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Land & The Highland Problem

Frank Thompson, Calgacus, Volume 1, No 3, Spring 1976

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Observers of Highland affairs will be well acquainted with the work of Frank Thompson. A prolific writer, author of several books, mainstay of Club Leabhar and Comunn na Canain Albannaich he is also a prominent Highland activist for the SNP and one of their principal exponents on the land question.

Land is perhaps the most important factor in any attempt to understand the Highland problem (I leave aside the equally important fact that to be of any use, the right kind of people must be on that land to make it yield its optimum in a community interest).

... because half of Scotland is up for sale ...

Early in August 1975, a London estate agent stated that the market price for Scottish estates was depressed "… because half of Scotland is up for sale." Commenting on this, Donald Stewart, SNP MP for the Western Isles said:

"This London voice complaining about the difficulty of selling a 50,000 acre estate in Banffshire, because of the glut in Scottish land on the market, sums up Scotland’s defencelessness to outside exploitation. This exploitation by outside interests is as rife today as it has ever been. Indeed, with the easier movement of capital and the extended reach of foreign financial interests, Scottish land is more vulnerable to abuse than ever. There is no area of Scottish life where the failure to act together to defend common interests entails such shame as in this question of land."

This comment by Donald Stewart reflects the attitude of a significant sector of the SNP on the question of land, its use and potential for those who depend on its fertility for their living and those they hope to come after them. This sector regards the possession of land as being the outward manifestation of a trust – whether that land has been inherited or bought with a chequebook for speculation. People cannot exist without land and land requires people to keep it in good heart. Once the two are divorced each partner suffers. People become flotsam on the waters of an unconcerned society; the land reverts to nature to become derelict. The pity of it is that this enforced process is still continuing.

People become flotsam on the waters of an unconcerned society

The SNP has not been afraid to publicise its attitude to land ownership. At the National Conference in 1974, Willie MacRae presented a motion on land: "…. It is essential for the present and future well-being of the nation that the land should be used effectively for the economic, residential and recreational needs of the people by ensuring, for example, that food production and timber production are maximised and that the cost of land for house-building is kept at a minimum …"

In the same year, the Crofters Commission declared: "The question may be asked why there should be any control over the ownership of croft land which does not apply to the ownership of other agricultural land. The answer is simply that in most crofting areas there is a township interest as well as an individual interest to be conserved."

This comes to the nub of any solution to land use and ownership in the Highlands, Scotland, or wherever a community interest is identifiable and where that community is not a mere front for the chequebook brigade. It is not sufficient to propose blanket nationalisation by some avuncular Government (whether Labour or Socialist); such a move only creates far-reaching problems and certainly would not even produce a short-term glimmer of salvation.

The SNP approach has been to suggest that a Land Use Commission, wholly democratised, be set up to give local communities the necessary executive powers, subject to planning controls to prevent abuse by speculative and vested interests, to develop the agricultural potential of their own areas. The Land Use Commission would set up immediate funds for projects which would generate an income for feeding back into the community fabric, social and economic, to strengthen it and create the kind of entrepreneurial environment which is completely lacking at present. Where are the co-operatives using land-use as the bases for enterprises – community fish farms, the community forests, the community market gardens, the community quarries for metal and building materials?

The proposal of a Land Use Commission does not envisage any interference by political ideology. Rather the Commission would act as an executive facility through which local community interests, whatever their shape and form would go for clearance of ideas and project assessment for feasibility and viability. Rather the Commission would foster the idea of social empiricism, in order to release the talents for enterprise which are lying dormant and stagnant with the present system. Only in this way can a new use be made of land.

release the talents for enterprise which are lying dormant and stagnant

The question of who owns a particular tract of land does not enter into the background of the Land Use Commission, except to subject the owner to certain tests all related to his use of the land he owns, indeed, the fidelity with which he has exercised his bought-in or inherited trusteeship. If this is lacking, the land must be removed from his influence. The question of compensation should (this is a personal view) not enter into the accession of land by the Commission. Any landowner who has invested his or other’s cash into land to reduce it to, or maintain it in a derelict condition deserves to lose his cash as any bad investor would.

So far only ideological solutions to land use and ownership have been propounded by the established political parties. Only the SNP has gone some way along a new road, towards the identification of community interests, recognising that in the end it is the people on the land who, given encouragement, will make land an asset in any nation’s books.

Having been asked to keep this contribution short, I end with a quotation from R H S Robertson in The New Scotland (1942): "Private enterprise has failed to develop our raw materials in the face of huge vested interests, whose stranglehold must be broken. We must demand a Scottish Parliament which would encourage research, and small-scale and full-scale development by the nation, of our resources."

More than three decades later, after successive Labour and Tory Governments, why should we have to echo these words?