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 Scottish Land and Estates

Address to the Council of the

Scottish Landowners’ Federation  


Edinburgh, 10 June 1998


by Alastair McIntosh  


This address was delivered on 10 June 1998 to the Council of the Scottish Landowners' Federation (now rebranded following PR advice as the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association (SRPBA) ... now further rebranded as Scottish Land and Estates) at the request of their Convenor, who asked me to tell them what I really thought. I did, and they were ever so polite, though a couple of days later I received a telephone call threatening legal action unless I withdrew the remark anonymously quoting a Council member. I did not, because it was true. I said I would not reveal who the Council member was unless he forced me to do so in a court of law. I heard nothing more. Pity! Edited versions of the speech appeared as End to Lording It, Evening News, Edinburgh, 17 June, 10; Isles of Acrimony, The Guardian (Society), 22 July, 4-5; Our Land Belongs to Us, The Big Issue, Glasgow, 6 August, 10-11; and the full text (as given here) is in my Healing Nationhood, Curlew Productions, 2000, 107-111. For more about Scotland's land reform see my classified publications index.


"Once let the masses get into their heads that landed property is a thing to play tricks with, and you take the pin out of the whole system."

 - Mr Claybody in John Macnab by John Buchan, 1925, Polygon 2007 edition, p. 101.


I am grateful to you, gentlemen, for having invited me to address your Federation. The timing is impeccable because in just a few hours I shall be heading North to Eigg to celebrate the island’s first year of being a laird-free zone.


During that year secure leases have been offered to tenants in need of them. Economic development has allowed the opening of a visitor centre, restaurant and shop. And the indigenous population has increased by one third because three families have now been able to return. 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 ecological benefit. No longer is the fate of this Hebridean community decided at the whim of a man whose sole qualification to exert power over others was his wealth bolstered by that poor man’s tax known as “rent”.


I have been invited to address you today as a result of being ejected from an emergency meeting you held some months ago in the Jarvis Ellersly House Hotel. Through peculiar circumstances one of your members had asked me to represent him, anonymously, as is often a landowner’s wont. Some of you suspected that I might have been wearing more than one hat. Accordingly, two stalwart gentlemen placed hands on my shoulders and escorted me, politely but backwards, out through a narrow exit.


The Lord works in mysterious ways, and the one in question on this occasion was a lord temporal in a wheelchair - none other than His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch. My two bouncers and I nearly fell into his lap! He appeared to recognise me (having initially mistaken me for that other land reformer, Andy Wightman). After according me a warm welcome he was informed with some embarrassment about the circumstances of my departure. However, he resolved to get in touch later.


Now, that meeting, at which I was prevented from representing the liberal views of my landed “client,” had been convened to discuss the threat of a Scottish Parliament and “community interests” like Assynt, Borve and Eigg. Your Federation’s convenor had felt obliged to warn in his letter of invitation: “I do not believe there has ever been another occasion upon which the private landowners in Scotland have needed to come together to meet the challenges which they face.” He continued, “I am considering how best to ensure that landowners’ rights are properly protected.”


Now, I find that a most telling statement. We’re talking here about some of the most powerful people in Scotland. 1,000 of you - which is one-fiftieth of one percent of the population - control nearly two-thirds of our most primary economic, cultural and spiritual resource. Some even call themselves “lords” and presume to be addressed by such sycophantic and divisive titles as “Your Grace,” as if they have forgotten, Christian men that most would claim to be, that Jesus’ temptation on the mountain in Luke 4 was to have the devil offer to make him a landlord. And yet we hear them, I hear you ... bleating on about your “rights” in the absence of serious consideration of obligations.


You will correct me, of course, by saying that being a landlord today involves more than a little noblesse obligee. Your vassals should be grateful, you tell us, for the £30 million that recreational killing puts into the pockets of ghillies and gamekeepers ... although the latter are employed in part to keep the locals off their forebears’ patch.


Christopher Bourne-Arton representing your English sister agency, the Country Landowners’ Association, put the economic perspective very well in a debate with me on Radio 5 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.”


And, I say, “The mindset that invents the need for many of these costs is also much the same.” Yes, I’m sorry, but from my past experience working as a ghillie back home on the Isle of Lewis as a youth, 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?”


An unwitting insight into these questions is given in the August 1992 issue of the high society magazine, Harpers & Queen. Its cover proclaims a theme of: “LOADED lairds and lovely LASSIES; SUNNY Scots and holiday PICTS: why we love our Highland playgrounds.” Inside, along with pictures of Mohamed Al Fayed’s “hereditary Ross pipers” and “the naked truth” about Scotland’s six most upmarket women, it advises the reader to pack a copy of Alice Miller’s latest book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.


Miller’s psychotherapeutic writings echo Erich Fromm who wrote extensively of the need for people who lack an authentic sense of “being somebody” to have things instead. Life’s basic question, he said, is “To have or to be?”


Now, we all have our neuroses and dysfunctionalities - doubtless me too. Miller’s point is that institutionalised relationships of domination often have their roots in precisely the sort of unloved childhoods that many rich children experience. As Robert Burns said, “How cruel are the parents/ Who riches only prize.” The stereotypical laird, in my view, wants to be loved, but desperately tries to control that process. This distorts it and so distorts both his and our social realities. Old-style public school environments are famous for cultivating such a narcissistic pathology. It gets played out on whole communities, indeed, empires, because wealth amplifies the empty rattle of a hollowed-out soul into other people’s lives.


Blood sports for pleasure’s sake can often be a good example of the wounded child’s sadomasochistic relationship to power. When I put this controversial viewpoint to one of your Council members I was astonished to find that he agreed with me. I wrote down his words. “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 with a shotgun now that they’ve grown up.”


I now have three points that I want to make. The first is, please lay down the latter-day white man’s burden of your noblesse obligee. It’s very nice of you to offer to patronise us, but like those resettled families on Eigg, most of us would rather be living on the same land but as self-sufficient entrepreneurs operating within community agreed guidelines, than being hireable and fireable employees of a laird. If you personally think that your particular style of lairdship does communities a favour, then why not ask for a vote of confidence in secret ballot?


Secondly and of profound importance in the context of the present deliberations of the Scottish Office’s Land Reform Policy Group, any rights you have as landowners must be recognised as feudal, not absolute, and this entails obligations to the Scottish people that go far beyond noblesse obligee. You see, some of you have been talking about your human rights in relation to property, hoping that you can thereby mitigate the nation’s thirst for land reform. I’m afraid that I have bad news for you. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, English law stresses absolute property rights because it places individualistic “man” at the centre of things. Scots law, however, places God in that position and so at the apex of the feudal pyramid.


Sir James Dalrymple of Stair expresses this in his seminal work published in 1681, The Institutions of the Law of Scotland, where he concludes that “the absolute sovereign [is] divine law.” Most of you, then, have prospered by taking English rights but neglecting Scottish obligations to community that ensues from divine imperative.


You may say that my appeal to theology is irrelevant at the cusp of a new and secular millennium, but I’m sorry to say, it’s simply the present law of the land. 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 yourself “landlords,” but you are certainly not “landowners.” Leviticus 25:23 is quite clear: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine,” says God. It is because we are all God’s vassals in Scottish law that Andrew Melville was famously able to get away with calling James VI “God’s silly vassal.”


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 that you presently enjoy. Ezekiel 47 additionally 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 ethnically inclusive land reformer, consistent with our Scots internationalist 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 to uphold social and ecological justice. And they have failed to redistribute it. In short, gentlemen, many of you have acted as despots. You have applied an English legal mindset to a Scottish question and so failed the community of the realm.


Which brings me to my third and closing point. How can this be gradually reversed and community landownership encouraged? I would 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, after all, that not all communities are desirous of or ready for land reform, and the efforts of some lairds are appreciated by their communities.


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


In these way, 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.



Click here for Evening News' cartoon depicting this address

   "The object which men aim at when they become possessed of land in the British Isles may, I think, be enumerated as follows. One, political influence; two, social importance, founded on territorial possession, the most visible and unmistakable form of wealth; three, power exercised over tenantry; the pleasure of managing, directing and improving the estate itself; four, residential enjoyment, including what is called sport; five, the money return - the rent." Lord Derby, 1881, laird of 69,000 acres and Britain's 7th richest man.



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