Land Reform & Rural Housing
Published in The Crofter – The Journal of the Scottish Crofting Foundation, No. 63, May 2004, pp. 9 – 10 (www.crofting.org ). Also on this page is STV broadcast on "Politics Now" about the need for urban dwellers to benefit from land reform - click here.
land reform activist and author of Soil and Soul, Alastair McIntosh,
lectured on crofting and land reform in Golspie and Fort William. These were
part of Aberdeen University’s KEY Learning Opportunities. Here he
summarises the main points.
October 1991 I gave a launch address for the original Isle of Eigg Trust. It
took place in a derelict tea room down by the pier, damp and cold for all but
the human warmth packed inside. It was an edgy event. Even to organise it had
required the permission of the laird, Keith Schellenberg. That seems incredible
now, but in those days it was normal, because he controlled the only usable
The meeting was
followed by a secret ballot organised by the Isle of Eigg Residents’
Association. It had forty-eight members and there was a 100% turnout to vote on
whether or not they wanted land reform to be attempted on Eigg. There were
thirty-five votes cast in favour and thirteen against – a 73% majority. The
rest is, as they say, history.
There was nothing
particularly new in what I said that late October night. It was mostly ideas
that had been moving in the tradition for a long time that I just brushed down
for the occasion. Indeed, I’d spent much of the day re-reading Jim Hunter’s
classic, The Making of the Crofting Communities. What stuck me most was
his account of the Pairc Deer Raid.
This had taken
place on 22 November 1886 at the Eisken Estate, just a few miles down the road
from where I grew up in North Lochs. Famished crofters had taken the law into
their own hands. With rifles that some say Michael Davitt had sent over from
Ireland, they’d satisfied their hunger in the natural way.
A detachment of
eighty Royal Scots and a gunboat of marines were sent to Stornoway to deal with
the insurrection. Well, they maybe put it down, but only smoored the fire. For
what I found most mindblowing as I re-read this story in 1991 was to think that
some of the old folks still alive when we were children would have lived through
this. Indeed, my father, as the local doctor, would have helped some of them to
have completed their earthly journey. My generation was literally within
touching distance of these great Highland and Island radicals. So how were we
going to bear the torch forward in the face of Thatcherism unbridled?
jumped out of Jim Hunter’s book ... page 173 … where it says that those
responsible for the Raid had “hoped that as a result of the slaughter for
which they had been responsible, the sporting value of Park forest would be so
drastically reduced that its tenant would give it up, thus forcing Lady Matheson
[to] hand the forest over to the crofters and cottars of the parish of Lochs….
‘Their object,’ a group of raiders told reporters, was ‘to draw the
attention of the whole country to their case.’”
Hmm … so it had
been an attempt at a media driven market spoiling strategy, to use today’s
jargon! And if landed power is largely psychological – keeping people
kow-towing like children who even had to ask permission for the only public
meeting space – then maybe it could also be dismantled psychologically. Those
deer raiders had savvy. So why not let their spirit touch us too in this day and
I’ve recounted in
my book, Soil and Soul (from Aurum Press), a very strange experience that
I had of precisely that spirit touching as we drove over to the Eigg tea room
that night. I’ll say no more about that visionary experience here. Suffice
that when I got there, my speech was perfectly composed within. It just had to
be spoken on behalf of a cultural spirit that was much bigger than just myself.
There needed to be,
I suggested, three stages of land reform. 1) Re-membering, in which we reclaim
our histories, remembering and putting back together again what has happened to
us; our community’s story. 2) Re-visioning, in which we explore new ways of
becoming community with one another as a community of place. And 3),
Re-claiming, in which the community makes a claim of right over that which is
required for the common good.
With the passing
into force now of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, we’ve arrived at a
stage of being able to evaluate the past decade or so of modern land reform.
I’d say that good
progress has been made on the re-membering; the re-visioning is still in the
testbed stage, but with a lot of exciting new patterns and examples emerging.
And the fact that we have land reform legislation, albeit only a start to the
process, is more than most of us could have dreamed of before Devolution. In
crofting areas especially we are poised to reclaim, where the community feels
there is a need so to do. This will happen where there has been bad landlordism,
but perhaps less where there is (currently!) no cause for complaint.
I don’t want to
dwell on those points further here. What I want to do, instead, is to add a
voice to the growing chorus of folks who are looking at where we should go next.
My view is that
we’re now ready for a fourth stage in land reform. Indeed, it is already
coming to pass. It is that of strengthening local democratic processes. Put
another way, it’s the stage of learning (or re-learning) what it really means
to be community.
When the laird or
distant wheels of government had a strong controlling hand, we didn’t have to
work out how to do everything ourselves. What’s more, the laird always
threatened (or at least, enough of them did), that if the lid was taken off the
social pot and his paternalism removed, “they’d fight like cats in a bag.”
There is truth in
this. Take any group of people who have not been healthily socialised together,
and they will fight. Landlordism has understood the psychology of this and used
it to keep us down. As Milton is reputed to have said, “They who put out the
people’s eyes reproach them for their blindness.” What we must now do is to
face up to the need to learn more deeply how to make community work. And that
means getting more real about conflict.
for honest folks to be afraid of here. It simply means recognising that conflict
is normal in any healthy human group. Normal, yes, but it must be recognised or
named, unmasked for how it affects people (including such forms as “passive
aggression”), and then engaged with so that it can be processed.
In doing this it
helps to have an understanding of the spirituality that underpins community. If
everybody’s only looking out for number one, you can never create a society
that rests on human dignity. But if everybody sets their own interests in the
framework of the wider community, then something very powerful, beautiful and
capable of feeding the soul can emerge. That, by the way, is what radical
Highland religion at its best has always been about. It’s not about being
upright and uptight. It is, or at least, should be, about being real – honest
to God and one another in community as membership one of another. This means
learning to discern and honour the “community spirit”.
Let me close by
offering an example of what can be achieved if community is put at the heart of
things. Let’s look at the need for affordable rural housing.
We all know the
problem – holiday homes and incomers.
Well, at the age of
four, in 1960, when my family moved to Lewis, I was an incomer myself. My
father’s people were of Gaelic speaking stock, yes, but my mother was of
Anglo-Welsh stock, and I was born in a Yorkshire mining town where they worked
together running the hospital children’s ward.
Speak to indigenous
people in any Highland community today, and in my experience they’ll tell you,
“We welcome those that come to give and share, but not the ones who only
Fair enough. No
problem then with incomers who are truly willing to integrate with the community
and respect the place. They’re welcome. But there is a problem with those, and
also with those of indigenous stock, who just want to exploit the place.
There’s a problem
with those who, for example, would exercise right to buy over local housing
stock only to sell it on so that they can turn a speculative buck.
Such activity, like
working the grants system, rips the guts out of fragile communities. It
dishonours the community spirit and discredits the help that a wider Scottish,
British and European society is willing to give rural areas. Its dishonour
should be named and shamed.
But what can be
done? What can be done, specifically, about the rural housing crisis?
My view is that we
need a mixed market when it comes to social housing. That market should try to
square the circle of free enterprise entrepreneurship, and the need for social
accountability with respect to the land. This is possible, and it’s starting
The Chair of the
Iona Housing Partnership is Dan Morgan, proprietor of the Argyll Hotel. On an
island that comprises 40% holiday homes, the community are about to build four
new homes for social ownership. These will be on former glebe land, the Church
of Scotland having helped them out.
Dan is a former
student of mine. He did his MSc and PhD in human ecology and politics – making
a study of the revolution on Eigg. He’s been a member of the SCU-cum-SCF since
He tells me that
one of the approaches they’ve invented for Iona is what he calls the “50%
could be controlled 50% by the families living in the new homes, and 50% by a
community trust – the Iona Housing Partnership.
This allows people
to get a foot on the housing ladder, so paying off a mortgage and accumulating
the capital they would need if they move on elsewhere.
But because the
community remains the co-owner, it plays an equal role if and when that home is
sold. This means it can prevent holiday home sales. It can select the best buyer
for the community.
What’s more, as
property prices appreciate the community’s ratio of capital value to
outstanding debt will rise. Dan says, “That will mean we can then use our
share of the houses to buy out holiday homes on the island as they come on the
There are other
approaches that could be used too. As part of the Abolition of Feudal Tenure
Act 2000 we now have the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003. Whilst
I am not a legal expert, I understand that this allows for “rural housing
burdens” to be written in to title deeds. These could restrict future sales of
a home to conform with community benefit.
A further approach
would be to apply the crofting model. In this a distinction is made between
ownership of the land and ownership of the improvements upon it (for example,
the house). If the community were to gain and retain control of the land - and
any outright right-to-buy is removed from the ground itself – then the sale of
such a home would require a two-part transaction. The householder would sell
their house, but the community land trust would need to transfer the land lease.
As such, the land trust would function like a local Crofters Commission, but
could set its own terms.
like this has just happened on Eigg. Working with the Crofters Commission, new
crofts have been created. The Grazings Committee and the Residents Association
jointly worked out a points scheme to prioritise allocation.
All these options
and more are there to be used. The future is potentially bright. We just need to
live up to its promise, pay heed to the promptings of the Community Spirit, and
rise to the dignity of our own humanity.
And what could
government do to speed up such process? The present land reform act is only a
start. The planning system needs to be made more receptive to approaches that
favour community empowerment such as piece-by-piece self-build and the need to
distinguish between social housing and the putting up of private “trophy
mansions” as they call them in Ireland.
On the public
funding front, most government money is presently channelled through Communities
Scotland to housing associations. However, these are sometimes remote from local
need, and there’s always the worry that a future government might undermine
original social housing intentions by ill-judged provisions for unfettered
“So why not
channel some of the money to community housing trusts?” was the question I put
it to a number of key movers and shakers on this issue in Scotland today.
Dan Morgan’s response summed up many voices. “It’s like it was in 1997,” he said, “when the Eigg Trust went for funding to the National Heritage Memorial Fund. They declined, basically saying they didn’t trust giving it to communities. What we’ve got to do now is to prove to government that communities really can deliver. The future lies with community control.”
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25 October 2004