Small cairns, big questions: community empowerment and landscape

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Norman MacCaig’s epic poem ‘A man in Assynt’ famously asks

Who owns this landscape? –

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?

Fast-forward the 50 or so years since the poem’s publication and you might be tempted to add smart-phone brandishing tourists eager for a selfie and another tick on their ‘beauty-spot’ bucket lists to MacCaig’s cast of characters laying claim to some of rural Scotland’s most iconic settings.  That’s certainly been the case in Skye’s Fairy Glen for quite some time, but tourists’ encounters with that landscape have involved bestowing unwelcome – from locals’ perspectives at least – punctuation marks in the form of the cairns many insist on building there to mark their visit and doubtless share on social media.

As last week’s gloriously headlined front-page story in the West Highland Free Press highlighted (“Cairn madness at Fairy Glen sparks action”), some of these locals have had enough and taken it upon themselves to remove the offending items, which they maintain are a health and safety hazard and leading to the erosion of the environment.  Some tourists were apparently less than thrilled at their mini-monuments to themselves being removed according to Claire Irons, the Uig resident whose Facebook post and accompanying photo inspired the cairn clear-up a couple of weeks ago.  It seems that Hell hath no fury like tourists deprived of their selfie props.

In its modest way, the Fairy Glen furore provides a stone-strewn vignette of wider and more deep-seated issues concerning how rural landscapes are valued, consumed and, in another nod to MacCaig, how they are possessed.  And, crucially, in who’s interests these processes are played out.

Some of these questions are explored in ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’, a new research report by Inherit: the Institute for Heritage and Sustainable Human Development in collaboration with Community Land Scotland, the membership organisation for Scotland’s community landowners.  The report examines how ‘landscape policy’, a convenient shorthand for the laws, designations and associated initiatives dealing with conservation and management of the ‘landscape’, ‘historic environment’ and ‘natural heritage’ dimensions of rural places is implemented by Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland, the main Government agencies responsible for putting that policy into practice.

Not particularly well from a community perspective, as it turns out.  According to the report’s author, Dr Chris Dalglish, the research’s key finding is that communities’ feel “locked out” of landscape designation decisions that affect their lives, leading to a “participation deficit” that leaves them largely disempowered in determining the characteristics of the landscapes of which they are the living, human dimension.

Does that matter? Read the whole of ‘A man in Assynt’and you’d be forgiven for concluding that it probably does not, as MacCaig dismisses his “false questions” concerning  ownership and possession of a landscape that is

masterless

 and intractable in any terms

that are human

Well, perhaps. However, the human dimension certainly does intrude into the distinctly unpoetic world of landscape policy management. Or at least the institutional dimension does because, as the ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’report shows, there is a tendency to see landscape matters – in terms of defining their characteristics and “special” qualities – as the exclusive preserve of professionals and institutions underpinned by a ‘fence and exclude’ conservation culture that treats development simply as a threat.

The most obvious example of that approach is the creation of Scotland’s 42 wild land maps covering some 3.7 million acres of rural Scotland, most of them in the West Highlands and Islands. These maps are underpinned by a highly subjective list of supposedly “special’ qualities that conveniently airbrush the ‘people’ dimension out of great swathes of the rural landscape.  You can add Scotland’s 40 National Scenic Areas and countless other conservation designations into that same mix.

That’s not to say that ‘conservation’ or ‘development’ should to be a binary, ‘either-or’ choice. However, as ‘Community Empowerment and Landscape’ also shows, there needs to be some radical rethinking of how landscape policy is conducted to make it more attuned to the principles of sustainable development than it currently is. That implies integrating consideration of human rights and wider social and economic consequences into the process of applying and managing natural and historic heritage designations.    It also implies a culture change on the part of public agencies to enable communities’ voices to be heard much more prominently in landscape policy than has hitherto been the case.  Hovering high above these issues are two vital questions; namely who and what are Scotland’s rural places for? Anyone who thinks these fundamental questions about the future of rural Scotland are uncontested might be well advised not to build any cairns in the Fairy Glen anytime soon.

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The Future of Community Land Ownership in Scotland

This is an abridged version of a discussion paper on ‘The Future of Community Land Ownership in Scotland’ prepared for the national Strengthening Communities conference held in Aviemore on 21st and 22nd September. The full paper is available at: http://www.hie.co.uk/community-support/community-conference/presentations.html

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Community land ownership has captured Scotland’s political imagination to the extent of defining and dominating the debate on land reform over the last 20 years. That debate centres on whether Scotland’s extraordinarily concentrated pattern of private land ownership inhibits or encourages land use that reflects wider, shared societal objectives for the common good.

Proponents of land reform argue that concentrated ownership enables the dominant exercise of economic, political and social power by large-scale private landowners that can run contrary to the wider public interest. They consequently advocate democratising property rights through co-ordinated application of legislative and fiscal policy measures to redistribute these rights more widely within the context of an increasingly diverse and transparent pattern of land ownership in Scotland in support of sustainable development. Continue reading

The Scottish Land Commission and ‘robust land reform’

The new Scottish Land Commission came into operation on April 1st. That might not seem like a particularly big deal. Especially given that recent Scottish land reform has been dominated by the passing of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016; both highly controversial pieces of legislation designed to help diversify Scotland’s extraordinarily concentrated pattern of private land ownership. But Scotland’s Parliamentarians have ‘previous’ when it comes to resting on their laurels while fondly imagining that the ‘land question’ has been legislatively fixed. As the almost decade-long policy hiatus following the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 shows, it’s all too easy to let the political impetus for land reform dissipate in the absence of drivers to keep it on the policy agenda.  So the creation of the Scottish Land Commission to provide “direction, leadership, and strategic thought to land reform in Scotland” matters because it represents a potentially significant institutional driver for retaining and rejuvenating that impetus. Continue reading

Show me a Gaelic sign

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Who amongst us doesn’t love a Gaelic sign? You’ve doubtless got your own favourite but here’s mine. It marks the road running through the Bays of Harris on the island’s south east side to Roghadal and the ancient burial ground of the MacLeods of Harris surrounding St Clements Church.

Of course Roghadal’s also accessible via the A859, partly double-tracked thanks to EU funding and winding sedately along Harris’s picture-postcard, community owned west side. In summer that’s a trip along the kaleidoscope coastline of multi-coloured machair, golden beaches and turquoise-tinted sea celebrated in countless smartphone snaps on social media.

The Bays road doesn’t do sedate. Instead, it offers an altogether more Presbyterian driving experience, full of unforgiving hairpin bends, blind summits and sudden, stomach-churning rollercoaster plunges; a sort of Route 666 for the unwary traveller to be navigated with humility, unquestioning faith and no little trepidation. Continue reading

Land Reform after the 2016 Scottish Parliament Election

The SNP’s victory in the Scottish Parliamentary election earlier this month was entirely predictable. However, the party’s failure to win an overall Parliamentary majority makes the course it will chart on land reform as a minority Government less so.

A good deal of the SNP’s manifesto offer on land reform reiterated commitments linked to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, passed at the very end of the previous Parliamentary session. In practical terms that means establishing a Scottish Land Commission, publishing a Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities statement, creating a mandatory public register of controlling interests in landowners or tenants and implementing a new community right to buy to further sustainable development. It also means implementing the deeply contentious Agricultural Holdings provisions in Part 10 of the 2016 Act. Continue reading

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016

For most of the last decade the political answer to Scotland’s ‘land question’ seems to have been “pass”. Back in 2003 the Scottish Parliament launched its ‘flagship’ Land Reform (Scotland) Act with a cargo of access rights, community and crofting community rights to buy amid much overblown chatter about the legislation’s symbolic significance as the lodestar for a new politics in Scotland; then watched on with apparent indifference as land reform drifted beyond the horizon as an issue of serious policy concern. Parliament’s passing of a new Land Reform Act last week confirms that this most emotive of issues was carrying a return ticket.

Much of the rhetoric emanating from Government in the run-up to the new legislation’s arrival on the statute book sought to talk up the Act’s radical credentials. That’s hardly surprising given that the SNP has spent much of the last year promoting land reform as being in the vanguard of the progressive, left of centre policies to which it apparently aspires. Even less so in light of the rude awakening delivered to Ministers by the party’s membership at its conference last October when they voted to reject the legislation as too timid in its early draft form. That, together with demands for more detail on key proposals from the Parliament’s influential Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee responsible for scrutinising the Bill undoubtedly helped beef up some of its contents. Continue reading

Land Reform Bill Approaches Endgame

The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill is fast approaching its legislative endgame. Last week it emerged from Stage 2 of that process in Parliament looking marginally more radical than before. Although ‘radical’ is a relative term in a country with one of the most concentrated patterns of private land ownership in the world.  The new version of the Bill has further detail on the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and Scottish Land Commission, both of which are intended to ensure that land reform becomes entrenched as a permanent feature of Scottish public policy. Some headway has also been made on gleaning information about the control of land, although not as much as some land reformers would like.

The proposed guidance for landowners on community engagement will now incorporate a pick and mix of “relevant human rights”, potentially opening up enforcement possibilities regarding those who fail to adhere to it. Meanwhile the community right to buy to further sustainable development contained in Part 5 of the Bill can now be “the most practicable” way (rather than the “only practicable way”) to “prevent significant harm” to a community wishing to use it. Many will welcome that while simultaneously questioning why the new right cannot be made less onerous still for communities to use; akin to a simplified ‘crofting community right to buy’ that actually works. Continue reading