A book review of Rob Gibson’s ‘Reclaiming our Land’ *, by Malcolm Kerr.
Scotland is recognised as having one of the most concentrated patterns of land ownership in the developed world. Less than 500 individuals own half of our privately-owned rural land, and 750,000 acres of this may be owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens. This pattern, on Arran – ‘Scotland in Miniature’ – is responsible ultimately for relative economic stagnation, environmental degradation, over-dependence on tourism, and a lack of any diversity of affordable housing for islanders.
Land-owners as a class, of course, have been writing the law regarding land-ownership, in their own interests, for centuries. It is widely held however that an important key to releasing Scotland’s economic potential lies in land reform to bring the Scottish position closer to situation found in most normal western democracies. The Scottish Parliament has consequently focused on a practical approach to progressive change.
A former MSP, from 2003 to 2016, Rob Gibson delves into land reform to embrace the idea that to succeed, first you must remember what has created the problem, then re-vision the possibilities for change, and finally reclaim the land for the people who live here.
Rob was a student campaigner for crofting and land reform. Decades later he was elected to the Scottish Parliament. There he helped make far-reaching land reform laws. Along the way he took part in many of the formative events and debates in Scotland’s land reform journey.
Rob campaigned while a student at university in Dundee (1968-73). He helped plan a historic demonstration at Strollamus near Broadford (Skye) in 1972, aiding local crofters to face down a new antagonistic landlord.
The 1970s saw policy debates in hopes of establishing the Scottish Assembly, which was to be stillborn. Thereafter the 1980s and 1990s saw various campaigns recalling past struggles such as the Battle of the Braes (Skye), the formation of the Highland Land League, and in 1991 commemoration of the 1948 Knoydart Land Raid.
Elected to Ross & Cromarty District Council in 1988 until 1996, Rob pursued land and housing issues there and collaborated with land campaigners. His role as a volunteer SNP environment and land reform spokesman for the SNP ended with the election of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.
In 2003 he was elected SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands, and re-elected in 2007. He went on to win the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross in 2011 and was appointed convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. He was deeply involved in the development of the 2016 Land Reform Bill.
During those years Rob won best politician in The Scottish Green Energy Awards 2012 and politician of the year in The Nature of Scotland Awards 2013. These accolades recognised his leading role in two inter-related fields.
Memoirs of former MSPs are few and far between, and this makes the story, focusing primarily on land issues, especially interesting. If you want to hear about what has been achieved in this area, and about the many and varied obstacles to change, this is a good read, and not to be missed.
Nationally, all the important stepping stones along the route over the last five decades are referenced, by someone who was ‘right in there’, in the thick of it.
There are some intriguing Arran connections too. Rob is a nephew of the late Dora Purdie of Barnhill, and spent holidays at Strathwhillan in his youth. There is reference to the seminal study of the Arran population commissioned by the Arran Council for Social Service in 1967. Some of the background which led to Arran’s exclusion from the Crofting Legislation (in the 1880s), deer management on Arran, and protection of the Arran Whitebeams at Glen Diobhan also feature. Our larger land-owners are name-checked, in context. Oh, and there’s a picture of our very own Howard Wood!
Rob says “I was determined to see more diverse land ownership and sustainable energy uses that empower local communities. To that end, my involvement in land reform issues continues since my retirement from Holyrood in 2016. This book reflects on these decades of homing in on our goal.”
* ’Reclaiming Our Land’ by Rob Gibson
Published by Highland Heritage Educational Trust, (HHET) c/o Gibson, Tir nan Oran, 8 Culcairn Road, Evanton, Dingwall IV16 9YT. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Paperback, 324 pages include land reform timeline, references, 20+ illustrations and full index.
Price: £11.99 + £2.00 postage per copy. Available from the Book and Card Centre in Brodick, or by post directly from the above address.
28th June 2021