June 2014

Andy Wightman: The Poor Had No Lawyers, WHO OWNS SCOTLAND (And How They Got It)
Published by Birlinn 2013 

The Poor Had No Lawyers book coverThis absorbing book reveals why most of Scotland’s land is owned by a handful of families. Andy Wightman also demonstrates there is nothing ‘natural’ about this and 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 despised by Scotland’s still powerful landowners and the Conservative and Unionist Party that 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 may have taken control by military means but he was also careful to confiscate land legally before he granted it away to his knights and those local lords and earls content 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 sixteenth 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. 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, a committee of landed proprietors including the Earl’s of Argyll and Montrose, the Marquis of Hamilton and the Duke of Lennox was established by the Scottish Parliament. 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 land. The Registration Act 1617 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 his father’s death.

An ever-confident sixteenth-century aristocracy also moved quickly to establish feudalism in the Highlands by requiring chiefs there to prove they owned their lands and 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 became more profitable.

Before then 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 not so and that 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 and 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 previously sold in the past.

All of which clearly annoys Wightman. 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. He laments that 30% of Scotland remains occupied by tenant farmers, whereas most of their European counterparts are owner-occupiers.

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 is 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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