A mile and a half from the small town in Fife where I live lies a loch called Lochmill. Half a mile long, it occupies a natural bowl in the Ochil hills, and is orientated almost exactly east-west. On its north and south banks grow sparse hawthorns tufted with lichen and old stunted oaks. At its western end, where the springs that feed the loch rise, Scots pines and larches dominate. On winter afternoons they stand silhouetted against the sunset.
Because the loch was dammed to form a reservoir to supply the town, and became the property of Scottish Water, it holds more water than nature would dictate, but it doesn’t feel artificial. It has various quite rare aquatic plants: water-starwort and needle spikerush and fan-leaved water crowfoot. Goldeneye and tufted duck arrive in winter, ospreys occasionally hunt here in the summer months. Once and only once I saw an otter playing near the wooden jetty.
Because it’s hidden from the public road, which is itself a single-track byway over the hills, you wouldn’t know the loch existed unless you were looking for it. I can’t recall the first time I came here, but it must have been twenty years ago. Had someone told me about it? Had I been poring over the map? The road from town is steep, gaining six hundred feet in a mile and a half. It follows an old route south from the Firth of Tay over the hills and down into the Howe of Fife. At a sharp bend almost at the hillcrest, a track leads into what looks like a tumbledown farm steading. If you follow that track you find yourself almost at once under the dam. A few yards more and suddenly Lochmill is revealed, shining in its scoop in the hills, an intimate and silent surprise. Three or four rowing boats lie upturned on the shore; local fishermen spend summer afternoons catching trout. From the small car park a track leads through woods to the top of the hill. The views are majestic. The Firth of Tay lies below, and beyond the Carse of Gowrie are the Grampian hills, presently under fresh snow. Westward up Strathearn one can see Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin, even Ben More if it’s clear. The view is vast, but Lochmill is contained. I like this contrast, between the loch and the firth way below. The varieties of what water can be.
Twelve years ago, one of the first major acts of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament was the Land Reform Act of 2003, which made provision for a community right to buy scheme. If a landowner wished to sell, the local community would have first refusal. The Act came after some pioneering land buyouts – for example, of two sporting estates in Assynt in Sutherland, and the island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides – achieved after long and hard struggle, with the money raised largely by public donations. In the wake of those victories, the right to buy scheme stated that if local people organised themselves and voted to take the land in question into community ownership, government money would be made available to help from a new Land Fund. For a decade now, this scheme has been chipping away at the private ownership of Scottish land. Of course private sales of large estates and entire islands still take place and Scotland still has the most inequitable pattern of land ownership in Europe: according to the activist Andy Wightman, 432 people own half the private land in rural Scotland. In January, Wightman claims, the Qatari royal family bought the Cluny estate in Inverness-shire – though he can’t know for sure because the deal involved several layers of agents and trusts and investment companies. The right to buy legislation at least meant that small communities which had suffered under neglectful or high-handed landlordism – or even those whose landlords were benign – could at long last hope to own the land they lived and worked on. But only if the landowner wanted to sell.
Some years ago, with a great digging up of roads and re-laying of pipes, Scottish Water changed the source of my town’s supply. Lochmill quietly became redundant as a reservoir, though the dam and outflow remain in place and are maintained, as is the metal ice-breaker which provides a shallow where minnows shoal. The fishermen still pay their annual rent to Scottish Water, and so does the farmer who uses the summer grazing. The loch remained as it was, quiet, secret, wood-sided.
When Scottish Water intimated in 2007 that it wanted to sell, the town’s community trust recognised the opportunity. It took a certain leap of imagination because buyouts are more usually associated with the huge holdings of private landlords in the Western Highlands and islands, not tiny lochs in Fife being disposed of by a public body like Scottish Water. In the nature of such processes, all would go quiet for months, then there would be a sudden flurry of activity. First, a community has to register an interest, which means that at least 10 per cent of the local electorate has to sign a petition approving the idea. This was easily achieved. Leaflets were printed and delivered, and an information day was held because many people said they had never been to Lochmill; some didn’t even know of its existence. The community trust then set about obtaining the necessary business plans, due diligence tests and surveys. They filled in many forms. When all was in place, a vote was organised and everyone over 18 in our postcode area received a postal voting form. To enable the buyout, 50 per cent of these forms had to be returned, with a majority in favour of the proposal.
As it happened, between our community noting its interest and the actual vote came the independence referendum. This small-town vote felt like an aftershock. Those of us who had voted yes in September felt that this was what we’d been voting for: land reform, accountability, participation, ministers who have some relationship with the people they serve. Those who voted no but who supported the buyout could say that we already had what we wanted: devolved government and land reform. We could do all this and please ourselves and still remain in the UK.
Just as before the referendum, people were tense. Apathy would win. Who could be bothered to post a vote about a place they’d never heard of? Developers would buy it. Some snobby fishing syndicate. In the mild, chill words of the leaflet, ‘it could become private ground with restricted access.’ But I shouldn’t have worried: 95 per cent of those who voted, voted yes. The matter would now go back to the government ministers who would surely smile on it. It was, after all, one of the first buyouts on the east coast, it wouldn’t cost much, and it would get the SNP a few acres closer to its ambition of bringing a million acres into community ownership.
Land reform is again high on the Scottish political agenda. In 2012, the SNP government announced that it was setting up a Land Reform Review Group. Last May it presented its proposals. These included transparency. In Scotland – as the sale of the Cluny estate showed – it’s still not always known who owns what. The ownership of huge tracts of Highland land is obscured by shady offshore accounts and secretive trusts. It was also suggested that government ministers should be empowered to intervene where the scale of land ownership or the conduct of a landlord was blocking sustainable development. Shooting estates should again be subject to business rates, which the Tory government had exempted them from in 1994. The proceeds would be used to swell the Land Fund.
The Duke of Buccleuch made clear his ‘absolute dismay’ at these proposals. His family trust owns 240,000 acres of land, much of it in Scotland, and claimed the SNP reforms would force him to ‘reduce our exposure to land’. The Daily Mail, which had screamed itself silly throughout the referendum campaign, continued in the same tone: the SNP were ‘Tartan Stalinists … harrying the great estates – and their owners – with taxes and forcible land sales’. The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, owns a 17,000 acre estate near Ullapool.
We will see if these new proposals make it into law. But something’s shifting. I asked the chair of the community trust if he’d been surprised by the Lochmill vote. He widened his eyes and nodded. Our loch is, so to speak, a drop in the bucket. But it’s our drop, and maybe it will someday be our bucket. Iain Macwhirter, a yes-supporting journalist, wrote recently that, with the referendum, ‘something, somewhere snapped in the Scottish electorate.’ To my mind the sensation is more subtle. It’s like that feeling you have when a ferry casts off and for a long moment you can’t tell whether it’s the boat that’s moving or the pier.
The day after the vote I went with my husband to Lochmill. We felt a new sense of ownership and responsibility. Perhaps this is the way the Duke of Buccleuch feels every day. We wandered down to the loch’s southern bank, still in winter shadow, and finding a narrow deer trail we’d never noticed before, decided to follow it. Suddenly, from the bracken underfoot a woodcock shot up, startling us. Woodcock are uncommon round here. The bird flew off over the water, which we could see shining at the bottom of the slope through the scrubby trees, calm as ever.