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Our Land Belongs to Us

Alastair McIntosh

Alastair McIntosh didn’t pull his punches when he took on the might of the Scottish Landowners Federation at their 10 June 1998 Council meeting in Edinburgh.

I am shortly heading to Eigg to celebrate that island’s first year of being a laird-free zone. In that year, secure leases have been offered to tenants, economic development has allowed the opening of a visitors’ centre, restaurant and a shop, and the indigenous population has increased by one third because three families have returned.

The community has awarded them secure and reasonable farm leases. All rents are ploughed back into the island to be used for democratically accountable social and economic benefit. No longer is the fate of the Hebridean community decided at the whim of a man whose sole qualification to exert power over others was his wealth.

One thousand of you control nearly two thirds of Scotland’s most primary economic, cultural and spiritual resource. Some of you call yourself lords and presume to be addressed by titles like Your Grace. And yet I hear you bleating about your rights in the absence of serious consideration of obligations. Your vassals should be grateful, you tell us, for the 30 million that recreational killing puts in the pockets of ghillies and gamekeepers, although they are employed in part to keep the locals off their forebear’s patch.

Christopher Bourne-Arton, representing your English sister agency, the Country Landowners Association, put the economic perspective in debate in 1994. He said:

"Don’t forget you need an awful lot of money to run a Highland estate. You either own a Highland estate or you run three Ferraris, six racehorses and a couple of mistresses - I mean, the costs are much the same".

I’m sorry, but from my past experience as a ghillie, I find myself asking: why do people like you want to hold such power? And what impels you to kill, not out of necessity, but for the "pleasure" of it?

The stereotypical laird, in my view, wants to be loved but tries to control that process. This distorts both his and our social realities. Old style public schools are famous for cultivating such narcissistic pathology, which is played out on whole communities.

Blood sports for pleasure’s sake can be a good example of the wounded child’s sado-masochistic relationship to power. When I put this viewpoint to one of your council members I was astonished to find that he agreed with me. "Oh yes," he said of his fellow lairds. "They got buggered and beaten when they were at school and now they want to do it back". Gentlemen, please lay down the latter-day white man’s burden. It’s nice of you to offer to patronise us, but most of us would rather live on the same land as self-sufficient entrepreneurs operating within community based guidelines than be a laird’s hireable and fireable employees.

If you think your style of lairdship does communities a favour, why not ask for a vote of confidence in a secret ballot?

Secondly, any rights you have as landowners must be recognised as feudal, not absolute - and this in turn entails obligations to the Scottish people that go far beyond noblesse oblige.

Some of you have been talking about your human rights in relation to property, hoping you can mitigate the nation’s thirst for land reform. I have bad news for you. As the philosopher Alastair MacIntyre noted, English law stresses absolute property rights because it places mankind at the centre. Scots law, however, places God in that position-and therefore at the apex of the feudal pyramid. Sir James Dalrymple of Stair expressed this in a seminal work, The Institutions of the Law of Scotland. He concluded that "the absolute sovereign [is] divine law".

Most of you, then, have prospered by taking English rights but neglecting Scottish obligations to the community which ensue from divine imperative.

Any land reform or even mere continuation of the status quo must therefore address theology. Happily, both the Church of Scotland and the Free Church have recently held preliminary deliberations on this matter.

In Scots feudalism properly applied, you may call yourselves landlords. Leviticus 25:23 is quite clear: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine," says God.

In Scottish law we are all God’s vassals.

It is therefore incumbent upon us to enquire what is God’s view on land ownership. Leviticus is cross-referenced by Jesus in Luke 4:19 on this, and we find that the acceptable year of the Lord - or Jubilee - requires that land be redistributed back to its original owners every fifty years. This is to prevent the inequalities of power you presently enjoy.

Ezekeil 47 makes clear that land distribution should be equitable, and that second generation settlers are entitled to their full share and full citizenship. God is, in short, an ethically inclusive land reformer, consistent with our Scots internationalists traditions.

Feudalism, then has not failed the people of Scotland. Rather, the lairds have failed feudalism.

Theologically, the gift of land was God’s reward for justice. But too many lairds have failed to steward the land and to uphold social and ecological justice.

And they have failed to redistribute it. In short, you have applied an English legal mindset to a Scottish question.

How can this be gradually reversed and community land ownership encouraged? I suggest the reintroduction of sporting rates and similar measures that would tax land value-both rural and urban.

Community ownership schemes, and even private landowners who have their community’s democratically-granted endorsement, should be exempt. We need to remember that not all communities want or are ready for land reform and the efforts of some lairds are appreciated.

Where change is wanted, however, land taxation would bring down capital values and generate revenue. These funds could be used to support community buy-outs.

In these ways, gentlemen, you would have a choice. You would either be able to become stewards on behalf of both ecology and human community, democratically accountable and recognising that your power is granted to you for the purpose of service. Or you may pay taxes. These would compensate Scotland for your profligacy, and ultimately finance your own clearance.

Source: The Big Issue, No 102, 6 – 12 August 1998

Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre of Human Ecology, an Honorary Fellow of the Schumacher Society and co-founder of the original Isle of Eigg Trust. For other inquiries, information and articles see: www.AlastairMcIntosh.com