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March 21, 2018

How much has really changed?

200 years ago when entire communities were being cleared from the land to make way for sheep, there is little evidence to suggest that the rest of the country showed any great concern for the injustices being meted to their rural cousins. But while society was ordered somewhat differently in those days and that might explain the absence of organised opposition, it’s not an excuse that could be used today. Nonetheless, as Lesley Riddoch points out, landed interests continue to act without regard for the basic human rights of some of those who live on their land.


Lesley Riddoch

Does rural Scotland actually matter to the powers that be? The recent Snowmageddon would make you wonder. Every B-road in Fife and the Borders was still blocked with snow, but travel presenters and government ministers were cheerfully announcing that Scotland was back in business.

This week, massive puddles blocked Fife roads too. Our postie’s van was up to the bonnet in water and he was towed out by a local alerted by the WhatsApp group set up by villagers to keep one another informed of real conditions and problems. We know now – we are largely on our own.

If you live in the country you must accept these terms of trade. Services will be patchy (my own village has no daytime bus service or recycling facilities), roads must be cleared and maintained by locals (a friend carries stones to fill in massive potholes on the estate track that passes her rented house.) This is normal.

Most of rural Scotland is administered from a distant urban council and actually belongs to someone else – someone whose plans, preferences and whims are writ large across the lives of folk who bide on “their” land.

The Scottish Government hopes to achieve a balance between landed power and others like crofters and tenants. It’s a fine objective. The question is whether it’s even remotely realistic – especially for powerless tenants.

National readers will remember the story of Katie, the café owner on Skye who was made homeless from her rented house but could find no long term lets on the island because every house, flat, room and sofa is advertised on short-term letting sites instead. With help from local MP Ian Blackford Katie got into B&B accommodation last weekend and Highland Council has come up with a room in their homeless housing in Portree. It doesn’t accept dogs so it’s a very welcome but short-term fix. These days though, that is a result.

Last month, this column revealed that long-standing farm tenancies on the Buccleuch estate in the Borders have been terminated while the estate plans to apply for Scottish Government forestry grants. The couple at the centre of the row decided to speak out in an extraordinary public meeting in Langholm last Tuesday where 300 local people turned up to question the Duke of Buccleuch and his chief executive John Glen. Alison and David Telfer of Cleuchfoot spoke emotionally about the way they had been treated.

According to an article in the local Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser Alison told the meeting that the estate manager announced; “our lease was ending at the end of February (2018), the hill would be planted and the house and the rest of the land sold. He said ‘the die is cast, this will happen’. Whatever our retirement plans were, bring them forward four or five years. We asked what would happen to our hefted flock of South Country Cheviots. He said they would be cleared and we couldn’t be sentimental about sheep.”

“Our agent rang us on February 14 to say Mr Glen [Buccleuch chief executive] had issued a very distressing ultimatum; if we didn’t agree to their proposals, the next day they would start proceedings to evict us at the end of the month. We eventually signed the paperwork on the 22nd but we aren’t happy with what we’ve had to sign. We feel we were bullied and intimidated into it.”

The paper reports that Glen said he never intended to have this effect on the tenants: “I regret and I’m sorry if that’s the feeling. It’s not what we’re aiming to do.

“We want to have professional conversations with our tenants. I do take it on board and I’ll look at our processes if that’s the way you think people [at Buccleuch] are behaving.”

Fine. It looks as if the Telfers have been given till April 2019 to quit their house and farmland, but must stop grazing the hill land this October. They wanted to stay on till retirement in 2022. With no family, that would be a natural time to end the tenancy. But no dice. As David said ruefully on the phone; “The Duke did apologise for how it was all handled. He was apologetic but not giving an inch. The Scottish Government say trees and farmers can live together – but that’s basically waffle.”

The Telfer’s problem is undoubtedly the tip of a rural iceberg and it certainly isn’t solved but the problem will soon disappear from public view. Despite the drama of the meeting with the Duke of Buccleuch in Langholm, and coverage in the National, Times and Scotsman – only Borders TV bothered to turn up last week. So do the bulk of Scots watching BBC and STV news even know about these problems? No they do not.

Meanwhile another week brings another story of unhappy tenants – this time on the Balavil Estate near Kingussie bought in 2015 by the Dutch wine millionaire Eric Heerema and his wife Hannah, who is grand-daughter of the late Scottish singing star Calum Kennedy. They bought with vacant possession in 2015, which means most house leases and one limited-farming-partnership had already been dissolved by the previous owner to make the estate easier to sell.

Since then tenants who’ve lived on Balavil for decades have been living on borrowed time, without any rights simply waiting for the axe to fall. Of course, there was an outside chance the new owners would let folk stay. The new restoration manager promised; “We want local communities to benefit from the restoration and future of the estate.” But the Heerema’s are currently removing the last tenants from their estate – Kath Waters, her husband and their two grown children. Kath works in the kitchen at Kingussie High School, her husband and daughter work in Inverness and their son is in his last year at school.

The Waters have paid their rent promptly for 15 years and put in a new kitchen, shower and wood-burning stove after repeated failed requests for renovation over the years by the estate.

The new owners can argue they have actually been generous – extending Kath’s removal date because the council cannot find anywhere suitable locally and most private lets are now holiday lets. Kath herself is resigned to moving, but the unfairness of it all angers her. “I didn’t think we should be thrown out. We pay rent. We’ve done nothing wrong,” she says.

That’s true. The new landlords haven’t done anything wrong. Nor has the previous landowner.

Yet families have been forced out, mostly against their will at a time of chronic housing shortage and had to watch their homes lie vacant ever since. Is that just? According to local Green councillor Pippa Hadley; “The estate laid out their vision to make Balavil “one of the best examples of a sustainable, modern Highland Estate” in 2016, a year after obtaining the estate.

Since then, I have watched with ever increasing dismay as a steady succession of tenants lose their homes, in many cases after decades of living/working in the area or on the estate. The sight of the tenant farmer arranging a lifetime’s accumulation of farm equipment on the lawns of the house like a huge garage sale beside the A9 will stay with me – he raised his sons on the estate farm for over twenty years – but his is just one sad tale of many. I despair to think this is an acceptable version of a sustainable, modern Highland estate.”

A spokesperson for Balavil Estate said: “When the estate was bought, with vacant possession, in 2015 many of the houses on the estate were in a very poor state of repair. They need to be vacated to be renovated and brought back to an appropriate standard.

They added: “As part of the plans to restore Balavil, these properties are required to allow the recruitment of workers for the estate, for whom there is currently no accommodation.”

And you know, they’re probably right. When landed estates change hands, the old tenants are just so much flotsam and jetsam.

They have no legal rights so they have to move on. It has been the Scottish way for centuries. But is it right?

Are these a series of little local difficulties and “misunderstandings”? Or is the balance of power between tenants, tenant farmers in limited partnership and landowners hopelessly skewed in favour of landowners? Is it possible to solve the problems of rural homelessness without compulsory purchase of land? And would the task be made easier if large estates were not holding most of the cards?

Fergus Ewing is Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy. Methinks some bold ideas about how to resolve these energy-sapping problems are long overdue.