• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The Highland Line: Bunchrew Declaration a vital step for land reform

If you have something important to say, you make a declaration.

Just think of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 arguably one of the most famous documents in Scottish history.

As John Prebble wrote: "It affirmed the nation's independence in a way no battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race."

It is still quoted today, albeit often inappropriately, but it is a belter of a declaration even if it was written in Latin to the Pope. It still is stirring stuff in translation:

"...for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."

There was The American Declaration of Independence of July 4th, 1776, with its profound implications for world history.

Then there was the Balfour Declaration. Well actually three were two in the name of the Tory politician/ prime minister Arthur Balfour. There was the famous one in 1917 which led the Jewish community in Britain and America into believing that Britain would support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was caused difficulties for future British Governments. There was one in 1926 laying down the fundamental principles guiding the relations between the countries of the British Commonwealth.

The Schuman Declaration 1950 was a proposal by then-French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman to create a new form of organisation of states in Europe which was to lead to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, then the Common Market. The event is commemorated annually as Europe Day and Schuman himself is considered one of the Founding fathers of the European Union.

Historic declarations all, but what are we to make the most recent? The Bunchrew Land Declaration is not named after a politian or cause, but a hotel and a rather fine one at that. The Bunchrew House Hotel on the southern shore of the Beauly Firth, to the west of Inverness.

When a private house it a was the birthplace of Duncan Forbes, Lord Culloden (1685 - 1747), a Scottish MP and judge who ended up as President of the Court of Session. He was anti-Jacobite and he managed to persuade certain important clan chiefs into declaring for the Hanoverian side. This was over Bunchrew House Hotel was where Community Land Scotland, the organisation representing Scotland's community land owners (such as Eigg, Assynt and Gigha) held a seminar recently. It "explored land reform in Scotland within an international context and with particular reference to the achievement of greater social justice and the realisation of human rights."

In summary the Bunchrew Declaration reaffirms Communty Land Scotland's commitment to the just cause of establishing new land ownership patterns in Scotland in support of the common good.

Crucially the declaration recognises "that Scotland lags behind land reform interventions which in Europe delivered greater land justice in past centuries."

With over half of its private land owned by just 432 people, and 10% owned by 16 individuals or groups, Scotland has one of the most unequal patterns of land ownership in Europe.

In an recent interview with the Holyrood Magazine Highland historian and land reform enthusiast Jim Hunter said "There's nothing like that anywhere else in Europe, and the reason for that is based in history. If you go back a couple hundred years, the pattern of land ownership was very similar, it would have been roughly the same concentration across Europe - the difference is that other European countries have at various times in the last hundred years had sweeping land reforms, which has changed the pattern completely, sometimes in the shape of revolution, sometimes through legal or constitutional reform. In Denmark, for example, land ownership was reformed over 200 years ago before they had democracy - the monarchy decided to take land ownership away from the aristocracy and give it to its tenants, in an owner-occupier system.

"Land reform in Europe has almost always meant shifting ownership from the landowners - in Scotland, historically, aristocrats - to their tenants, though in Scotland the move has been more towards community ownership, which is quite different. The idea of reforming land ownership was started by the Tory government, then pushed on by the Labour-Lib Dem administration in Scotland, but interestingly, since the SNP took power, the steam has gone out of the reform. In fact up to now they've done nothing at all."

And that from a man who is not unsympathetic to the SNP.

But land reform appears to be back on the agenda whichever way the political wind blows.

North of the border we await the report from the Scottish Government's land reform review group, with most agreed it is unlikely to be so timid as its interim report. But earlier this year environment minister Paul Wheelhouse made clear where the SNP Government stood: "My party genuinely believes that there should be a fair distribution of land. Communities should have access to land to fulfil their aspirations. I think if we don't see a fairer distribution of land, then we in parliament will have failed the people of Scotland."

Meanwhile Alex Salmond himself set a a target of doubling the present 500,000 acres of land under community, by 2020. He did so last June when he spoke to Community Land Scotland's (CLS) converence at Skye's Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig.

Last year Johann Lamont in her speech to the Labour Party Conference in Inverness said: "If we want to have any real hope of changing the current patterns of land ownership in Scotland, then we have to be bold. We have to be radical. Scottish Labour will commit to extend rights for community purchase of land and for those rights to be available across Scotland. If it is in the public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even when the land owner is not a willing seller."

In the midst of all this, CLS is emerging as a focus and an intellectual engine for the cause of land reform. It has real credibility. Its members, literally and metaphorically, have got their hands dirty for the cause.

So perhaps the Bunchrew Declaration will yet have its own place in the history of this land.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

222637