Who Owns Scotland?
Land Reform
Land Reform Guidance
Commonweal Papers
Networks of Agents
Training of Trainers


David Reid

The historical review, "To Restore the Land to the People and the People to the Land", surveys some 150 years of organised attempts by conservation organisations and community groups in the Highlands and Islands to own land on a not-for-profit basis. These attempts took their lead from the pre-co-operative club farm and smallholding land purchase schemes that arose between 1840 and 1890. These initiatives were followed by the setting-up of the first community land trust in the 1920s. In the following decade the outdoor-recreational movement successfully purchased a number of estates of national scenic importance and bequeathed them to the nation.

The 1970s saw a number of large, voluntary conservation organisations acquire properties of importance for wildlife, whilst in the 1980s and 1990s a diverse range of new community owners has emerged. These recent pioneering land purchase initiatives by crofting trusts and other groups with a community base are seen in the wider perspective of social history, and linked with the past efforts of a movement that has struggled for a very long time against both the forces of private capital and the failure of government to take timely action. The review concludes that social ownership of land by civic organisations is now emerging as the radical alternative to both the lottery of private ownership and the benign bureaucratic state.

The Case Studies

Together the case studies that follow illustrate the complexity and diversity of the not-for-profit land ownership movement in the last decade of the century. They describe initiatives taken by a range of owners and aspiring owners - conservation organisations, crofting communities, community-based organisations, groups of private individuals, and in one case a private forestry company. The owner groups vary not only in type of organisation, but also in legal structure, main purpose, size of landholding, financial assets and other resources, and form of land tenure. There are also marked differences in how the initiatives began and how long they have been maintained.

The Assynt Crofters Trust, which now manages 9,000 hectares in north-west Sutherland, came into being when its members took joint action to safeguard their livelihoods which were threatened by the liquidator’s attempt to sell off the crofting estate in a number of separate lots.

The partnership developed between the crofting community of Sconser on the Isle of Skye and the John Muir Trust was also a response to the offer for sale of an estate. The agreement negotiated between the partners safeguards both the conservation and local interest in an area of land which includes the Red Cuillins and is therefore of substantial recreation and landscape value as well as providing crofters with valuable additional hill grazing for their sheep.

The next four accounts deal with proactive attempts to acquire land, or make possible the acquisition of land, in order to safeguard its value as landscape, natural heritage, or productive asset, and in doing so create economic and other benefits for local communities and others with a special interest in these areas.

In 1982 a small group of individuals in Badenoch established Dalnavert Community Co-operative to demonstrate that it was possible for owners to live on the land and to manage it, so that it generated employment and paid its way, without degrading its biodiversity and productive potential.

Another small group of committed individuals in the Forres area set up EarthShare, the first community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme in the north of Scotland, which provides subscribers not only with fresh organic produce in season but also with opportunities to participate in its production and in associated ecologically sound co-operative activities, and in this way to develop equitable bonds between growers and consumers.

Highland Renewal was conceived as an ambitious rural regeneration project intended to address in a holistic manner the linked problems of ecological degradation, depopulation, cultural decline, housing shortage and economic fragility in a small community in a remote part of the island of Mull.

The Whitebridge proposals envisaged the conversion of a conventional forestry plantation into four ‘forest-farms’. These could have been developed as a rural development forestry (RDF) pilot project to provide different models of small, viable enterprises trading in their own timber and associated products. Small businesses of this kind would show not only that small-scale sustainable forestry is financially viable but also that it can bring benefits to areas with scattered populations through creating local employment. The influx of small groups of families can make the difference between services being maintained or withdrawn.

The two accounts of RSPB’s management of its reserves in Badenoch and Strathspey demonstrate that conservation-based development does not threaten livelihoods. Both show that conservation management has provided substantial economic benefits for neighbouring communities, both directly from the society’s measures to protect the habitats of relatively rare native birds and also indirectly from the spending of visitors attracted to the area by its birdlife, diversity and scenic beauty.

The account of Abernethy Forest Reserve also describes the society’s attempts to give the local community a greater say in decisions about the management of those parts of the reserve adjoining settlements. The second account from the RSPB - of the management of its Insh Marshes Reserve - shows that the maintenance of suitable habitats for important bird populations depends on the continued practice of traditional farming activities, which have not impaired the ability of the marshes to absorb, and store for a critical period, the floodwaters of the Spey, an incalculable economic benefit to the communities of the Badenoch and Strathspey.


Despite their differences, all the initiatives have a common element - a concern for the wider community interest, and all, with the exception of Whitebridge, have significant records of achievement, even if they have not made as much progress as they would have liked or achieved their ends in the manner they anticipated. Despite the ills affecting agriculture and other setbacks, Dalnavert Community Co-operative has succeeded over the years in making the surpluses necessary to allow its members to live on, and work, the land they own. The Assynt Crofters Trust and Highland Renewal, two very different organisations, have each made substantial progress on several fronts, despite having to start virtually from scratch in small, remote, sparsely populated communities. The increase in the scale of EarthShare’s operation over the relatively short period of five years demonstrates the soundness of the CSA model. RSPB’s policies for pursuing its members’ conservation aspirations in ways which involve and benefit local communities now have an impressive record of practical success at Abernethy and Insh Marshes. And the John Muir Trust can point to its joint management agreement with the Sconser crofters as an illustration of the potential of another model of partnership between large conservation landowners and small communities which cannot currently fulfil their aspirations to own land.

Difficulties Confronting Not-for-Profit Groups

These achievements stand out in sharper relief when viewed against the difficulties not-for-profit groups have to contend with. Certain themes predominate: access to land and natural resources, land ownership, finance, support, range of expertise required, reliance on voluntary effort, isolation, level of development assistance, and institutional capacity to implement policy.

Access: Owning the Land - a necessary condition?

The range of experience described here, drawn from both land owning groups and from others which aspire to own land, highlights the importance of land ownership. A partnership, as in Sconser, can lead to an agreement which gives security of access for a partner without title to the land, but a lease may impose restrictions or have conditions attached which may hinder and even thwart the achievement of important goals, unless it can be re-negotiated. Thus not-for-profit organisations aspiring to own land depend on the good will of other landowners. Highland Renewal, having revised their vision, have found difficulty in moving forward because their landlords do not share their new objectives, despite their original support which has been a crucial element in Highland Renewal’s achievements. EarthShare also suffer from the disadvantages inherent in leasing agricultural land - short leases, uncertainty about the future - which are compounded for organic farmers by the time-lag between acquiring land and being able to work it organically, and the losses they incur when improved land reverts to the landowner.

Landownership - not necessarily a sufficient condition

Ownership may remove certain obstacles and disadvantages, but doe not of course guarantee smooth progress. Landowners are hostages to fortune; and not-for-profit groups and organisations are no more immune than other landowners to a range of setbacks - natural disasters, changes in economic conditions and internal tensions - as Dalnavert’s experience illustrates.

Finance: Limited Income

Whether owners or tenants, not-for profit groups, especially those with marginal or hill ground in the Highlands and Islands, may have very few developed sources of income, and face severe financial constraints. Some groups, for example, the Assynt Crofters Trust and Highland Renewal, operate shoestring budgets, in which income from Woodland Grant Schemes has been very important. Income from conservation as at Dalnavert and from tourism as in Assynt may be small but important additions. Even the larger organisations are aware of financial constraints. The RSPB may enjoy a considerable income from members’ subscriptions, but finds government grants very beneficial to the implementation of its woodland management plans.

Finance: Restricted Assets

Not-for-profit landowners may also suffer from a lack of assets which they can offer as security for loans to finance development plans. Dalnavert were able to borrow on the value of their agricultural land, but not all land owning groups are as fortunate. Highland Renewal might envy Assynt Crofter Trust its title to the North Lochinver estate, but like a newly independent nation Assynt is aware that political independence must be accompanied by some measure of economic freedom if aspirations to better the lot of local people are to be fulfilled within acceptable time-scales. (Assynt’s position is made more difficult by their understandable refusal to offer their land as security and so jeopardise their hard-won title.)

Range of Skills and Expertise Required

Not-for-profit organisations need people with a range of skills and expertise: practical skills - particularly those needed to run projects in sectors which have not previously featured in the local economy (for example, the skills required for chain-saw maintenance, tree-planting, footpath construction, horticulture); more specialist technical expertise as required for instance in fish-farming, renewable energy projects, ecological surveys, habitat management; as well as a range of management skills, such as the skills of estate management, financial management, business planning, bringing partners on board, fund-raising and making applications for development assistance.

Reliance on Voluntary Effort

Financial constraints may mean, however, that not-for-profit organisations are unable to employ people whose skills they desperately need and may have to depend on individuals who are able and willing to give voluntary help. Assynt Crofters Trust has benefited from the unstinting commitment of its first secretary acting on an unpaid basis. Highland Renewal’s achievements owe much to the energy of one individual working as unpaid project director. EarthShare derived much of its initial momentum from the combined part-time work of a small group of enthusiastic volunteers. Dalnavert’s members contribute ten days work a year.


Geographical isolation and scattered and/or sparse rural populations may compound these problems. Community-based groups may have a very small pool of specialist skills available locally to manage or staff projects. The time and expense involved, even in these days of electronic communication, in finding out crucial information (even at the most basic level of knowing who to ask), obtaining advice, liaising with potential funders, setting up partnerships, submitting applications, finding contractors, negotiating training, handling finances, attracting and catering for volunteer helpers, can place a considerable burden on the group if they mean long journeys to larger centres. The problem is compounded in an area like the Highlands and Islands by the difficulties of travel and communication not just between periphery and centre but also between peripheral groups. Physical distance can impede community-based groups in their attempts to develop networks which allow them to share common problems and obtain advice and support.

Level of Development Assistance

Several of the accounts suggest that, despite the Local Enterprise Company network, despite European Objective 1 status, despite the current emphasis on rural partnerships, sources of development assistance have fallen some way short of providing not-for-profit organisations, particularly community-based groups, with sufficient support to overcome these difficulties. For example, Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise gave the Assynt Crofters Trust financial assistance towards land acquisition on the condition that there would be no further ongoing revenue contribution from them. (However, this pre-dated the establishment of Highlands and Island Enterprise's Community Land Unit, which now has the facility to provide such ongoing development support.) Highland Renewal have had difficulty in finding funding agencies able to respond positively to their attempts to implement holistic projects. At a more strategic level, planning and legal frameworks can make it difficult to ensure a balance between conservation and economic development, as the Assynt Crofters Trust has discovered. There is no public agency actively engaged in promoting rural development forestry projects, to which the promoters of the Whitebridge initiative could turn for support. Despite its policy statements, the Highland Council does not have a rural development forestry unit, nor does Forest Enterprise - despite the UK’s endorsement of the Helsinki Guidelines and Agenda 21.

Institutional Capacity to Implement Policy

The fate of the Whitebridge initiative makes clear it is not just a lack of specific development assistance which handicaps not-for-profit groups, but also a crucial gap between declared policy and institutional capacity to implement policy. The existence of this gap is partly explained by financial constraints, but has more to do with the readiness of public sector institutions to respond to shifts in policy and promote new objectives in the face of opposition from those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

Key Factors in Overcoming these Difficulties - Lessons from Practice

These considerations shed light on key factors in enabling the achievements of the not-for-profit initiatives featured here:

bulletsecure access to the land, preferably through outright ownership
bulletadequate revenue streams
bulletpossession of key assets
bulletleadership and commitment, demonstrated in all the accounts
bulletskilled help - with legal matters, as at Dalnavert; with business planning, as in Assynt; with technicalities, as at EarthShare
bulletpartnership support, as at Sconser and Abernethy and Insh Marshes
bulletother support of various kinds
bullettime to let people work through important processes, as at Sconser, or to refine land management policies, as at Dalnavert
bulletand, of course, an element of good fortune (including the ability to buy time).

Supporting Not-for-Profit Groups and Organisations

The accounts suggest that much could be done to help existing and aspiring not-for-profit groups which may lack some of these advantages.

bulletLand reform could take account of the need to make it easier for not-for-profit groups to acquire land either by purchase or through some partnership or leasing arrangement.
bulletPlainly both existing and aspiring not-for-profit groups would benefit from extended financial support of different kinds: for instance, low cost loans to tide over organisations existing on shoestring budgets when their income is severely affected by some unforeseen event or development over which they have little if any control: Dalnavert were able to absorb the cost to them of repairing damage caused by successive floods, but other groups might not have been so fortunate.
bulletNot-for profit landowning groups also need more generous long-term financial support. The experience of groups like Assynt Crofters Trust and Highland Renewal suggests a need for financial mechanisms and institutions, such as rural community development loan facilities, which will give priority to the development needs of small community-based organisations whose wish is not to maximise profit but to protect natural assets and enhance community welfare. The amount of financial commitment need not be massive. For example, funding for part-time development assistance in the form of an adviser, consultant or development officer, would use up a tiny percentage of many public sector agencies’ budgets. However it might make a crucial difference to a small not-for-profit organisation’s ability to build the partnership of funding agencies required for a project which may be long overdue in an area where self-reliant community development has been neglected by previous landowners.
bulletThe accounts also suggest that there is a need for a more generous and more effectively-targeted support of other kinds - such as advice, information-sharing, help with building partnerships, and skills training. Aspiring groups which find themselves in positions similar to those of Highland Renewal and EarthShare in their early stages would benefit from being able to obtain advice about appropriate legal structures from an agency with sympathy for the aims of the not-for-profit sector and a knowledge of the problems it faces. Groups considering renewable energy projects, as Assynt Crofters Trust are, should be able to turn to a public sector agency, or other source of advice, able to give them a sound, independent assessment of the various deals commercial companies may offer. Not-for-profit groups should not have to depend, as Highland Renewal had to, on an individual member’s personal contacts for advice on a social housing project. Communities like Sconser ought to be able to commission a consultant’s report, confident it will provide the coverage and evaluation they need. Isolated not-for-profit groups, such as Highland Renewal, need to be encouraged to explore possibilities of partnerships with public sector agencies. Bigger, and better resourced, not-for-profit organisations, like RSPB, might benefit too from the existence of an obvious source of help with procedures for involving communities in developing estate management plans.

New Support for Not-for-Profit Groups

The majority of the initiatives described in this collection date from the early 1990s. Therefore the bulk of the experience they describe pre-dates the setting-up of two organisations which aim to provide some of the dedicated support mentioned above. The Crofting Trusts Advisory Service (CTAS) was set up in September 1995 to provide support for crofting communities which wish to explore the possibility of taking the route of community land purchase pioneered by the Assynt Crofters Trust and later adopted by Borve and Annishadder Township. It was followed, in June 1997, by the establishment of HIE's Community Land Unit (CLU) which aims to promote community-led land purchase or management initiatives, including joint management and other partnership arrangements with existing owners. The unit's work involves preparing communities for land purchase, providing technical assistance incorporating the exchange of best practice, and some financial support. It has already helped a number of not-for-profit groups aspiring to land ownership and management.


As these accounts make clear, not-for-profit organisations have taken a lead in developing social ownership of land. They have run practical experiments from which they have learnt much about ways to achieve specific objectives on limited budgets. With the help they have been able to muster from public sector agencies and other sources, they have responded to the challenge of achieving sustainable social ownership of land - in ways which most private owners and public sector agencies have yet to match. Their achievements are not just impressive in themselves, but represent growth points for further initiatives in the not-for-profit land owning sector, which will benefit from the support of a wider range of agencies.

Together, their accounts provide impressive support for the case for some form of effective public subsidy for the social ownership of land. They make fascinating reading. It is more than time to let them speak for themselves.

For Further Information about Support Agencies

Crofting Trust Advisory Service (CTAS): guidance booklet available. Telephone: 01463-710953

Community Land Unit (HIE): Action Framework booklet available. Telephone: 01463-244371



Home Up Next

Home Up Next