Land agents often fail to ‘factor’ in human element

Factors look after many tenant farmers' land. Picture: TSPL
Factors look after many tenant farmers' land. Picture: TSPL
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I had a friend who worked for a while amongst the ranks of a dying breed – a resident factor on a fairly large estate.

He lived on-site, knew all the tenants and had a good knowledge of the land they worked.

But he had a favourite joke which probably summed up the relationship he had with many of these tenants at the time.

Auld Wullie McGregor, a long-standing tenant, turned up one Monday morning at the estate office. Greeting the girl who worked as secretary he said: “Is the factor in, I’d like to speak to him.”

“Oh, dear me,” said the secretary, “Has nobody told you? I’m afraid the factor died at the weekend – sorry to break it to you like this but you obviously won’t be able to speak to him.”

Auld Wullie just nodded curtly, and left the office. The same time the next day, Auld Wullie turned up again: “Is the factor in?”

Believing he’d not understood the previous day, the secretary duly informed him for the second time that the factor was dead, and Wullie left again without a word.

The following day he turned up once more: “Is the factor in?”

Realising that there must be more to this than met the eye, the secretary said: “Look, sorry Mr McGregor, but the factor is dead – I’ve told you that the last three days – is there something about it you don’t understand?”

“Naw lassie,” came the reply, “it just makes my day to hear you say it.”

But while the traditional relationship between factors and tenant farmers was seldom cosy, there was, in truth, usually a grudging degree of respect and understanding on both sides.

And while Auld Wulllie might have been glad to hear of the demise of his, nowadays there are probably few tenants who won’t look back with some nostalgia to the days of the resident factor.

For my friend, like many in his business, was pensioned off several years ago when the estate brought in one of the big land agent companies to do his job – in the belief that it would be more profitable.

While the arrival of such hired guns hasn’t been the only issue behind the collapse in many tenant-landlord relationships in recent years, it has often played a key role.

As tenant farmer myself, you might accuse me of bias here – but I’m certainly not alone in believing that, while the vast majority of land agents are decent, upstanding citizens who behave in an ethical and moral manner, there seems to be a few hard-core individuals who are willing to flout the normal conventions of acceptable behaviour in their dealings with tenant farmers.

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And last week, the independent adviser on tenant farming to the Scottish Government, Andrew Thin, made it plain that the Scottish Parliament held a similar view, in a blog written for the landowners’ organisation, Scottish Land & Estates.

In it he appealed to landowners – who give land agents most of their work – to take the sort of responsible attitude which would weed out the loose cannons, advising them to think carefully about who they employed.

He said it was crucial that landowners ensured that the organisations and individuals which they employed had not only the technical skills but also the emotional intelligence to do the job.

In the article, Thin pointed out that while the vast majority of land agents operated correctly and with sensitivity, they were being dragged down by “unwise and insensitive” individuals whose actions could force new and expensive regulations onto the industry.

“Moreover the same names come up again and again, and some are experienced individuals who ought to know better,” said Thin.

Stressing that the problem lay not with the profession as whole but the way it was managed, he said that the current professional codes of practice were “markedly bereft” of systematic management procedures designed to ensure that these standards were always met.

With the Scottish Parliament having called for a report into the workings of this sector - which effectively gives the profession 12 months to put its house in order – tightening the rules and ensuring these individuals are held to task will be key factor in returning confidence to the tenanted sector.