Whose Land Is It Anyway?

Radical Land Reform in Gaelic Scotland


It was in my last year of primary school that I realised I was a socialist and a radical. We were learning about the Highland Clearances – Fuadach nan Gàidheal, the Expulsion of the Gaels – which saw tens of thousands of people forcibly transported overseas or evicted to the overcrowded, rocky coast in the name of economic progress. And then the bombshell: the estate owners, the landed classes who had tried to empty half of Scotland, were still here, hunting, fishing, and landlording it over the natives in the 21st century. But not for much longer. It was 2005, and the island I grew up on – Eriskay – was bought, alongside neighbouring South Uist and Benbecula, for £4.5 million, not by another syndicate of deerstalking families, but by people of the islands themselves, to be held under community ownership.

It was the culmination of over a century of struggle, of which most of Britain – reared on tourist-friendly tales of the wild ‘heilans’ – is completely unaware. After the Clearances of the 19th century, crofters in the Highlands and Islands, inspired by the Land League in Ireland, began to campaign for rights of tenure. The Highland Land League had as its slogan “Is treasa tuath na tighearna” (The people are mightier than a lord), and with its newspaper An Gàidheal (The Highlander), inspired and organised radical action such as rent strikes and land raids. In 1882, after having been denied access to what they saw as their rightful common grazing land on Ben Lee, the crofters of the township of Braes on Skye, with their wives and children, fought the police who had been dispatched to extract rent from them. The ‘Battle of the Braes’, as the newspapers dubbed it, inspired similar acts of resistance in Skye and Lewis. In response, in 1883, the Napier Commission took evidence from crofters all over Gaeldom of landlords’ abuses during the Clearances and after, and public opinion began to turn in favour of the crofters. In 1885, the Highland Land League returned four MPs,  Britain’s first ever working-class MPs, and the ruling Liberal government was moved to pass the Crofter’s Act of 1886, which guarantees security of tenure and inheritance to crofters.

Yet, though this legislation succeeded in its aim of preventing a repeat of the Clearances, the inequitable pattern of land occupation prevailed. Thus, land raids continued apace until 1914, and peaked after the First World War, when soldiers returning home from the Front discovered that Lloyd George’s manifesto promise to forcibly buy land back from the landlords was illusory. Gaelic Scotland suffered some of the highest casualty rates in the British Empire, and understandable bitterness drove direct action like the Vatersay Land Raids of 1906. However, despite landlords being forced by default to give land up to the raiders, these direct actions did not solve the problem of concentrated land ownership. Land reform stalled until the 1970s, when the agitprop theatre company ‘7/84’ and the radical (now the UK’s first wholly employee-owned) newspaper the West Highland Free Press inspired the people and politicians to finally tackle the issue that 84% of Scotland was controlled by just 7% of the population. Finally, after the people of Eigg bought their island from an absentee landlord, the Scottish Government in 2003 legislated for a right to buy, so that any community that so desired could buy their own land back, even against the wishes of the landlord, making radical land reform a right in law.

This short history I’ve provided of land reform in the Highlands and Islands disguises a long and complex story, of which the historian James Hunter provides a much fuller account in his polemical histories The Making of the Crofting Community and The Last of the Free. Both scholar and activist, his primary thesis is that the economic, cultural and demographic decline of Gaeldom was a consequence of the wresting of political power southward, and that recent improvements are down to the political re-empowerment of the region, central to which is land reform. The ideology behind this land reform stems from the idea that Highland conceptions of landownership differed from those of Lowland Scotland. Dùthchas, or belonging to the land – working it and occupying it – was what defined ownership, not bits of paper. The rise of legalistic and financial thinking among landed classes in the Highlands is traced by the activist Andy Wightman in his book The Poor had no Lawyers, a primer for radical land reform in Scotland. He says:

The land on which many of our lairds sit was stolen in the 17th century, but these ill-gotten gains were protected by acts which maintained their hegemony after the rest of Europe ditched feudalism and concentrated land ownership.[1]

But the quest for a fair pattern of landownership has not been easy. 432 private owners control half the land in Scotland, a quarter of the country is still sporting estate and, as Figure 1 shows, much of the Highlands remain in the hands of the 50 largest estates. The community of the 26,800 hectare Pairc estate on Lewis, whose starving ancestors took part in the infamous Deer Park Raid of 1887, fought in the courts for over ten years, and only now in 2013 were able to come to a deal to purchase the land from an obstructive landlord. Landlords have begun to speak out, defending themselves. In BBC Scotland’s The Men Who Own Scotland, broadcast in January 2014, James MacKenzie, defended the fact he owns 53,000 acres across Scotland by quipping “it may not be fair but is it fair that your wife is prettier than mine, that you win the lottery when I don’t?”[2] This kind of fatalism, which presumes landownership patterns arising unjustly in the past should just persist for the sake of preserving the sanctity of private ownership, has retarded progress for decades. But the Scottish National Party (SNP), led by environment minister Paul Wheelhouse, after years of avoiding what in Gaelic is termed Ceist an Fhearainn – the Question of Land – have decided to face up to what James Hunter calls “the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world,”[3] by, for example, giving tenant farmers the undisputable right to buy the land they work from even unwilling owners. And Lesley Riddoch, an influential nationalist journalist and thinker, in her book Blossom, has named these land reforms as a major priority for social justice in an independent Scotland.


Figure 1

Figure 1

Yet community ownership has not turned out perfectly. In its early years, the elected board of Stòras Uibhist, South Uist’s community estate, was riven by scandal and power-plays. Other communities have struggled to find the required funds to purchase land. And there are questions to be asked of whether lottery money is best spent benefiting a few hundred islanders rather than thousands of deprived people in urban areas. However, economic and infrastructural improvements have been fast in coming. South Uist has seen substantial developments in harbours in Loch Boisdale and Eriskay. On Eigg, only after the buyout did the islanders have access to regular electricity, through the building of a community windfarm.

The theologian Alastair MacIntosh, native of Lewis and prominent land reform activist, recounted the story of this aggressive Eigg buyout in his book Soil and Soil: People versus Corporate Power. Through his writing, MacIntosh has championed a postcolonial approach to Gaelic history and politics, linking Highland land reform to indigenous rights movements the world over. This thinking made its way into policy in proposals for a Crofters’ Assembly in 2008, modelled on the Saami Parliament, and inspired by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

The Scottish Crofting Foundation calls on government to: recognise crofters as indigenous people of the Highlands and Islands; respect the growing body of international law on indigenous peoples; and devolve power and decision-making on indigenous issues to the people who maintain the indigenous cultures of the Highlands and Islands.[4]

Michael Newton, a Celtic scholar, uses the land reform issue to justify distinctively postcolonial studies of Gaelic culture. He has attacked revisionist ‘Whig’ accounts of the Clearances (such as the work of Michael Fry) which do not engage with Gaelic sources and rewrite repression as a voluntary economic choice:

The infamous Clearances in the Highlands were not just a process of physically dispossessing Gaels, they were also a process of dislocating them from the minds of Scots, especially those with power and privilege, and placing Gaelic culture firmly in the “dustbin” of history, where it need not concern or trouble any “civilised” person. There are still academic volumes being published by scholars on “Scottish” history and literature and any number of subjects which make no mention of Gaelic culture, as though Gaels were not bone-fide Scots or people who mattered.[5]

The West Highland Free Press has as its slogan An Tìr, an Cànan, ‘s na Daoine (The Land, the Language and the People), showing how intertwined issues of cultural and territorial decolonisation have been viewed in Gaeldom. Over the past century or so, Gaels have dwindled in number from 230,806 in 1901 to 57,375 in 2011. By 2011, only 51.7% of Gaels were living in so-called ‘heartland’ Highland areas, and the incidence of Gaelic-speakers in the language’s last stronghold of the Western Isles was now just at 52%, a 10.5% drop since 2001, showing the effects of wholesale language shift, depopulation and Anglophone in-migration. This process of language death is summarised in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Anecdotally, I first began to explore ideas of indigenous land use to understand Gaelic Scotland after meeting Alastair MacIntosh at an Eco Festival in Uist in 2010. I was taking part in a panel discussion alongside MacIntosh, a geographer from St Andrews University, and an (incomer) representative of Sustainable Uist, a sustainable development organisation from the Western Isles. The crowd was large and there was much self-flagellation among the assembled academics and eco-activists about how hard it was to get local crofters involved with their sustainable development schemes – indeed, not one crofter had even turned up to the Eco Festival. I vividly remember the perplexed silence when I pointed out that the weekend they had chosen to host the festival on coincided with one of the busiest weekends of the crofting calendar (Là Buidhe Bealltainn, Mayday, when livestock are moved to the common grazing) so no wonder no crofters had put in an appearance. This was illustrative of the social divide that persisted between environmentalist ‘white settlers’ and the indigenous crofters, and showed the problem of allowing the debate over Highland development to be dominated by outsiders.

‘White settler’ is a once-common derogatory term for the Anglophone incomers who moved in their droves to islands like Skye in search of the good life in the ’80s. However, its use has dwindled as these islands have been assimilated into mainstream Anglophone society. But political journalist and Gael Torcuil Crichton has revived the slur to describe what he names the ‘white steriliser’ culture:

These are the people who object to the windfarms, who object to the fishfarms, to more ferry services or any other development that might detract from the “visual amenity” at the end  of their “private road – no entry” track. In the case of one west coast village, Torridon, the sterilisers succeeded in stopping an active crofter build a home on her croft because it might ruin the landscape. They are joined by the vested interests of landed class, lairds like Mark Pattison of Kinlochdamph, who thinks that the revival of the nearby Kishorn oil yard would be an environmental disaster…[6]

‘White steriliser’ culture sees the value of the Highlands as a wilderness as trumping economic development or active land use. For example, Scottish Natural Heritage, buttressed by the John Muir Trust, recently drew up a map of proposed wildland designations in Scotland, scenery deemed too precious for development. As Figure 4 shows, this includes a huge swathe of South Uist community estate.

Figure 4

Figure 4


But this untamed, untouched image of the Highlands is a construct which erases millennia of occupation by Gaels and other peoples – indeed, the region of South Uist deemed ‘wild’ is where my great-great-great-grandfather was cleared to in the mid-19th century (and from where he was subsequently cleared again to make way for the deer). As Huw Francis, Chief Executive of Stòras Uibhist, writes:

The so-called ‘Wild Land’ of South Uist has been occupied, managed, altered, built on and farmed by island residents for thousands of years. Calling it an untouched wilderness disparages the long history of island living and imposes a romanticised and erroneous external construct on this community that will perpetuate the economic decline of the island economy. […] Much of Scotland was once designated as land fit only for sheep, which resulted in the Clearances. If Scotland continues to be designated as fit for nothing but conservation, a new clearance of rural Scotland will take place.[7]

Perhaps understandably, the Left in Britain is primarily an urban force. Especially in England, rurality is associated with the conservatism of the foxhunting brigade. But the Western Isles, as an example, is the local authority with the lowest male life expectancy in Britain (tied with Glasgow city), and has the highest rates of fuel poverty. Radical land reform gives marginalised societies control of their own resources – whether for agriculture, renewable energy generation, or even as community-run sporting estates. Now, in 2014, the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign seeks control of the seabed and crown estate revenues for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland communities, whatever the outcome of the independence referendum. We are living in an exciting time in the process of decolonising the Highlands and Islands. As I wrote for the radical independence group National Collective:

I believe strongly that an independent Scotland should not be a colonialist nation. If Scotland’s raw wealth is to be based on the riches of the seabed surrounding these three archipelagos (whether oil, wave and wind power or fisheries), then a truly socially-democratic Scotland must give the islands it exploits the right to benefit economically from their own resources.[8]

Yet it’s no use wresting back the land from the landlords and the seabed from the Crown if environmental agencies just turn round and tell poverty-stricken communities like the Western Isles that they can’t do anything with it. When the Scottish government decided to designate the area around my island as a Special Area of Conservation, they put the fish ahead of the people – despite the fishermen marching on Edinburgh to defend their livelihoods. When crofters were banned from shooting the birds who ruined their crops, wildlife groups gave more value to geese than Gaels. When animal rights activists attack the men of Ness in Lewis for harvesting 2000 guga chicks a year, they choose a tiny fraction of a massive colony of seabirds above deprived islanders living in the most distal part of the UK. And when land that’s been settled for centuries is called wildland, when the government embraces the ideology of the Highlands as a wilderness, Scotland is entrenching and upholding a vision of Highland land use belonging to the age of Clearance.

But, still, the Highlands have come a long way in the quest for radical land reform. Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, Big Mary of the Songs, was a fifty-year old Skye-woman who was falsely sent to prison in 1872 for stealing a pound. She came out radicalised, and through her songs became the bàrd and propagandist of the Highland Land League. The last of her Gaelic poems, Faistneachd agus Beannachdan do na Gàidheil (Prophecy and Blessing to the Gaels), while over-romantic to modern ears, is filled with a hope for land reform now on its way to partial fulfilment:


‘S pillidh gineal na tuatha,                           And they will return, the seed of crofters

rinneadh fuadach thar sàile.                       who were driven over the sea.


S bidh na baigearan uasal                           And the aristocratic beggars

air an ruaig mar bha ‘àdsan;                      will be routed as the crofters were;


fèidh is caoraich gan cuibhleadh                deer and sheep will be carted away

‘S bidh na glinn air an àiteach…                 and the glens will grow again…[9]


To the Gaels, she had this advice:


Ach cuimhnichibh gur sluagh sibh,             But remember you are a people

is cumaibh suas ur còir;                                and remember to defend your rights,

tha beairteas fo na cruachan                        there is wealth under the land

fon d’ fhuair sibh àrach òg                           where you were born and raised[10]


A century and a half ago, the people of Gaelic Scotland were forced from their homes, 2000 people a day at the Clearances’ height, and sent overseas or settled in reservation-style crofting communities on the poorest land. But because of this, the Highlands and Islands can claim a proud history of direct action against landlordism. I hope I’ve shown that the Gaelic crofters were radicals on par with the Chartists, the Trade Unionists and the Suffragettes. But with inequitable patterns of landownership persisting and conservationist ideologies striving to keep the Highlands an economically-dependent backwater, the work of radical land reform remains unfinished.  The Gaelic scholar Angus MacLeod, challenging anti-Gaelic attitudes within the leftwing Radical Independence Campaign, has summed up well why the Left in Scotland and the wider UK should pay attention to these problems facing the Highlands and Gaelic Scotland:

The economic processes which exploited the Gàidhealtachd, consolidated the power of the landowners and still sends its young people to the cities for work, housing and opportunity is the same process wreaking havoc elsewhere. If you want to get an understanding of the experience of those marginalised by economic exploitation, then a genuine engagement with an exploited culture close to home, is in terms of sheer practicality, a good place to start.[11]

The year is 2014, and this September, Scotland faces an existential choice over independence. If Scotland votes yes and brings its people autonomy, but leaves the land of Scotland in the hands of the landlords, then Scotland will not be an independent state worth living in.


Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach (or D.I. MacDonald) is a 2nd year Biomedical Sciences student at St John’s College, Oxford. He is the President of Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists and Nominal President of the Failed Novelists society. He is currently setting up a new Gàidhlig language online magazine called Dàna.



[1] Quoted in Kevin McKenna, ‘Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the West. Why?’, 10th Aug 2013, The Guardian

[2] Quoted in Simon Johnson, ‘SNP ministers warn lairds about need for ‘radical’ redistribution of Scottish land’, 5th Jan 2014, The Telegraph

[3] James Hunter, ‘The most concentrated, inequitable, and undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world’, 3rd Jun 2013, on Land Matters, Andy Wightman’s blog

[4] Iain MacKinnon, ‘Crofters: indigenous people of the Highlands and Islands’, 2008, Scottish Crofting Foundation

[5] Michael Newton, ‘Cultural Appropriation: Gaels and Other Natives’, 30th Aug 2013, The Virtual Gael

[6] Torcuil Crichton, ‘Planning “sterilisers” dictating to the Highlands’, 12th Aug 2013, Whitehall 1212 blog

[7] David Ross, ‘Islanders fear new Clearances’, 14th Nov 2013, The Herald Scotland

[8] Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach, ‘Gaeldom in an Age of Independence’, 23rd Jul 2013, National Collective

[9] Dòmhnall Eachann Meek (ed.), ‘Mairi Mhòr Nan Oran: Taghadh De a h-Orain.’ Glasgow: Gairm, 1977 (pg. 221). Translation by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach.

[10] ibid (pg. 108). Translation by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach.

[11] Angus MacLeod, ‘Know Your Place – Gaelic and Elements of the Left,’ 6th Feb 2014, Bella Caledonia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s