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Should we fear a Mugabe-style land grab in rural Scotland?

The rise in Scottish nationalism may have implications for landowners and immigrants alike

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

Just under 100 years ago the headline in the Oban Times read ‘American family buy lodge and estate on the Isle of Jura’. They were my grandparents, who, although by then British, had both been born in America. They bought our lodge from the Campbells of Jura, who had had the misfortune to lose their heirs one terrible morning in the trenches of the first world war.

My grandparents were initially regarded with suspicion by the locals. Yet after investing in the estate, improving the crofters’ cottages, reroofing them from turf to slate, they became well liked within the community. They spent summers on Jura, and occasionally visited in winter. So did my father, my uncles and now my family — brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren and cousins. West coast Scottish estates require constant investment, but the beauty and ambiance of the place, the people and its culture have always made it all worthwhile.

My childhood was spent sometimes in the sun, more often in the wind and rain, playing cricket on the beach, pulling lobster pots, catching mackerel, worming for brown trout and catching the odd sea trout with a fly rod in the small spate river. Although my sisters and I occasionally looked with envy to our school friends who went off for exotic holidays on hot beaches, we would never have swapped our Scottish summer holidays.

Following the SNP victory, however, families like us worry that we will find ourselves regarded as foreigners again in our own country. The SNP manifesto promises ‘to ensure Scotland’s land reform debate focuses on how Scotland’s land can be best managed in the public interest to ensure it is of benefit to all of the people of Scotland’. The worry is that it will not actually be for the benefit of the local community but will hand power straight to the bureaucracy in Edinburgh. Under the SNP, governance has already been centralised there. ‘Benefit to all’ must mean all, not just special interest groups.

Are we estate owners now to be nationalised or made to feel so unwelcome that we have to sell up in a Mugabe-style land grab? It would be a pity, but we are accused of owning too much. Are we really going to have to defend owning so many acres of hill when 500 acres of hill may be only worth the same or even less than one acre of good farmland in the lowlands of Scotland?

Is it because we don’t sound Scottish? We should not all have to sound like Rob Roy. If the SNP wants us all to speak with a certain type of Scottish accent, what does that say to the many hundreds of thousands in the immigrant community who have lived in Scotland for a long time but still speak with the accent of their birth? Are they not Scottish?

We worry that the SNP have concentrated power in the few. They brook no dissent. While I don’t agree with most of what the outgoing Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has to say, one has to admire the way he stood up and said it during the referendum and general election campaign — against the barracking organised by SNP supporters who turned up at all of his meetings and tried to shout him down. Hardly democracy in action.

We on Jura feel we have played our part in the community and invested in the future. One neighbour of mine is building an 18-hole golf course that will provide much needed jobs on the island. Another has built one of the largest water turbines in Scotland generating electricity. We want to build a new Jura distillery to complement the now very successful Jura whisky. The Jura distillery, reborn 50 years ago with the support of island estate owners, is now owned by a Philippine company. For the good of Scotland, we must continue to encourage foreign investment into the highlands and islands.

Scotland is different from England and, contrary to many views including those of the SNP, its rural policies already work well. In Scotland, there is a very effective right to roam. No hill is blocked off to walkers. Crofters have the right to buy their crofts and many have done so. Sea and golden eagles flourish in the islands, a testament to conservation by public bodies and by landowners. Seals and basking sharks swim in island waters. Deer flourish on the hills and trout in the lochs, both providing employment and local revenue.

We wait to see how the SNP actually implement their polices. We are up for the challenge of working with the SNP for the benefit of all in the community — if they will work with us. That is their challenge. The SNP won nearly all the Westminster seats in Scotland with 50 per cent of the vote — a remarkable feat for which they should be congratulated. But let them not forget the other 50 per cent who did not vote for them, whose voice still matters.


William Astor joined the House of Lords as a Conservative in 1973.

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