Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners in Scotland, recently released a promotional video to tie in with its submission to the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group. The ten-minute film opens with a reassurance from Luke Borwick, the group’s chairman, that Scotland’s landowners aren’t all plutocrats: ‘The vast majority of our members are medium and small owner occupiers.’ As he speaks, the film cuts to shots of a couple strolling beside a massive country pile and an inebriated dinner party. This is Roshven House. Set on 50 acres near Fort William, Roshven is available to rent (for £11,000 a week).
Unusually for a PR video, what the various gilet-clad representatives do say is often as interesting as what they don’t. John Glen, the CEO of Buccleuch Estates, says that Scottish Land and Estates’ members ‘manage a considerable amount of natural resources’. He’s right: between them, the 2500 members may own as much as three-quarters of the land in Scotland. (Buccleuch alone controls around 250,000 acres.) In the clip that follows, Glen rails against youth unemployment (‘the biggest challenge facing us today’). A series of job titles flash on the screen: ‘Mechanic’, ‘Shepherd’, ‘Ghillie’ and, in larger letters in the centre of the frame, ‘Finance Assistant’.
Andrew Bradford, of the Kincardine Estate, makes a shaky case for the efficiency of private landowners in meeting the housing needs of Scotland’s rural population. Landowners ‘can integrate the maintenance of housing’ with other operations such as farming and forestry, he says, ‘so that the chap who is just down there mending a house today might be involved in repairing a fence tomorrow’. Around eight minutes in, Borwick urges the viewer to forget the ‘historic events that have happened, particularly up in the Highlands’ (the Clearances, presumably). ‘What matters now is the future of the Scottish rural sector.’
The future of the rural sector is, in part, the focus of the Land Reform Review Group. Alex Salmond announced the creation of the three-member panel to examine land reform last summer after a meeting of the Scottish government cabinet in Skye. Around 500 submissions have been made so far, but the Scottish government won’t make any evidence public until the final report is published next year.
Scotland has ‘a particularly concentrated pattern of land ownership’, according to Andy Wightman, a land reform activist and the author of The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It). ‘Scotland is rather like pre-1880 Ireland.’ The Land Reform Review Group is unlikely to change this greatly. The body includes prominent, longstanding voices in favour of land reform (most notably Highlands historian professor James Hunter) but its report is due to appear next April, when it will probably be reduced to a couple of short-lived, referendum-inflected soundbites.
Towards the end of the film, Borwick adduces ‘independent research’ in support of maintaining the status quo. Conducted in 2010, this research found, among other things, a ‘general lack of awareness and knowledge of estates among the Scottish public’. That much is true: land ownership is rarely mentioned in Scottish public life. There is no significant land reform movement. Nobody from Scottish Land and Estates says it on camera, but they will be hoping it stays that way.