Land reform in Scotland: Community buy-out of Buccleuch land was a triumph for both sides – Benny Higgins

In the seemingly eternal debate in Scotland about the ownership and use of land, moments of mutual celebration are few and far between.

The Langholm Initiative has bought more than 10,000 acres of land near Langholm (Picture: Simon Thorp)
The Langholm Initiative has bought more than 10,000 acres of land near Langholm (Picture: Simon Thorp)

All too often rhetoric resorts to ‘them and us’, perceived rights and wrongs, downtrodden communities and overbearing landowners.

For many, it is a convenient characterisation that helps fuel discontent and a clamour for even more legislation and regulation.

However, we can all now savour a moment that hopefully can bring some light, rather than the prevalent heat, to the debate.

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The Langholm Initiative’s achievement in completing the acquisition of more than 10,000 acres of land in total near Langholm, doubling the size of its Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, is truly remarkable and an emphatic community buy-out success.

The land was acquired from Buccleuch, a business forged in rural land use such as forestry and farming but which is now also heavily involved in renewable energy, hospitality and commercial property.

From the landowner’s point of view, the community buy-out was an outcome to be welcomed in that it helped us at Buccleuch continue to reduce the overall footprint of the land we work on while securing what we confidently believe can be a viable future for this particular piece of land.

Most importantly of all, this was a triumph for common sense and cause, and a clear demonstration of what can be achieved when people decide to work together constructively.

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This transfer of land in the south of Scotland was not the consequence of some ideological battle over land ownership but the product of a process that began three years ago when Buccleuch explored the possibility of selling Langholm Moor as part of its business strategy to reduce its footprint and invest in other projects.

We did not know then what would happen or who (if anyone) would be interested. We undertook an extensive public consultation exercise in line with protocols expected by government and its agencies and this led us to numerous meetings with community groups to listen to their interests and ambitions. That extensive consultation paved the way for two community buy-outs from Newcastleton and Langholm – both at land values which all agreed on.

Both community bodies not only knew that they wanted to acquire the land but also what they wanted to do with it – a factor that was crucial in them attracting a wide range of funding.

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We hear all the time about ‘learning lessons’ and that could well apply to the land ownership issue in Scotland. For too long, the discussion has been rooted in the past and the only possible solutions being adversarial. If we are to learn anything from the sale of land around Langholm Moor, it is that it does not have to be that way.

Use of legislation was not required. When an issue arose, it was discussed and a way through found. Everyone respected one another’s view and position.

It may be too much to expect that our shared experience could become a blueprint for future transfers of land. However, dismantling some of the barricades that appear around land debates is not a bad starting point. If we will not always agree, then at least the constructive conversations may yield more moments of celebration.

Benny Higgins is executive chairman of Buccleuch

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