Assynt Crofters' Trust
Assynt Crofters' Trust

The Allan MacRae Memorial Debate

The debate was organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation, whom we would like to thank. We would like to also extend our thanks  to Alan Weldon, Ecosse Technology, for live-streaming the event free of charge. The link to which is below:



The Allan MacRae Memorial Debate

Stoer 4th July 2018


This house believes that land reform measures in Scotland to date have done little to further their primary objective of greater social justice



Opposing the motion – Iain MacKinnon



I ask you to oppose the motion. Not because I am being complacent about the role of land reform so far in supporting greater social justice in our lands; but because I believe that justice cannot be forced; it must be found.


I want to elaborate on what I mean by this, by considering land reform in terms of the history that created the need for land reform in the first place. This long view of land reform may prompt us to reconsider the extent of the political work that land reform is doing in Scotland today; and the pace at which it should, in consequence, proceed.


The present land reform moment sparked into life 25 years ago when the Assynt crofters, with Allan MacRae in the van, took on private landownership and won the land; it subsequently achieved legislative recognition with the passing of the 2003 Act.


But this was not the beginning of land reform in Scotland.


The Crofters Act of 1886 was, of course, a land reform process. The risings of that time were in response to evictions and impoverishment that today are usually called the Highland Clearances, but which at the time were more often considered a process of 'domestic' or home colonization, articulated as such by people like Patrick Sellar and his Sutherland-shire partner-in-crime William Young, and by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster the first president of the Board of Agriculture.


This 19th century internal colonisation - as described by Alastair McIntosh in his speech on Monday as part of this celebratory week - is integral to why land reform is happening in Scotland today. However, it is not the beginning of Scotland's land reform journey, or of its internal colonisation.


In the early 17th century King James VI called the Gaelic speaking people of the Highlands and Islands 'savages' and 'barbarians' some of whom should be transported or rooted out - a statement which might be considered a kind of 'land reform' policy. James went on implement this policy through endeavours such as the plantation of Lewis, using around 500 mercenaries to try to create a Lowland colony on the island, to subjugate the people already living there to new rules, and to wipe out - with the backing of law - their leaders.




And, as Andy Wightman's research argues, land reform's historical context must be taken back further still, to include the development of feudal tenure, often associated with David I. Historians call his reign from 1124 to 1153 'a revolution'. It is said to have been the inception of profound changes in social, economic and tenurial customs in Scotland, at times achieved by great violence.


As an example, if you look at a map of who had land in north west Scotland in the 13th century, one name stands out among all the 'Macs' that you would expect to find here. It is the name Bisset, an Anglo Norman family who, in addition to lands in Ireland and elsewhere in Scotland, appear to have held land in South West Ross. We don't know how they got there but the record suggests they were a particularly violent family. And there is this gnomic comment in the Annals of Ulster, an Irish Gaelic viewpoint on the politics of the medieval period. On the death of a senior member of the Bisset family, he was described in the Annals as 'destroyer of Gaels and churches'.


These were the kinds of families who benefitted from feudal tenure, a form of landholding that if you remember was finally abolished less than a decade ago, and which has had an enduring impact on the way that land and power is distributed in Scotland today.


Thus, I would say it can be argued that what has been happening in the last 25 years of land reform, is a response to 1,000 years of economic impoverishment, social oppression, political subjugation and cultural devastation, at times with genocidal intent, through the medium of land.


This is the historical context in which land is distributed and held and contested in Scotland today. These moments in history that I have outlined can be considered as layers in a deeply sedimented structure of domination, a millennium in the making, and this background structure means that land reform is not simply about changing patterns of land use and ownership. It is also about recognising, and changing, how we do things politically in our society today; how we make decisions and policies relating to land, land tenure, and the communities who live on the land.


I want to take as an example the reform of crofting tenure in 2010 when the duty-to-report provision was introduced at the end of the legislative process, so that all crofting grazings committees are required to report on the condition of their neighbours' crofts.


If you remember, it caused outrage when it was introduced, condemned by the Scottish Crofting Federation as an obligation to 'snitch on your neighbours', and also by the likes of Iain MacIver, factor of the community owned Stornoway Trust and now a crofting commissioner, and a hugely respected figure in the Islands.


Peter was actually involved in the parliamentary debate on the duty-to-report and to his credit he was one of the few MSPs who questioned it. And I am not saying that the MSP who introduced the duty to report did so with any bad intentions. But the fact is that it was introduced - as a matter of land reform - without any formal consultation or dialogue with the people on whom it was being imposed. And it was introduced, I should add, using a normative legislative procedure of the Scottish Parliament. This, I put to you, is a contemporary example of the way in which an enduring structure of domination for decision-making on matters relating to land works in Scotland today - and it is all the more difficult to see, because it is considered part of our 'normal' way of doing things.


This is part of Scotland's low intensity democratic system


The term 'low intensity democracy', draws on the phrase 'low intensity warfare' where, for example, bombs from a drone drop on people in the Middle East because a button is pressed in a military base in faraway lands.


The argument is that we live in a 'low intensity democracy' when as a society we press a button or put an X in a voting box and believe that we have fulfilled our democratic responsibility as citizens for the next four of five years.


The real political revolution taking place in parts of Scotland at the moment is that those communities where land reform is happening are moving from being low intensity to high intensity democracies.


So, for instance, a few years back when I asked one of the first generation of community leaders on the Isle of Eigg about the governance structure of the island, they told me that in addition to the main Isle of Eigg Trust which meets every few weeks, a whole series of sub-committees for things like housing, transport, the pier development, the electric grid, and so on, were also working, sometimes several in a week, and people going out to meetings on this very regular basis.


Another example, one given to me by Alastair McIntosh, and I want to acknowledge that it was in conversation with Alastair that this line of argument emerged, is from the island of Iona where, he said, the school role has increased from around six to over 20 in the last few years because the community is able to access land and to put affordable housing on that land, enabling young families to live on the island.


In his talk here on Monday, Alastair also mentioned 'John's Hydro', in honour of the endeavours of John MacKenzie to realise the hydro-electric project now generating a substantial income for the ACT from the waters of Loch Poll.


Agnes Rennie, chair of the Galson Trust, told me yesterday evening that 13 people will be employed on Galson this summer; before community control of the land the estate employed no-one.


It seems to me that projects such as these, and the extraordinary commitments shown by members of community owned estates in Scotland, are a result of these communities coming to a much deeper sense of what it is to exercise one's democratic responsibility as a citizen on behalf of one's place and of the people with whom one shares that place.


This is high intensity democracy.



It is important to stress that this new system is not being imposed or forced in some way, which is a tendency among some professional politicians when seeking to achieve aims that they consider to be good ones (the duty-to-report being an example).


Instead, the strength of what is happening in land reform is that it is happening at its own pace and unfolding from within.


And when CLS take a roadshow to visit areas where community ownership is either fragile or not-yet-existent and share inspirational stories, they seed ideas that may not appear immediately, or for a year, or a decade or a generation; but they are proceeding by offering good examples and dialogue, not diktat or imposition.


When I spoke with Alastair he argued that the power of land reform in Scotland is that it is being done in a non-violent way. Some liberation movements respond to the indirect violence of structural forms of oppression with direct violent resistance - think, perhaps, of the troubles in Ireland - and the domination system responds, in kind with direct violence.


What is happening in Scottish land reform is different. In response to longstanding internal colonisation we are beginning to decolonise our ways of decision-making. At its best, decisions on livelihood and resource governance and the future of community are being made at a more local level and proceed as a result of much more intense and involved dialogue and negotiation and sense of responsibilities; this still involves working with difference and conflict, but also involves new ways of negotiating difference and building relationships to overcome and prevent conflict.


Seeds of a different way of making change happen have germinated and are now growing mainly in remoter parts of north-west Scotland, perhaps in places where community decision-making structures have been more powerfully retained in the face of 1,000 years of external domination. I put it to you that this decolonisation process, and the development of new ways of making change happen, should grow, like a good crop of crofters' potatoes, fertilised by seaweed from the shore or manure from the cow.


That is, by all means support it with judicious use of local resources, energy and good-will, for the power of this way of making change comes from it taking place within place, and at its own pace. But we should be very wary of seeking to force change from outside; we overlook a lot if we overlook these deep democratic changes that are now taking place quietly within communities throughout Scotland and which, if carefully supported and allowed to develop, have the potential to quite transform the ways that we act politically and make decisions in and for our societies.


Social justice cannot be forced; it must be discovered and nurtured as a practice by those who would be its beneficiaries. For this reason I would argue that the slogan for land reform's role in supporting greater social justice in Scotland is 'go slow, go further', and so I call upon you to oppose the motion.




What follows is the text created by Peter Peacock from which he drew his contribution to the debate in memory of the late Allan MacRae held in Assynt on the 4th July 2018 during the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Assynt crofters taking ownership of their land. The motion for debate was:


"Land Reform measures in Scotland to date have done little to further their primary objective of greater social justice."

It is a great privilege to have been invited to take part in today’s debate in memory of Allan MacRae, during a day of celebration of Allan’s life and contribution to this community. Today’s debate is on one of many matters on which he had views – land reform.

I only met Allan a handful of times, yet his presence, his words, the example of his actions, have been with me on many, many occasions over the years. Allan’s voice, that resolute voice, didn’t only carry within Assynt, it did then and has since echoed often through the corridors of power.

The example of what happened here in Assynt when you, the people of this land, took back control – the day “It seems we have won our land” - as Allan put it; those events  have had profound influence in the land laws and rights of communities in Scotland, crofting communities and more widely.

What happened in Assynt in 1993 cannot be overstated in the influence it has had in shaping recent land reform policy and law and, within the struggle for the land that was fought with guile and tenacity, Allan MacRae’s role also cannot be overstated.

I know very well that what happened here depended on more than Allan MacRae alone, with Bill Ritchie and John Mackenzie in particular playing key roles. But I also know that both Bill and John believe that without Allan they would have no role to play.

It was Allan’s conviction that the cause was right and just. His resolve and ambition for a better future for his community and its young people, freed of the uncertainties of ever changing ownerships; his ability to engage with, listen to and lead his community; the eloquence and power of his oratory; the resolute voice; the passion; this made the route to victory possible.

The passion he could bring to debate was informed by his understanding of this land and its history, and more widely the history of Scotland’s land. But also the history of his own family having been cleared a few generations previously by a privileged elite, the rich and powerful of their day.

Allan and others being driven in the actions they took by the need to take control of the economic future of this community once again facing a change of ownership and great uncertainty. No longer should the community be a cork on the waves of ever changing circumstance, they needed a sail and a rudder, they needed control.

This was land reform at work, in practice. Local people leading to a future be less subject to the whims and actions of others, rectifying the power imbalance that has conditioned for centuries the nature of the opportunities available to people, holding back all too many communities. Allan MacRae understood that power imbalance and it was, I suggest, part of his motivation for what happened here in Assynt.

When Allan MacRae spoke the language of land reform this was the authentic voice of a man of the land speaking, a man deeply connected to the land, a man representing a community of people of the land. This wasn’t the voice of the professional politician, which by that time I was. The political voice so easily dismissed by the vested interests as pursuing a political agenda, a Marxist dogma, the politics of envy, as some would have portrayed it. No, this was the authentic voice of the people, passionate and committed to bring about change. “It is our land, and we intend to have our land”, Allan said to a shocked liquidator at the time, and Allan’s voice couldn’t be dismissed, the voice of Assynt couldn’t be dismissed.

The actions here were driven by the needs of this place and the circumstances of that time and while it was a contribution to a long held cause of land reform, symbolizing just what could happen, this was not being pursued for wider political effect.

But the need for change in Scotland’s land ownership, the Scottish land question, was a cause long cherished by a great many and understood well by Allan MacRae. Land reform in Scotland is a cause born of what are, internationally highly unusual and, in my view and the view of many others, unjust land ownership patterns. Those land ownership patterns, where very few people own the vast bulk of our land has long concentrated wealth, influence and power into very few hands. Those land ownership patterns act against social justice and entrench inequality.

The oft quoted figure is of just 432 people owning 50% of the private rural land in Scotland. Another way of expressing the inequality is that less than 0.0002% of Scotland’s population own 60% of the land. How can that be just?

Our land – and for me it is our land – is historically and increasingly, today the commodity of choice for many of the rich and powerful. The safe haven for their capital, for growing their wealth, through the appreciation of land values and access to significant public subsidy and tax breaks. If you believe in greater social justice - a fairer Scotland - which many, many Scots would claim then for me you cannot succeed in that aim without significant land reform.

Can it be socially just  that so few own so much land;  that so much of the Highlands and Islands remain devoid of people two hundred years after the vile acts of the clearances; that so many young people in their own place cannot find or afford housing; that the whims of some landowners can see population decline accelerate; that so many people in our urban realm are consigned to live their lives next to vacant or derelict land with no environmental quality; that our land markets operate in ways that only privileged and wealthy elites can participate in; that the land uses and environment of vast areas is decided by only one or two people; that a community can be denied the right to a sustainable future by virtue of the control others can exercise? All of these matters, rural and urban, and their solutions, are rooted in questions of land ownership, who owns the land and who has rights and interests in the land. In land reform policy it is the cause of social justice which is the root motivation for reform.

Since the Assynt buy-out in 1993 Scotland’s land laws have begun to change quite significantly, preferring rights on crofting and indeed all communities. The Transfer of Crofting Estate Act of 1997 – the last Scottish Act of then then Tory government was inspired in Assynt. What happened in Assynt inspired belief in the then incoming Labour Government that the talk of land reform for generations could give way to a new order in land ownership, it was possible. The policy makers asked themselves the question of whether what happened here could happen everywhere? It was clear the odds were stacked heavily against communities in financially and legally.

That is why in the report of the Land Reform Policy Group in 1998 directly informed by the Assynt experience introduced the policy thinking that was to become the Land Reform Act of 2003, one of the first Acts of the new Scottish Parliament. If any rural community wished to buy their land they could seek register an interest in the land and from that moment on it could not be sold to any other without the community having the first right of purchase. Crofting communities were given the right to buy their land even when the owner didn’t want to sell.

The work of the Land Reform Review Group in 2014 shifted the focus further and it talked about land needing to be owned and used - in the public interest and for the common good. This shifted the focus debate on land up to that point from being about private land rights, to focus on the public interest and the common good. In a Scottish context the public interest, the common good, is inextricably caught up in questions of fairness, questions of social justice.

The Community Empowerment Act of 2015 and the Land Reform Act of 2016 amended the original 2003 Act. Now all communities, of all sizes, in rural and urban Scotland have a right to seek to register an interest in land. In addition all communities now have rights to seek to purchase land even when there is not a willing seller if they can show the land is abandoned, neglected or detrimental. A new provision will come into force next year and will allow communities to seek to buy land even if there is not a willing seller, to further their Sustainable Development. This is about creating potential through the support of the law to take at least some steps to rebalance power in our society, seeking to deliver greater social justice, from a community perspective.

Increasingly these Acts of Parliament show that, explicitly, social justice is at the heart of land reform policy. For me and many others social justice is about greater fairness, greater equality of opportunity and in outcomes, it is about the fulfillment of human rights to a home and employment, to food and clean water, to good mental health, to a cultural life, to live in decent environmental conditions. Those Acts of Parliament now require Ministers to have regard to human rights questions: to have regard to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in land questions, and other recognised international guidance.

In drawing up the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement required by the 2016 Land Reform Act, Scottish Ministers must have regard to: promoting respect for, and observance of human rights; encouraging equal opportunities; furthering the reduction of inequalities resulting from socio-economic disadvantage; supporting and facilitating community empowerment; all matters, to me, about furthering social justice.

And that Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement itself explicitly references the achievement of greater social justice as the cause of land reform. It talks of land policy as a means to greater fairness where more people and communities can benefit from the land, to securing equality and wellbeing, explicitly, to helping achieve social justice. The Cabinet Secretary for Land Reform at the first Conference of the Land Commission last year made clear  land policy is about, “a fairer Scotland... about economic and social justice.

Looking back over that thread of the development of recent land policy, the origins lead back here, to Assynt. How to more clearly empower communities to seek to do what was done here, in the cause of furthering greater social justice. Land policies “for the many, not the few”, as the First Minister recently made clear to parliament. A right to a more sustainable future is an act in pursuit of greater social justice.

And yet, and yet, and yet…..

Despite all the apparent legislative progress, despite the welcome funding now available, progress to alter the status quo in land ownership is both painfully slow and has been marginal to Scotland being more socially just overall.

I applaud all that has been done here in Assynt and among the increasing numbers of communities which own their land. They are doing remarkable things In their own communities, providing some of the social justice that was so absent for so many generations by their daily actions in creating workplaces and jobs, providing land for and building houses, managing their land in the public interest and for the common good, and much more.

There is now over 560,000 acres of land in community ownership in Scotland and that is welcome, very welcome, but it is less than 3% of Scotland’s land.

Every acre of land that has come into community ownership is a welcome acre but, at the current rate of progress, in 100 years’ time the vast majority of land in Scotland will still be within the same types of ownership as today. Without much more significant change how can it be argued that what has been achieved to date goes anywhere near bringing about the change needed to truly strike a blow for greater social justice.

It is why I advocate that whatever we have done to date, we need to do much more. That there should be limits to how much land can be owned unless it can be shown to work in the public interest and for the common good.  It is time for a powerful land regulator to examine whether existing ownerships serve the public interest the common good, help fulfil human rights, deliver greater social justice. Powers are needed so that if that cannot be shown actions can be taken to change ownerships, to democratise the land, to create more opportunities for more people and comunities.

I believe Allan MacRae were he with us today would also celebrate the progress – as he did on a visit to Eigg when the islanders there took over their land. But he would also lament the fact there had not been greater progress, particularly on the Highland mainland, let alone the rest of mainland Scotland. He would have been frustrated about a great deal more too I imagine; about the plight of crofting and whether crofters are becoming an endangered species; about the distorting effects of tourism on the Highland economy and the pressure it brings to prioritise the interests of tourists; about the North Coast 500 route and its impacts. He would be agitated about so much of the Highlands and Islands land portrayed as “wild land” to serve particular interests when that attribution cannot be legitimately made for much of it.

For me Allan MacRae understood very clearly the implications of land ownership patterns in Scotland on the ability to greater secure social justice. He understood the importance of empowering people, of letting local people lead on the matters that affect their lives. Taking control of the land was the way to protect what the community valued, and to effect change that may be necessary, re-ordering the power balance in favour of the people. Re-ordering the power balance in land questions is the cause of delivering greater social justice.

But it is a cause yet to deliver its promise. We continue to live in a Scotland where overall little has yet changed, where the land is still predominantly owned and being bought up by wealthy elites in a market place where the `rules’ are stacked in their favour. It needs to change, it needs more radical action.

Chairman, for the reasons I have set out I move that – “This house agrees that Land Reform measures in Scotland to date have done little to further their primary objective of greater social justice.”



Closing contribution:

I want to finish where I started, with Allan MacRae.

Among many glowing tributes when Allan passed away one friend said that – “A light had gone out in the glen.” This was a major light, a beacon that had shone so brightly for this community in so many ways. But he was, as I explained earlier, a beacon for the whole of Scotland too.

Today, the opportunities that are being taken by communities, to own their land, such as that in Ulva in recent weeks, are using the laws informed by what happened here in Assynt. The Ulva buyout simply would not have happened without the laws that can now be used in favour of communities and which Allan MacRae and others here in Assynt inspired.

Ulva has seen its population decline from nearly 800 over a century ago to only six today. But there is an island within its wider community determined to fight back and with a strong sense that the social injustices of the past can be rectified through winning the right to own and control the land, to provide opportunity for future generations, to provide for a more sustainable future. Those matters, for me, are matters of social justice.

And much as there was a sense that the light went out in the glen when Allan MacRae passed away, my sense is that in so many ways that light still shines. Allan MacRae remains a light of inspiration for many, a light that shows what grit and determination can do in even the most difficult of situations.

It is fitting that his community, this community, should celebrate his memory 25 years after the victory that saw Allan declare rather modestly, “It seems we have won our land.” He also said the victory in Assynt was “an historic blow for people on the land throughout the Highlands and Islands.”

In those words I think Allan revealed his understanding that the power imbalance that existed between people and the private land-owners had to be ever more widely challenged. But there is so much more still to do.Others can still take inspiration from Allan’s words and deeds. “It is our land, and we mean to have our land." Those determined words can still inspire many a community across Scotland. They need to inspire more, as more, much, much more is needed. We have to date travelled only a little further down the road of striking a blow for greater social justice in Scotland’s land ownership patterns. The journey has only just begun.

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