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 Within twenty-four hours, I was told that the land would be withdrawn from the market.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 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.

Guest Blog by Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson’s column is reproduced here with kind permission of the West Highland Free Press.

Reading reports by Parliamentary committees is normally a pastime more likely to act as an antidote to insomnia than to lift the spirits. So it is pleasing to report on a rare and uplifting exception to that rule.

In the long and generally unproductive history of the land reform debate in Scotland, I have never come across any more hopeful document than the Interim Report of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee on Land Reform, published last week.

Here at last is a lucid setting out of the issues at stake, the wider context within which they have developed and the areas of reform which must be addressed if anything is to change. It is a report devoid of rhetoric and outstanding in clarity of words and thought. Let me offer you one statement from it as an example.

“The Committee accepts the evidence that the system of land ownership in Scotland is a direct consequence of choices made in the past in relation to the legal and fiscal framework within which the land is held. These choices were political decisions in the past and they will continue to be in the future”.

In other words, there is nothing sacred or unchangeable about the fact that we have the most inequitable system of land ownership in Europe. It has been constructed in law and repeatedly shored up by tax benefits and assorted hand-outs, all of which reflect subjective political choices. Make different political choices and an inequitable system will crumble.

The importance of the report lies in the fact that it so clearly identifies the fundamentals of this debate rather than merely railing against the symptoms. For example, it could not be clearer in its criticisms of the entirely deplorable absence of public information about the most basic question of all. Who owns the land? Even where answers ostensibly exist, their purpose is often to conceal the reality rather than to enlighten.

This takes me back to the 1970s when old John McEwen was almost a lone voice in making this point. It was impossible to talk about land reform until you knew who owned the land. A land register was the essential starting point. When government refused to do it, he tried to do it himself (Who Owns Scotland?) and eventually embarrassed them into initiating a Land Registration process which remains hopelessly incomplete today and excludes questions of beneficial ownership.

Let this paragraph from the Committee’s report be a monument to the fact that John McEwen was right: “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 European countries in providing such data and we therefore call for the Scottish and UK Governments to give priority to this matter”.

Will this clear recommendation now be acted on? It recalls the exchange last May between Ian Davidson MP, who chairs the Scottish Affairs Select Committee and has driven its interest in land reform, and the Prime Minister. Very astutely, Davidson picked up on an inititative agreed by the European Council of Ministers at UK instigation to make declaration of beneficial ownership by all companies a legal requirement.

In advancing that very major reform to tackle tax evasion on a vast corporate scale, the UK Government certainly did not have Scottish landowners in mind. But David Cameron could scarcely dissent when Davidson asked if his government would cooperate with the Scottish Affairs Committee “in establishing who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy-milking”. Cameron confirmed: “That is the intention.” There was to be no opt-out clause for landowners.

Against that background, it is more relevant than ever to start the “comprehensive and accessible” land registration process as quickly as possible. There is no need for delay and the Scottish Government should now take an immediate lead. A mouse of a Bill which they put through Holyrood in 2012 to update the Land Registration legislation was dismissed in expert evidence to the committee as “a lost opportunity”.

The report deals extensively with ways in which hereditary land ownership is sustained by the taxation system without regard to the public benefit which is obtained from these arrangements. What this reflects is the success of the Scottish landowners’ lobby over many years in constructing a network of benefits and exemptions which is entirely unique to themselves and solely in their own interests.

For example, there is a little known scam called the Conditional Exemption Tax Scheme in which landowners guarantee certain rights of public access in return for another layer of tax concessions. HMRC “occasionally” ask Scottish Natural Heritage to monitor whether the terms of each deal are being acted upon. The Scottish Affairs Committee asked HMRC for annual reports on how the scheme was operating but were refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. They now recommend that public access to these reports should be allowed and the “public benefits” reviewed.

The report describes how all these tax benefits accompanied by subsidy-milking have the effect of driving up land values and making it even more difficult for working farmers to gain access to land. In other words, public money and publicly-funded tax benefits invariably enhance the capital value of the land, further enrich the landowners (whoever or wherever they might be), shore up the inequalities which are inherent in the system and block the door to even incremental change.

When the Scottish Affairs Committee announced its intention to instigate this report, it was condemned by Scottish Land and Estates (successor body to the Scottish Landowners Federation) as “unwarranted, unnecessary and bizarre”. It is even easier to understand now why the last thing they wanted was a review which dug deep into the fundamentals of the system and called into question, in a clear and rational way, the incredible structure of privilege they have built for themselves over the decades.

The good news is that the Scottish Affairs Committee has realised that it has alighted upon “an important, neglected and intensely political” aspect of Scottish society and now intends to produce a “more comprehensive report than we have originally envisaged”. Excellent, but there is no need to wait for what that final report says in order for action to begin.

For example, the way in which the Scottish Government intends to implement the CAP reforms should be reviewed immediately to find if they represent (as they almost certainly will) another “subsidy-milking” racket for the big landowners. Addressing that question in the spirit of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee Interim Report on Land Reform would at least suggest a long-overdue interest in this “important, neglected and intensely political” subject.

Image: Allan MacRae, John Mackenzie, Michael Forsyth and Bill Ritchie 1993

When I first became interested in land rights in Scotland, I remember reading an article in Crann-tara in 1978 by Danus Skene in which he observed

It once befell me, while working in East Africa, to read widely concerning land tenure in Africa and its relation to problems of social and economic development. These days I often find myself stressing two items of African experience that seem to bear more than passing relevance to Scotland. First, no country with so inequitable a land distribution as Scotland would ever receive a jot or tittle of overseas aid in the rural sector. Second, any country with such a land distribution and with much of the landownership in alien hands would, anywhere but Scotland, be facing a revolutionary phase. Why should what is unacceptable in Rhodesia or imperial Ethiopia be of no consequence in Ross-shire?

I recalled this as Community Land Scotland convened a seminar last week at Bunchrew, outside Inverness exploring the international context for land reform in Scotland and, in particular, the rights-based approach to development.

Prior to 1997, the UN, governments and NGOs based most of their development programmes on a ‘basic needs’ approach. Since then, however, and following the UN Secretary-General’s 1997 Programme for Reform, human rights is now a cross-cutting theme of all UN activity and the rights-based approach is now being adopted by donors and NGO’s as the framework within which to plan development assistance.

Following an international conference on community land rights in 2013, delegates from international agencies, human rights groups explored these issues with activists from across Scotland in two days of very productive discussions that will inform the debate in the years ahead. Out of this emerged the Bunchrew Declaration which is reproduced in full below.

David Cameron, the Chair of Community Land Scotland said,

We have had a very valuable meeting with other Scottish, UK, EU and international land reform interests over two days last week. By referencing ourselves to what has and is happening internationally in land reform you are forcefully reminded that land reform has been and remains a cause that is legitimately pursued to empower communities and win a more people centred approach to land governance. Far from land reform being just the interest of a small group of radicals, as it is often portrayed, in fact land reform is a mainstream international cause in which the UN and national governments around the world are actively engaged.

When you meet with others out-with Scotland, you are also reminded just how far behind the rest of Europe Scotland is in land reform, most countries having brought about greater land justice in centuries past.

We have left the meeting with renewed commitment to bring about land justice through land reform and the legitimacy of the cause, and we are pledged to learn from and work with others to bring this about.”

Michael Taylor of the International Land Coalition observed that,

Like any country facing high concentrations of land ownership, challenging this structure also means challenging the concentration of economic and political power with which land ownership is so intertwined. Community Land Scotland is now setting its sights internationally; on learning from land reform movements in other countries and on linking in with global processes that can support their cause.

Community Land Scotland’s efforts are simultaneously a national and a local struggle; nationally in gaining political and public support for land reform, and locally in demonstrating the tangible benefits to communities of moving from being tenants to being landowners. Their achievements, and of the many that work with them, are impressive.”

Some of the thinking developed at the meeting was stimulated by a very interesting paper written by Professor James Hunter – Rights-based land reform in Scotland: Making the case in the light of international experience. Copy here (762 kb pdf)

Rhoda Grant MSP has tabled motion S4M-09502 in the Scottish Parliament as follows.

That the Parliament congratulates Community Land Scotland on the publication of the Bunchrew Land Declaration; supports the renewed commitment that it makes to what it considers the just cause of further land reform in Scotland, including in the Highlands and Islands; notes its reference to Scotland having yet to take the decisive action of other European countries to bring about more equitable patterns of land ownership; further notes its call to established land ownership interests to recognise the manifest unfairness of current land ownership patterns in Scotland, and welcomes its reference to more people-centred land governance and the achievement of land justice in Scotland.

Bunchrew Land Declaration

This declaration was adopted following a meeting at Bunchrew House, by Inverness, Scotland on 19 and 20 March 2014 involving land policy and reform interests from Scotland, the rest of the UK and internationally and which explored land reform in Scotland within an international context and with particular reference to the achievement of greater social justice and the realisation of human rights.

Community Land Scotland:

having shared the experience of land ownership in Scotland, the effects of that ownership being in the hands of so few people, and its impact in contributing to the decline of communities historically and today, and in denying opportunity for more people and communities to take responsibility for and share in the bounty of the land;

having explored the parallels with land reform internationally and the solidarity felt with peoples facing dispossession of and clearance from their lands today;

knowing Scotland lags behind land reform interventions which in Europe delivered greater land justice in past centuries;

understanding the impacts on bio-diversity and on the degradation of land caused by land uses favoured by many current owners in Scotland;

desiring to achieve more people-centred local land governance arrangements;

recognising the relevance and legitimacy of international legal frameworks, obligations and guidance to Scotland for change in land governance arrangements to help tackle land injustice and secure more sustainable futures for its people;

aware of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure 2012;

conscious of the possibilities flowing from the Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights to contributing to deliver change;

mindful of the consideration and scrutiny of the Scottish land reform question within the Land Reform Review Group within Scotland, and the Scottish Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament, and the development of the Community Empowerment Bill;

whereas calling for established land ownership interests to recognise the manifest unfairness of current land ownership patterns;

Community Land Scotland:

re-affirms with renewed strength its commitment to pursue the just cause of establishing new land ownership patterns in Scotland;

cites international and inter-governmental agreements in helping give legitimacy to nation states intervening in land ownership arrangements to create greater fairness and land justice;

anticipates thus empowering more people and communities to negotiate with current land-owners to take ownership and responsibility for land and associated assets, such as housing, bringing a people centred approach to land governance in support of the common good;

associates itself with terms of the Antigua Declaration adopted by the International Land Coalition in 2013;

pledges to work in collaboration with others active in Scotland, the rest of the UK, and internationally, in pursuing policies to secure greater land ownership justice;

undertakes to learn from others what it is appropriate to learn and apply in Scotland;

offers to contribute to wider land reform movements and nations the Scottish experience in seeking to establish new land ownership patterns to serve the public interest, in combatting decline, expanding opportunity, developing stronger, more resilient, empowered and sustainable local communities and economies, and to achieve greater social justice.

Community Land Scotland
20 March 2014