IT is the issue that haunts Scotland: our land and who owns it.

Other things can fill the headlines: Brexit, independence; schools and hospitals; who is up and who is down at Westminster and Holyrood.

Yet, behind those stories, those rows, there is the endless angst of where real power lies, real property power.

Right now that power is held by very few people, at least on the basis of what little we know of property ownership.

The Scottish Land Commission this spring took at look at owners. The quango found as few as 1,125 owners – from Highland lairds to state forestry enterprises – own some 70% of Scotland’s rural land, around 10 million hectares.

The Scottish Government has said something like 57% of the country as a whole is in the hands of large private estates. Another 12.5% belongs to the state, in one guise or another.

Previously, the now Green MSP Andy Wightman had calculated that fewer than 500 people owned half of all land in private hands.

Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen and the Duke of Buccleuch – the biggest private landowners – each own more than 200,000 acres, thought not in single blocks.

Some of the names might have changed, a foreign billionaire replacing a Highland clan chief or a TV star selling up to a merchant banker. But the basic proportion of ownership, campaigners say, has not changed for decades.

Landowners do not have to be bad for that to be a problem, Hamish Trench, chief executive of the Scottish Land Commission, said back in March. “That is an unhealthy position to be in,” he concluded. Britain’s monopolies quango told the SLC there could be grounds for breaking up such concentrations of ownership, including by state entities like the Forestry Commission.

But it is not for the want of trying that ownership has changed so little. Because there is another kind of owner, still a relatively new kind: the community collective.

Around 3% of Scotland belongs to a community land company. The first estate to be bought out was in Assynt, in western Sutherland, in 1993.

There followed dozens more. Prizes, over the years, included the isolated peninsula of Knoydart, the island of Eigg and the woods of Rhubodach on Bute.

After devolution, successive governments in Edinburgh have sought to help communities to take over land, with money, and law. That has not always gone down well.

In 2003, the then Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition secured legislation under which communities got the legal right to buy land when it went on sale. Conservatives voted against the move. Right-wing tabloids were furious: it was, the refrain quickly went, a “Mugabe-style land grab”.

This line – that reforms were reminiscent of the gangs of black farmers who seized the property of white farmers under the Zimbabwean strongman – was to thrive.

It was repeated again in 2015 when a new government, now the SNP, suggested further reforms.

William Astor, Lord Astor, the father-in-law of the then prime minister, David Cameron, wrote a polemic in The Spectator using the same “Mugabe land grab” line. The Conservative peer owns a chunk of Jura through a trust based in the Bahamas.

Rhetoric did not stop the SNP getting through a new reform act in 2016. This one would, in theory, give the government the power to force an owner to sell up to the community.

Its headline new power has still to be enacted. The Scottish Land Commission, in its report back in March, recommended the use of such powers, including a public interest test on whether large landholdings should face compulsory dismemberment.

And so the debate has raged, with a community buyout movement on one side and resistant landowners, represented by the lobby Scottish Land & Estates, on the other. To outsiders, it looks like a war of attrition.

The SNP has stressed community land buyouts are not a panacea. Many, after all, have struggled.

Debaters have been coy. Few want to say out loud that some communities lack human capacity. Given the size of some places – whether small islands or sparsely populated giant estates – it is probably unfair to expect them to have all the skills required to run community businesses. Nor should they be expected to. That is why there are – and must be – support mechanisms in place.

Some buyouts suffer acrimonious fallouts. Some fail to deliver, as we report today on Bute. Other schemes face a legacy issue. What happens when a few champions of a buyout retire, or die? How do small communities plan and ensure a continuity of quality, accountable leadership.

Humans are human. And, of course, large private estates do not necessarily deliver either. However, given some of these projects have received large sums of public money, we must ensure there is full and proper scrutiny.

The Land Commission and policymakers also want to encourage more smaller estates and farms, more job-creating agribusinesses. The official mantra is that a balanced ownership is needed.

There will always be rows over policy. But – given the frailty of some of our remotest communities – has the time not come to take stock of land buyouts?

Whatever the theoretical merits, are we sure we are getting enough of them right? And how do we ensure that we do?