Minister produces an odious Scotch mist

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The Independent Online
Up stood the rebellious Scot and proclaimed. "There are fears and doubts just now in Knoydart". For why? Has Clanranald raised once more the standard of revolt, and marches he e'en so, to the skirl of the pipes, his doom for to meet on the shores of Lochdubh? Throw some more peat on the fire wifey, and let us keep low, while the redcoats pass by.

The Scot was Alec Salmond (SNP, Banff and Buchan) leader of his party, the place was the Chamber of the House of Commons yesterday morning, the subject was land ownership in the Highlands. And the debate - attended by a dozen or so Scots MPs - was absolutely fascinating; not unlike reading a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.

"It was forty years after the famine", said Mr Salmond, "over a century after the Clearances and only after years of desperate revolt in the Crofter's War, that this place finally passed the 1886 Crofters Act", which unfortunately left intact the old feudal system of land ownership in Scotland. Take the Island of Eigg, now owned by an obscure German artist called Martin Eckland Maruma, its hills "left bare of stock", its buildings run down, its families "fearful even for the roof over their heads".

Worse, a system called pre-emption allows "feudal superiors" (no, really) to exercise first claim of purchase when a property is sold on. The result for those buying their own council houses is that they find themselves having to pay a lot of money to some old laird, or a nasty property company. Then there are people who specialise in alerting lairds to their ancient rights, like those who persuaded "Captain Alexander Ramsay of Mar to sign over a disposition in the register of Sasines". It was all wrong.

Would that Mel Gibson were alive today, I sighed. Unfortunately the English hanged, drew and quartered him years ago, otherwise feudal superiors would need men-at-arms to accompany them, as they travelled in their Range Rovers from estate to estate. Now the landed interests in the House of Lords sit athwart the movement for reform.

Their representative in the Commons was Sir Hector Monro, member of the Scottish Landowner's Association, and MP for Dumfries since Sir Alec Douglas- Home was Prime Minister. "This is," he rumbled sympathetically, "a complicated issue, and one that cannot be rushed into willy-nilly at short notice". Sir Hector clearly thinks that (when it comes to Scottish landowning) a couple of centuries is short notice. Furthermore, Sir Hector reminded us (in order to temper our impetuosity), there were plenty of "good land- owners, who look after their tenants", and who do not hang poachers, or insist upon droit de seigneur.

A series of good speeches followed before junior Scottish Office Minister Ray Robertson (Aberdeen South) - who had spent the entire debate with his feet up on the despatch box - rose to reply.

And a very odd speech it was, too. Mr Robertson began by saying that the government was fully apprised of the urgency of the matter, and had launched a "discussion paper in 1991, and were now working towards a report". Which was enough zippy problem-solving from young Mr Robertson, for he suddenly - from out of the blue - launched into an unprovoked rant about Mr Salmond, involving "the dark side of nationalism ... sinister and odious forces ... the obscene filth, based on xenophobia which the honourable gentleman peddles". Everyone else in the Chamber looked slightly shocked and embarrassed, as though the minister had just vented wind very loudly, or shown his bottom. Which, in a sense, he had.