Siol nan Gaidheal

LAND REFORM IN SCOTLAND

Land and the use of land is the most important issue facing Scotland and our people because it contains all the raw materials necessary for our continued existence.

In past centuries the denial of land to our Gaelic population caused the Highland Clearances and the annihilation of a living culture which had evolved over thousands of years.

The Gaelic clan tradition considered land sacred and indeed a symbol of the essential unity of Scotland’s past, present and future.

Private ownership of land with its consequent denial of use to the whole community was an alien concept in Gaelic society and its introduction by the British State after the Battle of Culloden proved to be almost fatal for the Gael. Highland Scottish culture took well over a century to recover from the betrayal of the English educated and capitalist conditioned clan chiefs.

Eventually Highland community resistance to ever more blatant land grabs and population clearances escalated into the Crofters War and full-scale social insurrection in the Highlands.

The crofter campaigns of the later nineteenth century in favour of radical land reform were eventually fobbed off with minor Westminster legislation which guaranteed the crofters security of tenure but also left private ownership of land in the hands of an increasingly alien capitalist class.

The Celtic Dawn generated by the Highland crofter conflicts proved premature in Scotland but added energy to Irish nationalism and stimulated the birth of both the Scottish National and Labour movements.

The Westminster parliamentarian system sidelined the Scottish Land Reform movement for a century and England’s inbuilt Conservative majority made it difficult for Scottish radicals to even discuss the issue in London.

Land Reform is the great unfinished business in Scottish politics and society and it is a fitting indication of the essential historical continuity of Scottish society that land reform is the first issue to be tackled by the first Scottish parliament in three hundred years.

Genuine land reform in Scotland will never come through this particular “pretend” Scottish parliament as it just has not got the power to return private land holdings which is the foundation of global capitalism.

However the land reforms put forward by the new Scottish parliament have the capacity, if used properly, to promote a renaissance of Scottish spirit throughout the Scottish countryside and form the nucleus of resistance to globalism.

The Scottish parliament’s present lawmaking machine tends to favour well organised pressure groups and the mass media. The consultation process on land reform for example took in over 1200 written responses from such organisations as the Farmers Union and the Land Owners Federation. In addition a series of seminars or public meetings were held up and down the country and especially in rural areas in order to present an illusion that the public were consulted.

Sadly the social composition of those who attended these public meetings reflected the rural elite rather than a representative cross section of the inhabitants of the Scottish countryside. In cricket terms apposite considering the English accents of most of the participants the land-owning first eleven went into an open bat with the Scottish Executive civil servants who clearly spoke and shared the same attitudes and values as the elite group they were consulting. While at these meetings the civil servants were bound to make the case for the proposals being presented by the Labour dominated Scottish Executive, the shared identity in views between these civil servants and the representatives of the rural elite were quite startling.

The main law reform legislation proposed by the Scottish Executive before the consultation process started included recommendations to abolish the feudal system (long overdue) and to replace it with a system of outright ownership of land.

Laws were to be passed to allow time to assess the public interest when major properties changed hands and legislation was to be put in place to buy such land as and when it changed hands. It was proposed to complete this legal package with laws that gave back-up compulsory purchase power to deter evasion on the part of tricky landowners.

The Scottish Executive also put forward the idea of a reserve power to investigate beneficial ownership of land and suggested that legislation be passed to set up a publicly accessible database on rural landholdings so that the public would know who owns what land.

Another draft of laws were to be enacted to reform public access to private land, revise sites of specific scientific interest (S.S.S.I’s) and create National Parks in Scotland for the first time. In addition, legislation to provide more protection for tenant-farmers and more flexible tenancy arrangements were to be enacted and the crofting laws were to be extended to give all crofting communities a right to acquire their croft land and allow the creation of new crofts and the extension of crofting tenure to new area’s.

The opposition by the rural land-owning elite to the Scottish Executives proposals for land reform concentrated on certain key areas in the potential legislation. They were naturally against any scheme to allow communities to buy up land when it came up for sale. They were also of course very much against the powers of compulsory purchase even if they were to be taken up by the democratic will of the rural community concerned.

Many landowners and professional factors or estate managers were concerned that the free market mechanism would be disrupted to such an extent that land prices would fall and that Scottish land would no longer be able to be used as capital assets in financial transactions and in particular, be no longer used as collateral for loans in the international financial markets. The rural elite attacked the whole concept of what constituted a rural community eligible to buy land which the Scottish Executive had defined as an incorporated community trust whose core membership should include all adult individuals who live and/or work on the land in question.

The elite seemed over-keen to eliminate as community members, commuters who lived in the country but worked in the towns. To narrow the franchise base of what constitutes a rural community so that the rural elite itself can constitute the rural community is a major aim of land reform opponents. This desire to exclude anybody but themselves must alarm everyone else who does not hold to the value system of the rural elite.

The rural commuter who works in the town should not be conned into joining with organisations like the Countryside Alliance which exists to reinforce the power of the traditional rural elite for if this elite resumes control of the countryside, they will make it as difficult as possible for those they will always consider urban outsiders.

Given the potential for inter community conflict created by the governments requirement for rural communities to be balloted about a land purchase in their area, and the imposition of a fixed time limit of six months for the local community to raise cash to buy land, the practicality of any community actually buying land for community use is virtually negligible. The actual purchasing power of the public in Scottish rural communities is always going to be very poor in practice, therefore the Labour dominated Scottish Executive’s proposals for land reform are no more than a cruel con-trick on the reform-minded Scottish public.

Allowing the Scottish public access to private land for recreational purposes would seem to be a viable project for the government to achieve given the previous Scottish legal tradition which recognises the English conception of private trespass as illegal and alien in Scotland.

Despite this, the governments concessions to land-owning interests over public access to land could well be considerable given the pressure being exerted by the rural elite on this issue.

English influenced or English educated landowners want their private property to be kept private and so would prefer to introduce English privacy laws in Scotland. Scottish landowners however tend to accept private access to individuals or family walkers but want to limit access to any other groups and especially large groups or clubs, mountain bikes and horses.

The idea that an entrepreneur may use anybody else's private land to further mountain bike hire or a pony trekking business is treated in particular with considerable jealously by all the rural upholders of free enterprise.

Collectively Scottish landowners and farmers would like the government to pay them money subsidies or compensation in exchange for a right the public already have in Scotland...a free access to private land.

Landowners cite in support of this nonsense, possible damage to crops or grazing grass and disturbance to grouse and other game animals. The solution to this problem that landowners would prefer is again the English one of having designated paths or rights of way.

In essence the Scottish land-owning rural elite’s conception of land reform is to push English legal practice and laws into the Scottish land arena.

The real test of the resolve of the Labour dominated Scottish Executive will come in the Scottish governments response to the pressures being put on them by the landed rural elite. If the land reforms outlined in the white paper are watered down or Englished in any way, they will serve testimony that the Scottish Labour Party is merely the slavish handmaiden of rural and urban capitalism. If the land reform remain intact they may provide however a focus for real Scottish community action as was the case in the successful fight for the Assynt Crofters in the Scottish Highlands. Siol nan Gaidheal supported that action and supports Scottish land reform as a means of mobilising rural communities across Scotland to begin to take control of their local economies and bring a measure of popular self-determination to our Scottish countryside.


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