The Ardtornish Estate, Argyll
Roughly half of Scottish private land is owned by just 432 people – the highest concentration of land ownership in the developed world. Basically, huge parts of Scotland are like those streets in London that are owned by the super-rich more as assets than somewhere to actually live. Except, in this case, it's multi-acre estates rather than pristine Georgian terraces.
People in the Highlands aren’t exactly serfs toiling for their stony-faced feudal overlords any more, but the concentrated land ownership still creates a set of problems. A lot of the land owners don’t actually live there, so tend to be more into treating land as a private playground than developing any kind of industry that might lead to jobs and economic development for the locals.
Reformers say that basing your economy on country sports (even if they're selling “authentic” hunting experiences to rich tourists rather than actual hunter-gathering) isn’t a great way to run things these days. They also say that the lack of remaining land at affordable prices creates a housing shortage. And, of course, concentrating land ownership in the hands of a few hundred people is pretty bad from a social equality point of view.
But the situation might be about to change; a growing demand for fairness has led to a review of Scottish land reform. The Scottish Land Reform Review Group was set up by the Scottish government in 2012 and is due to report in April. It’s not the first attempt to sort things out – the 2003 Land Reform Act was supposed to allow communities, under certain conditions, to purchase land from unwilling landowners, but this has never actually been put into practice.
The SNP is under pressure to give teeth to the community right to buy, and to reform land regulation to bring about greater diversity of ownership – meaning that the land may no longer be largely owned by a handful of lairds who insist that only they are qualified to steward the pristine environment.
I decided that the best way to investigate this ancient way of life would be to go and take pot-shots at defenceless wildlife for sport. Deer stalking is a traditional highland pursuit and I thought it would take me back through the centuries and help me get to the bottom of the feudal land ownership system. Waking up in a highland estate, I got out of bed and lit the freestanding fire of my lochside cottage. I then sat down to breakfast with the gamekeeper, Simon Boult.
On the way to the stalking grounds, I asked Simon what he thought about the reforms. He pulled out an e-cigarette, a little at odds with his immaculate top-to-toe tweeds, and took a puff. "Some landowners are good and some are bad," he said, "but rich ones bring the money in."
Driving through Ardtornish Estate's 35,000 acres, it's clear that the Raven family – who have owned the land for three generations – belong with the good guys. Boult showed me the hydro-electric dams they have built to invest in renewable energy, and we passed one of the shepherds whose parents and grandparents also worked on the land. The estate is the biggest employer in Morvern parish, with 20 full-time staff, around half of whom are local.
Hugh Raven's castle.
Having helped me through my first murder-for-entertainment, I felt a special bond with Simon and started to sympathise with his view of things. As he smeared my cheeks with the blood of the deer I killed, I thought, 'What’s so wrong with this way of life?'
The Ravens seemed to be living proof of the arguments made by bodies like Scottish Land and Estates, who represent landowners and are against the reforms. They say estates give back to the Scottish economy, claiming that the country sports industry is worth over £350 million (€430 million) per year. Meanwhile, shooting, stalking and fishing ensure that the environment is well preserved.
I passed the 12th century castle where Hugh and his family live, but he was away skiing, so I gave him a call. "We're different to other estates –we have our ear to the ground," he said. Raven told me he was saddened by the number of landowners who don't live on their land. He also said he has advised Lisbet Rausing, the daughter of Tetrapak billionaire Hans Rausing, on how to manage her 52,000 acre estate near Fort William, when she's not at her home in west London.
In Edinburgh, spoke to Andy Wightman – known in these circles as the “scourge of the landowners” – to hear the other side of the argument. Wightman is the most prominent land rights campaigner in Scotland. I met him in an organic cafe populated by the sort of people who would probably perform some sort of ritualistic display of grief if they'd known about the deer I'd just killed in cold blood. Wightman had heard of Hugh Raven and acknowledged that he runs the land well. But management, apparently, is not the point. “This is about the fundamental architecture of power,” he says.
The jealous guarding of the land by the very few is bad for equality and social mobility in Scotland. It sets up a barrier between rich and poor, as, according to Andy, “owning land defines you as a separate class… property is a fetish”. Wightman’s latest book, The Poor Had No Lawyers, explains how current patterns of land ownership inhibit development, particularly under absent landowners who have no interest – financial or otherwise – in investing in the land. The Land Reform Review has been tasked to encourage development through breaking up Scotland’s huge estates and building “stronger, resilient” communities with a greater stake in the land.
Wightman believes that this isn't just a Scottish issue, telling me that “land is at the heart of the financial crisis” and claiming that tax avoidance runs into the “hundreds of millions”. He has a point, as agriculture, hunting and fishing, are exempt from business rates. On top of that, inheritance taxes “are almost voluntary” and don’t even apply on land owned by Trusts, who instead pay a sum every ten years that again, said Wightman, "can be avoided in various ways".
The unregulated nature of land ownership leaves the door open to dangers like money-laundering and creative accounting through off-shore firms. Wightman has claimed in the past that, on average, the Treasury loses £72 million (€88 million) a year in foregone tax through the offshore ownership of rural Scotland. And even the initial investment itself isn't a bad one, as land in Scotland has seen its value increase by 204 percent in the past decade alone, according to estate agents Knight Frank.
Somewhere along the line, I had lost my enthusiasm for Ardtornish Estate. It’s fun to live like an 18th century aristocrat, but doing so – like lots of other fun things – also falls into the category of "not conducive to the successful running of a modern country". And while the owners are arguably more responsible than others, it's still impossible to let them off the hook completely – if only because they are part of a culture so heavily rooted in inequality. Over the other side of the country, for example, is Donald Trump's monstrous golf course, which has only spawned 200 of the 6,000 jobs the tycoon promised while bulldozing the environmentally sensitive area of the Scottish coast.
Benevolent caretakers do exist, as I saw with Hugh Raven. But who will he choose to inherit Ardtornish? Under Britain’s age-old "beneficial ownership" system, registered owners of land and property are under no obligation to reveal their identity. Not only do the Scottish people have absolutely no say on how the land is used, they don’t even know who owns it. It’s left for the previous owner to decide whether the local area and community ends up with a Raven or a Trump.
That said, there's a chance that this could change, as the SNP appear determined to alter the system. Paul Wheelhouse, the party's environment minister, recently told BBC Scotland, "I’m confident that the land reform review group will come up with radical proposals – that’s what we charged them to do." And even if the review of the Land Reform Act doesn’t deliver the goods when it published its report in April, reform is an issue that will definitely remain on the table.
However, many believe the party will hold off taking any meaningful action until the results of the independence referendum are in. After all, making enemies in such a wealthy and influential group of people isn't going to do Alex Salmond any favours in his bid to secure independence from the UK. But afterwards, if he gets his way, it's likely that land reform will become a key issue in the newly independent Scotland; breaking away from the rest of the UK is sure to prompt a reassessment of what policies are in the best interest of the Scottish people, as well as shine a light on the cosy consensus between the political class and the landowners.
It’s hard not to be charmed by the lifestyle at a Highlands estate. A fire, a glass of whisky, a sense of solitude and safety all wrapped into one – what could be better? Even Bob Dylan bought one a couple of years ago. But fun though it may be for anyone rich enough to time travel back to the feudal age, it looks like the Highlands might be joining the 21st Century soon enough, whether the lairds like it or not.