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The 90s - Land Reform Recalled and Revived

In winning the land, Assynt crofters have struck a historic blow for people on the land throughout the Highlands.

Allan MacRae, Stoer Primary School, 8 December 1992

The 1990s was a breakthrough decade for land reform hopes across Scotland. The status quo was challenged in both the academic realm, through the John McEwen Memorial Lectures, and through physical protest, such as by Ian Thomson in Perthshire. On the Whitbread estate, crofters asserted their legal right to their land and Assynt was reclaimed by its people. In the brand new Scottish legislature, serious considerations were given to how best to tackle such a divisive subject, now that is was free from the landowners’ direct influence in the House of Lords. TV coverage of the Assynt crofters’ nail-biting and protracted bid to buy their crofts townships and common grazings as one unit captured a public mood. Palpable demands for change after twelve long years of Tory government was stimulated by the success in North Assynt. Other communities such as the Isle of Eigg and Knoydart gained control of their land before the decade was out.

The symbolism of recalling past injustices such as the quixotic tilt at the removal of the statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland, the Clearing Duke, bolstered public awareness that land reform was unfinished business. The dogged work of researchers and campaigners projected new prospects for land reform in the series of John McEwen Memorial Lectures that preceded real political change.


The Kinlochewe Ruling


In 1970 the Whitbread estate was the largest in Ross and Cromarty, at 71,000 acres. But, it was nonetheless shocking to hear of the removal of an old couple from their tied house on that estate. This pitiless act prompted a Mr and Mrs Macdonald, who lived and worked on Skye, to offer a portion of their croft at Kinlochewe to the evicted couple near to their former dwelling. The Macdonalds would make a house site available and give the couple security. So saying, a snag occurred to them: under the 1976 Crofting Reform Act any such material change, such as offering part of the croft to another party, would allow the landlord to clawback half the development value of the croft. And, the last thing the Macdonalds wanted was to reward the Whitbread laird for the consequences of his callous eviction.

At the time I worked with Mrs Macdonald, a fellow guidance teacher at Portree High School in a Highland-wide careers programme and heard how she and her husband planned to decroft part of their land to help the old couple. I had also previously worked with solicitor Donald Ferguson, a staunch supporter of mine in various campaigns. As a Portree solicitor with crofting law expertise, Ferguson was engaged by the Macdonalds. He began to pore over the text of the 1976 Act regarding paybacks to landlords for ongoing developments such as decrofting land for house building. After much work, he spied a possible loophole in the wording and engaged an advocate (Roseanna Cunningham, also a long-time political associate of mine) to put the case to the outer house of the Court of Session in early 1992. Described correctly as Whitbread v Macdonald, or colloquially as the Kinlochewe Ruling or Judgement, Ferguson’s argument was upheld – Roseanna had succeed in gaining the support of two of the three judges. The Court of Session agreed that if a crofter requested that the landlord transfer ownership of land to a third party (or nominee), that transfer would not trigger a clawback liability.

However, unintended consequences arose from this legal precedent. The Kinlochewe ruling began to be used by speculators to gain greater profit. For example, they would sell house sites from crofts needlessly without the landlord’s clawback. Thus, a widespread call arose for closing the loophole again and land reform was once again halted.


Assynt reclaimed


But, actual progress was widely reported, and welcomed, later in 1992 when the Assynt Crofters’ Trust was successful in buying 20,000 acres of north Assynt from a liquidated speculator, in a deal finally brokered early in 1993. While the precedent of the Kinlochewe Ruling was not needed in the community buy-out of Assynt, it had given Assynt crofters a backstop if they had failed as a group to purchase their land. For individuals could have sought to buy their crofts and, crucially, an apportionment of their common grazings. The details of that story have been well told in the authoritative book, We Have Won the Land by John MacAskill. 1 This nail-biting saga, engrossed TV audiences far and wide and raised new hopes of reclaiming Scottish land for the resident working people. Moreover, prolonged campaigns by residents of Eigg in 1997 and Knoydart in 1999 to buy their land led to community buyouts becoming Scottish Parliament policy with the Land Reform Act of 2003.

In the wake of the Assynt triumph, in November 1994, political commentator Tom Nairn summarised the link between constitutional change and land reform in a critique in The Scotsman. He captured the essence of the underlying mood:

The reason the land question arouses such deep feelings in the Lowlands as well as in Gaeldom is that it symbolises impotence so perfectly. The largest of Scotland's private domains, Buccleuch Estates, is four times the size of the European Union's smallest state, Luxemburg. Now, the blights Scotland suffers from are, of course, not all rural, or connected with land ownership. But they are connected with an absent democracy, for which this monstrous scale of land alienation is an appropriate emblem. 2


John McEwen Memorial Lectures 1993–9


The role of the University of Aberdeen in educating many prominent land reform theorists and activists is remarkable. The departments of History, Economics, Agriculture and Forestry have each contributed alumni whose place in modern Scottish land reform has been invaluable. The names of Dr James Hunter, Robin Callander, Andy Wightman MSP and Professor Bryan come readily to mind.

James Hunter’s PhD thesis was published in 1976 as The Making of the Crofting Community. It took the Land League era of the 1880s as the genesis of the fight back of the common people for land reform. Its popularity is such that it has remained in print to this day.

Robin Callander dedicated his book, A Pattern of Land Ownership in Scotland, published in 1987, to the land reform activist John McEwen on his 100th birthday. 3 In it Callander focuses on the Aberdeenshire story from his home at Finzean on Deeside where he helped to bring the two major landowners together with the residents to manage the old commonty land of native pine forest. John McEwen, however, sadly died on 22 September 1992, two days short of his 105th birthday. Yet, to honour this single-minded land reform pioneer, an opportunity arose in the mind of Robin Callander. Stimulated by his research and that of Hunter and Wightman, Callander formed the Friends of John McEwen and instigated a series of John McEwen Memorial Lectures. 4

The first lecture was held in 1993 and was made by Professor Bryan MacGregor, who had been a sometime student activist with the FSN in the Skye Crofting Scheme but, in his professional life, had then been the MacRobert Professor of Land Economics at the University of Aberdeen since 1990. His talk made undeniable the link between ownership and use. And this lecture set a precedent for challenging speeches in coming years. Jim Hunter took the theme in 1995, ‘Towards a Land Reform Agenda for a Scots Parliament.’ In 1996 John Bryden addressed ‘Land Tenure & Rural Development in Scotland.’ Professor David McCrone explored ‘Land, Democracy & Culture in Scotland’ at the 1997 event. In September 1998, ‘Land Reform in the 21st Century’ was the theme of the incoming Labour Scottish Secretary, the Rt. Hon Donald Dewar MP. The sixth and final lecture was presented by Andy Wightman in 1999 entitled ‘Land Reform: Politics, Power & the Public Interest.’ The work of these men, and others involved in the John McEwen Memorial Lectures in the 1990s, was pivotal in linking land ownership, land use and the nexus of power which was held in the hands of around four hundred and fifty landowners – combined, these landowners held half of rural Scotland.

Earlier in the decade, Andy Wightman had been one of the organisers of the Reforesting Scotland Norway Study Tour in 1993. 5 The tour presented a stellar range of participants and consultants, including Robin Callander, whose part in the evolving land debates of the following 20 years proved to be invaluable. Callander’s influence on Andy Wightman, as a mentor and co-worker for land reform, encouraged the forestry student to undertake the most modern and rigorous non-governmental study of Who Owns Scotland to that date in 1995. 6 Following the welcome for Who Owns Scotland, published in 1996, the Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link commissioned Wightman to contribute to the debate about preserving the wild places of Scotland, of which mountains are central. He produced Scotland’s Mountains: An Agenda for Sustainable Development in 1996. 7 In it he concluded, in his recommendations as a Scottish agenda for sustainable mountain development, that,

We have the opportunity to transform Scotland’s mountain country into an area capable of standing scrutiny against international environmental standards, and one which can also provide a high-quality environment for economic development, wildlife and unrivalled recreation. All this is needed is political will.

And there was a struggle for the political will of Scotland in the ’90s. An atmosphere of heightened expectations hung in the air ahead of the expected Labour victory in the 1997 General Election – and the promise of a powerful Scottish Parliament stimulated various political responses. SNP leader Alex Salmond MP was anxious to have a say in the potential policy drive of a Scots Parliament. During 1994 he proposed, to the SNP’s National Executive Committee, that an independent ‘Scottish Land Commission’, like the work of an official Royal Commission, should be formed. With the Committee’s approval, Salmond appointed Professor Allan MacInnes with three commissioners – Dot Jessieman, Ron Greer and Douglas MacMillan – to take evidence from around Scotland and from which they duly reported in November 1997 in ‘Public Policy Towards Land in Scotland’. 8

In this MacInnes envisaged involving local communities to be a key part to decisions about the uses of Scottish land – not full-blown land reform as such. The theme of elected Locality Land Councils to empower communities in that task was praised by MP Donald Dewar in his McEwen Memorial Lecture in 1998. Dewar also claimed that many of SNP and Labour’s ideas were complimentary because:

'we need solutions which give local communities the means as well as the scope to contribute actively to decisions about local land issues.' 9

He had entrusted the development of policy under Lord Sewell in the Scottish Office. And, in 1998, a classic programme of land reform was published. Again, Robin Callander contributed a crystal clear argument for a major measure of land reform in May 1999 in the soon-to-be resumed Scottish Parliament. 10


Remembrance, outrage and Highland Heritage


Highland Heritage’s work during the 1990s included increasing the size and content of The Highland Clearances Trail guide and two campaigns relating to the Sutherland Clearances. And, in 1993 another Highland Heritage project was achieved with the assistance of the HRC. The trial and acquittal of Patrick Sellar in 1816 ‘by a jury of his peers’ for atrocities committed in Strathnaver was marked by a plaque attached to the steeple of the court building in Church Street, Inverness where the trial had been conducted. The memorial was built with the permission from Inverness Provost Cllr Alan Sellar who was no relation to Patrick, but it made for good publicity. The plaque also highlighted the subsequent disgrace and dismissal of the unfortunate Sheriff, Robert McKid, who had courageously brought Sellar to trial following the Strathnaver burnings in 1814. The tribute ends in Gaelic: ‘Se firinn is ceartas a sheasas’ – Truth and justice will prevail. Bu, without a doubt, the most widespread controversy raised by a Highland Heritage campaign came in October 1994. Two stalwarts, former Cllr Sandy Lindsay and retired engineer Peter Findlay, lodged an outline planning application for the removal of the nine-metre-high statue of the first Duke of Sutherland (known locally as the Mannie) from his 20-metre-high red sandstone plinth on the 400-metre-high Ben Bhraggie. The statue overlooks, and some say dominates, the east Sutherland town of Golspie and can be seen for miles around.

Lindsay and Findlay wished to see the white stone statue relocated to the gardens of the Sutherland family’s palatial castle at Dunrobin. The suggestion provoked debate as far away as New Zealand and Canada. But, the Highland Council rejected the statue’s removal while agreeing, in principle, to the erection of an interpretive notice board at the main carpark in Golspie. I chronicled the story of the campaign in my book Toppling the Duke – Outrage on Ben Bhraggie. 11 The Mannie, as his grace is known thereabouts, is undoubtedly a landmark. But to this day it serves to prompt discussion of the first Duke and Duchess and their ‘improvements’ that relocated between five and ten thousand people to stony ground by the coasts while the rich pastures of central Sutherland were chewed up and overgrazed by Cheviot sheep to the long-term detriment of our local biodiversity.

However, Dennis MacLeod, a Helmsdale-born mining engineer who had recently returned to Scotland from Canada, suggested an alternative. Don’t try to remove the statue, create a new one. He offered to erect another statue at Helmsdale to the victims of the clearances. Through his generosity – he was a descendent of one of those cleared from Kildonan in 1816 – the Emigrants Statue sculpted by Gerald Laing was unveiled in July 2007. Dennis subsequently also gave a substantial sum to endow the Chair of History at the fledgling University of the Highlands and Islands based in Dornoch. And its first professor appointed was none other than Dr James Hunter.

Highland Heritage and friends had once again proved that highlighting the historical land struggles helped boost local morale in remote communities which had been drained of so many people by the 1950s. Recollecting and remembering these events which had fashioned the Highlands were also an important part of the developing programmes of land reform being drawn up by political parties in the ’90s.


A one-man protest


One day in May 1996, Ian Thomson, a serial protester against environmental wrongs in Scotland, set up camp in a derelict farm cottage. Boreland Farm cottage had been abandoned along with many others on the 15,000 acres of Blackford Farms Estate in Perthshire which was owned by the wealthy Al-Tajir family of the United Arab Emirates via registration in Liechtenstein. 12

Thomson, who had previously protested at Dounreay and over the Skye Bridge tolls, was attempting to point out that so many ruined cottages could be occupied by new residents if taken by compulsory purchase. He cited the Land Settlement Act of 1919 in seeking a land grant for the Boreland cottage and a machinery grant from the Tory government if available. His polite letter to Michael Forsyth the Secretary of State for Scotland was to no avail however, as Thomson had expected.

During the month of May he received offers of tatties to plant in the cottage’s garden ground and received support from Roseanna Cunningham, now an SNP MP. She had been elected the previous year in a sensational by-election caused by the death of Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn. She was a strong advocate of land reform and stated on a visit to Boreland with a tattie for Ian Thomson’s patch that,

'I am sure that I am not alone in saying a quiet ‘good to you’ when I hear of Ian Thomson’s modern day land raid'.

She went on,

'It matters little where a particular millionaire happens to come from or where they currently live. What matters is how the land is used. That is the point Ian Thomson is making so visibly. In the 3 1/2 acres he has claimed for himself, he has brought fire back to a cold hearth and is starting to cultivate the land that has lain unused for too long.' 13

Offers of help and support came from far and wide. And I visited Ian during that month to offer my support as the SNP land reform spokesperson.

The estate adopted a low profile, but on 7 June in Perth Sheriff Hugh Neilson heard from Blackford Farms that Ian’s occupation of the farm was a political protest. Neilson described Thomson ‘in common parlance’ as a squatter without rights to occupy the cottage and garden. The Sheriff gave the protester 13 days to remove himself. In a second action the estate also sought to interdict Thomson from unlawfully entering any part of its land in the future. 14

The Al-Tajir family, who also owned the nearby Highland Spring water bottling plant in Blackford, did not seek bad publicity, but their management plan for this huge farming estate was highlighted as a result of Thomson’s protest. Calls for affordable rural housing and land redistribution were prominent during this land raid, a method that had served crofters and cottars well early in the century. But that was not to hold under an increasingly embattled ’90s Tory administration.

Since the 1919 Land Settlement Act, which has been celebrated as one of the biggest contributors to the repopulation of the Highlands and Islands, various governments of different leanings have rebuffed land reform. The Labour government of 1945 rejected the land settlement plans in Knoydart and the Tories rejected all sorts of land reform, anything that would cost the public purse. So, its needless to say, the Boreland Cottage episode got a short shrift, shorter than it deserved. During Ian Thomson’s occupation at Boreland Cottage Roseanna Cunningham received Written Answers to her questions on the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act 1919 from the Scottish Office minister Raymond A Ross. Under that Act no land had been acquired since 1947 and no small holdings had been created since 1966. 15

Cameron McNeish with me on Ben Bhraggie 2016, SNP Land Commission 1995, Aberdeen, Me, John Law, Ian Thomson and Anne McNair, Boreland Cott. 1996 and Roseanna Cunningham planting tattie with Iain Thomson, Boreland Cott. 1996


Land reform debates and protests along with actual community buyouts were about to underpin the early work of the newly elected UK Labour government. It would take debate and protest to actual policy making in the first Scottish Parliament with appropriate powers for 282 years. It would bring the art of the possible to making Scottish land reform laws.

1. John MacAskill, We Have Won The Land, Acair 1999

2. Quoted by Rob Gibson in Toppling the Duke, page 9

3. Robin Fraser Callander, A Pattern of Landownership in Scotland - the Aberdeenshire Story, Haughend Publications, 1987

4. The McEwen Lectures 1993-1999 The Friends of John McEwen

5. Reforesting Scotland 1994

6. Andy Wightman, Who Owns Scotland (Canongate 1996)

7. Andy Wightman, Scotland’s Mountains: An Agenda for Sustainable Development, SWCL Perth 1996

8. A MacInnes et all, Public Policy Towards Land in Scotland, SNP 1996

9. D Dewar p18 JMML 1998

10. Robin Callander, How Scotland is Owned, Canongate. 1998

11. R Gibson, Toppling the Duke - outrage on Ben Bhraggie, Highland Heritage Educational Trust, 1997

12. The Scotsman, 2 May 1996

13. P&J 10 May 1996

14. P&J 8 June 1996

15. HofC Written Answers PQs 30506 and 30507 22 May 1996

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