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With the exception of Orkney and Shetland where the Norse influence provided an alloidal tenure system (where land is held subject to no superior), the dominant form of land tenure across Scotland historically has been feudal. Its origins can be traced back to King David I (1124-1153). The feudal system of tenure was not imposed in Scotland (unlike in England ) but developed gradually. Feudalism is a system of land tenure within which property rights are derived from an ultimate authority (paramount superior) and inheritance depends upon primogeniture (inheritance by the first born male). Whilst in legal theory the ultimate authority is God, in practice it is the Crown. By assuming ultimate ownership of land, Scottish monarchs could operate a system of patronage by granting land to lesser nobility in exchange for financial and military obligations and had the power of forfeit where this exchange was not honoured, or there was no male heir. Strategic marriages are therefore a key feature of the history of land ownership in Scotland (Wightman, 1996).

A detailed history of feudalism is not relevant here but its effects on the patterns of land ownership in Scotland over the ensuing 850 years are.

The historical legacy of feudal tenure is that Scotland now has one of the most highly concentrated patterns of private land ownership in the world.

For several hundred years, fewer than 1500 private estates have accounted for around 80-90% of Scotland ’s land area. By the beginning of the 18 th century there were around 9500 “landowners” in Scotland , dropping to around 7637 in 1814. By 1873 some 118 people owned over 50% of the land area of Scotland . Despite considerable social and political agitation during the latter part of the 19 th century, which resulted in the provision of security of tenure to Highland crofters with the 1886 Crofters’ Holdings Act, Scotland ’s feudal land laws survived intact until the end of the 20 th century. It is a remarkable fact that legally the notion of feudal superiority was only removed with the Abolition of the Feudal Tenure Act in 2000 ( Warren , 2002).

Land ownership has been a particularly contentious issue over the past decade and various aspects of land reform have lain at the heart of the present government agenda since 1997. The land reform process and the related debate are well documented by Warren (2002). The seminal work of Wightman (1996) not only addressed the fundamental lack of contemporary data on ownership patterns but also highlighted why landownership remains an important issue for modern Scotland , economically, culturally, and environmentally. In terms of the latter he highlighted that “landowner motivation, land use decisions and the assumptions underlying property rights and obligations, can have marked effects on environmental stewardship standards” (op. cit. p14). Because of its land tenure history, the environmental management of most of Scotland is concentrated in the hands of relatively few individuals. This can be seen as both a weakness and an opportunity.

Contemporary patterns of ownership - Private >>