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Scotland Moves Against Wealthy Gentry Who Dominate Land

Countryside on Lomond Hills

The countryside of Lomond Hills, or Paps of Fife, Scotland, United Kingdom. De Agostini / Getty Images

Centuries-old traditions that led to 430 people owning half of Scotland's privately held land are soon to become history as local communities seek to double their ownership in the nation known for its rugged landscape, sheep, and fine whisky.

While inequality of land ownership is more often associated with developing nations, Scotland embarked on a campaign to ensure land was an asset for the many, not the few, with a landmark bill introduced to the Scottish parliament in 2015.

The move came amid growing tension over the dominance of large, often absent, land-owners whose hold over the country dates back to an era when Scotland was a largely agricultural nation run by the wealthy gentry.

"This is about local communities taking control over their own destiny from absentee landlords," Peter Peacock, a former member of the Scottish parliament, campaigner and co-author of a briefing paper on the reforms, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Scotland's land grabs took place a couple of hundred years ago ... now communities are trying to get some balance of ownership."

Common Good

The package of changes, contained in the 2015 Land Reform Bill, defines land as a finite resource that must be protected in law for the common good and in the public interest.

The third stage of a detailed, 10 part Bill passed in March and paves the way for a new Land Register to ensure greater transparency of land ownership and improvements to community rights to roam common land.

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Part of the push to re-balance property interests is also designed to encourage young people back to live and work in rural and wilderness areas, particularly the Scottish highlands.

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To help them, the Scottish government has been offering free land grants to community groups, so long as they live and work in the area, said Peacock who is also Policy Director of campaign group, Community Land Scotland.

Under a Scottish government initiative, half a million acres of Scottish land, an area larger than London, have been given to local communities in the past decade with the objective of reaching one million acres over the next four years, Peacock said.

The Scottish Environment Ministry would not provide additional comments on its land reform policies as the region is in the midst of an election campaign, a government spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Aileen McLeod, Scotland's Environment, Land Reform and Climate Change Minister, has committed more than $14 million annually until 2020 to help communities buy land.

"Owning land can help communities realize their aspirations and dreams and make a real difference to long term sustainability," McLeod said in a statement last month.

"This Bill will allow more communities than ever the opportunity to be involved in the decisions about land that affect them."

Security

Community Lands Scotland's campaign to double community land holdings in rural Scotland is part of an international movement mostly focused in the developing world to increase the amount of land formally held by communities.

A 2014 report for the Scottish government found that 432 individuals own 50 percent of the land in rural Scotland.

It said half of the territory's land is owned by 0.008 percent of the population of more than 5.3 million people, an "exceptional" level of inequality for a democracy.

Peacock said much of Scotland's land inequality can be traced back to a system of aristocratic inheritance, coupled with a violent campaign in the 1800s to clear small farmers and residents off their land to make way for large sheep holdings.

This gap between individual owners and local communities has been further exacerbated by large purchases led by wealthy investors, including celebrities, who bought vast swathes of Scottish territory in times of economic turbulence, he said.

Don't Mess With Scotland 1:28

One of the most famous investors is U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Half-Scottish, Trump has spoken proudly of his Gaelic heritage and owns two golf courses in Scotland.

The Land Reform Bill also aims to increase community land control by giving tenant farmers new rights to keep their land available for tenants when they retire.

After expressing concern about political rhetoric lambasting property barons, Scottish Land & Estates, a landowners' association, issued a cautious statement on the bill.

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"We support community land ownership as part of a diverse range of publicly and privately funded ownership models," David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said in a statement.

Peacock said in some cases, new government programs will also allow farmers to buy back land from absentee owners, even if the owners do not want to sell. In this instance, they would have to show the land is being neglected or improperly managed.

Sarah Boden, who raises sheep and cows on the island of Eigg off the coast of Scotland, is one of the residents to benefit from the government's land plan.

"You can apply to a community trust for a parcel of land, and effectively get it for free and build your property," Boden said in an online video promoting the land campaign.

"It gives me a feeling of security and belonging that I haven't felt anywhere else."