Corporate Watch : G8 Report : SCOTLAND PLC: Land Ownership in Scotland

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'You can't own the land; the land owns you' Dougie MacLean, Scottish Folk Singer

In Scotland, as elsewhere, the way land is owned and used remains an emotive issue. This is partly to do with the history of the violent and brutal land 'clearances' in the Highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries and partly to do with the fact that land ownership in Scotland is not only one of the most concentrated and secretive in the world, but also until 2003 operated as a feudal system developed in the 11th century. This essentially meant that a property owner held land in a hierarchical structure under the Crown rather than owning the land outright.

The image of the Scottish Highlands as vast and empty and full of sheep is misleading. The Highlands were once heavily populated, but in the early 18th century, popular unrest in Scotland against increasing colonisation by the English led to Highlanders supporting the claim of 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie to the Scottish throne. The 'Jacobite' rebellion was crushed by the English at Culloden in 1746, after which the English essentially 'ethnically cleansed' Highland culture – banning the wearing of tartan, the playing of bagpipes and the speaking of the Gaelic language. It is estimated that 85-90% of the population were forcibly cleared from the land.

Around this time, the price of mutton and wool went up as the Industrial Revolution took off and to corner these important markets, the new English lords and loyalist Scots lairds of the Highlands cleared the land for grazing, which included evicting half a million peasants from their homes through a campaign of terror, forcing them onto marginal agricultural land, into urban ghettoes or onto ships bound for America.1 The Clearances had the effect of giving total control of the land to an elite - an absentee elite at that. Landowners were increasingly likely to be found in London or Edinburgh than living on their estates, a pattern which continues today.

In may cases it has become unclear who actually owns the estates as they have been sold on privately without informing the remaining tenants of the new owners' identity. The remaining farmers are restricted as to what they can do with their land or building without the landlord's permission, yet without knowing who their landowner is, they cannot ask permission. Hardship follows as unable to adapt to the changing economic climate.

Worse still, more and more estates have been purchased for pleasure rather than economic function. In particular, many of the Highland estates were converted to shooting estates with all the elitism and further clearances this entailed. Islands have become prized for their status symbolism and the privacy that came with them, putting their inhabitants entirely at the mercy of frequently reclusive and eccentric owners.

Today, just 1250 or so landowners own two thirds of Scotland.2 This is mainly the aristocracy and rich individuals: the largest landowner, after the Forestry Commission, is the Duke of Buccleuch (270,900 acres). He owns estates, castles and palaces in Selkirkshire, Dumfriesshire and Dalkeith palace in Edinburgh. A keen hunter, he is said to have donated £3/4m to the Countryside Alliance.3 Many of these landowners are represented by the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association (SRPBA), formerly the Scottish Landowners' Association, based in Musselburgh just outside Edinburgh. As well as the shooting and deer-stalking estates, many are given over to monoculture forestry or the type of farming that seems more interested in EU subsidies than food production or effective land management.

The largest foreign landowner (and one of the richest men) in Scotland is a Dutchman, Paul Van Vlissingen, owner of Calor Gas and the Makro cash-and-carry empire. 'Environmentalist' Vlissingen, who wants to reintroduce the wolf and the lynx to Scotland, owns the Letterewe Estate in Ross and Cromarty (around 80,000 acres). His partner, Professor Caroline Tisdall, is on the board of the Countryside Alliance and has said that she will 'die in a ditch to defend hunting'.4

Van Vlissingen is the inspiration behind a scheme to privatise many of Africa's national parks, helping to found the South African company, Africa Parks Management and Finance Company.5

However, there is evidence that the tide is starting to turn in favour of the remaining tenants who have stuck it out, with the rise of the Scottish lands right movement. This was revitalised in 1993, when the Assynt crofters bought the land on which they lived and worked from a bank, after the Scandinavian property developer which owned it went bust. The purchase of the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate in Sutherland by a trust formed by about 100 crofters was a new dawn in land ownership in the Highlands.

It inspired other communities to follow, including the islanders of Eigg (1997) and Gigha (2002), and the people of the Knoydart peninsula (1999), as well as the North Harris estate (2003). It is particularly exciting that many of these remote communities are committed to the land and a path of sustainable development.

In 2003, the Scottish Land Reform Act came into force making it easier for communities to gain the ownership of the land on which they live and work. However, the Act has been criticised as the community right-to-buy only comes into effect when a landowner is willing to sell, and half of Scotland has not been on the market for over 100 years.

The case of Blackford

The Blackford estate, right next to the Gleneagles estate represents many of the problems which occur when land is owned by a foreign absentee landlord purely for its commercial value. The estate is home to the Highland Spring company – the second biggest bottled water company in the UK. It is privately owned by a series of holding companies believed to terminate in Mohammed Mahdi al-Tajir, the former Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates to Great Britain and billionaire businessman who made his fortune in oil and property.

Once a thriving rural community, locals claim that the owners have systematically allowed Blackford to fall into disrepair, letting farms lie empty rather than replace new tenants. There is nothing the locals can do except watch their community disintegrate, as all rights lie with the unreachable landowner. This is not an isolated example.

The Isle of Eigg

The islanders of Eigg bought their islands for £1.5m from a German performance artist who had in turn bought it from a notorious landlord, Keith Schellenberg who allegedly ran the island as a mini-dictatorship.

Peat extraction in Scotland

They are as important as rainforests in terms of biodiversity, and vital 'carbon sinks' absorbing greenhouse gases. Yet due to corporate strip-mining, only six percent of the UK's original lowland raised peat bogs remain in near-natural condition.

Lowland raised bog in Europe is now so scarce that it is listed under the EU Habitats directive as a priority habitat which the community has an international responsibility to conserve. Under this directive, governments can propose both pristine and degraded sites to be listed as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). Peatlands should also be listed in UK law as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In the UK, there are many sites which should be legally protected, but haven't been proposed.

Scotland has some of the best examples of natural peatland in Europe, although the Scottish Wildlife Trust claims that most of Scotland's peatlands have been degraded through drainage, peat extraction and forestry plantation, and only 9% remain in a near-natural state. Around half of all the peat extraction sites in the UK are in Scotland, mostly in Lanarkshire, Tweedale and West Lothian.6

While Scottish peat was traditionally used to flavour whisky and keep the crofter's fires burning, today its primary use is in horticulture. The use of peat in horticulture is almost totally unnecessary. Prior to the 1960s gardeners used a wide range of alternatives to peat. In recent decades, however, aggressive marketing by companies such as US gardening multinational Scotts has convinced the gardening and landscaping world that peat is an indispensable component of successful horticulture. Amateur gardeners are by far the largest consumers of peat in the UK (75%).

One of the main corporations responsible for extracting peat in Scotland is Sinclair Horticulture. Owned by William Sinclair Holdings, with headquarters in Lincoln, Sinclair Horticulture has six active sites in Scotland, including SSSI Whim Moss near Penicuik in the Scottish borders (where its offices are). It produces garden products for commercial and home use, and exports horticultural products to more than 50 countries with well-known retail brand names such as J Arthur Bowers, New Horizon, Garotta and Sivaperl. One of Sinclair's main sites is Bolton Fell in Cumbria, where the company has pledged to legally challenge government plans to designate the area an SAC, since this would put an end to their peat extraction on the site.7 Sinclair is also facing allegations of accounting irregularities.

US multinational Scotts also has peatland sites in Scotland including Carnwath Moss, which is a designated SSSI. Company spokespersons have indicated that they will continue extraction there for the 'foreseeable future'.8

Diageo also own two active peat extraction sites in south west Islay, the main supply for the whisky industry on the island. Both are listed as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and one is a Special Area for Conservation (SAC)


  1. Scott Robert Ladd, 'The Cries of the Neverborn: The Scottish Clearances', The Land is Ours,, last viewed 10.03.05
  2. Who Owns Scotland website, 'The Pattern of Land ownership in Scotland',, last viewed 10.03.05
  3. Stephen McGinty, 'Ban on hunting has taken heavy economic toll' The Scotsman 21.9.05
  4. Corporate Watch website – The Countryside Alliance – Voice of the rural dispossessed? viewed 30.3.05
  5. Martin Plaut, 'Africa's wildlife 'to be privatised'. BBC website 16/6/03
  6. For details see Corporate watch website, 'British Peat Extraction Sites',, last viewed 10.03.05
  7. Corporate watch Newsletter, 'Turning Devastation into Dollars', 04.04.02, last viewed 10.03.05
  8. Ibid.