You can tell the civilisation of a country by how well it protects its land, and the cleanliness of its public toilets.
In between tending my own wee plot, currently a construction site and a temporary toilet, building a house in fits and starts and attracting a face scar for my effort by walking smack-bang into a wooden beam artfully lodged at bloody nose height – oh, the humanity! – I’m boning up on the SNP’s Land Reform Bill.
The Bill is presented as a means to stop exploitation of the land, and its secret ownership. Though we like to explore it by car, backpack, or hill climbing boots, it is owned by earls, landed gentry, lairds, celebrities, all for their personal benefit. They use it to shoot things. In fact, when out on walking holidays, more than taking safety equipment with you, if keen on survival in any situation you are best not to look like food.
Anybody in ignorance of the Land Reform Bill’s existence will have noticed various toffs who own vast tracts of Scotland complaining bitterly how we dare question their heritage. (How you become a ‘toff’ is for another essay.) One land owner in particular claims Scotland is undergoing a “Mugabe-style land grab”.
Let us lay aside historical fact, that much of the land in current ownership was originally a land grab from commoners, from clan chiefs, and from the church, and swathes of it changed hands a few times over the decades in a single game of cards.
The process was the same as in many a poor country today. To grab a parcel of Scotland’s earth you paid a lawyer to draft a document purporting you and you alone own the land. By that ruse you ensured the poor who had tilled it for generations had no ‘legal’ piece of paper of their own to counter your claim, too poor to pay a lawyer to draw up a deed. In the land grabber’s case bribe is the operative word. The lawyer you bribed to overlook the theft of the land you stole, then passed a ‘consultation’ fee on your behalf to a flaky politician who drafted legislation protecting your deed in law and others like it, effectively enshrining the lie that the land was yours since Noah’s flood abated, the poor merely tenants on it.
The Mugabe insult came from the halitosis breath of Lord Astor, David Cameron’s father-in-law, who owns a chunk of the estate of Tarbet registered as company in the tax-free harbour of the Bahamas. Temptation to add the acerbic aside ‘English patriot’ is avoided. The patriotic Connery lives there too with his money and minders.
To some Unionist politicians, narked by Scotland’s ambitions, progress is all very well and fine, only it has gone on too long. The Reform Bill must be killed.
The reason why so many of us live on top of each other in Victorian or red brick tenements of various designs and quality in the southwest of Scotland is precisely because the likes of Astor, and 431 others, own most of Scotland. They do not pay taxes for the privilege.
There’s no need to take a trip around the Highlands to discover how bereft of life is our land that once held villages and towns. You need only look at the Duke of Buccleuch’s acreages, or Lord Hamilton’s estate a few miles outside Glasgow to see why over 3 million of us are squashed up together. (Is that what Tory and Labour meant when they said ‘Better together’?)
An Alpbach valley
If not devoted to sun, sea and sand visit Austria. Take a leisurely climb in an Alpbach valley among mountainside wild flowers and milk herds. There you will find three hundred year-old houses still in use, still inhabited, ham shanks hanging from rafters, smoke cured. Small holding farms sit as far as 2,000 feet on the slopes. We have lost all of that.
Take a similar stroll anywhere in the Highlands of Scotland, (aber nicht so gross wie der österreichischen Berge) and you will see areas of glens terraced, silent except for the cry of curlew, a rickle of a fallen cottage or two where once children played and families lived, and herds brought in from the winter, all wiped out in the infamous Highland Clearances.
What struck me, (besides that solid wooden beam) is the tameness of the Reform Bill.
The main elements of the Bill are: (a) Local people get consultation rights over land use, but no guarantee of blocking anything they dislike, however, (b) it boosts the opportunity of communities to buy land. (c) It reduces tenant farmers fear of summary eviction. (d) It implements taxes for land ownership and profits from forest investment, a steal gifted by grammar school boy John Major, an example of England’s class system at work, the humble thanking the elite. (e) And it aims to seek out who owns what, how many acres, and where the money goes. It is a start.
A land commission
The main innovation is the institution of a Land Commission – hopefully with real teeth. There are other proposals, such as reducing the concentration of commercial deer herds in specific areas. However, unlike Lord Astor, I failed to find any reference to non-Scots dragged out of their homes by the hair, beaten up, their houses set on fire, they and their chattel driven from Scotland, the fate that befell our forefathers during the Clearances.
Of course, as soon as you get into any sort of debate with the right-wing about land reform they immediately launch into a witless description of Scotland as nothing but miles and miles of useless bog, scree slopes, treeless expanse, and perma-snow covered mountain. I heard Annabelle Goldie trot out that very dirge only days ago in a radio politics programme. After arguing the Highlands are only good for deer, sheep and grouse, (pheasant and rabbit prefer the Lowlands) their cue to demean Scotland’s best fertile land is any sentence which includes the words heritage and community.
To a blue Tory and a red Tory, the Highlands are worthless territory from the point their mobile phone fails to pick up a signal.
The alert among readers will recognise a defence of greed and power exactly that offered as reason for Scotland remaining under England’s patronage and rule – we are too poor and inexpert to look after our own country; an opinion little changed from the days we were called savages.
At the moment the SNP is riding high at Holyrood and in strength at Westminster. The thought that we should play safe at this time in our history is hard to stomach. Let our Parliament’s work for our heritage be bold, radical. Let it inspire the electorate, fire their enthusiasm ; better courageous and forceful than cautious and timid. By confident self-esteem we give ourselves room to compromise if practicalities demand it, but if we begin small we give ourselves an uphill battle to make progress.
Two things are missing in the Reform bill. One are plans to re-establish villages with viable industries incorporated to keep them flourishing. No amount of negative wails of soggy boggy ground should deter ambition. We have the technology to overcome almost all obstacles. If the Israelis can create vast vegetable farms out of rocks and dry sand we can re-establish communities with specific agricultural economies. After all, until the 19th century most of us lived north of Perth, only a small percentage lived in the city. We were an agrarian society.
Americans have specialised towns making one-of-kind machinery, or furniture, or food. You can not get more specialised than ‘Buellton – Home of Split Pea Soup’ – (the billboard makes me laugh too.) Give it a visit just off interstate 5. One-industry towns set in far-flung places create jobs and attract tourists, and produce exports.
We need economic growth! We can stimulate employment.
On the subject of employment, I am enormously impressed by the national parks of America, founded, it has to be reminded, by a Scotsman, John Muir. (How often do we have to leave our own country to invent abroad because we do not have the political structures here to serve us?) Among many, Yosemite, a huge volcano crater, and the giant slash in the earth that is the Grand Canyon, are the most famous. Those two alone are responsible for generating infinite income from tourism and countless television documentaries.
I have never visited Yosemite but I have visited the Grand Canyon, and the giant redwood forests north of San Francisco. It comes as a surprise to be reminded feudal Scotland has only two national parks, the Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.
The Welsh, derided as Englishmen with a leek in their buttonhole, have designated almost a quarter of their land as protected places of natural beauty. Snowdon, (meaning snow hill) their biggest mountain, was bought by the people of Wales and a $1 million donation from actor Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Only two national parks in Scotland. How did we allow that to happen? Why does the Land Reform Bill not include the proposal for areas designated as national parks the province of the people? We could protect indigenous flora and fauna simultaneously.
What we have now are massive estates owned by the few, policed by a gamekeeper with a large dog and a shotgun pointing at you, him shouting, “Ge’ aff the chook’s grund!”
(For a detailed history of Scotland’s land ownership read the informative ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’ by Andy Wightman.)