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November 17, 2020

Fit and proper test

Slowly, many would argue too slowly, we are starting to confront some of the more uncomfortable aspects of Scotland’s history – the legacy of which is still being felt around the world. Interesting piece of research just published by Community Land Scotland into the links between the vast wealth generated by involvement in slavery and patterns of land ownership in parts of the Highlands and Islands. As former MP Brian Wilson points out, in some respects, nothing has changed. Wealth is still the only criteria required to qualify as a fit and proper person to own large tracts of the country.

Brian Wilson, The Scotsman

Community Land Scotland published an interesting report this week on links between the slave trade and land ownership in the Highlands and Islands.

Land in the North and West Highlands and Islands worth more than £100m at today’s values was bought with wealth derived from slavery, new research has found.

Unsurprisingly, both our indigenous gentry and their successors were up to their eyes in it.

Calum MacLeod, Community Land Scotland’s policy director, said the report reminded us how “slavery-derived wealth helped sustain and shape the pattern of monopoly private land ownership… that persists to this day”. The words “persists to this day” should concern us.

Estate boundaries were defined centuries ago. Often, the convenience of those acquiring them was in minimising the human presence. Great wildernesses were created. And in due course, these private kingdoms were handed down or sold on.

Essentially, nothing has changed. When estates change hands, the only criterion for acquisition is wealth. Nobody asks purchasers what they are going to do with them or where the money came from. At no point is there any test of public interest or need.

Two decades ago, some progress was made in redressing history, mainly in the Western Isles. Hence the existence of Community Land Scotland. But by and large, the land lottery continues. Perhaps in 200 years, someone will write a report on it.

Pressures on rural housing are being exacerbated by the pandemic with demand for scenic bolt-holes inflating prices further beyond local reach. The future of fragile peripheral communities is at stake and land ownership is crucial to outcomes.

If the will existed in Edinburgh, radical political intervention could ensure that public policy trumps the power of money. I fear that is far beyond the vision of those who talk a lot about Scotland but ignore its most basic asset.