Lesley Riddoch: Scotland’s modern-day clearances under way

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Duke of Buccleuch may be legally within his rights but sale plans to clear land for forestry are morally flawed, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Is Scotland’s biggest landowner victimising the tenant farmer who accused him of clearing people to make way for trees?

The Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland's largest landowner, is selling off land which is home to tenant farming couple. Picture: Ian Rutherford/Shutterstock

The Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland's largest landowner, is selling off land which is home to tenant farming couple. Picture: Ian Rutherford/Shutterstock

Last week, the Duke of Buccleuch put a portfolio of land on the market called Evertown, which includes farms, productive farmland, commercial forestry and planting opportunities near Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway. The 9,000 acres is composed of 18 lots on sale for £19.5 million – most hill ground is priced at three times its agricultural value and advertised as “suitable for forestry planting”.

READ MORE: Video: Who are Scotland’s biggest landowners?

It includes Alison and David Telfer’s tenanted farm near the Dumfriesshire village of Langholm, despite earlier promises that the duke would reflect on local anger about removing tenants to secure lucrative forestry planting grants.

Local MSP Joan McAlpine has been working behind the scenes on this case and says: “The duke and his factors are unflinchingly cruel in the case of the Telfers. He could easily allow them to see out their working lives at the farm – instead he has split their farm into two lots for sale, removing part of it imminently. The Telfers believe they are being victimised by a powerful and vindictive organisation, and I am inclined to agree.”

• READ MORE: Duke of Buccleuch to sell off thousands of acres of land in Borders

The higher ground of the Telfer’s farm, Cleuchfoot, is being sold for planting under the locally unfamiliar name of “Tansy Hill” combined with a small block of forestry five miles distant. The farmhouse and lower ground are up for sale in a separate lot, though the Telfers have been allowed to stay till next November.

Ms McAlpine said: “Alison and David say breaking up the farm disguises the fact it’s their ground being cleared and sold for tree planting. Cleuchfoot is synonymous with their fight, Tansy Hill means nothing. They think this is deliberate and misleading.”

The Telfers say the Buccleuch estate intends to value their sheep for sale on 10 October and will remove the animals soon after. It’s unclear whether Forestry Scotland has approved tree planting. Government ministers have said forestry grants shouldn’t be misused and the duke may know he will be refused permission for mass planting on tenanted farms because of the public outcry when news of terminated leases broke earlier this year.

Joan McAlpine said: “Potential purchasers need to be made aware of the situation. The duke could easily allow Alison and David to retire in five years and then sell the land, as promised. It would not hurt His Grace at all. But being forced out is definitely hurting Alison and David.”

Of course, the Buccleuch Estate contests this account.

A spokesman refuted the suggestion that the Telfers are being “cleared off their land” as “a complete distortion of the facts” and described Ms McAlpine’s comments as “ inaccurate and inflammatory.” The estate maintains this is not an eviction, but simply the ending of a lease. They say the Telfers have always known of the estate’s long-term plans and the idea they’re being removed for tree planting is “utterly wrong.” They say the Telfers have been given extensions beyond their removal date and the chance to buy the farmhouse and surrounding ground.

But how would two people on a frugal income, approaching retirement with no assets find an asking price of £600k? Furthermore, the Telfers have been farming at Cleuchfoot for almost 20 years on a succession of insecure tenancy agreements. Why have these been the only option available? And if the estate has no plan to plant trees, why the urgent need to remove them?

Of course Scotland’s Tenant Farming Commissioner, Bob McIntosh, did investigate earlier complaints of bullying and found the duke’s estate acted in compliance with the law.

Buccleuch have said the current land sale will honour existing leasing agreements and tenant farmers with secure, long-term tenancies have the chance to buy their farms. It’s believed none have been completed yet though – in part because of restrictive sale conditions.

Scottish Land Commission chair Andrew Thin says; “We will review the actions Buccleuch now takes with care, and stand ready to offer advice where required.” But he welcomes the move to diversify land ownership. So do farming organisations. So do I.

I’d welcome it a lot more if local farmers were guaranteed a fair chance of becoming future owners. But the question remains.

Is it morally acceptable for landowners to get Forestry Commission Scotland grants for planting trees on land where tenant farmers have been cleared and evicted? If not, then the law must change and removals must stop.

The practice of shipping people off the land for fracking, tree-planting and wind farms is no more acceptable today than evicting tens of thousands for sheep farming and deer hunting in the Highlands or agricultural and industrial uses in the Lowlands. As Tom Devine’s new book The Scottish Clearances makes graphically clear, eviction and removal of insecure tenants by the landed classes has been a Scotland-wide way of life for centuries. Recent removals of tenant farmers Andrew Stoddart from Haddington and the Paterson family from Arran show that grim way of life continues. It shames Scotland.

So who will protect the Telfers?

Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) say: “The current forestry grant scheme guidance states applicants must have control of the land and a legal right to plant trees. We want to be confident that where control has recently changed, or land has come out of farming, any actions taken to end a tenancy or farming partnership by the previous or new owner have been entirely legal.”

But these moves are always entirely legal. The question is – are they moral and is the law an ass?

FCS may be shamed into declining grant applications from new and existing owners of contested, cleared land. But that won’t help the Telfers, the campaign to reforest Scotland, the empowerment of local people on quasi-feudal sporting estates or public faith in our land laws

No new land reform bill is planned for this parliament. Yet we desperately need a way to protect all tenant farmers and diversify large landholdings. Progress is painfully slow and public support for a land tax system is growing.

None of this will be formally discussed at the SNP conference. But where does rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing stand?

I’m sure the land reform supporting public and the Telfers would love to know.