Andrew Arbuckle: Revisiting the bloodless revolution in land ownership

The newspaper headline said it all: “Tenant Farmers Get The Right To Buy Their Farms.” I read further to find out that it had been a tight vote in the Scottish Parliament, with the debate interrupted several times by objections from the public gallery.

Another paper said MSPs had had to run a gauntlet to get into the building with two competing demonstrations; one for and one against, being held outside the Holyrood building.

So when had this issue come on to the political agenda? I knew it had occasionally hit the headlines at the beginning of the 21st century when one or two members of the then newly established Parliament had flexed their political wings during the reform of agricultural holdings legislation.

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But then as the years passed all went quiet and only an occasional head popped up, spoke out and then disappeared. All seemed quiet.

However, that was a deceptive peace, as there was still widespread anger in the countryside over what some radicals called the retention of a feudal system no longer fit for the modern day.

There also seems to have been an injudicious landlord or two, along with a zealous land agent set on establishing a name for himself, whose treatment of tenants seemed to fan the flames.

There was also a government that needed an issue to demonstrate its power and authority without alienating too many people – anyone counting the number of landlords with tenants did not need a degree in arithmetic.

Soon the fiery torch was being carried across the land, but it was far from being a one-sided battle. Those with land – more correctly, those likely to lose land they had owned for centuries – were not going to give up easily. Top lawyers were employed and soon there were all sorts of apocalyptic warnings.

Hardly a day passed without another article from someone who was going to leave Scotland if the legislation went through. Recourse was made to Europe by the landlords, who felt their human rights were being trampled over.

From another angle, one top land agent reckoned there would be “mayhem” in the land market. And then he thought again and worked out there might actually be more land being traded so he sat back quietly.

And it came to pass that the defining Act was passed. So how much changed after that historic date and how many of the pre-change predictions were on the ball?

Initially, there were reports of land valuers and banking advisers being swamped with work as tenants decided to see if they could make a quick buck. They had worked on the old principle that tenanted land would be priced at two-thirds its open market value. However, it was soon clear from reading the clippings that the discount was no longer of that magnitude. In fact, the new law had ensured there was no discount for tenanted land.

So the initial flood of potential property buyers steadied down to a stream – very much in line with the memories of those who could recall the sale of council housing to their tenants late in the 20th century.

And soon agricultural commentators were remarking about the economic resurgence they could see in the countryside, with new investments in buildings, drainage and land. One remarked: “It is a bit like the sale of Panmure Estate.” Another said it was like “going through a former council housing estate and seeing the B&Q doors and dinky little fences around many of the front gardens”.

Panmure, on the so-called “golden mile” between Dundee and Arbroath, had been one of the big tenanted estates until it came on the market in the 1990s when a couple of shrewd cookies bought it and then immediately sold it to the sitting tenants.

Soon the estate grey paint which had marked every farm building was gone and in its place were new buildings, machinery and diversified enterprises.

Elsewhere under the new regime, the big landed estates continued as slightly lesser landed estates, and the dust gathered in the corners of the Land Court. But as one commentator remarked: “It was a revolution but no-one died.”

Most importantly, the siren warnings on the lack of opportunities for young people if the law went through proved wide of the mark, as more and more of the next generation cottoned on to contract farming, share cropping and other methods of getting onto the farming ladder that have been practised for centuries in other countries.

So what had all the fuss been about?