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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Opinions differ

Critics fulminate while Government formulates

The Scottish Government has repeatedly stated that ‘good landowners’ have nothing to fear from the land reform bill but I fear for tenant farming

Earl of Seafield, The Press & Journal, 16 Janurary 2016

When the mask begins to slip with our SNP masters it really does hit the floor with a thud.

Alan Cochrane, The Telegraph, 20 January 2016

The Roxburghe Estate, has only, apart from one hill farm, let small and poorer farms, some of which they themselves have previously farmed at a considerable loss.

Email sent to the author, 26 January 2016

Richard Lochhead does not seem to be listening. If his proposed measure goes ahead he will go down in history as the Cabinet Secretary who heralded the demise of the tenant farming sector in Scotland.

David Johnstone, SLaE press release, 1 February 2016

Whitehall links with Highland lairds

I arrived in Inverness on the morning of Friday 27 November. I had been invited to address the committee members of the Highland branch of SLaE to outline the Land Reform Bill. At this time, the final shape of the RACCE Stage 1 Report was nearing completion. I duly travelled to the old Inverness Courier building which was now the offices of land agents Strutt & Parker. Their top-floor conference room hosted my Q&A on salient points of interest to landlords.

Some desultory debate and polite disagreement followed this Q&A and, over sandwiches, I chatted with various members of SLaE who were present, some of whom I had already met in the line of duty. One person who I had not previously met was Joanna MacPherson. She had taken over the management of Attadale Estate from her father in. Unbeknown to me at the, was that, for the previous 12 months – when MSPs were immersed in preparations for the land reform bill – BBC Scotland had been filming a series on ‘The Lady Lairds’. It was to chronicle a year in the lives of four women who, unusually in the hoary domain of primogeniture, managed estates in Scotland. Joanna MacPherson was one of these women.

By 2015, the actions of the MacPhersons had already affected my constituents in the communities of south-west Ross. In the 1960s , Ross and Cromarty County Council attempted to open a road (which was to replace the ferry across the narrows from Lochcarron to Strome) on the A890 road from Lochcarron to Kyle of Lochalsh. The Attadale Estate seemed to offer the perfect inland route to do so. The 30,000 acres had been in the family since Joanna MacPherson’s grandfather purchased them from another financier and blood sports enthusiast, Baron Schroder, in 1952. They had since maintained the sanctity of a private estate – except for hosting the local Highland Games and opening their prize-winning gardens, originally laid out by the Schroders, to summer visitors. The MacPherson family thus vetoed the inland route through Attadale. As a result, the A890 that opened in 1970 runs alongside the Kyle railway line for several miles below unstable cliffs.

These cliffs, long wired and scoured for loose debris have often crumbled and blocked the road, costing local authorities millions of pounds in repairs over the decades. A severe rockfall in the winter of 2011 closed the road for three months. School pupils travelling to Plockton High School from Lochcarron had passed by only 40 minutes before the 20 tonnes of rock fell onto the road. Parents were horrified, but local opinion was still divided about a solution: some wanted a bridge and some wanted a tidal barrage at the Strome Ferry narrows. As local MSPs, Dave Thompson and I championed a potential new route inland through Attadale land, and through Glen Udalain, leading to Forestry Commission tracks, as a less expensive option. The Highland Council, as the successor local authority, also costed various routes. Yet, even today, the issue is unresolved.

Regular maintenance and mounting costs to the taxpayer followed these road closures. Huge detours have been necessary on several occasions. Recently, the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), the integrated transport body, suggested a road straddling the railway line as a permanent solution. Otherwise, bringing the Attadale land into use would need a compulsory purchase order. This would, no doubt, become a very lengthy and costly process for the Highland Council to even consider; Joanna MacPherson and her family would most likely vigorously resist it in court. So, as I introduced myself to Joanna at the SLaE meeting in 2015 this was all in the back of my mind. But there was a more recent connection between us too.

Links between major landed families in the Highlands and high government positions in London are nothing new. However, Sir Nick MacPherson, Joanna’s brother was, at that time, Permanent Secretary at the UK Treasury and had served three consecutive Chancellors. This Eton- and Oxford-educated high official had little interest in his parental domain, we were told. Nevertheless, his very vocal and partisan role in the Scottish independence referendum (he publicly advised Tory Chancellor George Osborne against any agreement to share the pound sterling with a would-be independent Scotland) drew Alex Salmond’s ire. The former First Minister’s later described MacPherson’s comments as a ‘rant’. With this intervention, Sir Nick had fundamentally altered the relationship of civil servants and politicians. MacPherson told The Strand Group, a London policy seminar, in January 2015, that

where people are seeking to destroy the fabric of the state… the normal rules of civil service impartiality do not apply.

He was in post as head of the Treasury till he retired in March 2016 and was soon ennobled as Lord MacPherson of Earl’s Court.

In late 2015, I had been probing the transfer of management powers over the Crown Estate assets in Scotland as mooted by the Smith Commission. A Treasury transfer scheme had been concocted and, to Scottish annoyance, this would preclude the lucrative partnership of the City of Edinburgh Council and Gibraltar Holdings which controlled the Fort Kinaird shopping centre situated in the south east of Edinburgh. The Fort Kinaird Limited Partnership had been set up using an English law of 1907, the Limited Partnerships Act. And this was the Treasury’s excuse to exclude it from the Scottish assets list. This was much argued over in the Devolution Further Powers committee of which I was also a member. RACCE and the Scottish Government were furious at this sleight of hand. So I wrote to the UK Government, in my capacity as convener of RACCE, to seek clarification on this decision not long before I met Joanna MacPherson at the SLaE meeting in Inverness. When I introduced myself at this meeting and quipped that I had recently written to her brother, she replied, ‘he’s only a civil servant’…

Land grab rebels speak up

An opinion piece, ‘The Highland Clearances and land reform in Scotland: The country’s semi-feudal great estates face reform’, originally written by Ben Judah for Standpoint magazine, appeared in a shortened form in The Independent on 15 December, the day before the Stage 1 Land Reform Bill debate in Holyrood. Published, no doubt, with the debate in mind. I was alerted to its content of differing Highland attitudes to the Land Reform Bill, but I kept my focus on the upcoming debate .

In the article, Judah opened with the historical perspective of the Clearances; particularly the sight of the Mannie, that huge statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland which towers over Golspie. He also cited the independence referendum result and the surge in SNP support as the prompt for frustrated Yes supporters to demand radical land reform as a step on the road to Scottish freedom. This had been highlighted by some SNP members at the October annual conference six weeks beforehand.

I read Judah’s views on the 17 December as I headed home to Ross-shire. The genuine strength of feeling he heard on his travels struck me. Having set the scene around the Mannie and the ‘SNP’ reply of the emigrants statue at Helmsdale, funded by Dennis Macleod, he reported on the forthright views of a Yes activist from the vicinity of Aviemore. His second interviewee was a reluctant gamekeeper near Rannoch. And his third was a landlord-in-waiting, Donald Cameron, the Younger of Locheil, heir to 72,000 acres in Lochaber. The first two were anonymised, Donald Cameron was not. He came over as moderation personified. Six months later he would be elected as a Tory Regional MSP for Highlands and Islands in the Conservative ranks swelled by their opposition to further independence referendum.

The first interviewee, the ’land grab rebel’ in Badenoch, Judah dubbed as ‘Alex’. ‘Alex’ duly spoke, in graphic detail, of rural communities at the mercy of lairdly whims. Alex had seen the referendum effects on several local estates and the subsequent uncertainty for tenants created by changes of landowner:

That old laird, from the estate, we remember him, back in the referendum, he had his huge big poster: ‘Delighted to be united’, or whatever. But then six months later, he sold up. There were families living and farming there, and one day to the next, the new owner, some billionaire, went ‘Leave’. I tell you, it was like a new Highland Clearances for them, it was.

Second, Judah interviewed the gamekeeper near Rannoch who was ‘unwilling to make eye contact’ but confirmed that many people he knew had sympathy with what he called the ‘SNP message’, ie ‘against the English landowners’. The ghillie continued:

But now we know they are going to interfere with our way of doing things, those of us up the hill don’t like them at all.

Finally, an emollient Donald Cameron told Ben Judah:

Various people have set up this, I think, false argument: it’s not private land equals bad, community landowners equals good. I feel part of my local community. I don’t feel separate from them. These simplistic divides are not there in real life. When you get to an estate you see a vibrant business that is employing local people and attracting them to the area. And were they not all tarnished with the brush of landowners, the SNP would be hailing them for their enterprise.

Cameron eventually referred to the Clearances, which he said, were a ‘great stain on our history and reputation’, but that we can’t be shackled by it. ‘We are in 2015. And life goes on.’

It is understandable that Judah linked the 2014 referendum with the history of the enforced evictions and British government reprisals after Culloden (which Donald Cameron explained away as land myths). Even so, Judah, an experienced international correspondent, tellingly concluded that the Scots’

role in the conquest of India, and the Protestant mission, are not glorious stories anymore. And in that absence, the Clearances loom largest.

Ben Judah’s work covered the likes of the war between Russia and Georgia and other flashpoints. His books on Russia and London little prepare us for this international reporter’s sally up north. Yet his background research was thorough, and his two interviewees quotes cannot be brushed aside as sensationalist metropolitan hype. They hold up yet another mirror of distinctive attitudes to Scotland’s land issues from opposing points at a crucial time in the parliamentary progress of the Land Reform Bill.

Tough deer controls ‘political prejudice’

Three days after reading Judah’s article, another shot was fired at the deer management proposals in the Land Reform Bill. The Sunday Times’ (Scotland) reporter Mark Macaskill’s claimed that

a parliamentary committee dominated by SNP MSPs has ‘misrepresented’ the environmental threat from red deer to suit the Scottish Government’s ‘prejudice’ against wealthy landowners.

In his article, MacAskill rehashed figures mustered by Richard Cooke on behalf of the Association of Deer Management Groups as evidence to prove his hypothesis. Cooke purportedly showed that data his group had shared with SNH had been ignored by RACCE, describing our report’s conclusions on deer management as ‘prejudicial and unjustified’.

Mid Scotland and Fife Tory MSP Murdo Fraser opined,

people are very sceptical when they see the workings of a parliament that is supposed to be balanced.

Would he ever get over the SNP elected victory in 2011 as a majority government? After all it was achieved despite the Scottish Parliament’s explicit use of the D’Hondt voting system specifically to stop SNP progress. It followed that committee convenerships under D’Hondt would give government appointees many of these. In RACCE’s case, to Fraser’s chagrin, I was voted to be that SNP convener.

Mark Macaskill’s piece then quoted Richard Seaman, an Edinburgh-based chartered surveyor of Goldsmith & Co (Estates):

The recommendations by the committee are clearly based on political prejudice rather than fact.

Macaskill noted at the end, he had been unable to contact me for comment.

On reading the story, I assumed that my mobile phone had failed to pick up MacAskill’s message in good time; phone signals are notoriously poor in many parts of the Highlands. Since several parties are represented on the committee and had voted for this section of our Stage 1 Report, the prattling of the lairds and their Tory supporters to The Sunday Times was predictable.

There were to be no recess weeks for the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Bill team and lawyers until Richard Lochhead and Aileen McLeod were satisfied that their response to the committee’s report was comprehensive and offered to strengthen the bill. That response was published on 5 January in time for amendments to be lodged for the Stage 2 hearings.

At the same time the landed interests were preparing a concerted salvo to oppose the Bill in the New Year

Photos: Attadale estate, repairs on the Strome Ferry bypass and deer crossing a neck of the sea


1. Salmond, The Dream Shall Never Die, pp20-21

2. Devolution (Further Powers) committee, ‘New Powers for Scotland – Final Report on the Scotland Bill, Third Report 2016’

3. T Judah, The Independent, 15 December 2015

4. M Macaskill, The Sunday Times, 20 December 2015

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