Landownership on Scottish Islands

by Andy Wightman, freelance writer and researcher

Eigg is a small Hebridean island 10 miles off the west coast of Scotland. It's 7,400 acres of heather moorland, wooded glens, fertile fields and spectacular beaches are dominated by the massive basalt ridge of An Sgurr. Geologically fascinating it has a unique environment which supports many rare and threatened species of wildlife and an active and close knit community of 60 people.

In recent years, however, Eigg has become best known for the controversy which has surrounded its ownership. The island is once more on the international property market at offers over £2 million. Its present owner, Marlin Eckhard (otherwise known as Maruma), is a Stuttgart based artist who bought the island in March 1995 from Keith Schellenberg, a flamboyant and controversial character whose 20 year ownership of the island ended in an embittered conflict with islanders. Maruma promised £15 million of investment for the island together with secure tenancy agreements for the many people living in accommodation rented from the landowner. He failed to honour either agreement and lost interest in Eigg. His agents put the island on the market and the islanders, fed up with having their future dependent on the whim of absentee owners, finally agreed to launch a bid to purchase it themselves in partnership with the local government authority and a national conservation group, the Scottish Wildlife Trust. As I write two offers have been received by Maruma but he has turned them both down. Uncertainty remains about the island's future.

The events on Eigg are helping to re-ignite the debate about land tenure and landownership in Scotland. It is an issue which has been in the background of many debates about how land is used and developed but which is now being treated more seriously as an important issue in its own right.

Scottish landownership is characterised by three important features.

  1. Scottish land law is still technically feudal.

  2. The pattern of private landownership is the most concentrated in Europe.

  3. The market in land is unregulated with anyone from anywhere in the world entitled to buy as much land as they wish.

Feudal Scotland

The continuation of a feudal system of land tenure means that in order to make any sense of the pattern of land ownership it is necessary to understand something of the history and development of feudal land tenure in Scotland.

Feudalism is a system of land tenure within which property rights are derived from the Crown. All other landowners are vassals of the Crown but may themselves become feudal superiors by retaining certain rights and imposing certain obligations on those to whom they sell land. Such people, in turn may become superiors through further retention and imposition of rights on other new owners who become their vassals. There is no limit to the number of times this process, known as feuing or subinfeudation may occur.

Whilst feudal tenure is the dominant form of tenure in Scotland, there are exceptions of which the main one is alloidal tenure. Udal tenure is a form of alloidal tenure which still exists in the northern island groups of Orkney and Shetland. Its origins lie with the Vikings who didn't consider themselves to be vassals of anyone and an important distinguishing feature of udal tenure is partible inheritance which allowed hereditary ownership by all children rather than by simply the eldest child (most commonly the son).

The origins of feudalism go deep into Scotland's history but are commonly associated with David I. Unlike the situation in England where feudalism was imposed by conquest, it developed gradually in Scotland. By assuming ultimate ownership of land, Scottish monarchs operated a system of patronage by granting land to lesser nobility in exchange for financial and military obligations.

The system itself was relatively easily fused with existing forms of tenure which, although little is known about them, were based loosely on kinship relationships. Chiefs of such groups, in so far as they had any association with particular pieces of territory, held rights under a reciprocal relationship with their kinship group who, in exchange for providing the chief with military support, could in turn count on the Chief's protection. The transformation of this mutual relationship between Chiefs and their people into a hierarchical relationship between the chief and a higher external authority was the key change necessary to allow feudal authority to be exercised. Land became less of a territorial concept and more of a form of property. Rights became attached to specific parcels of land rather than to specific individuals, authority for holding such rights derived from a higher authority rather than from a kinship group and, finally, these rights became directly heritable through primogeniture, passing upon death to the eldest son. Land in short was now property and traditional leaders were now landowners.

Considerable confusion surrounds the introduction of feudalism into the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and it is often popularly claimed that feudalism was only introduced following the subjugation of the region by the British state following the Jacobite uprising in 1745. This is wrong since feudalism, whilst slower to penetrate this region, was nevertheless present from an early stage. The difference lay in the limited significance which was generally attached to feudal authority by Clan chiefs who generally respected older Celtic traditions and relationships based on kinship relations. Crown authority was quite simply less well developed in parts of the Highlands than it was in the Lowlands.

The demise of the clan system in the 17th and 18th century and the full incorporation of Highland society into the British state was the key to the development of the modern pattern of island ownership. The Highland aristocracy more or less disappeared as an element in Highland landownership and in many areas as much as 70% of land was in new ownership by the last quarter of the 19th century. The new landowners or "lairds" came from the south and were typically wealthy industrialists, politicians, financiers or members of the English aristocracy. They bought large landholdings from the mainly bankrupt Highland aristocracy and began to develop them as sheep farms and hunting estates. The indigenous population was cleared from the land in many areas and for a while eked out an existence on the seashore. Eventually by the end of the 19th century land agitation was widespread and the Crofters Holdings Act was passed in 1886 giving secure heritable tenancy to crofters (small scale part time farmers).

The Pattern of Ownership

The legacy of feudal tenure and rapid social and economic change is a pattern of private ownership which is the most concentrated in Europe. The centralised political and economic power structure of Britain in the 18th and 19th century meant that peasants were powerless to take any action to improve their situation. The Highlands were the playground for the British elite which developed the largest colonial empire the world has ever seen. Indeed the Highlands were themselves a form of internal colony. As Britain industrialised and the rural economy became steadily less significant the pattern of large scale private estates persisted. Today over half the private land in the Highlands & Islands is owned by a mere 100 landowners.

Eigg itself is a good example of the trends. For over 500 years it had been held by the Macdonalds of Clanranald who were originally granted it by King Robert the Bruce. In 1828 the land was sold to a Hugh MacPherson for £15,000. His family sold it to Lawrence Thomson, an arms dealer in 1893. In 1917 the island was sold to the Danish shipping magnate and megalomaniac, Sir William Petersen. After his death in 1925 it was bought by Sir Walter, later Viscount Runciman, for £15,000, exactly the same price that had been paid almost 100 years earlier. His successors sold Eigg in 1966 to Robert Evans for £82,000 who in turn sold it in 1971 for £120,000 to Bernard Farnham-Smith. In 1974 the island was sold to Keith Schellenberg for £250,000 who snatched it from public ownership by outbidding the HIDB. He sold it in 1995 to Maruma for £1,578,410 who in turn has just turned down two bids (one from islanders) because they do not meet his expectations of £2 million.

The Unregulated Market

The current uncertainties over the future of Eigg have been experienced on many other Scottish islands, which have long been seen as attractive parcels of real estate for international property speculators. The effects of such speculation have been to leave many of them in an under-developed state of limbo at the mercy of a small number of landowners whose attitudes and motivation determine local development. Ownership of islands is particularly critical given the fragility of their economy and the need for a well developed infrastructure to facilitate economic activity.

As Professor Bryan MacGregor of Aberdeen University pointed out in a recent seminar on land tenure:

"The impact of the land tenure system goes far beyond land use. It influences the size and distribution of an area's population; the labour skills and the entrepreneurial experiences of the population; access to employment and thus migration; access to housing; access to land to build new houses; the social structure; and the distribution of power and influence. In many areas of rural Scotland, large landowners play a crucial role in local development: they are the rural planners"

Scottish islands face many problems but they also face many opportunities. Neither can be successfully handled if power to control and use land is concentrated in a few hands, are maverick in character, are absentee, and do not share the values of the wider island community. The efforts of the islanders of Eigg are directed towards replacing the existing owner with a legal body which represents their interests. In itself this will do nothing to reform land tenure but it will ensure that the island's future lies with the people of Eigg and not some absentee speculator.

If island communities are to have greater control over the land, further reforms will need to be developed. Scotland's land tenure laws will need to be changed to properly reflect the public interest in private landownership. The pattern of ownership will need to be regulated in order to promote a more pluralistic pattern of small scale ownership together with measures to promote community ownership and other more socially relevant structures.