TAC 28: Aug-Sep96

TAC 28 Index

Book review: Who Owns Scotland by Andy Wightman

(xviii+238pp, ISBN 0 86241 585 3, #14.99,
published April 1996 by Canongate, 14 High St, Edinburgh)

Reviewed by Calum Hind

Who Owns Scotland is a book written by Andy Wightman. It lists much of the landholding in Scotland, and explains the basis (feudal, largely) of that landholding, and also goes into detail on many of the issues involved in the ways land is held in Scotland. It is a good-looking paperback, but its merits are a lot more than aesthetic.

The lists themselves are interesting. Wightman has compiled lists of landholding for each of the old counties, and these form a large part of the book. He has managed to list most of the larger estates, and you find that this is a feat which is interesting in itself. The sections for each county contain not only lists but also diagrams and a few paragraphs or pages of comment. These are revealing in lots of ways. You can find out just how secretive and reluctant some landholders are to give out even the most basic information. You can find out that the Scottish Office seems to think that much of its landholding information is a big secret. There are all sorts of interesting snippets in these lists: an already very prosperous county receives the most EU farming subsidy; an industrialist bought land in 1980 for about half a million pounds and sold it six days later at ten times that; one of the world's richest families is reported as getting hundreds of thousands of pounds from the likes of you for set-aside payments for their lands in Perthshire; and so on. You can also work out by looking through these lists a lot that has quite high shock value: one "highland" (at least as far as football goes) county has no landholders with a "Mac" name; the area with the highest proportion of "sporting" estate is the most depopulated; above all there seems to be absolutely no serious political concern with land except to make sure it stays pretty well deregulated and in the hands of the few, and they get to do absolutely what they like with it, including neglect or misuse.

You might have the advantage of having read the reviews of Wightman's book. One reviewer found all this crass listing of who owns what rather voyeuristic, admitting to a guilty thrill at reading through it all. This is rather like those Victorians who twirled their moustachios in excitement at the sight of a well-turned ankle or had to put little lacy covers round piano legs lest they be provoked into an unbearable state of excitement - it only testifies to an unbelievable level of repression in matters economic if not erotic, and to the psychological ill-health of the Scottish body politic. When it comes to landholding the Scottish population is to be neither seen nor heard, however, putting its chances of healthy development way behind those of the averagely-damaged nineteenth century infant. Wightman is an Oliver McTwist asking for an extra helping of information, and managing to extract it from our Bumbling non-system on behalf of us all.

Wightman's book is mostly essayistic rather than encyclopaedic, however. There are chapters dealing with such subjects as feudalism itself, and also with crofting, forestry, sporting estates, conservation landholders etc. These chapters are useful summaries of their subjects and are often very even-handed, making sure that you do not confuse landholders the people with landholding, the subject for rational discussion. Wightman tries to debunk myths and even has a chapter devoted to just that, so that in some ways the book seems to be quite understated much of the time, though this is a strength. It compares very well to the familiar Scottish sentimentality, in crap dirges about wee bit hill and glen, and on tea towels with dire wayside pulpitry doggereled onto them.

Wightman himself never makes such snide comment, however, tending always to give facts, positive proposal or clear argument. He has some superb material that more than screams for itself, such as the insert he highlights about the dodgy dealings surrounding the Mar Lodge estate, and numerous tables detailing wealthiest landowners, and so on. There are a couple of almost hilarious paragraphs listing marriage and blood relationships amongst landowners, in a breathless shin-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone way. The Appellation Highlands, indeed.

Usually logically discursive in tone, the book definitely avoids annoying academic fence-sitting objectivity. There are suggestions for land reform; there is detailing of "Opportunities for Change." Especially fascinating are comparisons with other countries. Perhaps these are the most cogent of all in showing up the MacGonagallesquely ridiculous land tenure system we have. The book itself answers some of the reservations it provokes. Expecting a sane or useful system of land ownership is supposedly asking too much in this age of rampant deregulatory capitalism, so that Wightman is accused of being a romantic nationalist. This is plainly an absurd notion since the whole tone of the book is rationalistic, not nationalistic, and Wightman wants the whole subject to be bathed in light and not heat, and is quite willing to have light directed from other countries. He is not afraid to make his own suggestions about what is most urgently needed in land reform and he does have an affinity with the idea of a Scottish parliament, though he makes it clear that what is most needed of all is debate, not the secrecy and reluctance that have always scotchmisted our stern and wild acreages.

There is much detail in the book - it is not all grand nebulous debate - so there are bound to be quibbles about some of it, the discussion on access to land being the one which perhaps most concerns the hill stravaigers who read this mighty organ. To this general reader nitpicking would be hard to do, partly because of a strong feeling that it would confirm that Byron was right when he called the country he regarded as his own a land of "meanness, sophistry and mist" and that everyone else was right when they called the Scots a bunch of quarrelsome bastards. No clan warfare, internecine strife and fiery crosses from this reader, just fiery ticks of approval. The main drawback is the effect much of the detail has on the reader who is fairly new to this whole subject - overquoting and verbal plagiarising takes over. "The basis of our landholding is not actually all feudal, as there are both alloidal and udal holdings..." you might find yourself saying, or "The last official survey of landholding was Lord Derby's UK-wide survey in ...." or "In Norway there are 55,000 members of the Forest Owners' Federation..." or - then you find that the local peasantry are looking rebellious and dangerous!

Wightman himself is scrupulous in attribution to the likes of John McEwen whose work (of the same name) wrote up pioneering research by Roger Millman in the seventies, and in reference to the works of others such as James Hunter. Hunter is also mentioned, incidentally, by the good Paul Hesp who elsewhere in this bogtrotters' blatt (pp14-15) explains very clearly the reason why land use is of paramount importance to all who voyage on vibram.

You would not need to be a very scrupulous citizen to take an interest in this book. The fact that it exists at all is to be applauded, and much of its content makes reading it a trip up a mountain of revelation that you always felt existed but never quite managed to see. Who Owns Scotland is a bit of a stroll up Ben Damascus. The more who get to make that stroll the better.

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