Last week BBC Scotland’s new Scotland 2014 current affairs programme took a look at land reform. The last time that BBC Scotland ran a studio discussion on the topic in its current affairs TV output was (if I recall correctly) in 2000. Since then BBC Scotland broadcast a documentary (The Men Who Own Scotland) on aspects of land reform in January 2014.

One of the persistent problems with land reform is how the media frame it almost exclusively as an issue concerning communities in the Highlands and Islands. (1) As the recent report of the Land Reform Review Group makes clear, reform in the relationship between society and land involves a wide-ranging agenda including housing, fiscal matters, public rights, and urban renewal. Indeed of the 62 recommendations in the report, 31 deal with urban issues (including some that also deal with rural issues). Community interests in particular are as relevant in urban areas as they are in rural ones.

When the producers of Scotland 2014 approached me to take part in the programme, I emphasised this point. They said that they would be doing filming in the Outer Hebrides and so I suggested that they film me discussing urban matters on a parcel of derelict land at the Waterfront on Edinburgh. The land is owned by a company in the British Virgin Islands. I wrote a blog about it in November 2012. This would have provided the opportunity to talk about offshore secrecy, community rights to acquire and use land, the failures of the existing volume house-building model, the failures of the existing land taxation system, the Community Empowerment Bill’s right to use proposals, majority land assembly etc. All these are topics covered by the proposed land reform agenda and all affect hundreds of thousands of people across Scotland.

This was agreed but in the end the idea was dropped and I was invited on the show as a studio guest with Murdo Fraser MSP. We talked about a very limited range of matters for 3 minutes and 37 seconds. As I tweeted following the broadcast,

(1) For the avoidance of doubt I fully support the community landownership movement.





  1. Andy, I do agree with you on that one. The emphasis on the Highlands and islands is not only misplaced but detrimental. There are very valid observations in the Land Review Report on urban topics. They do need to be adressed. Dragging out a carefully selected bodach as a sage and chief witness for the wisdom of every aspect of land reform leads nowhere.

  2. Indeed! And, being of Borders descent, I get annoyed at the tendency to equate rural Scotland with the Highlands and Islands. The land reform agenda is every bit as relevant to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

  3. Yes, its as relevant in roxburghshire as it is in rogart.

  4. Stuart Swanston

    Have you written elsewhere about that BVI owned and neglected land in Leith? I look forward to reading more about it.

  5. Your performance on the programme was creditable. You managed get in quite a few references in very short order that showed how shallow their take on the subject was. The BBC in Scotland are coming in for piles of criticism, unfortunately it is mostly deserved. They are a miserable dumbed down institution with poor management and leadership and little in the way of quality staff. Is there any way you could make your own programme?

    • Reiner Luyken

      “A miserable dumbed down institution with poor management and leadership and little in the way of quality stuff” – that’s what we would have to make do 24/7 in the case of independence!

  6. Stewart,

    I second Andy making his own programme. Is it still possible to get an arts grant for funding or crowd source?

  7. Stewart/Nettles
    There is a need for a series of videos exploring the variety of topics that land reform embraces. I am speaking to a film-maker about this later this week but don’t expect rapid progress.

    • Andy,
      I thoroughly agree with your summary of the situation and the need for the kind of programmes you have in mind.

      As you are probably aware, I took part in a number of documentaries on environmental issues, both as an ‘expert voice’ and subject matter, back in the late 1980s-mid 1990s and what happened to you the other night happened to both myself and colleagues then:—-the pre-set MSM agenda problem. The classic example being the film ‘Whose Land is it Anyway’ produced by the BBC. All the pertinent issues raised then still plague us today and the feeling of deja vu is intense.
      In 1994 Drennan Watson and myself managed to convince the production team to go to the areas of Rogaland in Western Norway visited by Angus McHattie and myself in 1984. We did the full gamut of landscape, biogeographic- geoclimatic, local government structure, and land use/tenure comparisons in filmed interviews of at least 30 mins each and in addition, our host the farmer-Mayor of the local town, an excellent English speaker, gave us a summary of how the Norwegians made things work. Obviously screen time limitations made editing vital, but what came out in the end was an excercise in ‘don’t rock the boat’ British blandism, and the Norwegian Mayor’s contribution was cut out altogether.
      Thereafter, working with friends ‘in the trade’ we drafted project briefs for a number of programme ideas on land use/tenure in Scotland, freshwater ecology issues and forgotten aspects of Scottish history. One based on my poem ‘The Great Caledonian Bear’ especially captured the imagination of a major production company with a track record of programme delivery to both the BBC and ITV. We were frequently praised for the quality of the write up and concept delivery BUT one by one they were all either directly rejected or worse still turned up later in superficially surprisingly similar programmes after being put through the ‘blanderiser’ of the MSM.
      Luckily with the massive advance of technology you are in a much more favourable position to produce a truly independent film or films dealing with the nitty gritty that the MSM studiously avoid. Just do it Andy.

  8. Alan McGregor


    I watched the programme and thought you came across well. I think the focus on power relations in this context is spot-on. Murdo opened with the usual deflection that ownership doesn’t matter but then went on to defend the current pattern of ownership.

    His assertion that much of the debate around landed hegemony is motivated by ideology also misses the point. Of course, the desire to see power more equitable distributed (through a wide range of mechanisms) is ideological – most programmes of social, economic or political reform are ideological. Indeed Murdo’s defence of the current concentrated pattern of private ownership is in itself a highly ideological position which chooses to ignore and marginalise the vital question of power relations.

    We need much more open and honest debate about these matters and this blog is one of the few places we can have it. Keep it up!

  9. Alan –

    Your suggestion that Murdo’s position on land ownership is ideological is surely too generous – the lack of openness to any change to the status quo is characteristic of the ‘no’ campaign but is hardly an intellectually driven position and demonstrates a depressing lack of imagination about what Scotland can be rather what it has become under a UK government that no longer has any agenda other than its own survival. Sadly the latter is a shoo-in given that the Labour Party no longer manifests any ideology, intellectual dynamism, imagination or vision whatsoever. It’s increasingly clear that ‘No’ means no change, and no change means no future. Self-determination on the other hand means being able to tackle the iniquities of land ownership in Scotland – an urgent and very necessary task if the new Scotland is to have any meaning.

    • Is this a blog about land reform or about the independence debate (my little swipe at a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation was meant just that, and not as a indie debate opener!)

    • The tories introduced the right to buy for houses, and if they thought about it, ARTB for tenant farmers might win them more rural votes from the increased prosperity it would bring.

      General tory policy of supporting big business instead of the small business is shrinking their voting base at an alarming rate.
      But the old fossils cant see it.

      • I concur.This area was true blue tory in the nineteen sixties and as a kid at the time it took me a while to work out why.

        The big estates at the time were almost benevolent at the time employing many more people on their farms, on maintenance and in the forestry department than the do now with lots of tenants with their staff too. Whenever you spoke to them they were almost all tory supporters which as my education progressed seemed odd to me.

        The reason; they had jobs and well constructed houses supplied by the estate, wages and rents may have been low but they had fuel supplied by the estate and sometimes food as well from the big house garden so the perks were pretty good with a warm comfortable well fed lifestyle. In return for this benevolent behaviour they voted for the lairds preferred tory candidate to keep the status quo. As these staff were made redundant through the seventies and eighties things changed ands this area became non tory.

        Nowadays the countryside is filled with people no longer reliant on the estate for employment and so the other political parties benefit. Might be a good idea for the estates with lots of in hand land to have a few more tenants who might vote tory for them

    • I agree with both yourself and Alan, but if you look at the first attempt of the LRRG, its initial composition, plus the lethargy and feet dragging of the SNP on land reform, since it binned its own Land Commission report in 1997, then it’s reasonable to conclude that the SNP is only marginally less visionary than the Labour Party. It is only been dragged to this modest improvement by the whipping it got in the public fora and this blog site more than played its fair share in that, with of course Andy’s sterling efforts in other channels.

  10. “It’s not just about big estates – in many ways they’re the least important”

    • I didnt like that bit, although i understand the point.
      Here is a quote
      “The Neapolitan countryside seethed with disputes about land tenure and property rights , serviced by an army of lawyers sworn to uphold justice but who mostly , Gorani noted, found it in their interest to support the landowners and church against both townsman and peasants.
      That was describing italy in 1795 .
      sound familiar anybody?

  11. I realise, not least having had your book as required reading on my bedside since your ESU event, that land reform together with its attendant debates is an activity played out over the long run.
    The montage did have an odd air about it. When you consider the amount of time to set up & then execute the shots of reporter on bicycle with scenic backdrop and sunshine, it seemed that the actual interview time was practically bolted on as afterthought.
    Mr. Fraser’s party line was given just about time to allow him to exercise his, now standard refrain which seemed a little at odds with the substance you were clearly looking to articulate.
    However, like Neil above, I too was struck by the hook of the piece; “ many ways (the big estates are) the least important”. Principally because the disenfranchisement of people from land ownership is masked in our current debate by the land usage aspects which favours the politicos.
    I am reminded of the great definition which was taught to me by Chris (TC) Smout that land matters should be approached via the ‘Usage vs Delight’ angle. By delight, this is not simply as seen from a train or Range Rover, but that appreciation which was evident in the chap from Lewis’ face when searching for the ‘why’ of community ownership being beneficial.
    Certainly, on the basis that most of our population now lives in urban areas, greater awareness of land ownership in that sphere can only be a good thing as it would go somewhere to improving both generic ignorance of wider aspects and active listeners for years to come. To close, I am minded of an interesting wee clause in my title deeds that still allows for the feu to retain all mineral rights beneath our house; a relevant clause in light of the fracking debates and the reach of Rosebery estates…

  12. Interesting tweet on aboriginal title in canada.
    We need some aboriginal title for the scots.

  13. I see now why andrew howard has been silent on this blog for a day or two, he has been writing SLE fairy stories for the press and journal again.