Everyone in Assynt [EM] a small district in the north-western Scottish Highlands [EM] knows Robbie Mackenzie. He's a poacher, and once served four months in prison for killing 49 deer in one weekend. Mackenzie is right at home in the landscape, with the double-humpbacked mountain of Suilven and the Abhainn na Clach Airigh River rushing through the moorlands. But last August, as he strode out to bag his first stag of the season, everything seemed unfamiliar. For the first time in his 42 years, Mackenzie didn't have to look over his shoulder. For the first time, he wasn't a criminal trespassing on the property of absentee landlords.
Who owns Scotland? On the whole, not the Scots. Until last June, the 17,800 hectares of Assynt's Drumrunie and Glencanisp estates belonged to members of the Vestey family, one of England's wealthiest, who would venture up from London every August to enjoy a spot of shooting. Of the 97% of Scotland that is rural land, 88% is privately owned, with two-thirds of that in the hands of 1,252 individuals, families and companies. Mohamed al Fayed, the Egyptian-born owner of swish department store Harrods, has 12,140 hectares; the Danish vice chairman of Lego, Kjeld Kirk Christiansen, 20,230 hectares.
After the breakdown of Highland clan society in the turbulent years that followed parliamentary union with England in 1707, clan chiefs brutally evicted their tenants, clearing the land for more profitable sheep farming. It was only after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 that ordinary Scots were able to take back control over the way Scottish land was owned and used. Now the Scottish government is offering help to communities that want to buy their land from distant landlords.
In 2002 the tiny isle of Gigha, off the west coast, was purchased by its residents. All but two local houses were near uninhabitable. Now the houses have been renovated, and 25 new jobs have been created, along with a wind farm. "It was like a big cloud lifting from the island," says Willie McSporran, who led the buyout. "One farmer told me: 'I went whistling and smiling to pay my rent, knowing that it wasn't going into the pocket of a laird.'"
Last year Assynt's residents followed suit. The place had been stagnating, partly because the Vesteys had an agreement with Britain's Inland Revenue to keep the land in its natural state in exchange for inheritance-tax relief. Locals claimed that when they wanted land to start businesses or build houses, the Vesteys often declined their requests. "I have refused one or two cases for houses that seem-ed rather unsuitable places for them to be," says Edmund Vestey, 73, adding that such a "wonderful, wild wilderness" is rare, and "it's greater and more important than any of us."
That's not how local entrepreneurs see it. Martin Shairp, 26, a merchant navy officer, plans to return home to open an adventure tourism hostel. "Land reform is fantastic. For the past 50 years, the young have always left the Highlands," he says. "Mine is the first generation who are seriously thinking of going back. We don't want to go home and work in a shop and survive, we want to go home and be successful." Not that land is a ticket to wealth. "Most of these estates only existed because they had money coming in from outside," says Robert Balfour, chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups.
Derek Louden, the rural development manager hired to come up with an economic strategy for Assynt's land, believes this can change. He has asked the Scottish Crop Research Institute to find a crop to be farmed for biodiesel, and is enticing big companies to sponsor the planting of woodlands to offset carbon emissions. A marina is being built. Alastair MacAskill, the local butcher and chairman of the Assynt Foundation [EM] the residents' association that now owns the land [EM] knows this is only the start. "We thought Vestey would be there forever. It just shows how fragile the connection of land to landlord is. Now we've removed that fragility I believe it will give people confidence to put down roots and be entrepreneurs."
On the hills above Assynt, the poacher turned gamekeeper slings his Austrian hunting rifle over his shoulder. Up here, the idea of land ownership seems academic. "This should be for everybody," says MacKenzie. Now it is.