Scotland is renowned for its natural beauty;
breathtaking scenery, vast lochs and glens,
and islands that line thousands of miles of
For centuries, entitlement and privilege have
underpinned the country’s rural landscape.
And now, some claim the way Scotland’s land
is distributed has become the most unequal
in the developed world.
Amidst this, a new group of owners have emerged,
along with attempts by the Scottish government
to modernise the rules and in turn, encourage
a more diverse ownership pattern.
So how does land ownership impact Scotland’s
economy, environment and its people, and does
it actually matter who the land belongs to?
My name is Malcolm Combe and I’m a senior
lecturer at the University of Aberdeen School
of Law. There has been some literature to
the effect that Scotland does have the most
concentrated pattern of land ownership in
Europe, possibly even the developed world.
This is best reflected in the 432:50 figure
that’s most associated with Andy Wightman,
the Green Party MSP. He did some research
which suggests that 432 people or entities
own 50% of Scotland’s privately-owned rural
land. So that’s excluding, for example,
publicly-owned land, say Ministry of Defence
properties and also excluding land in urban
Traditional aristocratic landowners like the
Duke of Buccleuch, still own large swathes
of the country. But in recent decades, prospective
owners from abroad have been purchasing slices
of land across Scotland.
Take the Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen
for example. In 2018, the ASOS majority shareholder
became Scotland’s largest private land owner,
after snapping up a whopping 220,000 acres
-that’s roughly twice the size of Barbados.
His wealth has allowed him to purchase 12
Highland estates as part of his conservation
project called Wildland.
And he’s not the only Scandinavian keen
on Scotland either. The former CEO of the
LEGO group, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, owns several
estates, including Ledgowan in Wester Ross.
Foreign royalty has been quick to join in
on the action also. The billionaire ruler
of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum
owns the 63,000-acre Inverinate estate, which
includes three helipads and a 14-bedroom holiday home.
But despite the publicity given to the likes
of Sheikh Mohammed and Povlsen, the number
of overseas Scottish landowners is not as
big as you might think.
Registers of Scotland figures show that 6%
of the titles belong to owners outside Scotland.
The majority of these belong to people living
in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while
just over 1%, or roughly 24,000 titles, are
registered to addresses out with the UK.
So overseas ownership is not illegal, provided
the entity that owns the land is able to trade,
that’s absolutely fine. Is it a problem?
A lot of people would say no. Inward investment
is a good thing. But in terms of local accountability,
in terms of owners perhaps having a different
set of interests and perceptions to the local
community, then perhaps it is seen as a problem
in that regard.
With the release of the Panama Papers in 2016,
it has been suggested that 750,000 acres of
Scotland is owned in tax havens, potentially
causing challenges for tax authorities and
The actual four recurring derestriction that
Registers of Scotland have identified in terms
of offshore ownership are the British Virgin
Islands, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey.
Perhaps that’s tax treatment, perhaps that
transparency related, perhaps that’s entirely
arbitrary, but that’s just the way it is.
So who takes the crown as the biggest owner
in Scotland? The land is split mainly between
public bodies, individuals, communities and
other owners like the Royal Family.
But the largest single owner is Forestry and
Land Scotland. They hold 640,000 hectares,
the equivalent of thirty-five-times the area
of Glasgow. This land helps boost the economy
through logging and tourism.
The Ministry of Defence owns swathes of land
across Scotland, some of which is used for
military training exercises.
Scotland’s 32 councils own a sizable chunk
too, as do the RSPB and the National Trust.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Church
of England makes the list of biggest landowners
after buying thousands of hectares of forestry
as part of its investment portfolio.
But the overwhelming majority of rural land
is in the hands of private owners – around
57% according to the Scottish government.
Land ownership is a hot potato. Like many
other legal systems, Scotland says the right
of ownership is the apex right, it is the
right that gives you a really important agenda
setting role. The risk would be that you get
a land owner who essentially throws their
weight around a little bit. Land can have
such a big impact on other people. If you
have a land owner who is particularly thrawn
and stubborn and doesn’t want to do something,
then that can have a big impact.
This was the case on the Isle of Eigg in the
90s. Islanders previously faced years of issues
with absentee landlords, including the removal
of waste from the island. So, they decided
to purchase the land for themselves. £1.5
million pounds was raised and over 20 years
since the buyout, the island’s population
has almost doubled.
Several pieces of land reform legislation
have been passed by the Scottish government.
In 2013, the then-first minister Alex Salmond
also set a target of one million acres of
Scotland being owned by local communities
by the end of the decade.
There was a law passed called the Land Reform
Act 2003 which gave communities in rural Scotland
the right to have first dibs on an asset when
the land was put up for sale. Then the second
wave of land reform legislation came with
the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015
and that brought in a way for communities
to take on a land asset that had been neglected,
abandoned or environmentally mismanaged. The
third wave is the most recent Land Reform
(Scotland) Act 2016, which has a right for
communities to acquire land when the land
owner has somehow been blocking sustainable
Although the one million acres target is unlikely
to be achieved by 2020, the Scottish government
continues to stress that land reform is on
a “radical journey”. What is certain is that
the debate over who should own Scotland won’t
disappear anytime soon.
So land reform is a bit of a recurring issue
and this is probably because it’s a bit
of a goldilocks issue. To some, what’s happening
at the moment is too hot, to others it’s
too cold, to others it’s just right. So
we could imagine returning to these issues
again in the future.