Lairds' feudal powers to be ended

THE lairds and public bodies that own vast tracts of Scotland will be put on notice today that their feudal grip is to be broken and ordinary folk allowed a greater stake in the land.

Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, will tell a gathering in Aviemore there needs to be more diversity in the way land is owned and an end to a laird's power to block small community development initiatives. Land ownership is a symbolic issue in a country where even the most urban Scot retains a romantic attachment to the hills and glens. But domination by a small number of large estates and the feudal system governing tenures and usage have been sore points for generations.

Labour and the Scottish National Party are pledged to reform, which will be high on the agenda of the Scottish Parliament when it starts work next year. But landowners fear they could become the victims of a new legislature wanting to demonstrate its virility and intent on misconceived revenge for the Highland clearances of 200 years ago.

Mr Dewar is to release the second of a series of consultation papers. The first, "Identifying the Problems", was issued last February. Today's turns to possible solutions. A final report is to be issued at the end of this year.

The 360 responses to the first paper ranged from a minority in favour of the status quo to radical public-ownership demands. However, a source said there was "no strong demand" for a ban on foreign ownership of estates or on "absentee" landlords.

The attitude of Lord Sewel, the minister chairing the land reform working group, is that "there are exceedingly good foreign owners and there are some exceedingly bad Scots owners". What matters is the way land is managed rather than the nationality or identity of who controls it.

While the Scottish Parliament will be free to adopt a more radical approach, the blueprint is likely to focus on removing feudal barriers to small- scale businesses that could help sustain rural communities and increasing the "diversity" of ownership, though this seems to stop short of enforced sales. People should also be allowed a say in how the private land around them is used, it will suggest.

Most of rural Scotland consists of fewer than 1,500 private estates. Top of the private ownership league is the Duke of Buccleuch, with estates totalling more than 250,000 acres.

Any reform is likely to include powers to create new crofts or smallholdings. There are 17,500 crofts in the Highlands and Islands. Demand from young local people is well in excess of supply, though many holdings are unworked - another target of reform.

A novel idea could see crofting extended beyond its traditional areas to the Lowlands, providing an alternative livelihood in communities once dependent on mining or industry.

The Scottish Landowners' Federation will resist giving tenants a right to buy and any restrictions on the size of estates or foreign ownership.

Yesterday it voiced the fear that a new parliament might use the issue to demonstrate it had teeth. "Hopefully, the idea of taking revenge for the Clearances has been stamped on," said a spokesman.

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