Beneath our feet, beneath notice: Never have Scots had so much to say about their governance, yet so little is said about ownership of the land

Scotland has the most inequitable system of land ownership in Europe, leaving vast fiefdoms in the hands of unaccountable private owners and faceless front organisations. Millions of acres lie idle, empty and often inaccessible.

There is, I should hastily add, no news in any of this. Similar statements could have been made with the same degree of accuracy at any point in the past century and more. It is a long time since Scotland was carved up and shared out.

A welcome new book by Andy Wightman, The Poor Had No Lawyers, makes a brave effort to remind Scotland of its unwelcome distinction and to put forward an agenda for change. It is timely indeed, because any observer of Scottish politics today would be entitled to ask: "Whatever happened to the Scottish land question?"

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Far from delivering radical solutions to the most fundamental imbalance in Scottish society, the Scottish Parliament and Government show minimal interest in the subject. A programme for ongoing land reform which was set before devolution has been quietly shelved, presumably through lack of interest.

A consultation on the future of rural policy in Scotland currently being conducted by the Scottish Government fails to mention the issue of land ownership. Such beacons of hope as crofting tenure and community ownership are ignored as options to be pursued. The status quo, as far as ownership structures are concerned, appears to be the assumed framework for Scotland's future.

Does any of this matter? Andy Wightman asks the same question and comes up with an unambiguous answer. Of course it does - as much now as in the past. "If everyone was living happily, there would be no land problem. But they are not. Young people can't afford houses, tenant farmers are being harassed, communities are losing common land and Scotland is still a country where a tiny few hold sway over vast swathes …"

As in every society in the world, the ownership of land has been the hand maiden of power. Communities learned servility under it. Tenants thought it best to keep their mouths shut, lest house and job should be seized away from them. From the House of Lords downwards, vested interests ruthlessly defended and strengthened the fortifications of a system that served them uniquely well.

Radicals have long raged against the curse of landlordism and its basis in theft.One hundred years ago, Tom Johnston wrote Our Scots Noble Families, which laid waste to the threadbare claims upon which ownership of the great estates was often based. Yet political action has rarely matched the rhetoric because land was soon placed in the box marked "too difficult".

It was not always so. The extremities of human misery created by clearance and oppression led government to intervene dramatically in the 1880s to pass the crofting acts which gave that precious gift - security of tenure - to smallholders within limited areas of the Highlands and Islands. It is for that reason and that reason alone that many of these places still hold significant numbers of population today.

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This is something that Scotland could be proudly exporting to the developing world - a system of tenure that is not based on money values and retains rural populations by giving people crucial access to the means of subsistence on a communal basis. Wonderful! Yet the whole thrust of legislation from Holyrood is to replace this uniquely Scottish form of tenure with individual ownership and to allow money to rule the market, just like any other.

The crofting acts represented a dramatic challenge to the rights of property since they not only constrained landlords but also the value of the land to which they laid claim. It could be done then but not, it seems, now. There were later acts which nibbled at the edges but never again was there such a fundamental intervention by the British state in the rights and powers of landlordism in Scotland.

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Occasionally, there was a false dawn. When the Highlands and Islands Development Board was established by Harold Wilson's government, it was widely believed that it was being given sweeping new powers to acquire land in the public interest. But the hands of the Edinburgh civil service had been at work and, when the small print was finally deciphered, no new powers of acquisition existed.

No such expectations were raised, far less fulfilled, in the remainder of Scotland. The vast estates of the Buccleuchs, the Seafields and the Atholls were untouchable and that is how it remains today. The hand history dealt them, however crookedly or capriciously, now seems immune from being called into political question. Is that what devolution was supposed to deliver?

There used to be an occasional outbreak of media excitement when a large estate changed hands. If an English or foreign purchaser was involved, then political noises could be made by those who preferred to avoid the abiding truth; that the main characteristic of Scottish landlordism is not how much it has changed, but how much continuity there has been. Estates are still being bought and sold, but now virtually without comment.

The current question which has to be answered is whether, in the opinion of Scotland's politicians, the Scottish land question still exists - for at present there is very little sign of it.Certainly, I have failed to hear the Scottish land question asked at any of the recent party conferences. That wasn't always so, either.

The 1970s was a significant period for encouraging belief that change was possible. My own contribution was via the West Highland Free Press and subsequently the Labour Party. The epic work by John McEwen of Blairgowrie, then in his 90s, on estate mapping produced the seminal Who Owns Scotland? John McGrath's 7:84 Theatre Company took to the road with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. And James Hunter produced his hugely revisionist Making of the Crofting Community. Where is such activity today?

Crucially, the question never stopped being asked during the two bleak decades that followed. Work was done to ensure that it remained high on the priorities of the incoming Labour government in 1997. And, to a limited extent, we delivered. The Land Reform Working Group under the chairmanship of John Sewel created an agenda for both the short and the longer term. At that time, the Scottish Law Commission was working to a ten-year timescale for the abolition of feudalism. We brought that to the top of the queue. We created the Scottish Land Fund. We drafted legislation to establish the community right to buy principle, initially for crofting areas, and also enshrined in law rights of access.

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All of this was then handed over to the incoming devolved government and gave them land reform on a plate. Even then, an intensive rearguard action was required to prevent the civil servants from writing the crofting community right to buy - by far the most radical part of the package - out of the land reform act, and they got their own back by making it so complex as to be virtually useless.

But what has happened since? As Andy Wightman generously acknowledges, that was a golden period for Scottish land reform. But it was a short one. And its architects certainly never intended the matter to end there. What about tenant farmers? What about the Crown Estates? What about limits on the size of landholdings? What about the non-crofting community right to buy?

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The list is long but every bit of it is needed if Scotland is ever going to cast off the stigma of having one of the world's most reactionary land ownership structures. But do any current Scottish politicians actually care?

Or is the reality that, when it comes to the fundamentals, Scotland may have more politicians that at any time in its history - but also less politics.