Image: Commander Chris Hadfield

With kind permission of the West Highland Free Press, this Guest Blog reproduces Brian Wilson’s column in today’s paper.

The back of the envelope duly arrived in Sleat last weekend

Brian Wilson, 14 June 2013

The back of the envelope duly arrived in Sleat last weekend, borne by Alex Salmond.  What was written on it amounted to no more than a headline. But since headlines are his raison d’etre, that will count as a good result.

As pointed out in last week’s Free Press editorial, Mr Salmond’s sociable wee trip to Skye had taken on a different perspective due to the hostile response accorded to the interim report of the Land Reform Review Group and particularly the scathing comments from Jim Hunter, erstwhile member of that group.

It was not only the vacuous nature of that document which attracted comment but the inherent redefinition of land reform which it contained.   In effect, this had been reduced to a discussion of “community ownership” which, in turn, had been reduced to the level of Third Sector jargon, rather a part of any broad, reforming strategy.

Mr Salmond’s speech, and his subsequent comments, need to be measured against that unpromising backdrop.  Did he reassert the need for Scottish land reform – to address what he once declaimed against as “a problem, a question and a scandal in every part of Scotland” –  and recognise that a whole range of weapons will be required to address it?  No he did not.  Quite the contrary, actually.

The headline sought and obtained was about “a target” of one million acres under community ownership by 2020.  Targets are useful devices for politicians, especially when set at such a safe distance.  But to have any credibility, they need to be accompanied by a route-map which gives at least some clues as to how they might be reached.

Sadly, there was no room on Mr Salmond’s hastily scribbled envelope for such detail – leaving no more than an empty assertion which duly became the headline in the Scottish media which, in general, neither knows nor cares enough about these matters to explore beyond the press release handed to it.

At present, there are roughly half a million acres under community ownership, the vast majority of them in crofting areas and particularly the Western Isles. Much of the low hanging fruit has already been picked, thank goodness. And of course, there were the Stornoway Trust’s 63,000 acres already in the bag before the modern wave of buy-outs began.

So where are the next 500,000 acres of buy-outs to come from?  If Mr Salmond had the slightest clue about the answer then he declined to share it.  Take a number, double it and you have your headline. No need for anything more, First Minister.

The only other announcement was an extension of the Scottish Land Fund until 2016 with another £3 million in the pot which will now mean £9 million over five years instead of £6 million over three.  Anyone who thinks they are going to change Scotland’s land ownership structure with that budget is seriously deluded.  It is far less than the previous Scottish Land Fund operated with a decade ago.

Also, I can’t say that I am terribly impressed by how the new Scottish Land Fund has interpreted its role so far.  As I pointed out at the time, there was a danger in the remit of supporting the purchase of “land and land assets” – the latter term being capable of covering just about anything.  And so it has started to prove.

The early subjects of grants made by the Scottish Land Fund include a lighthouse in Moray, a village hall in the Borders and a smokehouse in Assynt.  I do not for a moment question the worthiness of these projects – but the idea they have anything do with land reform is a joke.  There has so far been no significant award which shifts the ownership balance by one acre, far less 500,000.

I also notice that the maximum grant which can be applied for to the Scottish Land Fund (Mark Two) is £750,000. This makes it unlikely that there will be any more buy-outs on a South Uist or North Harris scale within that constraint.  So once again I ask, what is the substance behind the “one million acres by 2020” target – and the answer is absolutely none.

But community buy-outs can only occur, even hypothetically, where there are viable rural communities. That generally means in crofting areas where a specific legal framework creates a rationale for collective acquisition. But most of rural Scotland is not under crofting tenure and much of it has been reduced to minimal populations under the existing system of land management.

From both Mr Salmond’s remarks and the Land Reform Review Group report, it would appear that these vast acreages have already been written out of any land reform agenda. Indeed, Mr Salmond and his colleagues have been going out of their way to offer that reassurance to the Scottish Landowners Federation as I will continue to call it.

In a BBC Alba interview last Friday, Salmond ruled out compulsory purchase on the grounds that “if we tried to compulsorily purchase land, we would end up for generations in the European Court of Human Rights”.  This is patently untrue and “blaming Brussels” for one’s own lack of action is a well-established refuge for political scoundrels.

If the option of compulsory purchase is ruled out in this cavalier way, then we will stay exactly where we are now – with no effective sanction against even the most extreme abuse of land ownership and control.

What is urgently needed is a clear setting-out of both options and constraints in terms of substantial land reform, open for comment and discussion –  not an ex cathedra assertion from the First Minister which has no obvious basis in fact and which, if accepted, would close down a crucial option for driving change.

The other issue on which there is now nothing but silence is the right of tenant farmers to buy their land – one of the most important means of changing the pattern of vast landholdings and feudal power structures in many parts of rural Scotland.  Is Mr Salmond saying that this too is forbidden by the European Court of Human Rights – or simply by his own anxiety to keep sweet with the landowners?

One observer present at the Community Land Scotland conference in Sleat described his speech as “going through the motions but without any indication of his heart being in it”.  That sounds about right.  But if that is the case, then the certainty is that nothing much is going to happen because in order to drive a land reform agenda there has to be belief and sustained commitment to overcome the powerful forces both externally and within Government.

It is both a tragedy and a warning that no such belief or commitment exists among those who currently hold power in Scotland.  The empty rhetoric of the past has been replaced with the conservative inertia of the present and, if we allow it, the future.


  1. This is an outstanding article by Brian Wilson. Excellent. It tells it like it is.It is clear that now the SNP is in power, it is trimming its sails to the winds of social conservatism…..NATO, nuclear power, nuclear bases, etc etc.. also on a wide range of other issues. I think that its more important than ever to keep up a left agenda and keep pushing on issues, such as land.

  2. Andy you yourself have articulated in your articles that compulsory purchase can only be legal and supersede the owner’s rights if the proposed purchase is demonstrably in the public interest. Is this not what the FM is referring to when he warns of ending up for generations in the European Court of Human Rights”. IS that “patently untrue”?

  3. Victor Clements

    They would end up in the courts if they tried to do something in a clumsy manner. Wee Eck’s comment simply suggests he does’nt even want to go anywhere near compulsory purchase…… simply is’nt in his list of priorities.

  4. Brian Wilson and his cronies had the opportunity to do the very things which he berates Salmond for failing to do. Pots and kettles come to mind.

  5. hebrideanfarmer

    DT perhaps the First Minister sees a difference between compulsory purchase and legislating to allow the ARTB such as Prof Hunter proposes. Besides I think you are on a sticky wicket if it is just the ECHR that is posing a threat to the introduction of compulsory purchase. With all the time and money estates have spent on promoting their side of things , I would have thought you would have been hoping for a greater endorsement of your way of thinking rather than relying on the ECHR to protect you. Furthermore, Prof Alan Miller gave a superb presentation on ECHR during the conference last week in Skye, so you may find tenants using that article to a much greater effect than the lairds ever could.

  6. Compulsory purchase has been with us for decades if not centuries – think railways back in the day. All the ECHR mandates is that compulsory acquisition be (a) in the public interest; and (b) subject to fair compensation. Salmond was right and wrong. He was wrong that CP is automatically a no-no but right that any new new extension of CP will probably involve the party adversely affected chancing his arm in the courts (as with Pairc). That’s not, of course, a reason not to advance a new right of CP but the possibility – perhaps even inevitability – of the ECHR court challenge is something that needs to be factored into timescales.

  7. Slurry Stirrer

    Forget about the compulsory purchase angle. CP is effectively something the state can only do, and Alex Salmond was clearly ruling that out. Individuals within a community are focusing on ARTB nothing compulsory about it whatsoever.
    Human Rights go way beyond the European Court. There is a Scottish dimension to Human Rights law, and it is the Governments duty to ensure that it’s population / communities are not being prevented or restricted from making their livelihood or investing within their communities, free from fear or oppression.
    Human rights is now the catalyst for change, and the landed elite need to wake up and realise that their squeals of human Rights are a disingenuous insult to the people they have abused in far off Scotland for far too long

  8. My community and the neighbouring communities of the Rural south West of Stirling, all have Development Trusts. Our communities have achieved and continue to achieve in diverse ways community ownership or leases of assets which are building social resilience into our local micro economies. From the mighty Fintry with its community wind power income to tiny Croftamie who’ve achieved so much in terms of rural transport problem solving, we all work together to try and counter the negative external impacts that might affect our way of life and the ability for our young people to live and work in their own community if they so choose. Yes we have ups and downs, we have disasters, but it’s the triumphs that drive us,and these are achieved through the way we communicate, understand and work together as well as with wider partnerships. Sometimes the owners of land are key to successful solutions whether they be private, Local Authority or NGOs. However Hebridean Farmer, we have learned over time that hurling abuse at individuals or sectors negatively affected our credibility and created barriers to achieving solutions. The best advice I was given years ago was to listen and support the various community groups starting projects. If it didn’t come from the community and wasn’t backed by the community, it would ultimately fail, at best leaving a trail of angst and at worst splitting the community. The latter takes years of hard work to build back community cohesion without which, funding support can not be accessed. In 2003 we all agreed our Community Development Plans. 10 years on we have achieved all that was set out and we will soon begin to consult on the community’s aspirations for the next years. Perhaps 10 years is too long for the impatient, but I suspect that the community cohesion we have achieved in this first journey will ensure a shorter time scale next time round.

  9. hebrideanfarmer

    DT. What hurled abuse are you referring to ??

  10. Grrrrrrrrrr!

  11. Slurry Stirrer

    DT, you are right! when there is negativity tossed about, it does have a negative impact, the lairds stop letting land.
    The best advice you have been given, was to listen and support the community. This reads that you stand separate from the community. Community projects work best emanating from the inside reaching outwards.
    Community empowerment and social justice can only be achieved across Scotland when we are successful in dismantling estates, currently the balance of power and influence is not very fair.
    Surely you agree DT, Scotland’s land ownership is far too concentrated?

  12. Hebridean Farmer, The particular abuse I was referring to was regularly employed by a local community council when fighting against certain planning applications. The abusive language masked the very genuine reasons they failed to articulate, when fighting the applications. With advice and training on communication, they upped their game and their views are now much respected by the councillors and the planning department. I might also now mention the verbal abuse which too often populates the comment columns of the Scotsman and letters pages of a variety of media on matters of land reform. Such abusive language merely shuts down debate, the polar opposite of what should be happening. Andy and Jim’s writings and postings on the other hand, provide a variety of platforms which should encourage RESPECTFUL discussion regardless of the emotions stirred by the subject. I may be speaking out of turn, but I don’t believe either Jim or Andy want to shut down this debate. Diversity of contributors can surely only add value and hopefully lead to better understanding.

  13. Slurry Stirrer

    DT , The person who received the training, was it the local factor by any chance ?
    Please remember this forum is for discussing Land Matters, it is not a platform for you to patronise, dictate and lecture us on how to behave. Stick to the subject, and get on with the debate.
    Once again DT, do you agree that Scotland’s land ownership is far too concentrated?

    • Reiner Luyken

      A farmer in Easter Ross works hard, he is a great stock man and adds more land to his holding. In 2013, he employs 7 shepherds and produces 7000 lambs. Is this an example of successful farming or of land ownership that is “far too concentrated”?

      • You don’t have to own land to have the use of it.

        And if you do have the use of the Commons of land then in my view (and I agree with a long and illustrious classical liberal tradition back through J S Mill and Adam Smith to Tom Paine) you should share – in some measure – the fruits of use with those who confer upon you the privilege of that use.

        • Reiner Luyken

          Why then was farming in the Soviet Union such an unmitigated desaster that they had to buy in US grain to prevent mass starvation?

          • What has (say) a tithe of production (maybe you haven’t heard of tithes?) – shared with the rest of society – got to do with Soviet state ownership of land?

            Do you farm straw men?

  14. Slurry Stirrer

    Employing 7 shepherds would suggest that this is a pretty big farm, which is okay if the owner lives, resides and works daily on that land. However, I would have concerns when you mention “adds more land ” This is exactly the kind of practice that is blocking new entrants from entering the industry. A properly run Land Commission and capping the CAP would put an end to this thirst for large scale farming.
    Scotland has a fixed amount of productive land, which has in theory, a productive capacity. So the argument boils down to do you want it covered with more or less farmers. If you want it covered with more farmers ( young entrants) then the way to achieve this is tackling the ridiculously concentrated land ownership in Scotland . The first step to re balance this situation is for the proposed ARTB to be implemented , allowing secure tenant farmers to buy only one farm , and that being the farm they live and work on.

    • Reiner Luyken

      Why capping CAP subsidies? Why not scrapping them? Isn’t that the only way for a young farmer with good ideas to out-compete the old guys who’ve lost their creative knack, just like in any other industry.

  15. I think we should expect a pretty low-key approach from the Scottish Government to this and other issues seen as likely to upset the rich and powerful in the the run up to the independence referendum. Let’s see what happens after that. A ‘no’ vote would no doubt be seen as an endorsement of the status quo all round, so a perceived problem for making any changes at all. A ‘yes’ vote on the other hand might encourage some more radical thinking and doing from both the Government and others.

    Meanwhile there seems to me to be a growing groundswell of support for land reform and community initiatives of various kinds, but that might be wishful thinking! Increasingly people are simply going to refuse to accept the patronising arrogance of the wealthy few, putting growing pressure on future governments.

  16. Reiner Luyken

    Just saw Chris Cook’s quaint comment. Does he really want to reduce top farmers’ income tax from presently 45 percent to a tithe, i.e. 10 percent?

    • Another straw man. You seem to specialise in them.

      What on earth made you think that I advocate a single tax on land? I’m not a Georgist.