Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The poor had no lawyers – who owns Scotland (and how they got it)


The poor had no lawyers – who owns Scotland (and how they got it)

By Andy Wightman, published by Birlinn

This is an absorbing book that investigates the impact of the imbalance of Scotland’s land ownership pattern with a handful of families owning the vast majority of land. Andy Wightman also shows how there is nothing ‘natural’ about why this is the case. By doing so he leaves the way open for land to be more equitably distributed if there is the political will to do so. No wonder, Wightman is so despised by Scotland’s still powerful landowners and the Conservative and Unionist Party that continues to form the base of their political power.

The whole of England and Wales had feudalism imposed on it by the Norman invaders of 1066. William the Conqueror took control by military means. But, he was also careful to then confiscate land legally before he granted it to his knights and those local lords and earls willing and able to do his bidding.

Establishing feudalism in Scotland was less easy. Outside eastern Scotland the ancient indigenous aristocracy, the church and peasant proprietors, who possessed small bundles of freehold land, remained largely intact up until the Reformation tore asunder western Christianity in the 16th century.

James IV began to exploit Church appointments by placing his own family in Church office. Offering to protect the bishops, the nobility followed suit and once established they simply robbed the Church of their treasures and gave away its land to friends and family.

As larceny was even back then a crime it was felt necessary to establish a legal precedent to entrench this process of redistribution.

In 1617, the Scottish Parliament established a committee of landed proprietors. The legal articles they developed went through without debate. Heritable rights conferred the title of land to those who had owned it for just 40 years. It mattered not how people had got any land.

The Registration Act 1617 further allowed landowners illicit gains to be legally recorded. Keeping large estates intact thereafter meant maintaining the principle of primogeniture in which the eldest son inherited everything on the death of his father.

An ever-confident sixteenth-century aristocracy also moved quickly in the Highlands by requiring chiefs there to prove they owned their lands and forcing them to send their sons to the Lowlands to be educated. Without the support of their local chiefs a powerless peasantry could eventually be exiled - or forced into factories during the industrial revolution - when sheep were considered more profitable.

Before the final capture of land had taken place when Scotland’s commons were taken away from the poor by landowners’ asserting they were barren wastes. Wightman demonstrates this was far from the case. The commons satisfied a huge variety of household goods and services including timber for roofing, peat for fuel, fertilisers, berries and a reserve of arable land.

Control of common land was entrusted in new councils. With the electorate consisting of a handful of rich people then this lack of democratic scrutiny made it easy for already bloated landowners to fence off common land and claim it for their own.

All of this has meant that, despite the loss of some great estates from the late 1930s to the 1970s, Scotland still has the most concentrated pattern of landownership in Europe. Fewer than 1,500 private estates have owned most of the land for the last nine centuries.

Great houses such as Buccleuch, Airlie, Roxburghe, Montrose and Hamilton still own huge acreages. Newly arrived merchant bankers and pop stars have tended to buy the land that has previously been sold in the past.

All of this clearly annoys Wightman, and he questions why rural landowners have been able to secure abolition of all taxes on land and, despite professing to be rural businesses, they don’t pay business rates.

Wightman laments that 30% of Scotland remains occupied by tenant farmers; whereas most of their European counterparts are owner-occupiers of the land they farm.

By owning so much land, large landowners can also largely control the price. Consequently, at least 40% of the cost of a new house is for the price of the land. Slums could be relegated to the past if there was a political will to tackle the problem. Wightman shows there are few Scottish politicians willing to take up the struggle.

It’s true that community organisations - and to a lesser extent conservation bodies - have taken control of more of Scotland’s land in the last two decades. However, the amount is generally pretty small. Wightman notes the distinct lack of enthusiasm shown by Alex Salmond’s SNP government on the land question.

He urges more people to understand that something more fundamental needs to be done if land reforms are to be introduced that would ensure land is returned to common ownership and used for public good and not private profit.

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