On 19 February, the Chief Executive of Scottish Land and Estates (the body representing 1351 landowners owning 29% of Scotland) wrote the following in his weekly newsletter to SLE members.

Mr McAdam’s grievance stemmed from the fact that the Scottish Government had not consulted him over the contents of a letter written on 15 February to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. It is not entirely clear why he should have been consulted. As far as I am aware the Scottish Trades Union Congress was not consulted either. Reading the letter, it appears to be well informed and draws on a range of evidence.

No matter.

On 18 February, Commonspace ran a story on the letter outlining how shooting estates were paying wages below the national minimum wage and citing a report that Dr Ruth Tingay and I had written last October in which we had first made this claim. This report, The Intensification of Grouse Moor Management in Scotland, was referenced once more in Mr McAdam’s newsletter as a “poorly researched report”.

The figures we used in the report were straightforward. In 2011/12, grouse shooting generated 2460 full time equivalent jobs (i.e. taking account of part time and seasonal employment) with a wage bill of £30.1 million. We made the simple observation that this equated to an average FTE wage of £11,401 which was below the national minimum wage in 2011/12.

This claim was attacked by Tim Baynes from the Gift of Grouse Campaign and Scottish Moorland Group (part of SLE) as well as cited by Mr McAdam as evidence of a “poorly researched report”.

In that context it is worth putting on the record that the figure was derived from a Scottish Moorland and Grouse Management Factsheet published in July 2013.

And who was the author and publisher of this factsheet?  None other than Scottish Land and Estates and Scottish Moorland Forum although I have yet to see Mr Baynes or McAdam describe their paper as “poorly researched”.

This episode highlighted the fact that the Gift of Grouse campaign is a well financed operation producing blogs, videos and reports in an attempt to persuade politicians and policy makers that driven grouse shooting is a benign undertaking. A good example was the contrasting way in which the campaign responded to two reports about birds.

The first report, “81 and Flying” was a report prepared by the Gift of Grouse Campaign/Scottish Moorland Group and launched in the Scottish Parliament at a reception hosted by Graeme Dey MSP on 23 November 2015.

When I asked Mr Baynes for a copy of the report, I was told that the report had been “posted” here. Unfortunately this page has since been deleted. But it contained merely a blog post with a summary of the findings of the report.

These findings have been questioned by experts (see latter part of this post on the excellent Raptor Persecution Scotland blog for example) but requests to publish the report by a number of interested parties have all been denied.


Fortunately, we know that the report was published. Copies can be seen in the photograph of the launch above. But unless the “report” is published it is impossible to know what to make of the claims made during a prestigious Scottish Parliamentary launch (accompanied by extensive press coverage). When will this report be published?

In contrast to this non-existent report making claims that are not open to scrutiny but yet were felt to warrant an expensive public relations event, another report a few weeks ago received a rather different treatment.

A scientific study of the breeding status of hen harriers in North East Scotland published in a peer reviewed journal was published in the February 2016 edition of British Birds. (1)

It documents the decline in the population of hen harriers in North East Scotland and attributes the main cause to illegal persecution and grouse moor management. A summary of the findings have been published on the RPS website here.

The Gift of Grouse campaign didn’t host a Parliamentary Reception or provide goodie bags or make a video about this scientific, peer-reviewed paper. Instead, it and Scottish Land and Estates published an angry denunciation of the “deeply flawed” report which, Mr Baynes asserted, showed a “lamentable lack of evidence.”

These claims were comprehensively demolished in a further blog by RPS here which includes a transcript of a twitter conversation with Mr McAdam in which he continues to challenge the idea that the peer-reviewed scientific article has any validity.

I had the good fortune to sit at dinner on Friday evening in the company of a number of the paper’s authors. As someone who knows very little about hen harriers or the scientific study of bird populations, I was deeply impressed to learn of their lifelong work in this field of study and the bemusement at the reaction their peer-reviewed paper had generated.

So, the next time you read a press release or a blog from the Gift of Grouse/Scottish Moorland Forum/Scottish Land and Estates that makes claims about other people’s research, probe a little deeper into the matter. And if they make claims about their own reports, you should pehaps check to see if it even exists in the first place.


(1) Rebecca, G., Cosnette, B., Craib, J., Duncan, A., Etheridge, B., Francis, I., Hardey, J., Pout, A., and Steele, L. (2016) The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriers in North-east Scotland. British Birds 109: 77– 95

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.



(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.


Following the previous blog which highlighted problems wuth the SRUC report “Family Esates and Rural Resiliance”, I am pleased to publish the following letters written by Dr Iain MacKinnon to Professor Bob Webb, Principal and Chief Executive of SRUC and to the Scotsman newspaper in response to its article of 17 October 2013.


by Dr Iain MacKinnon

Dear Professor Webb,

My name is Iain MacKinnon. I have recently completed a PhD at the University of Ulster on the topic of the Highlands and Islands as a site of colonisation, and am currently working independently as a writer and researcher.

I have pasted into the body of this e-mail for your attention a copy of a letter that I sent this morning to the editor of The Scotsman. It is in regard to the report published by SRUC last week entitled ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience‘. This report was publicised by The Scotsmanand after reading the newspaper’s article I am concerned that there is a substantial error of reasoning in the original SRUC report which has allowed it to be used to make political claims that cannot be substantiated. I believe this error of reasoning risks bringing the SRUC into disrepute. As these unsubstantiated political claims have been made in a public forum I have chosen to put my concerns forward in that same forum. However, I would welcome your response to my concerns.

le gach durachd / with good wishes

Iain MacKinnon

Letter to the Editor of the Scotsman

Dear Sir

On 17th October you reported on the Scottish Rural Agricultural College’s newly published research on ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience’. The research concluded that “family estates can support rural resilience”. However, the SRUC provide no tenable evidence for this claim and it risks bringing their work into disrepute.

The research report, which according to your newspaper was co-authored by the head of SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre Dr Sarah Skerratt, interviewed the landlords of 23 Scottish country estates, asking each one whether they thought their estates could contribute to rural resilience. The interviewees were all members of the landlord’s representative organisation, Scottish Land and Estates, and the research acknowledged that SLE had filtered which of its members were chosen for interview.

The SRUC report concluded: “Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”

However, this headline conclusion cannot be sustained by the evidence in the report. As the only evidence presented in the report came from interviews with landlords, the strongest conclusion that it could have drawn was to say that landlords themselves believe they can contribute to rural resilience.

In order to validate the report’s more general claim that a “family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities” much more evidence is required. The researcher would need to investigate the perspectives of the broader range of rural community stakeholders, as well as conduct a detailed, multi-disciplinary analysis of development in rural Scotland.

The report published last week did not seek out this broader base of rural opinion and it did not offer any critical analysis of the limited range of opinions it elicited. There was no meaningful evidence in it to justify its headline conclusion and, as a result, that conclusion is at risk of becoming a propaganda tool for landowners.

Indeed, the propaganda potential of its conclusion has already been utilised by Douglas MacAdam, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates. Immediately on its publication he described the report as “exactly the sort of independent recognition landowners and estate owners have been looking for”. He added: “It is clear from the findings of the report that estates make a significant social, economic and environmental contribution to the communities of which they are a part.” [1]

The report found nothing of the sort. No general conclusions about rural resilience can be drawn on the basis of its interviews and, for the sake of its own reputation, the SRUC should acknowledge their serious mistake and disown this untenable conclusion.

In terms of best practice in research the report should also have stated that SRUC director Luke Borwick is also the chairman of SLE, the landlord’s representative organisation that acted as filter for the research interviewees. [2]


Dr. Iain MacKinnon

[1] SLE chief executive Douglas MacAdam’s comments are available online

[2] Details of Luke Borwick’s roles at SRUC and SLE are available on the SRUC website. However, the report itself gives no indication that a prominent member of SRUC is also the leading figure in the organisation that acted as gatekeeper to the research participants. Lord Lindsay of the Byres and former NFU president and Perthshire landowner Jim MacLaren are also members of the SRUC board.

UPDATE 24 October 2013
Scottish Farmer has covered this story in its 26 October edition.

UPDATE 31 October 2013

Below is the reply by Dr Sarah Skerratt to Dr Iain McKinnon and Dr MacKinnon’s subsequent reply. This correspondence is now closed.

24 October 2013

Dear Dr MacKinnon,

Many thanks for taking the time to express your views to our Principal concerning SRUC’s recently-published report: “Family Estates and Rural Resilience”. As the editor of the report, I am contacting you in response to the points you have raised.


Firstly, given that there is no complete database of private (family) estates, any database is, of necessity, partial. Secondly, our focus was on private family estates. Given the need to maintain the confidentiality of SL&E’s members’ details contained in the database, it was necessary to identify those estates in our anonymised selection which were or were not family estates. This sampling process was robust.

Report conclusions

Firstly, as you rightly highlight, the report states that: “a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities”. It states that family estates “can contribute” rather than “are contributing”. This is an important distinction, since this means universality of findings is not being claimed. Further, in the conclusions it is stated: “Given our research focuses on a sub-sample of family estates, it will be important to identify the extent to which these findings apply across the wider estate sector” (p.14). Secondly, as you will see from the report, it is made clear that: “these findings represent the views of the interviewees.” (p.4). Therefore, as with phase one of the research, where I interviewed the Trust Boards of Community Land Trusts (not the wider communities of which they are part), it is clear that our focus is on these distinct decision-making ‘units’. This is because we are examining how and why decisions are taken, and the perception interviewees have of the influence of their decisions on wider rural resilience and vibrancy.

Critical analysis

As stated in the report, Thematic Analysis was carried out on the data from the interviews. The analysis was “critical” in the academic sense of the word: complexity and diversity are outlined; differences in views, perceptions, values and motivations are identified; instances where landowners do not see it as their role to engage with wider development and those factors which make them less likely to do so, are also emphasised.

‘Political’ claims

I recognise that others have made claims based on the research, some of which you have termed as “political” and “propaganda”. SRUC has not made those claims. Our focus, here at SRUC, is to provide impartial, sound, robust evidence, which can then be fed into debate. We cannot, and do not seek to, control how that debate evolves.

SRUC Board

Finally, you are correct in stating that Mr Luke Borwick is a member of SRUC’s Board, and is chairman of Scottish Land and Estates. SRUC Board Members come from a diverse range of perspectives and industries from across the rural sector, in Scotland and internationally. To cease to carry out research simply because it may be of relevance to a Board Member would severely constrain our activities as a research organisation. In addition to this underlying principle, Luke Borwick did not influence in any way the course of this research.


Dr Sarah Skerratt


27 October 2013

Dear Dr Skerratt,

(c.c. Principal Webb)

Thank you for taking the time to answer my e-mail to Principal Webb and for your full and comprehensive response to it, breaking my comments down into headed sections. I will respond to your comments in each heading.


My observations on the research design were not a criticism of the design in itself. Instead they were linked to the fact, expressed later in my letter, that SRUC director Luke Borwick is also chairman of the group that, in terms of the research design, acted as gatekeepers to the interviewees. It was the perception of a potential ‘conflict of interest’ that concerned me in my letter, rather than the design of the research itself.

However, Andy Wightman has identified what he considers to be flaws in the research design and has written about these on his blog, ‘Land Matters’ where there has been an extensive debate on the ‘Family Estates and Rural Resilience’ report. It will be useful for Andy and others who have contributed to this debate to hear your defence of the research and how you have answered their criticisms, and so, in the spirit of the democratisation and dissemination of research, I intend to post your e-mail to me and my response to you on the ‘Land Matters’ blog. Please let me know if you have any objections to this. My view is that Andy’s blog is an important forum for research on land, rural and agricultural matters, and, in general, represents a useful democratisation of these debates.

On his blog you will see that Andy has also addressed the question of how a ‘family estate’ is defined.


I should begin by saying that my criticism of the report conclusions did not address the issue of ‘universality’, which you write about in your response. Instead, it addressed the question of the level of evidence that is required in order to validate a particular truth claim.

Your report’s headline conclusion states:

“Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”

As you noted in your response to me, the body of the ‘family estates’ report makes it clear that “these findings represent the views of the interviewees.”

My criticism of the headline conclusion is that this earlier qualification [that the findings represent the views of the interviewees] has not been applied to this conclusion and it leaves the reader with the impression that the claim that family estates can contribute to rural resilience has come from the SRUC itself and not from the landlords whose views, as you have noted, are actually being presented in the report.

From the first sentence of the executive summary to the report it is clear that the rural resilience you are researching extends beyond the landowning family to the wider rural community living on and around that family’s estate.

My criticism is that to legitimately claim that a family estate can contribute to wider rural resilience surely requires the active assent of all (or at least the noted dissent of some) of that rural community and not just the perspective of those who own the land on which that wider community lives. As the report did not include evidence from non-landowning residents on and around family estates, I do not believe you have the evidence necessary to make this more general claim.

In my view what your report has revealed is the more limited claim that some landlords believe that landlords can contribute to rural resilience. I believe its conclusions ought to have reflected that finding and that you may have avoided the present difficult political situation had you worded the conclusion:

“Based on the findings of the 23 interviewed estates across Scotland, we are able to state that some owners of family estates believe that a vibrant and strong family estate can contribute to the on-going vibrancy of rural communities, both on or near these estates.”

I am criticising this conclusion in part because it seems to me that Scottish Land and Estates has sought to make political capital from the lack of consistency between the report’s evidence and this conclusion.

I will discuss this further in a later section but I would like to say that in terms of understanding the nature of the present political dispute over the report I have found very helpful the distinction that you draw in your response to me that the report “states that family estates “can contribute” rather than “are contributing”” to rural resilience. It is helpful because this distinction makes it clearer to me how SLE has drawn on the inconsistency between the evidence in the report and its conclusions, and has deepened it to the extent that it seems to me that SLE has made exactly the unwarranted transition from ‘can contribute’ to ‘are contributing’ that you have written about in your response to me.

I am not sure that I agree with your ‘universality’ argument, but, as I’ve said, I don’t think that this is relevant to the present discussion.


I agree that my assertion of the report’s lack of a critical analysis of the limited range of opinions that the research was built on is too strong for the particular academic sense of ‘critical’ that you describe.

However, this may reflect our different understandings of the word ‘critical’. In my use of the word I am drawing on the pre-eminent work on critical theory of the Frankfurt School which, in one recent articulation of it, “seeks to give social agents a critical purchase on what is normally taken for granted and…promotes the development of a free and self-determining society”.

What my claim draws attention to is that there is no critical reflection in the report on the difference between the limited range of the evidence (which is entirely landlord based) and the general nature of the headline conclusion (which applies more broadly to rural society has been affirmed by the impartial SRUC).

To reiterate, the headline conclusion is presented as the opinion of SRUC on rural society whereas, as you note in your response to me, it is in fact merely the collected opinions of the interviewed landlords.

This is a critical point as it means that the report’s conclusion can be interpreted as taking for granted, and arguably therefore contributing to, a power relationship in Scottish society that was recently expressed as “landlords and their communities” (this phrase is from a tweet made last weekend by the SLE chief executive and is recorded on Andy Wightman’s blog which is linked to above – the emphasis is mine). The use of the third person possessive determiner in this tweet indicates the writer’s presumption that private landlords possess the communities on ‘their’ land [‘their house’, ‘their land’, ‘their communities’], and, I would argue, therefore claim a right of representation over them.

In terms of the study of evolving rural power relations over land in Scotland which is focussed around the emergence in some parts of the country of community land ownership as a self-determining alternative to private landlordism (and I regard your own work as important in this field), I would say that the inner dynamics of the relationships between landlords and communities, rather than the range of opinions about development among private landlords, is the critical issue.

My criticism here is that the report’s headline conclusion gives the SRUC’s affirmation to a general claim about the potential of private landlords to contribute to the resilience of rural communities. However the report’s evidence can only allow this claim to belong to the landlords themselves – ‘their communities’ were not asked and remain silent. Therefore, I believe that the report’s conclusion can and has been interpreted as implicitly affirming the presumption of landlord possession of community and of the normative power relationships that this presumption entails – although I accept that such an affirmation is unintentional.


I find making this kind of analysis uncomfortable and I don’t like doing it, particularly because I value much of the research work that comes out of the SRUC and its rural policy team.

However, it is precisely because, as you say in your response to me, the SRUC intends its work to feed into political debate that I have felt compelled to contribute in this way. You add that SRUC does “not seek to control how that debate evolves”. I would like to challenge you on this statement. I would argue that SRUC has a duty to its research findings beyond the moment of publication, in particular to situations where they are being misrepresented for political ends. I think that SRUC has a duty of control to the extent that it should ensure that such misrepresentations are challenged and corrected. This is a key factor that led me to comment on this report.

In this instance the SRUC sought wider commentary on its report by allowing its communications unit it publicise it. Indeed, it was reported on by many media outlets who ran alongside it the commentary on it by Scottish Land and Estates. If I am right in my reading of your argument in your response to me, the SLE misrepresents your work when it claims that the report shows that landlords “make a significant social, economic and environmental contribution to the communities of which they are a part” – that is, it turns the report’s ‘can’ into an ‘is’.

If I am right, in the interests of properly informed public debate I think it would be appropriate, in a case like this, to defend the integrity of your research by pointing out that it is being misrepresented by a lobbying group – even if you do not acknowledge that this misrepresentation is being done for political ends.

As I said, Dr Skerratt it is for this reason that I have felt compelled to criticise your team’s work in this instance, even though I value much of the SRUC’s work in this area.


It is useful to have on record your statement that “Luke Borwick did not influence in any way the course of this research”.

Thank you also for articulating the principle which guides the SRUC in relation to its directors’ outside interests.

In terms of transparency, and to help to avoid any perception of conflicts of interest in the future, I think that in any research situation where an SRUC representative has an external interest in that research, it would be useful for research outputs explicitly to mention this interest and for the principle you described to me to be articulated in the output.

I am sorry to be writing to you in such a critical way and I thank you again for your response to me.

Le gach durachd – with kind regards

Dr Iain MacKinnon

Scottish Land and Estates have commissioned Rural Solutions and SRUC to “undertake impartial research on the economic contribution of landowners across Scotland” based upon a 17 page questionnaire and a selection of face to face interviews.

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.


As someone engaged in asking questions about land and its ownership, I have always been aware of the paucity of academic study of land tenure and ownership. That striking absence has, in part, motivated my ongoing investigations. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I noted some years ago that the Centre of Mountain Studies at Perth College/UHI was to undertake research into landed estates in Scotland. A project entitled Sustainable Estates for the 21st Century began in 2007 with the overall aim of “integrating the concept of sustainability into the management of large, upland estates in Scotland”.

My interest, however, quickly faded when I learned that the research programme was not acutally going to query the legitimacy of the current division of land or its ownership but merely investigate how they can be made more “sustainable”. This line of inquiry takes the rational and existence of such landholdings as a given. Now universities are perfectly entitled to pursue what questions they deem appropriate. But sometimes it is worth asking why academics ask the questions they do. In particular, who is funding the research.

Before we proceed any further let me make it clear that I am not calling into question the academic rigour or quality of the actual research that has been carried out. I am not qualified to do so and so have no view on the matter. I have met the researchers and they have gone about their work with diligence.

The Sustainable Estates website states that “The Sustainable Estates for the 21st Century project was generously funded by the Henry Angest Foundation.” So who is Henry Angest and how did this relationship come about? Turns out he is one rather interesting fellow.

Henry Angest is a banker and was born in Switzerland. He was an international executive with The Dow Chemical Corporation in Europe, USA, Latin America and Asia. Currently, he Chairman and Chief Executive of Arbuthnot Banking Group and is a former master of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

He and his wife, were named as having had dinner with The Prime Minister in the wake of the cash for access row in March 2012. According to an Observer investigation, Angest has provided almost £7 million to the Conservative party in loans and donations between 2001 and 2010 (1) He was also a funder of Atlantic Bridge, the charity that funded Adam Werrity’s excursions around the world with Liam Fox. He also owns Ashmore estate in Perthshire under the name of Rora investments Ltd., a company registered in Jersey.

The Henry Angest Foundation was established in April 2006 and has since donated a total of £285,000 to Perth College/UHI. This represents 75% of all its charitable giving in the period to 2010 since when it has had no income. Given the scale of this donation, I asked UHI for details on how this research contract had arisen. Specifically, I asked in October 2011

“Please could you supply me with information contained in correspondence, reports, agreements. memoranda or other recorded media in relation to the circumstances, purposes, terms and conditions of donations made to Perth College Development Trust 2004 by The Henry Angest Foundation in 2007 (£125,000), 2008 (£80,000) and 2009 (£80,000).”

UHI replied with the requested information on 29 November 2011 and it contains a great deal of interesting material. I noted in passing, however, a paragraph of the covering letter which stated that:

“Copyright in the information you have been given belongs to Perth College or to another party. Copyright material must not be copied, distributed, modified, reproduced, transmitted, published (including published on the Internet or an Intranet), or otherwise made available in whole or in part without the prior written consent of the copyright holder or as expressly permitted under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998. Should Perth College agree to give consent to the use of the information, Perth College must be credited as having done so.”

I therefore sent an email to UHI:

“In relation to the last para on the first page of your covering letter (Copyright), I now formally request that I may use extracts from the material provided in a written article to be published on the internet.”

They replied:

“On this occasion, we choose not to grant permission for use of these materials for web publication, or any other distribution media.”

Which leaves me with something of a dilemma. Material released under FoI is considered to be in the pubic domain but may still be subject to copyright restrictions. I propose therefore to tell you what is contained in the documents rather than reproduce them. The documentation consists of emails and letters. There is a fair amount of redaction.

The relationship between what was originally Perth College (now UHI) and Henry Angest begins in November 2005 with a donation by Angest to the Perth College Development Trust. This is followed by a meeting between Angest and Perth College Principal, Mandy Exley. She follows this up by a letter, the first paragraph of which is redacted but which goes on to state that “I fully appreciate your views about the direction and tone taken by the Scottish Executive” before mentioning research on estates that the College is proposing to undertake. By August 2006, Perth College are highlighting the tax refund that Mr Angest can expect as a higher rate taxpayer (18% of the donation) and proposing that he be made an Honorary Fellow of the UHIMI (University of the Highlands and Islands Millenium Institute – UHI is not at this stage a University). Angest replies saying that he beleives the Sustainable Estates research Project is “very important for Scotland” and poses questions about the timetable for University status and about how one is proposed for an honorary degree.

In January 2007, Perth College announced the “donation of £285,000 towards research into Scottish estates.” The research, it is announced, will “look at the economic and employment benefits of estates to local communities and how owners and managers ensure that their estates fulfil their diverse roles.” “To say that we are thrilled would be an understatement”, said Mandy Exley. “We are tremendously grateful for the gift.”

At this point it is worth noting that the research is designed to look at “benefits” and how estates “fulfil their diverse roles” The hypothesis that estates may provide no benefits, may even harm local communities, and may not fulfil any useful role at all is not to be subject to any inquiry or analysis.

On 21 September 2007, Henry Angest received his Honorary fellowship at Blair Castle. By early 2008, research students had been recruited and had begun work. By early 2010, the question of further funding arises and Angest writes to Professor Martin Price, the Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies to lay out two issues. The first is redacted in its entirety. The second is revealing.

“Before I could even consider any further support for the project, I would want to see the outcome of the studies. I have no idea what the conclusions are. I would not wish to give further support to a project where I would personally find the conclusions wrong or unacceptable.”

Of course, Mr Angest, as a private donor is perfectly entitled to give money to whomsoever he likes but in this statement is revealed a motive that is inappropriate in any private donor – namely that they wish to be assured that the outcome is not “wrong” or “unacceptable.” It should be obvious that such reassurance can never be given since it is impossible (or should be) to know at the outset what the results of any inquiry will be.

Mr Angest is also angling for an Honorary degree but is told that this could only be considered when University status and research degree awarding powers are granted. Mr Angest’s response to this news includes a substantial redacted section. But he is told by Professor Martin Price that “I will do all I can to assure that, when this time comes, you are proposed for one of the University’s first honorary Doctorates.”

In May 2011,Mr Angest writes to Professor Price to congratulate him on a recent research presentation to a meeting of the owners of Scotland’s largest estates. He then goes on to talk about community-owned estates. A whole paragraph is redacted but he continues,

“Having observed some of these community estates as a bussinessman, I have great trouble in believing that they can be truly financially viable, for the following reasons:

Some of these estates have been endowed with huge amounts of public money, including money from charities. They were therefore acquired without debt and some may well have surplus funds. Furthermore, I would be very surprised if they didn’t continue to draw subsidies, including possibly, personal benefits for the people living and working there. I don’t consider that such a privileged situation makes an estate independently financially viable (or sustainable).”

Professor Martin Price, in the 10th annual report of the Centre for Mountain Studies, thanks Henry Angest “for financing what will, I hope, be regarded as a landmark study on estates.” (7) I’m not sure it will tell us anything of any great import.

However, the fact remains that this is the most substantial research programme on Scottish “estates” in recent decades and yet begins from the premise that such landholdings are a given. The inquiry fails to consider a range of issues central to a critical understanding of their role and function such as succession law, taxation, land tenure, the role of charity law, offshore trusts, trust law and the peculiar fact that these estates are exempt from business rates.

If I can be sure of one thing, it is that Henry Angest would never have funded research that examined these questions and that might have undermined the legitimacy, benefits or role of Scottish estates.

Mr Henry Angest has not, at the time of writing, been offered an Honorary Doctorate.

(1) In particular, his company Flowidea Ltd. has donated money to the Conservative Party in Scotland as follows

£10,000 North Tayside 2002
£3,865 North Tayside 2004
£5,000 Angus 2008
£5,000 Angus 2010
£5,44.71 Angus 2005
£3658.86 Angus 2005
£1896.43 Angus 2006
£5,000 Murdo Fraser MSP 2011


12. March 2012 · Comments Off on Community Ownership in the Highlands & Islands · Categories: Land Reform, Land Rights, Research, Who Owns Scotland


One of the first serious books I ever read (my 1982 John Donald hardback edition sits on the shelf beside me) was James Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community. It is a mark of Hunter’s brilliance that his PhD thesis not only broke new historiographical ground but was at the same time a gripping read. It remains in print, now with an extended preface exploring the controversy the book stirred up in the academic community.

Jim has gone on to write many other good books but his latest may well be destined to join the Crofting Community among his classic works. From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops charts the remarkable story of how more than half a million acres of land has come into community ownership in the Highlands and Islands in the past 20 years. A flier is available here or order online here. An excellent essay by Hunter was published in the Sunday Herald of 11 March 2012.

This week sees the 10th anniversary of the community buyout on Gigha as well as the annual conference of Community Land Scotland. On Friday, the subject of crofting is explored in The Claim of Crofting – a series of celebratory musical, theatrical and poetic form at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye.

I hope to blog at greater length on where we are with this particular element of land reform. Meanwhile, do buy the book. You won’t be disappointed.

Westwater plantation in Dumfries-shire – owned by a landowner in Surrey and granted over £1 million in Scottish forestry grants.

Last year I was commissioned by the Forest Policy Group to undertake research into who owns Scotland’s forests. The report of my conclusions is published today and copies can be downloaded here.

It’s a remarkable picture – the most concentrated pattern of private ownership anywhere in Europe. The graphs below illustrate the stark contrast.

An essay published in Scotland on Sunday on 27 February explores some of the background to this and the report of course provides all the background and data. The Scottish Government has budgeted £36 million per year over next 3 years for new forestry. I do not think it too much to ask that this money be used to maximum benefit. Currently much is being handed over to wealthy absentee landlords to boost their tax-free investment portfolio. When I was at University 25 years ago, there was a wonderful geography professor, the late Sandy Mather who wrote in an academic paper in 1987

There has been no stated policy towards ownership structure. Whether by design or by default, the state has exerted an influence of fundamental significance for the structure of forest ownership through its choice of policy instruments. Whether by design or default, the state has facilitated the expansion of financial ownership of forests in Scotland. (1)

That was 25 years ago. Little has changed. But it could yet.


You can hear an interview I did for BBC Scotland’s Out of Doors programme on the topic here.

(1)  A.S. Mather, 1987. ˜The Structure of Forest Ownership in Scotland: a first approximation Journal of Rural Studies, Vol. 3 (2) pp.175-182. Available here.



Today, an organisation called Greenspace Scotland launched what they claim is a world first in mapping the location, extent and type of greenspace across all of Scotland’s urban settlements. “No other country has mapped its greenspace in this way”. In December 2006, the Scottish Executive provided £298,000 for this project (actually for three projects – it is unclear how much of this was allocated to the mapping). The interactive map is impressive and allows users to look closely at greenspace of all types across Scotland.

However, the real power of such information lies in the ability to interrogate, analyse and combine this data with other data. There are many simple tools available for this and a growing international community of citizens harnessing such data for the public good (the OpenStreeMap and GeoCommons projects are good examples)

Greenspace Scotland tell us that this “world first” map can be made available in GIS (geographic information system) format as raw data so that people can actually use the data rather than simply look at it. The GIS data is useful because, in the words of Greenspace Scotland,

The full GIS data provides an incredible resource for planners, policy makers, researchers and greenspace managers. It can be used to support cross-boundary work on green networks, planning and regeneration; and when combined with other datasets on, for example, health and deprivation, can be used to support decision-making, prioritisation, policy development and research. It can also help target resources and investment to areas with low levels of greenspace

Excellent. I happen to be interested in who owns all this greenspace, how much of it is common good land etc and so I ask for a copy of the data. At this point it becomes clear why Greenspace Scotland claim that “no other country has mapped its greenspace in this way” (my emphasis).

I am refused on the grounds that only those who have an Ordnance Survey MasterMap licence are allowed to get hold of this data. Unfortunately, the OS MasterMap data licence costs many thousands of pounds. The restriction is due to OS licensing conditions on the open distribution of “derived data”. I have been here before with the whoownsscotland project. I have the t-shirt and the scars of this encounter.

“No other country has mapped its greenspace in this way” Lets then take a look at how others have done it.

Take the City of Boulder, Colorado, for example. I can view an online map with information on planning, greenspace, flooding, transportation, landownership and lots more. (Click on eMapLink here). Alternatively, I can download the raw GIS (geographic information systems) data and interrogate it.

Indeed, for any number of cities in across the world, I can download high quality GIS data and undertake research and analysis. If, however, I want to analyse the pattern of greenspace in my own locality in North Edinburgh, I can’t.

“No other country has mapped its greenspace in this way”


The Liberal Democrats have just published an interesting policy discussion paper on land taxes available here. I am delighted to see this thinking emerging from one of the UK coalition partners in Government and hope that the Scottish party plays a full role in the debate. Comments are invited and should be received by 30 November 2011.

This paper complements work commissioned by the Scottish Green Party available here.

For those interested, I have drawn together a range of other papers on the topic available here.

Forgive me for continuing this thread on Scotland’s seabed but I’ve just caught sight of an interview on 16th March with Alex Salmond about Scotland’s marine renewables potential. Now I think that the progress made with marine renewables is very exciting but we’re not going to maximise the benefits of this industry if we don’t control our own seabed.

[videos no longer available – have been  made private – March 2023]

Alex Salmond claims that these announcements mean that “Scotland rules the waves” (0:26 min). He reminds us that his “claim that the Pentland Firth is the Saudi Arabia of tidal power is about to come to fruition” (2:47). And he goes on at some length about the benefits to local communities in the Highlands and Islands (2:54). This is all fine and dandy but why does the SNP Government not follow through the logic of its position and ensure that local communities around Scotland’s coasts control the seabed and foreshore and thus have a real stake in the development of this important industry? Why is such a valuable part of Scotland’s public land still under the control of a London based property company – the Crown Estate Commission?In the recent Independence White Paper, the Scottish Government point out that the governance of marine resources remains unsatisfactory. “Despite recent agreements the underlying fragmented nature of responsibilities does pose a risk to the successful management of marine issues, for example supporting the emerging wind and tidal energy industry in Scottish waters.” (White Paper para 5.9)In paragraph 5.15 the SNP government admits that, despite some minor changes in the relationship between the CEC and the Scottish parliament, “the more significant issue – that revenues collected from Scottish coastal businesses by the Crown Estate bring very little visible benefit to Scotland – would remain.”But Scotland’s seabed is public land under the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament – it could do something about these issues tomorrow if it wished. Why won’t it?To add to my frustration with this whole story, the Scottish Government has today published a consultation paper on the geographic areas to be included in the next round of seabed leases that will qualify for the Saltire Prize. In it, it repeats the fiction that “The Crown Estate owns virtually the entire UK seabed” (pg 2). As my post of March 18th makes clear IT DOES NOT! Why is the Government continuing to parade this fiction?