Land reform has become a touchstone issue for grassroots members of the SNP. The strength of feeling could not have been clearer at the party conference last weekend, when delegates rejected a motion supporting the SNP Government's Land Reform Bill. The legislation currently before Holyrood wasn't nearly radical enough, they argued. Ministers, who are unused to any sort of dissent from the conference hall floor, meekly promised to think again.

What most SNP grassroots members (and campaigners from other parties, notably the Greens) want to see is a more egalitarian pattern of land ownership. They want tenant farmers controlling the land they work, rather than absentee landlords. They share a desire to see land used economically and environmentally in ways that might benefit a whole community rather than a laird.

For many, land reform is about righting ancient wrongs. Very ancient in the case of one delegate speaking in last week's conference debate, who said landowners "stole the land thanks to David 1 of Scotland," the 12th Century king who introduced the feudal system.

For others, inevitably, the issue is linked to independence. "To persuade people to vote Yes tomorrow we need to use the powers we have today to create a vision of a better, bolder, more radical nation," another delegate, Nicky Louden-MacCrimmon, told the conference.

The present bill, which followed a pledge by Nicola Sturgeon to implement "radical" reforms, will force the sale of land if owners block economic development. Among other things, it will also end tax breaks for shooting estates.

But there is an appetite within the SNP to go much further, to cap the size of land holdings or even to give tenant farmers an absolute right to buy.

Ministers risk losing votes to the Greens if they fail to act.

A recent report compiled by pollsters Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Scottish Government will further fuel demands for a more radical action.

It assessed the impact of the community right to buy that was introduced by the 2003 Land Reform Act and came up with a pretty mixed bag of findings. CRtB, to use the jargon, hasn't been a failure but nor, the report implies, has it been an unqualified success.

Between 2004, when the Act came into force, and last year, there have been 22 community buyouts under the legislation, a level of uptake the researchers describe as "relatively limited".

Part of the problem is the complexity of the system which, as their baffling flow charts of boxes, arrows and dotted lines illustrate, presents community groups with a formidable array of hurdles to clear.

Of course, it is absolutely right the process is rigorous; large public subsidies are available to fund community land purchases. But it remains the case that the 22 groups which have been successful are in a small minority. No fewer than 206 community bodies began the process by acquiring what's called a Section 34(4) letter from ministers, officially recognising them as a properly constituted company under the terms of the Act.

The researchers had other reservations, too. They found the CRtB process tended to benefit the committed, active community groups leading the buy-out bids rather more than the wider communities they claimed to serve.

Assessing the successful buy-outs in turn, they concluded: "There was evidence of land and assets being used in a more appropriate and more diverse way, but less evidence of more environmentally sustainable uses or integrated land

use planning."

This should not come as a complete surprise. City dwellers for whom CRtB conjures up romantic images of happy Highland crofters should remember that one buy-out, at Machrihanish near the Mull of Kintyre in Argyll, aims to turn a former RAF base into a space port. "Cape Campbeltown," as it's known, is an exciting project, no doubt about that, but one has to wonder about the environmental sustainability of space travel.

Including historic buy-outs, in some cases pre-dating the 2003 legislation by many decades, about half a million acres are in community ownership, a relative postage stamp on the map of Scotland.

Campaigners are far from convinced the new Bill will enable the Scottish Government to double that figure by the turn of the decade.

All the signs are that SNP ministers will come under growing pressure to deliver that "better, bolder and more radical" vision their grassroots members demand.