The Scottish Parliament today passed the City of Edinburgh Council (Portobello Park) Bill. The Bill provides the Council with statutory authority to appropriate part of Portobello Park for the purposes of building a secondary school.

Previous blogs on the background to the case can be found here.

The private Bill was introduced by the Council in order to overcome a legal ruling by the Court of Session that as the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was silent on the question of appropriating inalienable common good land, the Council therefore had no power to do so. This Bill provides the Council with that power.

It remains a curious feature of this long saga that at no stage has any court ruled on whether the parkland is common good in the first place. Its status was always simply an uncontested claim by both parties to the Court of Session action. The Bill thus opens in Section 1(1) by declaring that the whole of the park is alienable common good land. it is believed that this is the first time that any Statute has made such a declaration.

The City Council media release is here.

On 15 October last year, I was preparing to leave home and travel to the Isle of Skye to visit my parents for the weekend. Shortly before I left, an email arrived from John Clegg & Co. advertising for sale 6,356 acres of land owned by Scottish Ministers in Strathnaver, Sutherland at offers over £1,850,000.

Aware that 2014 is the bicentenary of the infamous Strathnaver Clearances, I was surprised to see that the sales particulars not only included one of the best-preserved Clearance Villages at Rosal but described the land as “one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland”. (1) In further banal witterings, the sales brochure went on to opine that “ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land”

So, before leaving the house, I wrote a quick blog to express my doubts about the wisdom of this sale and the vacuousness and offensiveness  of the blurb. Within twenty-four hours, I was told that the land would be withdrawn from the market. The Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse had asked Forestry Commission Scotland to halt the sale and a FCS spokesperson said that “We are no reviewing options.” (see Herald report).

Today, Rosal Forest is back on the market (5.9Mb pdf brochure here and 3.7Mb plan here).

Rosal Village in 2013 sale

Rosal Village excluded from 2014 sale

Rosal Clearance village has been removed from the sale and the nonsense about “wilderness” and “fascinating insights” has also now thankfully been omitted. A total of 5,962 acres of land is offered for sale at offers over £1.750,000. The sale forms part of the Forestry Commission’s “re-positioning” programme whereby, “subject to the approval of Ministers” land is sold and the proceeds used to invest in projects that “increase the contribution of the national forest estate to the delivery of Forestry Commission Scotland and wider Government objectives.”

Whilst this development is welcome, wider questions remain about the elite interests that continue to dominate private forestry in Scotland (see e.g.  here and here plus a research report from Feb 2012). For now at least, Scottish Ministers appear to have taken account of the historic significance of one of Scotland’s most important historical sites relating to the “ongoing struggle for ownership of this land.”

UPDATE 1 1512hrs 7 April 2014

Forestry Commission Scotland issued the following Media release today.

7 APRIL 2014 NEWS RELEASE No: 16241

Rosal clearance village secure for future

In recognition of the cultural and historic significance of Rosal clearance village, Forestry Commission Scotland is to continue managing the historically significant site as part of the National Forest Estate.

After consulting local community groups, the Commission will retain the historic village and 100 hectares surrounding it.

Working with local community groups, this will ensure the village is accessible and well interpreted as part of the wider Strathnaver Heritage Trail.

There had been plans previously to sell the whole of Rosal Forest but this was halted after concerns were raised over the future of the historic village.

The Rosal village is the remains of a once thriving Highland township, which was cleared of its inhabitants to make way for sheep back in the early 1800s.

Tim Cockerill, Forestry Commission Scotland’s manager in the North Highland’s said:

“We have fully consulted local groups again and have now taken positive action to ensure Rosal Village is protected as part of Scotland’s National Forest Estate.

“We are now exploring ways with the local community on how we can work closer together over the promotion and management of Rosal village in the future.”

The rest of the woodland area is due to be sold as part of Forestry Commission Scotland’s ‘re-positioning programme’. Under this programme, land delivering relatively low public benefits is sold to fund the purchase of new land which can bring about wider benefits.

In this case, some of the money raised will be invested in the creation of new woodland and recreation facilities at Sibster in Caithness and the recently announced starter-farm for new farmers at Achnamoine near Halkirk.

The sale of the rest of the woodland could also provide buyers with a secure supply of timber in the north of Scotland. This could be especially attractive to companies wishing to develop bio-energy projects in the area.

Lotting of the land for sale is not practical in this case, although it is the Commission’s preferred option as a way of offering more opportunities for woodland purchase to a wider range of people.

Communities can acquire land for sale through the National Forest Land Scheme, but there has been no interest in this case following ongoing discussions with local stakeholders.

Notes to news editors
1. Forestry Commission Scotland is part of the Scottish Government’s Environment & Forestry Directorate www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

2. For news, events and recreation information log on to www.facebook.com/enjoyscotlandsforests For Twitter: www.twitter.com/fcscotlandnews

3. Tha FCS ag obair mar bhuidheann-stiùiridh coilltearachd Riaghaltas na h-Alba agus a’ riaghladh nan 660,000 heactairean ann an Oighreachd na Coille Nàiseanta, a’ dìonadh, a’ cumail smachd air agus a’ leudachadh nan coilltean gus buannachdan a thoirt dha coimhearsnachdan, an eaconamaidh agus, ag obair an aghaidh atharrachadh gnàth-shìde. www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

4. Media enquiries to Steve Williams, Forestry Commission Scotland press office 0131 314 6508.

(1) For further information on the historic sites in Strathnaver, see Strathnaver Museum page.

UPDATE 2 2100hrs 26 October 2015

Royal Forest was sold in June 2015 to Simon Brooke Mackay (Lord Tanlaw) and Rina Siew Yong, both of Queenstown Road, London, for £1,500,000

Today, the Scottish Green Party published a report authored by myself on renewing local democracy. There is no need to say a great deal in this blog other than to highlight the fact that there are two inquiries currently underway on the topic. The first of these is COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and the second is the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s inquiry into the Future of Local government in Scotland.

Scottish Green Party Media Release

The full report is available here.

Blog and video of press conference here.

(I got some of my figures wrong in my verbal presentation as I didn’t get back from London until 5am having been rescued by East Coast’s Thunderbird Engine and leaving Edinburgh 2 hours later for the journey to Nairn)


A report was published today by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) entitled Family Estates and Rural Resiliance. It contains the findings from a series of 23 interviews with landowners of so-called “family estates”. The report contains a few interesting observations but adds little to our state of knowledge about landownership in Scotland.

First of all is the problem of definitions. What is a “family estate”? The report does not say. One presumes it is an estate owned by a whole family but I know of none that meet this definition. The report contains no analysis of whether estates are owned by companies, trusts, individuals or other legal entities. Such structures are important not least because they often constrain precisely who in the “family” is the owner – often this may be a son or grandchildren. But the most important information that is missing is any analysis of gender. Are these estates owned by men or women in the family and what stake do children have? Given the long history of primogeniture and male landowners, this missing gender dimension makes it difficult to understand precisely whose voice is doing the talking and on what basis.

Another problem is that the research in so far as it examines the role played by “family estates” in their wider community, only interviews the landowners and not the wider community. It would have been interesting to see whether the opinions of the interviewees are shared by the community with which most of them seem so enthusiastic to embrace.

For example (and this is purely anecdotal of course), I received this email today from somebody who is dealing with a well-known “family estate” I guess you might call it.

they have a huge influence on life in this area and I personally have noticed a fundamental change in the last 10 years or so where they have gone from being generally a well thought of and benevolant influence in the community to the complete opposite where now they are obstructive, disliked and untrustworthy. You will be hard pushed to find someone who has a good word to say about them.”

The most obvious problem with this piece of work, however is the sample. The findings are based upon interviews with only 23 landowners. That is a very small sample but there are two more serious flaws.

The sample is derived solely from the membership of Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) which immediately biases the sample towards those who choose for whatever reason to join this organisation. The most serious flaw, however, is the fact that Scottish Land and Estates had the final say selecting the 23 owners. SRUC initially selected random estates using codes from an anonymised database provided by SLE. Once selected, the codes were sent to SLE. In the words of the report, SLE “then checked that the ones we had selected were resident family estates. if not, we then re-selected, again from the anonymised database“.

This means that SLE had the opportunity of selecting those data subjects which would show “family estates” in the best light. Whether it did or not I cannot say and neither can the researchers – and that is the fundamental flaw in the research design. We cannot therefore trust that the sample is even representative of “family estates” who are members of SLE (a problem exacerbated by SLE who, it appears, used their own unpublished definition of a “family estate”).

Moreover, knowing the identity of the subjects means that SLE had the opportunity to speak to them in advance of the research. Whether it did or not I cannot say and neither can the researchers.

Not surprisingly perhaps, SLE are very happy with the report and are majoring on the theme at their trade stand at the SNP conference where they are launching a “Community Engagement Programme“.

In a tweet today, SLE Chief Executive revealed the flawed premise upon which much of their argument rests. I will leave you to spot it.

This kind of design flaw has happened before with research undertaken by the Scottish Agricultural College, the predecessor to SRUC. Nine years ago, in a study of nine estates, it was revealed that the subjects were chosen by the sponsor of the research – the Scottish Estates Business Group – my critique of the time is here).

The next report will look at the role played by “charity” landowners. I trust that SRUC will adopt a clear definition and it would be very interesting to see whether they include the Applecross Trust and Mount Stuart Trust in their sample.

This report is based on a seriously flawed sample methodology and cannot be trusted. It tells us little beyond the opinions of 23 individuals whose authority even to speak on behalf of their “family” is never explained. No attempt is made to validate the views and opinions of the 23 interviewees by seeking the views of others with whom they engage. The research amounts to little more than a series of chats with individuals who have a vested interest in findings that can be presented, interpreted and promoted in a positive light.

In the acknowledgements, the author writes, “I would like to thank the 23 interviewees for their time in sharing their views with me“. That about sums up the research.

But please don’t take my word for it. Read it and make up your own mind.

Map shows land owned by Scottish Ministers (purple = agricultural estates, green = national forest estate & red = Scottish Natural Heritage)

Today, the Scottish Government announced that the rights to hunt deer on the Island of Raasay would be granted to the Raasay Crofters’ Association for a period of five years with an option to renew automatically so long as the terms of the lease are met. This follows the decision by Scottish Ministers in February 2013 to award the lease to a commercial company from South Ayrshire. Previous blogs here, here, here and here relate the story.

The decision follows a consultation with residents of Raasay, the results of which are also published today.

BBC online report here.

 

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

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

The national campaign is Frack off Scotland.