The power of the lairds, burnt into the Scottish collective consciousness by the horror of the Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries, lives on.

More than 80 per cent of Scotland's rural land is still privately owned, and about half of that is owned by just 432 landowners, the biggest of which is the Duke of Buccleuch. Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world.

No surprise, then, that land ownership is one of the most disputed and heated of issues. It is important, not just because of the obvious inequalities and injustices it raises, but because the land helps shape us all. As well as being the source of food and wealth, land is essential for our environmental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. In some difficult-to-define way, it is part of our collective psyche, our sense of who we are.

So how the land is managed raises understandable passions, like those eloquently expressed by the respected conservationist, Dick Balharry, at a ceremony in the Cairngorms yesterday. Dying of cancer, he let the landowners have it with both barrels.

By keeping deer populations artificially high to boost profits from shooting parties, they were ruining the mountains and glens, he argued. Most people who care about the environment, inside and outside government, agree with him, though they don't often put it so bluntly.

That's why the Scottish Government's determination to reform land ownership is welcome. Its vision is that "Scotland's land must be an asset that benefits the many, not the few".

We agree. What's now crucial is that ministers introduce measures that oblige landowners to manage their estates for the public good, rather than private gain - and that they don't allow themselves to be deflected by the persisting power of the lairds.