Comment: End of the high road for vassals and fiefdoms

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There must be something wrong when domestic disasters become the best way to meet people. But for the childless who don't have school runs and the godless who don't have sermons, rural Perthshire doesn't offer many alternatives.

The first crash - avoiding a pheasant - led to a friendship with the potter who gave me a lift to the train. The next - avoiding a deer - introduced me to a garage mechanic so usefully computer-literate that he's managed to input a digital picture of his mum as the office screensaver.

But it wasn't until I found one of my cats lying dead with six shotgun holes in it in a neighbouring field that I came across local landowner Bill Drummond Moray, the man mainly in whose hands rests the future of our little village of Fowlis Wester.

Population 44, it's a village time forgot nestling at the foot of the remote Sma' Glen. It has a church dating from the 13th century and standing stones that are older still. It does not have a shop, school, pub or garage. And according to our feudal superior, Mr Drummond Moray, it does not have a future as a "working village".

That's what local man Jim McColl says he was told when the lease on his livestock haulage yard expired. It seems the yard, shed and particularly the trucks that have rumbled down the single-track roads of Perthshire for 26 years suddenly conflict with plans to turn Fowlis "residential".

Never mind that Jim's family have been here for generations. Or that his business was the last based in the village. Or that it employed locals. And that no one had ever complained about the yard being an eyesore. Or that its sudden closure has left the overwhelmingly agricultural Strathearn Valley without local trucks to move livestock. Or that his family's departure would have robbed Fowlis Wester of its most dynamic mum and dad and removed yet another child from the perilously shaky primary school roll.

Thankfully, it hasn't come to that. Jim's landed a plum job as deputy manager of the United Auctions Mart at nearby Perth. "What Bill seems to visualise is this idyllic little hamlet tucked away in the hills where nobody does anything." The trouble is that what landowners in Scotland visualise has a knack of coming true.

Scotland's lairds have bigger estates and far greater feudal powers than landowners south of the border. Bill Drummond Moray owns 12,500 acres. That means for many locals he's both landlord and employer, and the only big agricultural employer for miles around. Leases may make the tenants responsible for maintaining their cottages, but some resent the fact that major expense ultimately benefits the landowner. One old lady has had to spend a substantial part of her savings to rewire her cottage. She's annoyed that she's only adding to the value of property that will revert to Drummond Moray's Abercairney Estate after her death.

But it's not just tenants who are affected by the decisions of a Scottish feudal landowner. In Fowlis Wester - like the rest of rural Scotland - homeowners are technically answerable to their feudal superior. If a villager obtained permission from the council for a new porch, for example, Mr Drummond Moray could charge for granting his permission.

But even if there's no demand for cash, there can be delays. When the latest family to leave Fowlis put their house on the market they discovered the Laird had first refusal. If he decided to match the highest bid the house would automatically be his. Eventually he decided not to but not before much hesitation, some delay and quite a few frayed nerves.

But then it's not easy being a landowner these days. Mr Drummond Moray has been hit by a divorce settlement and death duties. Add to that a housing stock that's generally 100 years old, repair bills that would frighten a lottery winner, and the prospect of a reforming Scottish parliament, and it might not be surprising if some landowners are looking to capitalise a few of their assets.

Fowlis Wester farmer, Elizabeth Doig, wants to know why her son Alan's been given notice to quit his stock-rearing hill farm. The Doigs have been farming there since 1946 and thought the renewal of their 15-year lease was a formality. They were told the Laird wanted to put the hill back to grass. The formidable Mrs Doig can scarcely contain herself.

"Last time our people were put off for sheep - now we've gone downhill. We're worth only a couple of grouse. Which won't breed anyway because it's always been a grass hill not a heather hill." In Glenshee another Perthshire farmer is fighting for the renewal of her lease through the National Farmers' Union.

So what's going on? Local Scottish Nationalist MP Roseanna Cunningham has already become involved in the eviction of several families on the nearby Blackford estate owned by the Saudi Arabian, Sheikh Al-Tajir.

"Landowners must know the writing's on the wall," she says. "Every party with MPs in Scotland is committed to some kind of land reform. It's simply unacceptable that one man or one family can make decisions to suit their own financial interests which can impact so badly on local communities."

But what of Drummond Moray's side of this? A spokesman for the Scottish Landowners' Federation (SLF) says that "from the facts that we are aware of there is no evidence that Mr Drummond Moray is behaving anything other than reasonably. You can always find examples of bad landowners, but he certainly isn't one of them. In terms of the environment and tourism, the way he sees the future of the community could be seen as quite enlightened." But the SLF does accept some criticism, and supports the reform of the feudal system pledged by the Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar.

"We recognise there is no place for words like `vassal', 'superior' and 'feudal' in a reformed system," says the SLF's vice-convener Robert Balfour. "Where community involvement is relevant and constructive it is to be welcomed. But it is a total myth to think a landowner can do what he wants without constraint. In the case of Fowlis Wester the local haulier and Abercairney Estate decided mutually not to renew the lease, and it appears likely the site will be redeveloped for community use. Neighbouring land which has been sold for development was zoned in the local plan for new houses, which will surely be good for the community."

And indeed if anyone on agricultural wages can afford the pounds 200,000 price tag of the newest house built in the car park that used to service the community hall, well and good. Otherwise the estate's gain appears to be the community's loss.

What's the solution? Historian, Jim Hunter, favours the creation of a land bank like the one set up by the British government earlier this century in Ireland which bought estates when they came on the market, transferred ownership to locals and gave them 50 years to repay the debt. He suggests tenant farmers should be able to buy their farms as Highland crofters can. The Scottish Select Committee is to examine land reform, and Brian Wilson, the Scottish education minister, has set up a community land unit . But land ownership problems don't stop at the great glen.

So - ironically - it looks as if Scotland's rural community will have to wait for the establishment of Edinburgh's parliamentary community before change comes to the glens.

Lesley Riddoch is a Scottish writer and broadcaster

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