‘THEY are a plaything – like a yacht or a Riviera villa”. Thus speaks a London lobbyist when asked about the status of Highland properties for his clients, while staying at Blair Atholl for hunting and shooting.
The quote comes from a brilliant set of articles by Cathy Newman in the new National Geographic magazine. The pieces make a very well-informed tour d’horizon of land politics and ownership in modern Scotland. Do they also make your blood boil? Do they make you want to flatten the accelerator of land reform legislation to the floor? Almost entirely.
Andy Wightman MSP’s painstakingly researched statistic should never be forgotten. Only 432 people own half of the private rural land in Scotland, the worst and most unequal proportion in Europe.
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However, it’s worth dwelling a little on the texture of the lifestyles of the super-rich and mega-landed in contemporary Scotland, as they appear in NatGeo. They use their properties as both playground and workground, exercising their rights as landowners.
In my view, what they do is a pale, pathetic shadow of the kind of energy, enterprise and creativity which would be unleashed from the breakup of the major estates.
But let’s visit them anyway. I confess I’ve never done much hanging around with the landed gentry. My music and media career, however, has landed me in a few intriguing places.
The first was a charity gig beside an ancestral castle a few years ago, into which we rockers were invited to “relax” before performance.
The lady of the house spent most of the time promoting the castle to us as a hireable wedding location.
The laird eventually got fed up with us sitting on his couch and urged us to access our green room using a servant’s corridor. “Back passage!” he would erupt, whenever a scrofulous musician appeared in the wrong place (to that musician’s everlasting delight). Meanwhile various tweed-clad sons wandered around aimlessly. It couldn’t have been more of a cliche about an eccentric and distressed Scottish nobility.
The other extreme was my visit to the US architect and theorist Charles Jencks – not a noble, but married to the late Maggie Keswick, whose family home at Portrack, near Dumfries, possesses a 50-acre garden. Jencks has turned it into a “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”, with curving hills and pools inspired by patterns from maths, physics and biology, including fractals, black holes and double helixes.
I came in as a BBC Radio Scotland interviewer, and was given a guided tour – but the garden is only open to the public one day a year, which aims to raise money for Jencks’s Maggie Centres. It’s otherwise a startling folly, conducted on private land, upon which a major postmodern theorist (and his invitees) can delightedly and exclusively gaze.
Buying (or inheriting) a chunk of Scotland seems to allow many plutocrats to express their oh-so-exquisite taste. According to the NatGeo piece, one foreign buyer didn’t think his castle was Scottish enough – so got Ralph Lauren (yes, Ralph Lauren) to swathe the place in tartan, and put laird paintings on the walls.
Another European mogul keeps the staff ready (and the flowers fresh) in case they make a flying visit by helicopter. Another master of the universe has spent half a million sticking those ghastly overhead power lines underground.
It’s not all conspicuous consumption – sometimes it’s conspicuous conservation, or even geo-engineering.
Sweden’s Sigrid Rausing – publisher of Granta, and heiress of the Tetrapak empire – owns the 40,000-acre Coignafearn Estate.
She is pursuing a “rewilding” programme on her lands – fighting off wind farms and roads, cultivating the return of eagles.
Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen already owns 218,364 acres of Scottish land (only a few less than the Duke of Buccleuch). On his most recent acquisition, Glenfechie, Povslen wants to reduce deer populations to encourage lynx to return, maybe even introducing wolves in the future.
Ecology meets capitalism here.
Mr Povlsen’s people think the shooting season on the sporting estate is “old-fashioned”. A spa and chalets in the middle of a rewilded countryside is, they assess, better long-term business.
It seems the world’s 0.1 per cent are desperate to be Monarchs of some Glen or other. As one selling-up ex-landowner from Kingussie says in the NatGeo piece: “The Danish are over here … We have Arabs on this side, Swedish behind. On the other side of the Arabs are Swiss-Italian. Beyond them are the Egyptians.”
The ironies are surely not easy to miss. We base much of our indy case on being distinctly more welcome to the wider world than our Brexit-voting neighbours.
The huddled masses (including skilled workers in key sectors) can come to a depopulating Scotland anytime. “We’re not full up”, says the FM.
Yet by means of our property law and structures, the cosmocrats are already here. Surmounting their promontories with their hands behind their backs, on a weekend off from the furies of merger-and-acquisition.
Significant chunks of our country are like secret lands to us. Or more precisely, they are the Perfect Celtic Retreat for a global superclass.
And no matter their noblesse oblige, eco-fringed or otherwise, they are property sovereigns within a nation supposedly defined by popular sovereignty.
As the redoubtable Lesley Riddoch put it last year:, “I am sick to death of hearing landowners being described as beneficent when whatever decisions they make are whims or personal decisions, yet can affect the livelihood of thousands of people.”
In short, an “open Scotland” will have to manage its openness, if we want the direction of land reform to maintain its momentum.
The most interesting part of the National Geographic piece – not surprisingly, given its title – is the way it brings out the deeper politics of the Scottish moorland.
The Highland (and Lowland) Clearances hang in the background, of course. The vast shadow of forced depopulation always darkens those staple images of our tourist industry’s iconography.
It’s even worse to think about the moors needing to be actively maintained as the shooting playgrounds of their owners.
The original forests of Scotland, which in Neolithic times covered a quarter of the country, have to be kept at bay from the moorland by “selective, periodic burning”. Otherwise the heather isn’t dense enough to house supplies of those ungainly, easily shot-down birds.
“Moors are wild but not wilderness,” says biologist Adam Smith, who is also director of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Roy Dennis, an environmentalist who consults to Sigrid Rausing, agrees: “Moors are as man-made as the olive groves in Italy”.
So Scottish natural heritage is a human-directed affair, even when it seems at its most mythic and mystic.
The “cause that will always be fought” (in the recent, regretful words of the Duke of Buccleuch) is passing into the stage where land becomes available to many more people, at a much more sensible price. We are moving to re-occupy the moors again, with the bustle of families and enterprises.
Yet as we plan and develop this, we should try to retain some feel for the natural bounty and beauty that the artistocrats and plutocrats once bought – indeed are still buying – for their own delight.
The land of Scotland should not be anyone’s “plaything”, as the London lobbyist put it earlier. Yet there should be an “interplay” between a social Scotland that’s “not full yet”, and a natural Scotland which stuns the world by its mighty indifference to the puny concerns of humans.
As much as any multinational CEO, we need resetting and restoring at our weekends (and by the way, three days long would be fine too). Let’s carefully consider how our land can serve our souls, as well as our socio-economics.