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Land reform: Scotland's silent revolution

Vaishnavi Ramu

One myth that many Scots, such as myself, like to believe is that there is no law against trespassing in our country. While this is indeed false, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act in 2003, more commonly known as “the right to roam,” gives the public the right to be on and cross most land and inland water in Scotland, with exceptions of course: you can’t have a wander in your neighbour’s back garden or break into visitor attractions. It does, however, mean Scots can roam on the thousands of acres owned by the Duke of Buccleuch- who, until recently, was one of Britain’s largest private landowners.

However, the people of Langholm, a Scottish village in Dumfries and Galloway, have more ambitious ideas than roaming around on rich men’s land. Instead, they want to buy Langholm Moor, currently owned by the Duke and marketed at £6m, in order to create a nature reserve resistant to climate change. Yet, this is just one example of communities taking on private landowners in Scotland; the past few years have seen increasing pressure for legislation in Scotland to encourage Scottish landowners to divide and sell their land to local communities, thus diversifying land ownership. Last year, the Scottish Land Commission (SLC) was set up to help move this forward.

For far too long, Britain’s wealthiest have had the monopoly on land ownership, and Scotland is no exception. In fact, it has historically been an especially egregious example of too much land concentrated in too few hands. The Duke of Buccleuch owns 200,000 acres in Scotland alone. Although, it isn’t Buccleuch, but a Danish billionaire and his wife, that now own the most land in Scotland. Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen have been praised for restoring habitats and investing in community facilities, but not all landowners are so generous. While some of us would like to think landowners and aristocrats run their estates as generously as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, the real world is not that simple. The SLC review had found that some landowners had been using land for grouse shooting or planting conifer forests, both which have detrimental effects on the environment. Conversely, the report also did find that some landowners had a positive impact on local communities, but whether a landowner is generous or cruel is besides the point. The core principle of one person or family owning enough land to house villages, towns or even cities of people, whether it’s hereditary or bought with hard earnt money, is wrong.

Nevertheless, while the entirety of the United Kingdom is entrenched in its classist hierarchies, it is Scotland’s reaction to such systems that single her out. Land reform has long been a contentious topic in Scottish politics. Before devolution in 1999, buyouts were most prevalent in the Highlands and Islands. Scotland’s first government, the Labour and Liberal Democratic coalition, then tightened up legislation to support buyouts and used National Lottery money to help fund them; the SNP government has since expanded on this, introducing new funds and initiatives to give communities a helping hand.

The Langholm Initiative, therefore, having been given an offer of £1m from the Scottish Land Fund (SLF), are racing to find other backers to help them raise another £5m to buy the land by the 31st of October this year. If they don’t find the money by this time, they lose their £1m and the Duke of Buccleuch can start looking for other buyers. It’s a large sum of money, but the current trajectory for Buccleuch and rich landowners alike is encouraging; with their estates shrinking for the first time in decades, there is no reason why the community won’t get more funding before the deadline.

They have big ideas for the moor, which involve increasing biodiversity and making it resistant to climate change, powered by wind and solar energy. It is this kind of innovation, engineered by villages and communities, that is the future of Scotland; innovation that simply cannot be created by monopolistic private land ownership. This is not to say that some owners have tried to move with the times, by selling land themselves or investing in communities; yet, this should not be the job of billionaires, private landowners and aristocratic families. This process should be in the hands of government, community and greater society.

Buccleuch estates are also involved in 2 other major buyouts, as they plan to sell 750 acres to the people of Newcastleton, and almost 4000 acres of land to Wanlockhead. The former has long supported community ownership in the south of Scotland, first buying a sports facility from Buccleuch in 2000. The latter, however, faces stiff competition in its application to the SLF, which are closing applications in August, months before the end of the year. This is due to an oversubscription in applications for grants; if this doesn’t show Scottish people’s eagerness to reclaim their land, what does?

Land reform has been a silent revolution happening in Scotland for decades. The villagers of Langholm are only one group trying to buy back what should have belonged to them in the first place. The fact that it took until last year for any kind of serious accountability for landowners is nothing short of a disgrace, only illustrating further how Scotland is being held back by dated, aristocratic structures upheld by the union. The Scottish government have made a start, but need to do much more. Communities need more funding options, backers and support with fundraising; and wealthy landowners must be faced with caps on how much they can sell for, or Scotland’s land reform struggle will only further enrich an already privileged minority.

In an ideal world, we would get our land back for free, but unfortunately we live far from an ideal world at the moment. Nevertheless, it is clear that Scots have been quiet but persistent in their resistance to private land ownership for years: we are beginning to be heard, and must be held back no more.


Editor's note:

If you would like to donate to the Langholm Initiative, and help the people of Langholm secure control of their own future, you can find their crowd-funding site here:

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