Current Scottish land reform and reclaiming the commons: building community resilience

Kathryn Burnett, Mike Danson*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePresentationpeer-review


    Land and community ownership and management of assets are fundamental to economies and societies throughout northern Europe, and especially to those on the periphery and margins of the continent (Danson and de Souza, 2012). While there are differences in tenure across the Nordic countries, they tend to be dominated by smallholdings or by the communities themselves; contrasting with this, in the Celtic countries large scale, and often absentee, land ownership and feudal rights have long been the norm and so development has been influenced by and dependent on a different set of imperatives from where those who live on the land are also strongly involved in its ownership and management. Recent changes in land ownership in Scotland have created spaces within which local people can nurture and develop the collective capabilities which will help their communities to sustain and grow. Achieving such fundamental change locally necessarily has involved coming together and acting as a defined community, with governance structures recognised by the State under the dedicated land reform legislation. As elsewhere, the specific type and nature of economic and social development depends on the particularities of each community buy-out but all of the cases in Scotland are based on community ownership of the commons, confirming that the ‘commons’ are critical to understanding the processes and outcomes of people taking over their most basic of assets in these remote geographies – land and property. Further, all have demonstrated enterprise, initiative and planning to realise repopulation, improved housing, employment and business growth, and regeneration of the natural flora and fauna (Burnett and Danson, 2014). This paper therefore outlines the fundamental changes that have been taking place in land ownership, and the developments contingent on this, in remote and difficult to access areas of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It then considers current moves to introduce more widespread land reform legislation and community empowerment, with a particular focus on where the transfer of public assets and responsibilities is involved. Despite their fragile economic bases, their geographical and societal peripherality, these communities have demonstrated innovation and initiative with a unifying theme across most of a new resilience and a pursuit of sustainable economic strategies and policies. To understand how these changes have come about, this paper offers an historical and contemporary perspective of land ownership in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland as both a reason for marginality and as a constraint on development. The theoretical perspectives underpinning the analysis are then introduced and these are applied to recognise the origins of cooperative and community activities within these communities as being grounded approaches to meeting the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968) in harsh and difficult environments. It is argued that, alongside historical legacies and social norms, the long-established particular local institutional arrangements to address the peculiar physical, social and political contexts have created the foundations for subsequent community buy-outs of privately and state owned land and property. The forms and nature of these developments are assessed within the rules and property rights literature, as articulated in particular by Ostrom (2008) and Schlager and Ostrom (1992), to analyse the processes at work which have created opportunities for collective economic development within these communities. The paper discusses the experiences of case studies of community buy-outs to explore and illustrate the application of the theoretical underpinnings. This discussion addresses the challenges faced by isolated communities and community volunteers in meeting expectations of different stakeholders and local members of the community, in delivering ambitious aspirations and plans, and in sustaining energies and consensus. The paper concludes with suggestions for policy recommendations and ideas for further research.This contribution addresses a number of the aims of the symposium “Ploughing up the Landed Commons”: by considering the lived experiences of small fragile communities on the periphery which are differentiated by their geography, histories and assets (broadly defined to include natural and human heritage), and who have broadened their land use rights through new collective ownership regimes and governance structures; by assessing how these have been renewing their, often embryonic, relationships over local planning and development, albeit that these are constrained by lack of working capital and other resources; by examining their attempts to balance each of public collective, essential private and continuing landlord development plans; by exploring the new forms of support and governance offered to address the challenges of these communities; and so by offering some learning from these case studies and from their collective associations. 
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Jan 2016
    EventPloughing up the Landed Commons: INDIGO International Symposium - KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
    Duration: 20 Jan 2016 → …


    ConferencePloughing up the Landed Commons
    Period20/01/16 → …
    Internet address


    • land reform
    • commons
    • community
    • islands
    • resilience
    • Scotland


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