk by myself at 2pm. Below is the extract from the exhibition catalogue.

CONQUEST, COLONIALISM & THE COMMONS

The Commonweal is an old Scots term meaning “wealth shared in common for the wellbeing of all”

In 1884 the Earl of Rosebery visits Australia and asks, “Does the fact of your being a nation… imply separation from the Empire? God forbid! There is no need for any new nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations“.

On the 22nd of August 1770, at Possession Island off the north coast of Australia, Captain Cook writes in his journal, “I now once more hoisted English colours and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third, took possession of the whole Eastern Coast  .. together with all the bays, harbours, rivers and islands.”

In 1949, the people of Alyth in Perthshire, Scotland march to the top of the Hill of Alyth to destroy the fences that have been built to enclose their common land.

In 1955, the UK government decides to annex Rockall – a small rock in the North Atlantic around 187 miles west of St Kilda. Captain Connell of HMS Vidal is given the following order by the Queen. “On arrival at Rockall you will effect a landing and hoist the Union flag on whatever spot appears most suitable or practicable and you will then take possession of the island on our behalf.”

In May 1982, Eddie Mabo, on behalf of the Meriam people from the Mer Island in the Torres Strait off the north coast of Australia launches a legal action challenging the claim of the Crown to ownership of his land.

On the 3 June 1992, by a majority of six to one, the High Court upholds the claim of the Meriam people and overturns the legal fiction that the land of Australia was ‘terra nullius’ before colonisation.

On Tuesday this week, the Court of Session published its opinion by Lord Tyre on a petition brought by East Renfrewshire Council (4.2Mb pdf) seeking authority to build a school on common good land in Cowan Park, Barrhead. Given past blogs on the topic of common good and, in particular, the controversy over the Portobello Park proposals, I felt it would be useful to provide a brief response and commentary on this latest decision by the Courts.

East Renfrewshire Council plans to build a new high school in Cowan Park, Barrhead. The park consists of three distinct parcels of land (see map below). The first – areas 13/4 and the northernmost E157/3 form the original Cowan Park. James Cowan bequeathed £10,000 in 1910 to provide a park and directed his trustees to purchase the land and convey it to the Town Council to be held in “perpetuity as a public park … for the use and enjoyment of the inhabitants of the Burgh of Barrhead in all time coming.” In 1969 part of this original park (the northernmost area E157/3) was conveyed to the County Council and is the site of the current Barrhead High School.

An additional two parcels of land were added to the park in acquisitions by the County Council in 1969 (E157/3 to the south outlined in blue) and the Town Council in 1969 (area 13/8 outlined in yellow).

Of these parcels, only area 13/4 is common good land. Furthermore, given the terms of the bequest, it is inalienable common good land. This means that, unlike alienable common good land (which the council can dispose of as its sees fit), any disposal of such land requires the consent of the courts. (1) It was with this intention that East Renfrewshire Council petitioned the Court of Session in April 2014.

At this point it is worth revisiting the Portobello decision very briefly. In that case, the City of Edinburgh Councils wished to appropriate (that is, to use common good land for another purpose but to retain ownership) land in Portobello Park to build a new school. An action was taken against the Council by Portobello Park Action Group and the Court of Session found (on appeal to the Inner House) that the Council had no powers to appropriate inalienable common good land. This was because the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which governs such matters is silent on the question of appropriation in these circumstances and thus the common law prohibition on appropriation of inalienable common good land prevails. The City of Edinburgh Council resolved the matter by seeking specific authority under a private act of Parliament to appropriate the necessary land.

The Cowan Park case turned on the question of whether the proposals for building a school constituted a disposal or an alienation. If such an arrangement is regarded as a disposal, the Court has the power to decide whether to grant authority to proceed. However, if the arrangement is considered an appropriation, the Court has no locus since there is no provision in the 1973 Act for it to take a view.

The plan is to lease the land to a special purpose vehicle which, in turn will sub-lease the site back to the Council and construct the school. The Court in this case found that, since the Council would retain possession of the land as the sub-leaseholder, there was no disposal involved and that “the petitioner’s proposals are properly to be characterised as appropriation.” (2) Thus, “as there would be no disposal, the petition must be refused as unnecessary“.

So where does that leave East Renfrewshire Council?

Well, the Court cannot provide the consent that was requested and thus there are three options available.

The first would be to seek the same remedy as the City of Edinburgh Council in the Portobello case and petition the Scottish Parliament for a private Act of Parliament.

The second would be to build the school on the southern half of the park which is not common good land (though I understand other factors mean that this is not a suitable site).

The third would be to do what South Lanarkshire Council did and go ahead and build the school anyway. As outlined in a previous blog, the Council in this case, having petitioned the court and having been advised that the court had no locus (just as in the present case), nevertheless went ahead and built Holy Cross High School. No-one raised an action against the council. Had anyone done so, then, the court would most likely have found that the Council was acting beyond its powers. This is exactly what happened in the Portobello case because, whilst the courts have no locus to approve such an action at the outset, they do have the power to rule it unlawful should it be contemplated AND someone takes an action against the Council.

In conclusion, this latest case demonstrates why, in my view common good law is in need of modernisation. The Community Empowerment Bill proposes some modest reform on transparency but fails to address the underlying complexity and the need for the law to be updated to reflect modern needs.

NOTES

(1) – In my opinion Lord Tyre is wrong at [5] where he claims that “As a general rule, a local authority has no power to dispose of common good land or to appropriate it for other uses“. On the country, if the land is alienable it is free to dispose of it or appropriate it. See Ferguson, Common Good Law (Avizandum) at foot of page 88.

(2) Lord Tyre at [16]

Guest Blog by Morten Nielsen, Aarhus University, Denmark (1)

Associate professor Morten Nielsen is a Danish anthropologist currently in the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University. Based on empirical research carried out in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the UK, his research focuses on land use, house-building and property rights in both urban and rural areas. He is currently undertaking an in-depth study of land relations and property rights among tenant farmers on Islay.

“This is the Scottish Government. Is this Dr. Morten Nielsen?”

I had just come off the Islay ferry and was heading for Inveraray when my phone rang and an energetic woman, who was apparently the living embodiment of the Scottish Government, wanted to know if she was, in fact, speaking with me. I immediately assumed that I had done something wrong. Having spent more than two months doing ethnographic fieldwork among tenant farmers on Islay, my initial thought was that I had probably forgotten to fill out some research permit and now my increasing absent-mindedness had finally backfired.

Much to my surprise, however, the polite state official was not at all trying to expose my academic flaws but, rather, wanted to discuss my on-going research about agricultural tenancies and property rights on Islay. In order to realise comprehensive land reforms in Scotland, she told me, information was badly needed and my research could potentially provide insights into the intricacies of negotiating land rights in the Highlands and Islands. Having an overall interest in the dissemination of qualitative research, I immediately agreed to meet with the polite embodiment of the Scottish Government. As we could not find an available date for us to meet up on Islay, the state official agreed to visit me in Crail, Fife a few weeks later, on a Saturday, when I was visiting some friends on my way back to Denmark.

To Scottish readers, this vignette might not constitute anything out of the ordinary: a foreign researcher being approached by a state official interested in discussing key findings on issues that are high on the political agenda. However, having carried out research on land and property rights in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa since 2000, I can firmly say that this is the first time ever that I have been contacted personally by a state official interested in the findings from a very short empirical investigation and, moreover, one who was prepared to meet up on a day off.

In both regions where I have previously worked, access to officials at different levels has been paramount to my research but the initiative for making contact has always been mine. The obvious question to ask was therefore why did she feel the urge to contact me apparently out of the blue? In order to respond to this question, we need to discard the tempting but unfortunately unlikely possibility that she was in awe of my research findings. At the time of our telephone conversation I had carried out fieldwork for less than two months and had as yet published nothing in academic journals or in more accessible public media. The likely response to the puzzling question is therefore quite banal. It wasn’t that I was the best of all the scientists doing research ‘on the ground’; rather, I was the only researcher doing research ‘on the ground’!

In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, research into property rights and access to agricultural land is heavily supported and funded by external stakeholders, such as, for example, the UK Government. Hence, whenever I do ethnographic research in sub-Saharan Africa, I am certain to meet several of my colleagues doing research on exactly the same issues as myself. In Scotland, however, the situation is markedly different. Since I started doing research, I have come across very few colleagues doing what I do (which is to try to understand what people do ‘on the ground’ when, for example, farmers attempt to acquire secure access to tenanted land). To be more precise, I have met none!

Hence, although my conversation with the Scottish state official paved the way for disseminating findings from my research project to relevant stakeholders, it also made apparent a disturbing problem that slows down the realisation of wide-ranging land reforms. The on-going discussion about land and property rights in Scotland is based on very little knowledge about what actually goes on ‘on the ground’ regarding such crucial questions as, for example, how do negotiations between land owner and land tenant take place?; how are rent reviews actually settled?; how do conflicts among farmers and between tenants and land owners erupt and how are they settled?; why do so few tenants use the land court to settle land disputes? The list goes on…

Let me try to flesh out this puzzling predicament a bit further by turning to some of the very interesting issues raised by the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) in its recently published Interim Report. (2) Initially, it is noted with lucid honesty that,

The first step in any meaningful strategy of land reform must be the creation of data on ownership and land values which    is comprehensive and accessible. Regrettably Scotland lags behind most comparable European countries in providing such data

When discussing ownership of vacant land in Scotland, the disturbing lack of information is further emphasized. According to Professor Adams, University of Glasgow,

“…local authorities have no idea who owns 12% of the vacant and derelict land in Scotland

One consequence being that,

“…too often communities are left guessing who owns the land that they live, work and socialise in”.

Taking SAC’s insights as an apt example of an overall problem then, given the lack of information, stakeholders involved in the ongoing process of trying to improve the existing legislation on land and property rights are often in the dark about what happens ‘on the ground’.

What are then the consequences of this worrying lack of information? Why is it that information about what goes on ‘on the ground’ is so crucial for the successful realization of ambitious land reforms? As an anthropologist having working on these issues for the last 14 years, I do believe that it is only through careful examination of how land is actually appropriated, negotiated and distributed that new and potentially revolutionary mechanisms of land distribution can be envisaged and put into action. Let me briefly sketch out only a few areas of concern that I have identified through my three months of fieldwork among farmers in Islay:

  • The need for pragmatic and immediate forms of arbitration. Currently, the only workable mechanism for arbitration is the land court. To many farmers, it is too costly and it is considered as unlikely to reach a viable and positive outcome. Hence, a kind of ‘middle ground’ is needed.
  •  The need for third parties when negotiating rent reviews. The recurrent rent reviews constitute critical and often decisive moments that significantly affect or even condition the relationship between landowners (through factors) and tenants. To many farmers, the need for maintaining a workable relationship with the factor will often prevent them from claiming legitimate rights.
  • The need for transparency when calculating the value of tenanted land. My research indicates that there are no objective standards by which landowners determine the value of tenanted land (e.g. an acre of arable land might vary between different comparable farms).

This is only a very cursory and superficial outline of a few of the many issues that I have discussed with farmers on Islay. Still, as is probably clear by now, I will claim that it is only through detailed examinations of happens ‘on the ground’ that such crucial insights might be identified and subsequently serve as a basis for establishing new mechanisms for a more just system of land distribution.

Let me conclude with an example of what such valuable insights might be used for. During the 1990s, the Mozambican government in collaboration with donors and local and international interest groups managed to involve huge sections of the Mozambican population in widespread debates on the need for a new and democratic land law. Through massive investments, large-scale research projects and ongoing public debates, a new Land Law was finally formulated that was (and still is) the most progressive piece of legislation on land and property rights in sub-Saharan Africa. (3) Today, it is widely acknowledged by all stakeholders involved in the process that the radical and positive achievements could never have been reached if it had not been for the continuous production of information about how Mozambican land was actually appropriated, negotiated and distributed.

In this light, the debate on land and property rights in Scotland is that of a developing third world country that can one day hope to reach the progressive level of developed countries, such as Mozambique.

 

NOTES

(1) Morten Nielsen can be contacted by email at etnomn@cas.au.dk

(2) Scottish Affairs Committee Land Reform Inquiry Interim Report

(3) For a very interesting read, I highly recommend Chris Tanner’s analysis of the process leading up to the approval of the 1997 Land Law.

 

Guest Blog by Ruth Cape

Ruth works for Community Land Scotland although she writes here in a personal capacity. During the summer of 2009, she spent six weeks volunteering at the Tent of Nations farm in the West Bank, Palestine.

“We refuse to be enemies” is the sentiment upon which the Tent of Nations project in Palestine is built. Painted on a stone which greets every visitor to the Nassar family farm, where the project is based, the phrase encaptures the deep sense of humanity, resolution and faith which emanates from the 100 acres of land and the family who own it.

At 8am on Monday 19th May 2014, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) bulldozers arrived unannounced – presumably rolling past the Nassar’s defiant welcoming statement – and proceeded to destroy between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot trees, apple trees and grape vines in the lower valley of the farm.

Resting on a hill six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank), the Nassar family hold registration papers for this land dating back to the Ottoman Empire. For over 20 years now, the family have been fighting a legal battle to prove their ownership of the land. For over 20 years they have been challenged by knock-backs, obstacles and violent provocations. The attack at the beginning of last week comes while their latest case for proving ownership has been in the Israeli Military/Civil Courts since February 2013.

Image: The valley before and after the bulldozers arrived.

In 2001 the Nassars set up the Tent of Nations peace project on their farm; a project committed to building intercultural cooperation and understanding; to promoting dialogue and non-violence and to highlighting the connection between people and land. As a volunteer in 2009 (planting and harvesting many of the trees now destroyed), I was struck by the family’s steadfast resolve to remain on their farm despite the pressure to have it evacuated and claimed as Israeli State Land. I noted in a blog during my time there the “shuwe, shuwe” (“slowly, slowly”) attitude to the Nassar’s work; commenting that it “sums up their calm, thoughtful and sustained approach to dealing with an intense and emotional situation.” Such an approach couldn’t be more necessary now as they cope with this latest act of oppression; as ever – they are rising to the occasion with dignity and hope.

In addition to the destruction of the trees, the terraced land on which the trees were planted was also destroyed and left in a state of rubble which cannot currently be re-planted. Having generated income from the fruit of the mature trees, the family are faced with an attack on their livelihood as well as their property. As advised by their lawyer, the Nassars are now appealing for compensation; critically, they are also appealing to have the demolition orders which remain on the tents, compost toilets & other structures on the farm removed. They have asked for international awareness to be raised and for the international community to support their case and to understand that the injustices they face are representative of the oppression faced by the wider Palestinian population.

If you’d like to take action to support the Nassar family and hold the Israeli Military and Government to account for its actions, please write to your MP using this standard letter – doc and rtf.

See the Tent of Nations website Facebook and twitter for more information and updates.