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The Highest Ideals

Alison Elliot, Spring 2001

Some people see land simply as a commodity, which you buy. Alison Elliot looks at the deeper meaning of the environment and our complex relationship with it. This article first appeared in the Church of Scotland’s magazine – Life and Work, Autumn 2000 issue.


bulletLand as a Commodity of the Capitalist System
bulletLand as a Precious Gift of Creation
bulletLand is Power
bulletInspirational Stories from the Social Land Movement
bulletThe Challenges of Land Reform


Our newspapers are full these days of stories of how land in Scotland is owned and used. Major peaks and mountain ranges – the Cuillin, Ben Nevis and now An Teallach – are put on the market, to varying reactions of protest and defiance. The Scottish Executive’s decision to veto the Harris superquarry is being challenged by the developers, leaving unresolved that particular tension between environmental and community needs. In the village of Pennan, where Local Hero was filmed, the feudal superior has blocked a further filming opportunity to the dismay of most of the local residents. And the byzantine complexity of the whole subject is nicely illustrated by the report that progress on the Great Glen Way is being delayed, partly because of the difficulty of identifying who owns bits of the proposed path in the first place.

These stories testify to a sensitivity to questions surrounding land ownership and land use which has always been part of Scotland’s heritage but which is being given extra significance because of the Scottish Parliament’s focus on land reform. And weaving through the debate are centuries-old differences in how we regard the particular part of God’s creation on which we have been destined and privileged to spend our days.

Land as a Commodity of the Capitalist System

Some people see land simply as a commodity, which you buy, own and then sell again. While in your possession, it is yours to enjoy, within the limits of the law. When you sell it, you get as much for it as the market will bear.

This view has been reinforced by the Abolition of Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2000, which has completed its passage through the Scottish Parliament. It has swept away the anachronistic rights and responsibilities of feudalism and replaced it with a system of absolute ownership. Yet even the market knows that this is not the whole story. The starting price for the Cuillins is 10 million, way beyond any commercial return the owner may expect from it. Rather, this is more like its a trophy value – a recognition that, like certain works of art, the Cuillin range is priceless, its monetary value limited only by the depth of the pockets of those whose fancy is tickled by the prospect of owning world-famous mountains.

Land as a Precious Gift of Creation

Perhaps it is the audacity of the idea that is part of its attraction. Certainly, for many people, the sight of the Cuillin encapsulates the majesty of creation and an instinctive understanding of the Psalmist’s assertion of God’s claim over land he created. This assertion even had its place in the feudal system, which placed God at the top of the pyramid of ownership. However we now visualise this relationship, we should not lose sight of the fact that the worth of the created world is greater than any economic system we can devise.

But we are increasingly aware of the fragility of creation as well as its majesty. As we understand better the consequences for plants and for communities of our actions, so more and more people regard land as a precious gift, to be cared for because of the life, human and non-human, that it supports. And just as much of the bleakness of Scotland can be attributed to a misunderstanding of this relationship in the past, so much of its diversity is testimony to good stewardship by laird, farmer and crofter over the years.

Land is Power

The present pattern of land ownership was set at a time when the offer of land was a token in the power games of kings. Ownership may now be hedged around by regulations but for many communities the power of the owner is still keenly felt. The way land is owned is an intensively political matter because it touches on the question of how, and by whom, decisions are made which affect people’s livelihoods. Nowadays, the villain of the peace may be a conservation body, which is seen by local people as putting the survival of a rare plant before the survival of a community, or as wanting to freeze its development in order to promote a particular tourism image.

Inspirational Stories from the Social Land Movement

Unfortunately, the movement for land reform has been fuelled too often by negative stories of conflict and thwarted hopes. Recently, however, there has been a growing list of positive stories of new forms of ownership, which have been devised to address better both the needs of a sensitive environment and the economic future of a vulnerable community.

A small project in Orkney has demonstrated how careful management of grazing patterns can protect a threatened species, improve diversity of wildlife and still allow low-intensity farming with a commercial crop. In Kinlochleven, when the local aluminium smelter was about to close, a wide group of agencies got together to form a local development trust to secure a healthy future for the village. Protecting and regenerating forest areas has prompted initiatives in Laggan, Birse, Abriachan and Glenelg, each coming up with very different ways of organising and developing their activities. Further details of these and other social land initiatives can be found on the Internet website:


These schemes have all been possible without a change in the law. But none of them has been plain sailing. They have had to negotiate the maze of funding bodies and their regulations. They have had to secure professional advice, often on a shoestring. They have had to face the difficulties of any group of people trying to work together. But they have shown a refreshing imagination and commitment in approaching their task.

The Challenges of Land Reform

The challenge is to see what can be done to make it easier for communities to secure a sustainable future. It is a daunting task. So far, the focus has been on rural matters, but many of the changes will affect urban communities as well. The Land Reform Action Plan, which the Scottish Executive produced at the start of summer 2000, runs to a 10-page checklist of progress so far.

It covers legislation to:

bulletAbolish the Feudal System;
bulletReview Agricultural Tenancies;
bulletCreate National Parks; and
bulletReform Arrangements for Recreational Access to Land

Other key actions are:

bulletSetting up a Land Fund;
bulletDevising a Code of Good Practice for Rural Land Ownership and Use; and
bulletMany other points of detail

This programme is not an esoteric matter, however specialised some of its detail may be. It touches on fundamental questions of how we cherish our heritage, care for a precious resource for everyone and help shape our common future. We should all have an interest in its outcome.


Alison Elliot was Convenor of the Church of Scotland - Church and Nation Committee from 1996-2000 and Convenor of the Scottish Land Reform Convention from its inception in 1998 to 2000. It May 2001 she took up the post of Associate Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh.