The Poor Had No Lawyers by Andy Wightman

The Poor had no lawyers by Andy Wightman (Birlinn 2013)


This book makes for compulsive reading.  I had seen / skimmed a number of ‘who owns Scotland’ resources over the past 15 years or so, and readily accepted as a general truth that most of Scotland is owned by a very small number of people, including some families who have been in charge for centuries.  However a reading of this well researched study (Wightman’s life project) provides astonishing detail on just how much Scotland needs further land reform.  The argument, in short, is that Scotland’s noble families acquired (from various sources including seizures of Church land in the 1500s or of common land at other times) and held on to their present holdings  through developing legal processes, such as right of possession, primogeniture and entail which legalised and protected their ownership.   They made the laws in the Scottish parliament of the early 1600s to suit their own interests, and have, by and large, been continuing to do so ever since.  These laws continue to protect and outdated, inefficient and grossly unfair system of landholding which has had distorting effects on Scotland’s development.  It is time, he argues, to take land reform seriously.  At its heart he proposes a land value tax, which would be levied where unearned increases in value had occurred (such as by the house owners on the publicly funded Crossail project in London).  Every Scot with a vote should read this book.  Some of my brief notes are appended below.

Also check out the website:  Who Owns Scotland


From David 1 onwards, there was a gradual replacement of traditional landholding with feudal tenure.  1597, James VI passed final act = all Highland land to be feudal.  ‘By 1900 half the land area of the Highlands was owned by just 15 landowners’ (p64)

 Nobles became protectors of bishoprics and abbeys and later took church land after reformation.  By ‘prescription’ (1617), they were able to assume legal control of land without clear title (some of which had been ‘seized’) by right of possession (‘owned’ in this way for 40 years): recording in register of sassines (1617) and land register made this ‘theft’ legal.   Primogeniture protected estate holdings.  Entailed estates were protected from creditors – protected against forfeiture etc by establishing succession – by early 1800s, over 50% estates were entailed.  Primogeniture and entail led to Scotland having the heaviest concentration of land in a small number of private hands of any country in Western Europe.  Entails were abolished in 2004.  He estimates that at least 25% of estates over 1000 acres have been in the same family for over 400 years; the majority of aristocratic families that owned land in 1872 still do so today – predominantly in the Lowlands, owning 28.1% of the land held in estates of 5000 acres or more.  Institutional and overseas investors own significant amounts of land.  There has been very little change in the ownership of large estates since 1995, but community ownership and conservation bodies have increased in size (p166).  

Commonty land served a number of uses – building materials, fuel, grazings, blossoms, berries, medicaments, dyes… as well sometimes acting as areas of free access for preaching.  Much has disappeared.  Many ‘common good funds’ have been plundered for other purposes – Scotland’s 196 burghs all had such a fund.  He gives the example of Edinburgh’s CG Fund which used to own Waverley Market, which now seems to be let for a penny a year, while the CG Fund made £2million profit at today’s prices in 1904, but in 2009 made a loss of £half a million.

 Land Reform:  He praises the work in this area of the first and second devolved parliaments, but suggests that necessary land reform has slowed down considerably.  The Scottish model we have just now for buyout has many weaknesses – overcentralised, relying on Ministerial consent, complex, requires a limited company to be set up, and only applies in certain rural areas and not urban areas.  Pages 405ff he proposes some significant further changes to the law to allow the land to work for all the people not just the elite owners, who are still very clever at using the law to their advantage.  He also wants Town Councils restored, with their commonties restored and used for ‘public good’.  Other public land (such as that Scottish Natural Heritage, Crown Estate Commissioners etc) should be managed by locally elected regional land boards).

 Tax Avoidance: pp368ff – he lists and comments on a number of these – companies registered overseas, all kinds of dodges to prevent estates/large landowners paying their dues.  He proposes a simple Land Value Tax to capture the gains in land value and reflect that back into the prices paid.  He thinks this is fairer (as often gains in value are caused by public investment elsewhere e.g. value of property on the London Crossrail route was just a windfall for private owners who had to do nothing) and would also stop land price inflation.  Only the Co-operative party had it in their 2010 manifesto. 

Community land ownership – while welcoming some of what has gone on recently, he argues how this could be further encouraged.

Hunting:   Prior to 1811 there were less than 10 estates used only for hunting.  By 1900 there were between 130 and 150 deer forests covering 2.5 million acres.   By 2002, 4.5 million acres devoted to hunting (incl grouse etc).

Farming:  Current farming subsidy rules, which pay the most to those with the most capacity to produce for market, advantages the ‘haves’ even further.  Also subsidies can be traded so the original subsidy holder can do nothing and still get the subsidy – new round not yet known, but present likely to carry into 2020 at least (p246ff explains complexity of this).

Forestry:  67% privately owned of which 91% landed estates or investors, 55% absentee owners and 32% from outwith Scotland.  Scotland’s forestry resources dominated by the State (managed through FC), landed estates and investors, the last two of which invest to shelter capital from tax as forestry is still outwith the tax system, though no longer as much subsidised as in the Terry Wogan days.

Edinburgh schools – Heriots, Watsons, Merchant Company etc own significant land in and around Edinburgh.


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