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 Scottish Land Reform Community Empowerment


Land Reform – the People Find Their Voice


Alastair McIntosh



Published in Reforesting Scotland, Issue 34, 2006, pp. 7 - 10. See also review of Michael Fry's Wild Scots.



As our new Scottish Parliament took root at the turn of the millennium, land reform became seen by many as being its flagship agenda. It would be an acid test of whether or not real political change was going to be possible. The crofter buy-out on Assynt and the community buy-out on Eigg had paved the way. These had built on the example of the Stornoway Trust, but whereas the Stornoway Trust had been gifted by the landlord, the new buy-outs arose out of processes of community empowerment tied to massive fundraising appeals. 


The most important thing about the buyouts of the 1990s was that they challenged the whole feudal structure and legacy of landed power. They left it psychologically holed beneath the waterline. Some of us involved in these movements had recognised that landed power was economic and legal, for sure, but even more importantly it was psychological. It was at this level that we challenged its legitimacy.


In 1993, Isabel MacPhail of Assynt put it like this, “Really it is a bit like the end of colonial rule - gradually our imaginations are unchained. The rest takes a bit longer ...” What was happening at this time is that people were learning how to see the system stripped of its respectable veneer. A culture of silence long built up was crumbling, as people found their voices and dared to stand up and speak out. What then lay exposed was a system where just 1,000 owners controlled nearly two-thirds of the private land in Scotland. Two-thirds of that was managed primarily for sport. Farming and housing tenants alike were the age-old mechanism by which the rich financed their sporting pursuits, tax-deductible, of course. No wonder so many could claim to run their estates at a loss - it was their hobbies they were running, and their investments, because there was often massive growth in capital value as the nouveau riche of Thatcherism and globalisation looked for safe places in which to invest their millions.



Rent: a tax on the poor


When Keith Schellenberg first bought Eigg, in 1975, he paid £250,000 for it. When the island was sold on to Marlin Maruma, two decades later, he got one-and-a-half million … though it was less than he might have got had it not been for the market-spoiling tactics of the Isle of Eigg Trust. By this time it no longer conferred respect to claim to be “The Laird” in many parts of Scotland. It had become thinkable to challenge the system whereby one class of people live from the proceeds of a tax known as “rent” paid by those who lack control over the place where they live.


Rent, after all, is a tax from the relatively poor to the relatively rich. Even the land component of our mortgages can be traced back to such a transfer of wealth from poor to rich. Land is not in short supply in rural Scotland. There is no earthly reason why the building plot should typically cost as much as building the house. After all, there are 5 million Scots and 20 million acres of Scotland. That’s 3 football pitches each, which is not bad even if two of them are on mountain sides. The central cause of the rural housing shortage continues to be control over land ownership and a planning system set in place when county councillors were typically lairdic types, who valued the countryside not for the number of people whose lives it could support in dignity, but as a playground for themselves and tied housing for their servants. As Keith Schellenberg famously said to me, “You have to understand that Eigg is a collector’s item.”





The first stage of land reform, then, was to break down the psychology of landed power. The use of power to control communities and, therefore, people’s lives, had to be unmasked, so that it could then be engaged with. This was a process of cultural confidence-building at a community level. It happened by people first of all re-membering why their relationship to the land was the way it had become. It was a process of recovering history, which is why books like Jim Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community were so important. Such books taught a social history that had previously largely been concealed by the powers that be. That history was something they wished to bury in the past. “Why do you always dig up the past … why can’t we just look forward?”, lairdic types would say to me. “Because your power today rests on stolen property from the past”, I would reply. That would shut them up, because they understand when you express things in terms of their sacred values of “property”.





After such re-membering came re-visioning. Rural Scotland no longer existed in isolation from much of the rest of the world. Modern communication allowed us to see ourselves afresh in relation to global processes. Some of these things, like the neo-colonialism of land speculation, were damaging. Others were empowering, like being able to learn how grassroots political organisation and liberation theology were being used by communities for empowerment in Latin America. Re-visioning opened people out to new possibilities. It invited them to look beyond their chains, and consider, “How could we be as a community if we were in charge?” It recreated the possibility of becoming fully a community of place.





And that led, thirdly, to the possibility of re-claiming - of communities being able to make a moral claim of right to their place, and with that claim, perhaps to knock a hole in their land’s speculative market value. It was into this process that this journal, Reforesting Scotland, fed in important ways during the early to mid 1990s. Re-claiming has been the practical process of land reform. It has been something that started in our minds, in our souls, spread to our communities, and has now, at last, become part of mainstream legislative process in the nation.



Elders’ wisdom


John MacGregor of Gearrannan on the Isle of Lewis taught me much about community dynamics. John was deeply perceptive of human relations. Indeed, I could arrive with a busload of students, and he would accurately psychoanalyse each one of them in the moments it took for them to climb down the bus steps! He did it just by observing their mannerisms, because he was of a culture that knew how to “read” human beings. These are the kind of skills that we need to treasure, re-learn and pass on. They make for strong communities of people; people who aren’t fools, people who might say, “I will wash your feet in service, but you may not wipe your feet on me.”


Indeed, I was showing pictures of people like John in upper New York State during a lecture tour in August 2005 and what I found striking was folks coming up to me afterwards and saying, “You know, our problem in America is that we don’t have elders and a tradition of learning from them like you have. That’s what makes our communities so vulnerable.”


Such observations all deepen my sense that the starting point in community empowerment is to recognise the value of what is already there, and especially the inclusion, as much as is reasonably possible, of those with whom we might not be in agreement. It requires that old Scots ability (when at its best) of being able to hold opposites together in dynamic tension. It requires, therefore, passion, compassion and wisdom. These don’t come naturally in a world of increasing competition where the winner triumphantly takes all. However, that world, as Robert Burns wrote in Strathallan’s Lament, ends up becoming “a world without a friend.” And so if we genuinely want to build capacity for achieving things in community, we need to develop a sensitivity and empathy which ensures that the voices of all are heard. Equally, it needs to be understood that being heard is not necessarily the same as being agreed with, and that “eldership” or differences in life experience and wisdom need to be honoured. Also, because land reform is concerned with communities of place (as distinct from mere communities of interest), it is crucial to identify and respect those who hold an historically and even spiritually rooted sense of place. Such tradition bearers will usually be indigenous people and long-settled residents.  If their tested and grounded insights can be respectfully balanced with the fresh ideas and energy of more recent incomers, community empowerment will be able to develop from a foundation of wisdom.  The geographical place itself – the bioregion -will become a crucible that holds and draws out the full human potential of all, thereby securing the commonweal of soil and soul alike even in a turbulent world.




Conflict resolution


That brings us on to the worry about setting loose conflicts within the community as the shadow side of empowerment. “If the people of Eigg get their own land, they’ll all fight like cats in a bag”, I can remember one laird’s factor warning. Well, the people of Eigg did get their own land and, from time to time, they do fight like cats in a bag. At the same time, the people of Eigg, like most other communities, are not stupid. They see where they are on the learning curve, and they see that this calls for acquiring new skills and sensitivities, complete with necessary bullshit detection devices fitted behind the ears. They recognise that they can choose between letting their manure stink, or composting it into something from which new life can grow. This is true community development, just like an agricultural process of soil improvement. It requires the courage to face conflict.


The first thing about dealing with conflict in the community is to recognise that it is normal. If there was no overt conflict when the laird was in charge, it was only because he or she held the lid down, and that is not healthy. So, yes, conflict is normal in a healthy community. But we have to learn how to recognise it. We need to learn how to spot, name and nail not only open aggression, but also passive and other concealed forms of aggression. We need to accept that we all carry aggression, and that dealing with this violence is part of the joyous and prosperity-creating work of coming more fully into life abundant. Thus we need forums and procedures where the causes of conflict can be brought out and worked on in just and accountable ways, so as to move towards fairness, resolution and even the near-hopelessly ideal objective of learning to “love one’s enemies”.





There are skills for facing up to conflict in communities. Indeed, I recently spent time in Edinburgh with a member of a Hebridean community who had just been on a conflict resolution course. Interestingly, her conclusion was that what her island most needs is a strengthening of local democratic structures, so that nobody can claim, for example, that they lacked the chance to stand for election and participate in the making of local decisions. Furthermore, the community as a whole must recognise the need to rally round and support those who have been chosen to lead it, for leadership can be a thankless and lonely task. You can feel misunderstood and persecuted from all sides as well as feeling inwardly divided over certain issues. It is easy to become drained of energy and to burn out. That can only be avoided if leaders, once democratically chosen and appointed, are given support and respect. We may not agree with them and we may intend voting them out the next time round, but while they are there, they can only serve the community if it is receptive to being served, and so we will get, in a very practical sense, the leaders we deserve.


Addressing leadership structures and training for community empowerment is a huge and exciting, although relatively new, agenda for Scotland. It is something that, we might hope, public bodies like Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Community Land Unit (if it is allowed to continue in some form) might pick up on as we now enter into the capacity building stage of land reform.


Land reform has given us the long-awaited “revolution”. The next challenge is to ensure that we’re not rebels without a clue.



Further reading:


Jim Crowther, Ian Martin & Mae Shaw (eds.), Popular Education and Social Movements in Scotland Today, NIACE, Leicester, 1999.


Jim Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community. Published by John Donald, Edinburgh, 1976.


Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press, London, 2001.



Alastair McIntosh is a writer, social activist, broadcaster and campaigning academic from the Isle of Lewis. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology (CHE) and was a founding trustee of the original Isle of Eigg Trust.





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5 March 2006