TO reach Bowhill House from Glasgow it is best to travel down the motorway to Moffat and then cut eastward along the A708 towards Selkirk. It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful journeys imaginable. Much of the land you pass through is the property of the ninth Duke of Buccleuch.

Over afternoon tea in his splendid library, the duke, a charming man who has been a wheelchair user for more than 20 years as a result of a hunting accident, happily admits that he is Scotland's biggest landowner. If you took all the fences contained within his estates and placed them end to end they would stretch all the way from Selkirk to San Francisco.

However, though he jokingly likens himself to the late Hector of Monarch of the Glen, the duke does not regard himself as a landowner at all. He is, he says, merely the guardian; the caretaker. It is as a devoted steward of the countryside that he has now chosen to speak out against at least some of devilish detail contained within the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill, which is making its passage through the Scottish Parliament.

His fear is that the important matter of land ownership has fallen victim to a combination of misconception and ill-informed political prejudice. He is suspicious of some left-wing Scottish politicians.

His worry is this: he believes that there is a significant number of MSPs with a hidden agenda which involves the redistribution of wealth and the complete break-up of the estate system.

Estate owners, he believes, are still suffering from the bad press they received during the Highland Clearances 200 years ago. Yet, as he points out, the decline in rural employment over the past 50 years (and under various shades of government) far overshadows that sorry episode in Scotland's history.

But in 2002, the duke considers the real threat facing the land business to be the systematic fragmentation of the estate system. At the heart of proposed legislation is the provision for tenant farmers to be given the right of first refusal to buy their land in the event that their landlord decides to sell.

This pre-emptive right to purchase is something with which the duke has no problem. ''I do take that point,'' he says, ''and if I was selling a farm on the estate I would certainly give the sitting tenant first option to buy. That is a fairly reasonable thing to do.''

What would concern him, and concern him deeply, would be if those predominately urbanite politicians extended this to an absolute right for a tenant to buy at any time, irrespective of whether the landowner wanted to sell.

This, he agrees, does not appear to be on the immediate agenda . . . so long as the Scottish Executive holds the line against ''a great many MSPs who are a mixture of pavement plodders and others who are still living in the times of the Clearances and would like to see our estates cleared out.'' What worries him is that, at some time in the future, they could use their votes to overwhelm the will of the executive which, he claims, ''is more or less what happened over the fox-hunting bill''.

The absolute right to buy would, in the duke's opinion, be a dangerous development indeed. ''As you well appreciate, a farm which is occupied nets only about half the price of a farm which is in vacant possession. Under an absolute right to buy, there would be nothing to stop a farmer from buying his farm for, say, (pounds) 500,000 and then selling it on for (pounds) 1m and then going off to settle in the Costa Brava. We have one tenant farmer who boasts that he would buy his entire farm, then sell the farmhouse (which would pay for the whole thing) and then go and live in a very nice cottage,'' he says.

As landowners go, the Duke of Buccleuch, who spent 13 years as Tory MP for Edinburgh North, is universally regarded as one of the more benign, enlightened, and progressive in Scotland. His policies may be vast - some 270,000 acres - but they are about half the size they once were.

The company, Buccleuch Estates, is run as a strict business. The duke is chairman of the board. For him, land ownership is as serious a venture as, say, newspaper production, or shops, or garages. There are 220 tenant farmers working the land and the company as a whole provides employment for a total of 1000 people. Each year they produce 127,000 sheep, 13,500 cattle, 18 million litres of milk, 20,000 tonnes of cereal, and 50,000 tonnes of timber. Yet the land operation barely breaks even because, he explains, ''we plough everything back into re-investment for the farms''.

Any farmer, tenant or owner, knows that an acre of land does not mean an acre of wealth. In Buccleuch's case it takes 6000 acres of hill and bog to equal 100 acres of good arable land.

His message to his tenants is simple: better to be owned by a kind-hearted landowner than a stoney-hearted bank manager.

He tells a story of how, as a young naval officer 50 years ago, he was privileged to encounter Tito. He took the opportunity to ask the great Yugoslavian leader how his agrarian reforms were going. Suddenly, his local interpreter urged him to change the subject. The truth was that Tito, having realised the error of his reforming ways, was in the process of dismantling the communal system of farming and handing the land back to the original owners.

''One has seen so much of this type of thing tried in Iron Curtain countries,'' he says, referring to his fear that Scotland's estate system is under threat, ''with very sad results, more often than not.''

He adds: ''I think that, unless

you have faith in the future, it is

difficult to persuade people to invest in something which might be

swept away by a piece of left-wing legislation.''

He stresses that every single one of his tenants is there of his own volition. Indeed, almost 60% of them applied to become tenants (the rest being hereditary tenants), a lot of them giving up being owner-occupiers in order to do so.

So far as those politicians in Edinburgh are concerned, he admits

that part of the fault is in the fact that he and other landowners

have failed to get them out to see what is happening on the estates for themselves.

''I get depressed at the thought of how little those politicians who are going to cast their votes are prepared to look and to learn. We invite them but they never seem to venture off the pavement,'' he explains.

The duke, who is president of the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution, also rails against the way many overseas investors are attacked in knee-jerk fashion for buying up Scottish land.

''A lot of unfair criticism has been levelled against some foreign landowners who have moved in. The fact is that they tend to buy big chunks of Scotland which are impossible to farm.

''We ought to be very thankful that there are people who are prepared to pour money into areas like that, providing life and sustenance to those who live there rather than leaving it to the state to do.''

He adds: ''Four-fifths of Scotland is mountain and moorland - not the sort of land that farmers want to buy, because it gives a negative return. The only source of income would have to come from the sporting aspects.''

The duke, who firmly believes that there is a class element involved in the politics of the land, reckons that those reformers who want the break-up of the estate system are possessed of a laughably misplaced sense of injustice and outrage. They believe perhaps that they are freeing forelock-tugging serfs from their oppressive masters.

Why then is it, as the duke helpfully points out, that every time Buccleuch Estates advertise a farm property to run, an orderly but lengthy queue forms with people wishing to become tenants?

As for the ninth Duke of Buccleuch, all he really wants is to leave his land in good order. With a nod to his son and heir Lord Dalkeith, he says: ''I am very heartened to see that, if I fall off my perch tomorrow, it will be left in better hands.''


The Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill, part of the Scottish Executive's land reform programme, will reach it's parliamentary commencement stage on Tuesday when officials will begin to give evidence to the rural development committee. Stage two, when the bill will be debated in parliament, is not expected to start for some months.

The bill, designed to reverse a 100-year decline in tenant farming, will introduce two new types of tenancy: short limited duration tenancies (five years) and limited duration tenancies (a minimum of 15 years). It will also introduce a pre-emptive right to buy for existing secure tenants, providing an automatic right to buy the land they rent should a landlord decide to sell.


secure tenant

Malcolm McCall is a champion of the absolute right to buy. From his 350-acre secure tenancy, Inverbrora Farm in Sutherland, he explains: ''A great many tenant farmers have been on their farms for 50 years

or more.

''Some have been in the same family's hands for 400 years. The investment they put in is quite phenomenal while the investment their landlords put in has been fairly negligible, particularly in the past 20 years or so, with agriculture being such a depressed industry.

''Though it's not necessarily

their fault, very little money is being put in by the landlords in most estates. The result is that many farmers have to pay for their own improvements.''

He adds: ''In modern Scotland I think that giving tenants - and it's secure tenants we're talking about - the absolute right to buy would be of great help to rural development. For instance, I have four fields next to a golf course and I've been approached to see if the land

can be used for a golf range,

caravan park, and turf farm. But I would have to get the landlord's permission to do that. Yet it's

the easiest way to help rural development, to have a healthier rural economy.''

Though Mr McCall understands the argument for the pre-emptive

right to buy, he says that giving farmers an absolute right to buy is no different from council house tenants gaining the right to buy

their homes.

He is convinced that an absolute right will be embraced in legislation eventually. ''It's just a question of persuading central-belt MSPs.''

l Malcolm McCall is an official of

the Scottish Tenant Farmers' Action Group.


owner-occupier and secure tenant

John Kinnaird is a farmer who can justly claim to see the land issue from two perspectives, for he is in the unusual position of being both an owner-occupier and a tenant. He is at once the proprietor of the 230-acre Meiklerig Farm, near Dunbar, and the secure tenant of Papple Farm, a 365-acre spread near Haddington, East Lothian.

In his opinion, the pre-emptive right to buy is the only commonsense approach while the absolute right to buy would spell disaster for tenancy farming in Scotland.

He says: ''When landlords put farms up for sale the vast majority offer sitting tenants the chance to buy. But there are an awful lot of tenants who, having put generations of work into their farm, wake up one morning to discover that they have a new landlord, and that is what the pre-emptive right to buy would help to prevent.

''That way a secure sitting tenant is at least given the opportunity to buy his farm. He may not want to buy; he may not have the funds to buy. But at least he is being given the chance to buy, and that's just common sense.''

On the controversial question of the absolute right to buy, he adds: ''I firmly believe that it would destroy the tenant sector which is a vital component of Scottish agriculture. People looking at the absolute right to buy often stems from the fact that there have been problems in the past (between landlord and tenant) over repairs done and who's responsible and who's not.

''If tenants feel aggrieved they should go to arbitration or to the Land Court. It is inherently wrong that someone at any time could walk in and buy another person's property.''

l John Kinnaird is a vice-president of the National Farmers' Union Scotland.