The Scottish Land Commission’s legislative proposals to regulate concentrated rural land ownership in Scotland.

Last week the Scottish Land Commission published a discussion paper titled ‘Legislative proposals to address the impact of Scotland’s concentration of land ownership’.  It builds on recommendations in the Commission’s March 2019 research report that surveyed peoples’ experience of living under conditions of large scale and concentrated land ownership.  That report made for grim reading, documenting fear of repercussions for “going against the landowner” expressed by some respondents.   

“This fear” the Commission asserted, “was rooted firmly in the concentration of power in some communities and the perceived ability of landowners to inflict consequences such as eviction or blacklisting for employment/contracts on residents should they so wish”.  Pause for a moment to digest the fact that this is happening in Scotland.  In the 21st century. 

Little wonder therefore that the Commission’s 2019 report concluded that there is “an urgent need” for formal mechanisms to identify “harmful land monopolies” and to change either land ownership and/or management practice to “protect fragile rural communities from the irresponsible exercise of power”.

Fast forward two years and the Scottish Land Commission’s new discussion paper gives a clearer idea of what these formal mechanisms might look like.  It proposes that landholdings above a defined scale threshold be legally required to produce a land management plan incorporating community engagement.  The Commission also calls for statutory Land Rights and Responsibilities Reviews to address negative effects of concentrated land ownership power that are beyond “normal, responsible management approaches”.  Such reviews are envisaged as being underpinned by a range of enforcement powers including the disposal of land assets in the absence of compliance by the relevant landowner. 

One feature of Scotland’s distinctive rural land market is that anyone with deep enough pockets can buy as much land as they like without the batting of a regulatory eyelid.   The Commission’s third proposal is designed to address that anomaly by applying a Public Interest Test to the acquisition of “significant” landholdings on the basis of one of the following three criteria: being above a specified scale threshold (although it comes to no firm conclusion as to what that threshold should be); accounting for more than a specified minimum proportion of a Remote Rural Area (as defined in the Scottish Government’s Urban Rural Classification) or being an island; or having previously been subject of a statutory Land Rights and Responsibilities Review.  

Coincidently, on the same day last week that the Land Commission published its discussion paper, Parliament debated a motion tabled by Alasdair Allan, MSP for the Western Isles, commending a research report titled Plantation slavery and land ownership in the west Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons’, written by Dr Iain MacKinnon of Coventry University and Dr Andrew Mackillop of the University of Glasgow and published by Community Land Scotland. 

The report reveals for the first time the close historical relationship between plantation slavery and land ownership in the region in eye-watering detail.  The authors calculate that 63 estates were bought by significant beneficiaries of ‘slavery-derived wealth’, between 1729 and 1939 with most of these acquisitions taking place between 1790 and 1855, the main period of the Highland Clearances.   The report also shows that estate purchases in the region peaked during the period immediately after establishment of a £20 million fund (more than £16 billion in today’s terms) by the British Government under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 to compensate slaveowners for the loss of their ‘property’ when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. MacKinnon and Mackillop show that estate purchasers who were direct beneficiaries of the compensation fund received £110,080,000 (in today’s terms) and that almost 1.2 million acres (over a third of the total area of the west Highlands and Islands) passed through the hands of people enriched by slavery.  

At first inspection there appears little to link the Scottish Land Commission’s present-day focus on injecting regulatory oversight into concentrated rural land ownership and the moral ambiguities of a bygone age.   Certainly, it would stretch credulity beyond breaking point to suggest that today’s landed elite bear any responsibility for the actions of their predecessors, however reprehensible the latter’s activities – and those of a British Government that compensated them – appear when viewed through the prism of modern-day society.  Similarly, and notwithstanding the abuses of landed power documented in the Commission’s 2019 report, it would be disingenuous to assert that there are no instances of individual private landowners making positive contributions to their local communities.     

However, that misses a deeper point. Scotland’s highly concentrated land ownership pattern is in essence a deep-seated and long-standing structural problem that – as the Land Commission’s 2019 report and new discussion paper both illustrate – produces negative monopoly effects that run contrary to the public interest.  And however unpalatable or inconvenient a truth it may be for some, Iain MacKinnon and Andrew MacKillop’s ground-breaking research shows how slavery-derived wealth helped the landed elite to shape and sustain the structure and associated power relations of concentrated land ownership in the west Highlands and Islands, together with a fetishising of so-called ‘wild’ landscapes, that exist to this day.   In these important respects apparently distant echoes from history have repercussions for the present.    

The Scottish Land Commission’s proposals for legislation to address concentrated land ownership will doubtless be portrayed as dangerously radical by those in whose interest it is to defend the status quo.  Stand by for the rickety old trope that ‘it’s land use rather than land ownership that matters’ to be dusted down and given another hollow airing.     But if the Commission’s proposals do seem radical it’s only because the nation’s highly abnormal pattern of concentrated rural land ownership and absence of public interest-led land market controls make Scotland such a conspicuous outlier by international comparison.   A new Land Reform Act after the May Parliamentary election with the Commission’s proposals at its centre would be a powerful signal that the next Scottish Government does not intend that to remain the case.