THE eviction of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and her family from their farm cottage is one of the most vivid passages in Thomas Hardy’s heart-rending novel. Unable to find somewhere to stay, they are obliged to sleep in the church-yard, taking refuge behind the drapes of their four-poster bed, with all their belongings around them. It does not take a keen-eyed reader to appreciate the symbolism of that scene, or what it portends.

Hardy was making a point about Victorian agricultural workers in tied houses, whose tenancies could be terminated at the landlord’s whim. Cruel treatment of tenant farmers was a common theme in 19th-century fiction. In Scotland, the subject carried even deeper resonance, following the Highland and Lowland Clearances, when to callousness was added patrician greed.

The spirit of those benighted times haunts many novels and poems, though few more powerfully than in Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies. Workers being summarily turfed off the land is not, sadly, the stuff purely of fiction; nor is it an outrage consigned to the past. At the end of this month, a young Arran livestock farmer, John Paterson, and his brother Ian, will be evicted from their family farm. Under the same ruling that has led to their undoing, six more families are to lose their farms by November 2017.

Meanwhile, others have already fallen under the wheels of the same legal botch-up. Most tragic is Andrew Riddell of Ormiston in East Lothian who, shortly after losing a 10-year legal battle against landowner Alastair Salvesen, committed suicide. But in a twist that would perhaps have pleased Thomas Hardy, the Patersons, and the rest of those in the line of fire, and one farmer already evicted, are taking the Scottish Government to court.

The legal niceties around this case are no doubt too complex for the untrained to fathom. What is blindingly obvious, however, is its injustice. Because of slipshod Holyrood legislation in 2003, provisions intended to strengthen tenant farmers’ position in fact made those who held their farms under the terms of a limited partnership more vulnerable to eviction. As a result, farmers learned that they could be evicted at the end of their lease without redress. Aware that this loophole was of its own doing, Holyrood assured the agricultural community that any who fell foul of this regulation would be offered compensation.

For John Paterson and his fellow litigants, however, the Government has reneged point blank on its deal, and has ignored their pleas for assistance. Like so many others, the Patersons have lived under threat of being uprooted for year upon year. The toll on their wellbeing, and even more so on their father, who has been seriously unwell, has been severe. Later this month, they will be obliged to leave the farmhouse and land that has been their home for 20 years. By St Andrew’s Night, their landlord could have moved in and begun to reap the benefit of their long-standing investment.

They will not receive so much as a fiver for the money spent on buildings, fencing, and stock. Meanwhile, Ian Paterson’s falconry business, which has helped bring financial stability, will continue only if they can afford the right new location. Without compensation, continuing to farm, let alone breed raptors, is in doubt.

If you think this sounds more like Dickensian melodrama than modern Scotland, you’d be right. It is impossible to follow the stories of the farmers caught up in this debacle these past few years without expressing outrage. When it was ruled that such tenants could not be granted compensation, since this would be seen as “contravening the property rights of landlords”, I cannot have been the only one who smelled, if not a whiff of cordite, then the musty odour of ancient privilege, of the elite closing ranks. Even the much-vaunted new Scottish Land Reform Act passed earlier this year is, apparently, powerless to help the unfortunate few entangled in the 2003 mess.

Such labyrinthine coils and confusion are worthy of Jarndyce v Jarndyce. You can almost hear the scampering of lawyers’ feet through Holyrood’s cloisters and picture the furrowing of legal brows over precedents as the Government’s counsellors form a cordon sanitaire to shield themselves and their masters from unwanted claims that they no doubt fear will open the floodgates.

It could hardly be more ugly or unedifying. Scotland is nothing without its agricultural land, or those who work it for the benefit of all. Countless small and medium-sized farms already provide a precarious living. The ill-feeling caused by the recent mishandling of farm payouts was not the outcry of fat-cat producers but of people for whom an unexpected shortfall or sudden hardship can drive them into bankruptcy and worse.

Nor does a month go by without news of dairy farm closures, hill sheep stations going to the wall or the alarming rate of suicide in this profession. And make no mistake, it is a profession. Though it is often passed down the generations, farming requires years of hands-on practice and constant fresh thinking and updating to keep abreast of procedures and regulations. The word vocation might be also be added to the job description. Many eke out so meagre a living that most of us could not comprehend why they stick at it. The hours would bring a smile to Mr Gradgrind’s lips, while the pay and working conditions make Sports Direct look like John Lewis. Nobody goes into farming lightly but most do it because of a powerful connection with the land, or with animals, and the satisfaction of being a part of their own living world. It is ironic that those farms that conform most closely to the public’s picture-book ideal – small, organic, family-run – are also those most vulnerable to economic and political downturn.

Nor does our sentimentality reach as far as our purses, when we put cheaper imported meat, or bargain-basement milk into our baskets. Given public fickleness and self-interest, then, it surely must be the responsibility of politicians to value and uphold a noble occupation without which Scotland would wither.

Who but the concrete-hearted could deny that the plight of the Patersons, and their associates, is desperate and compelling? If Holyrood claims its hands are tied by legal tape, then it should bow its head in shame. We might as well be in the Sutherland of Patrick Sellar, when the bleating of thousands of well-fed sheep drowned out the cries of hungry exiled crofters.

The Government has been quick enough to blame Westminster whenever convenient but this time it must sort out the trouble in its own byre. To honour its promise, and save its good name, Holyrood must dare to take a leap in the legal dark. It might help if politicians are reminded that the livelihood of farmers asking for their support has never been anything but a gamble.