Birse Commonty
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The Forest of Birse Commonty

A Common Property Resource Case Study

Robin Callander, June 1999

for rtf version click HERE

The Caledonia Centre for Social Development as part of its popular education programme on land issues wishes to make this article available to a wider audience and has edited the piece.

The article first appeared in the June 1999 Issue of the local Birse Community Trust newsletter. Robin is the part time manager of the Trust.

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bulletBirse Parish
bulletCommunity-based Local Partnership
bulletThe Forest of Birse Commonty
bulletAncient Rights and Native Pinewoods
bulletHistoric Settlement
bulletFurther Information


Robin Callander and a number of his neighbours have been influential in ensuring that the ancient common property rights in the parish of Birse in which they live are sustained for current and future generations. For over 25 years Robin has researched these ancient rights, challenged those who knowingly or otherwise have sought to appropriate them for private gain and alerted his neighbours and the wider community to the potential loss of these rights. The successful resolution that resulted in the historic Birse Commonty Settlement and the subsequent transfer of these common property rights to a specially created community trust is an innovative solution to a complex set of resource rights issues.

It took over 3-years of negotiation and mediation to put this historic settlement into place, thus drawing to a conclusion some 3 centuries of documented dispute over these ancient shared rights to the Commonty. These rights are complex and go back to laws passed in 1695 which are still valid today. The key challenge faced by those holding commonty rights was how to apply them in the modern day. An innovative solution was found in which all those who held these rights agreed to transfer them in perpetuity to a specially created community controlled legal entity. Having successfully transferred the rights to this collective body the community is now seeking to steward them in such a way that community benefit is derived in a sustainable manner.

Numerous communities in other parts of the world face similar common property struggles with regard to issues of ownership, the extinguishing of rights and the erosion of access to common resources. The Birse case demonstrates that organised and sustained collective action over a long period of time can lead to adaptation, innovation, and renewal of community institutions for common resource management. Such an approach borrows and adapts from new models of ownership, management and asset-based democracy recently devised by the co-operative and social economy movement.

During the last 25 years this movement has devised a broad range of innovative organisational structures for ensuring that decision-making, assets and other resources remain in local hands using approaches such as community enterprises; community co-operatives, local development associations; social firms; community land trusts, etc. All these structures have four defining features that distinguish them from the private sector:

bulletThey are owned and controlled by the local community;
bulletThey aim to serve the interests of that community rather than generate private gain;
bulletAny financial surplus they produce is re-invested locally for community benefit purposes and is not distributed as private profit; and
bulletResidual assets cannot be divided between individuals but can only be transferred to a similar type of non-profit distributing organisation.

Birse Parish

Birse covers over 125sq. km (12,500 hectares or 31,500 acres) in the north-east of Scotland. The parish (district) has four main parts: the three scattered rural communities of Finzean, Ballogie and Birse and the largely uninhabited Forest of Birse, which covers over a quarter of the parish’s total area. The parish has c.260 households and a total population of c.700, with half the households and population in Finzean and half in Ballogie and Birse.

The Community Trust

The Birse Community Trust (BCT) was established in early 1999 and is a local development association or community enterprise. Its function is "to promote the common good of the inhabitants of the parish of Birse and deliver wider public benefits". The Trust involves the three communities encompassed within the Birse parish – Finzean, Ballogie and Birse. Everyone listed on the Electoral Register for these areas is automatically a member of Trust and, as the voting membership, elects the Trust’s Board of five Trustees. BCT is legally constituted, as a company with charitable status, and the Trustees are responsible for running the organisation on behalf of the community. Any surpluses or profits generated by the Trust must be applied to projects that benefit the community and wider public. The Trust employs a part time manager and this post has been crucial in enabling the organisation to make good progress with its projects.

Community-based Local Partnership

BCT’s task as a community enterprise is to develop and implement projects that meet local needs and aspirations. That role is distinct from, but complimentary to, the role of the two local Community Associations (Finzean, Ballogie) and the Community Council (village level). Those organisations are responsible for representing the democratic views of inhabitants on local matters to the Local Authority, Central Government Departments and other State Agencies. The Trust will always be guided by the concerns and priorities identified by these representative bodies and will work in full partnership with them over all its projects.

The Forest of Birse Commonty

The impetus to establish BCT came from the need to safeguard the future of ancient shared rights over the extensive area known as the Forest of Birse Commonty and to secure the sustainable management of the native pinewood there.

The area known as the Forest of Birse Commonty covers nearly all of the Forest Birse and extends to over 3,500 hectares (9,000 acres). The Commonty has a unique pattern of legal rights and a long history of disputes. These have included physical conflict in the 17th century, Scotland’s highest Court (Court of Session) in the 18th century and Britain’s highest Court (House of Lords) in the 19th century. While the Commonty has not been in the courts in the 20th century, uncertainty still continued about who had what rights over the area.

Ancient Rights and Native Pinewoods

It has long been clear that one party owns the land of the Commonty (the Honourable Charles Pearson of Birse Forest Estate); and that two parties own the sporting rights over the Commonty (the Honourable Charles Pearson and the Nicol brothers of Ballogie Estate). The issue has been, however, that an indeterminate number of other parties in the parish still shared other extensive ancient land use rights over the whole Commonty.

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One important consequence of this situation was that there was no agreement over who could manage the native pinewoods spread across over 500 hectares (1,250 acres) of the North Hill of the Commonty. The Finlets Pinewood on the Commonty and the contiguous Glen Ferrick Pinewood in Finzean form the most easterly and eleventh largest surviving relic Caledonian Pinewood in Scotland –a natural heritage treasure of national importance.

Historic Settlement

Birse Community Trust (BCT), as it’s first main project, initiated a three-stage process to try and resolve this situation.

Firstly, the ancient Commonty rights would be vested in the BCT to benefit the local community.

Secondly, on the basis of these rights, BCT would reach an agreement with the owners of the solum and the sporting rights over the management of the pinewoods.

Thirdly, through this agreement, BCT would manage the pinewoods with funding from the Government’s Forestry Commission Woodland Grant Scheme and from the Millennium Commission through the Millennium Forest for Scotland Initiative.

These proposals arose in the first instance from the willingness of the Farquharsons of Finzean and Cochrans of Balfour in particular, to convey their acknowledged rights to BCT as a gift to the community to mark the Millennium. The proposals would also not have been possible without the willingness of the honourable Charles Pearson and the Nicol brothers to try and achieve a satisfactory agreement.

Delivering the three-stage process was much more difficult than anyone imagined and therefore took much longer than expected – over three years. However, in the end and still in a spirit of local co-operation, the BCT, the Honourable Charles Pearson and the Nicol brothers reached an historic settlement over the Commonty. As a result, BCT with its Commonty rights and the Forestry Commission and Millennium Forest funding, has now started to manage the Commonty pinewoods through the North Hill Agreement that BCT signed on the 19th January 1999 with the Honourable Charles Pearson and the Nicol brothers as owners of the solum and sporting rights.

Further Information

BCT can be contacted at the following address:
Birse Community Trust,
The Old School,
Banchory AB31 6NY,
Scotland, UK.
Tel: 44 (0) 1330 850 200
Fax: 44 (0) 1330 850 750