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Introduction to Reclaiming Our Land

Despite it having been my plan for some years, retiring as an MSP was still a real wrench. This was eased somewhat by a sense of having reached a destination of sorts on land reform’s long and winding road. By the time of my retirement in March 2016 progressive land reform policies were now rooted at the heart of government and in the public discourse. These were backed up by a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and the creation of a Scottish Land Reform Commission which had the overwhelming support of MSPs across all parties but the Conservatives.

As we reached the final stages of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill in early 2016, I began reflecting on the progress of land reform over the past half century. Since my student days in the late 1960s the pace of change had quickened, stuttered and regained momentum with changes of government, and then it had fundamentally taken off with the popular vote in favour of creating our new Scottish Parliament.

It seemed fitting to find a way to assess the various phases of change in the land reform story which I witnessed and took a part in achieving. This was helpfully focused by a conversation with Mairi McFadyen in the summer of 2017. Before that I had explored the prospects of researching a PhD with the University of the Highlands and Islands History Department.

Mairi urged me to tell the story in my own words, not in some dry academic text which would need translation for public consumption after possibly seven years work. The idea of a thematic study was prompted by her reference to Alastair McIntosh and his interpretation of Rekindling Community 1. This drew on social action theory from Brazil and liberation theology from Peru that encouraged communities to recognise as a starting point the value of their shared history. Alastair summarised the steps as follows:

Remembering, that which has been dis-membered; re-visioning, how the future could be; and re-claiming, what is needed to bring it about. My instinct was to fit the course of my own experiences of the land reform journey into remembering, revisioning and reclaiming our land.

This in no way discounts the various legal interventions from the 1880s to the 1960s to secure land for crofting and farming and to modernise the ancient recording of land ownership. In 1872 the UK Government ordered a Return of Land Ownership. It was confirmed to be a highly concentrated pattern which placed Scotland at an extreme data point on any survey of land ownership and control across Europe.

Much has been written of land history and policy. Subjects like the Highland and Lowland Clearances have produced impassioned work. Various scholars and would-be land reform activists have assessed early interventions by governments on ownership, ecology and regulation. Tom Devine has done extensive work countrywide gathered in his majestic work The Scottish Clearances. Frank Fraser Darling in his West Highland Survey set the foundations of modern ecology. Robin Callander in A Pattern of Landownership in Scotland gave us a primer in the 1980s to capture a clearsighted grasp of concentrated control over the sweep of centuries. Ewen A Cameron in Land for the people? - The British Government and the Scottish Highlands, c1880-1925 researched an important corrective to show how bureaucracy slowed desired changes. 2 Many more sources will be drawn on in this book.

In this account I have chosen as a starting point the creation by the UK Labour Government of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) in 1965. It coincided with my own awareness for Highland regeneration as I walked our hills and glens as a youth. Access to land had never been fully achieved previously, despite land raids and well-meaning land resettlement schemes, there was a pervasive sense that farms, estates and unfenced countryside were off limits. Some examples include The Making of the Crofting Community by James Hunter; Mightier than a lord by Iain Fraser Grigor; and Who Owns Scotland by John McEwen. 3

Ultimately the HIDB lacked the power and resources to make real change to the injustices that it observed, and this went unresolved through the tenure of two Labour Governments sandwiching a Conservative one. As James Grassie, a journalist by training and sometime information officer for the Board wrote, “It was not a battle it (HIDB) had lost, but the war. The injustices inflicted by some landowners on the communities depending on them - and which had been identified by the board itself - would be allowed to continue.” 4

Any hope of real land reform was off the UK government’s agenda for seventeen more years but the stirrings of change and plans for a better, more collective, approach were being hatched in those desiccated years of legislative drought.

In my forthcoming book I describe my personal experiences from student campaigns to policy engagement and finally to the task of being an elected MSP who scrutinised and helped to develop our current land laws. I look back on key moments that dug the foundations for the eventual flourishing of land reform laws in the new Scottish Parliament when real strides could be made to reclaim our land.

This is intended as the first of a series of blogs that gives a taster of the book.

Notes:

1. Alastair McIntosh, Rekindling Community, Schumacher Briefings, Green Books 2008. Inspiration from Paulo Freire and Gustavo Gutiérrez {pp77-80)

2. Tom Devine, The Scottish Clearances. Frank Fraser Darling, West Highland Survey. Robin Callander, A Pattern of Landownership in Scotland. Ewen A Cameron, Land for the people? - The British Government and the Scottish Highlands, c1880-1925.

3. James Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community. Iain Fraser Grigor, Mightier than a lord. John McEwen, Who Owns Scotland.

4. James Grassie, Highland Experiment, Aberdeen University Press 1983.

Students in 1972 recall site in Glendale of confrontation by 500 crofters with Royal Marines in 1882. I'm holding the Scottish saltire flag (author's collection)

Rob launches Land Reform Bill report December 2016 (with permission of Scottish Parliament Corporate Body)

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