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Just 600 people own most of Scotland

Most of the land in Scotland is still owned by a tiny number of people, says mountaineer and writer John Burns


In 200 years people will look back incredulously on how we manage our land in Scotland. Why? Because nothing has changed in three hundred years.

Scotland is a small country but it’s a big place. Yet our land is in the hands of remarkably few people. Only around 600 folk pretty much own most of Scotland.

That’s a few very rich men owning vast swathes of our landscape. The old boast of the landed gentry owning land “as far as the eye can see,” still holds true in Scotland.

Land isn’t just a commodity. It’s not like owning a car or a pair of trousers, you only have rights over land, you don’t own it out right. Owning land means you own part of our natural heritage.

If you own a mountain or a moor what you do with it counts. Don’t be fooled by titles like the Duke of Devonshire or the Earl of God knows Where. These epithets ae designed to make folk like you and me think that anyone with one of these titles is somehow different from us and therefor entitled to the land they hold.

These titles hide the fact that the only reason that most folk have these vast acreages of land is that they stole it. Who did they steal it from? You and me of course.

They didn’t make this land, they didn’t build the mountains, moors and lochs, they were there already.

A few hundred years ago they and their mates turned up with big sticks and said, “This belongs to us.”  There was probably some sort of large punch up and then whoever came out on top claimed the place was theirs.

Land is power, so in Scotland they then went on to make their ownership legal, they can do that because they make the laws.

Then they even made laws that meant that if a landowner went bankrupt his land could not be taken as payment for debts so, no matter how inept an estate was managed, it was secure.

Roll forward a couple of hundred years and it suddenly becomes apparent to landowners that they can make a lot more money if they breed sheep on their land rather than allowing us peasants to live there and pay rent.

So, as if they were herding cattle, most Highland landowners kicked off the folk who had lived and farmed on their land for generations in a process that has become known as the Clearances. This was in very much the same way as the American settlers took the land the native Americans had lived on for thousands of years.

Doubtless the Scottish landlords would have called it “progress” as they drove thousands of people from their homes with about as much compassion as they would offer a blue bottle that landed on their dinner plate.

If you walk down most Highland glens you’ll find the collapsed walls of homes where people used to live. The Highlands are famed for being empty and remote and we have one of the lowest population densities of anywhere in Europe pretty much as a direct result.

Many areas of the Highlands have never recovered and remain depopulated as since the clearances.

So you’d think that, in this more enlightened age, things would have changed. The truth is that very little has actually changed since that time. Landowners are still free to do as they like with the land they own.

Huge areas of Scotland, perhaps as much as 17% or 18% is given over to driven grouse shooting. A practice that damages the environment, leads to the slaughter of wildlife and benefits very few of us.

Landowners will point to the economic benefits arising from driven grouse shooting when, in fact, driven grouse shooting is one of the least effective ways of using land productively and is far outweighed by the economic benefits of activities like forestry.

My new book Sky Dance is about rewilding but it also has a lot to say about the way individual land owners treat our land.

There are some responsible land owners who do try to work for the good of our environment but these are few and far between and many land owners spend their time milking the agricultural system.

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