Whoever Controls Scotland’s Land Controls Its Climate Future

Whoever Controls Scotland’s Land Controls Its Climate Future

Photographs by Niall McDiarmid

The wind turbine judders to life with a boom that echoes down its central shaft. The turbine spins slowly initially, but then it picks up speed and follows the wind’s direction. Andy Clements is responsible for the operation of the wind farm located on the Scottish Isle of Gigha. He steps out from the control center at the base and smiles with contentment. A minor problem required a restart, he tells me, but now the turbine is once again generating “pennies falling from heaven.”

Gigha is long and narrow, about six miles north to south, and the surrounding sea is bright turquoise, shading to deep navy over the nearby kelp beds. A 20-minute ferry ride to the east lies the Scottish mainland, deep green and brown under a moody autumnal sky. To the west are the much larger islands of Islay and Jura. The open ocean stretches to Canada beyond them.

The turbines dotting the hill are Gigha’s three “dancing ladies,” nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity. Harmony, a newer model, was added later. Since 2005, Gigha’s residents have sold power from the small wind farm to the national grid, generating hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Twenty years ago, when the inhabitants of Gigha–who numbered about 100 at the time–decided to buy their island from its millionaire owner, they were at the forefront of a national wave of community buyouts. Now more than 500,000 acres of land are in community ownership–almost 3 percent of the country–and more buyouts are in the pipeline. The buyouts were part of Scotland’s long-running effort to improve its land ownership system. Lingering medieval practices and laws that favored the rich have resulted in the “most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world,” according to a briefing paper given to U.K. lawmakers in 2013. The paper reported that about 500 people–less than 0. 01 percent of the population–still hold about half of the country’s privately owned land. Since 2001, grants from the national Scottish Land Fund have allowed Gigha and other rural communities to buy their land from often-absentee “lairds,” or landlords. Residents of these communities can now rent their housing from communally owned trusts, and use income generated from assets like wind farms to improve their local infrastructure.

Clements, who married a Gigha local and has lived on the island for 25 years, says that 95 percent of its houses were “below tolerable standard” before the buyout: “They were shocking–you had water running down the walls and windows.” Many houses have not yet been renovated; the community trust spent too much, too quickly, and has had to rein in its ambitions after finding itself in significant debt. Clements states that they didn’t have enough funds and control over housing before the island became part of the community.

Advocates of community ownership say the model is also a powerful way to address the climate emergency. In Scotland, community landowners not only built wind farms but also planted trees and restored peatlands that emit carbon. And because the money–assets, government grants, and income from tourism and energy generation–stays in community hands, the model can meet social needs as well, says Fraser Stewart, a public-policy researcher at the University of Strathclyde.

The land’s potential is not only being considered by rural communities in Scotland. Many foreign and domestic companies have bought large estates in the last year to offset carbon emissions, or to sell off carbon offsets. In 2020, the Scottish brewery BrewDog announced plans for ecotourism, reforestation, and peatland restoration on the more-than-9,000-acre estate it had recently purchased in the Scottish Highlands. In September 2021, the financial-services company Standard Life bought its own carbon-offsetting Highlands estate, angling for a head start against rising decarbonization costs. Three months later, Aviva–another financial-services company–announced a similar plan.

Alongside these corporate “green lairds,” wealthy individuals are buying large properties in hopes of restoring wilderness and regenerating carbon sinks. Magnus Davidson is a researcher in rural economics at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He says that some of these billionaires and millionaires collect trophies similar to traditional lairds. The only difference is that the new trophies include forests and peatlands and not hunting and fishing souvenirs. Other new owners aim to profit by managing the land for carbon storage and biodiversity.

The interest of “green lairds”, which are interested in land, is driving up the value and prices. Prices in certain areas have increased by more than a third in recent years. Private sales are on the increase too, with many buyers’ identities hidden. Peter Peacock is a former minister to the Scottish Parliament and a land rights campaigner. He says that land prices are on the rise so quickly that purchasing land in Scotland can be one of the most profitable and safest markets. “And that’s got all sorts of consequences … Only large, wealthy buyers can buy, because prices are so high, and that means communities are getting more and more squeezed out.”

As Scotland’s government plans another round of land-law reform, the country is grappling with the role that land will play in reaching the national target of net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2045. Who owns the country’s land, how much acreage each owner controls, and what those owners ultimately do with their holdings will affect not only the health of the planet but the future of the human communities that currently live on hot property.

Land is “not just dry stuff–it’s rural and urban; it’s the seas up to the territorial limits; it’s up in the sky, it’s down beneath,” says Andy Wightman, a land-reform campaigner and former member of the Scottish Parliament. Wightman, whose book Who Owns Scotland drew attention in the 1990s to Scotland’s archaic and idiosyncratic land-ownership system, runs a website that collects public information about the owners of Scottish estates. He says that the governance of our land is essential to all things. “It’s where we live, what we eat … It is everything, so it touches on everything.”

At every turn in rural Scotland, old landscapes jostle with new. Offshore wind farms replace oil rigs at sea. Regimented forestry plantations stand alongside small patches of softer, wilder native woodland. Sheep graze near onshore wind turbines.

A five-hour journey from Gigha, within the boundaries of Scotland’s largest national park, lies Kinrara estate, which BrewDog bought last year. About 70 miles away, on the country’s east coast, offshore oil is still booming. Cairngorms National park is home to native pinewoods, forestry plantations and snow-capped mountain peaks. As in most of Scotland, Kinrara’s estate managers prioritize the game birds and deer that attract paying tourists who want to hunt vacations. It has resulted in a lack of biodiversity. The heather-covered hillsides are a direct result of the deer’s ruthless clearing. A computer-generated image depicts an optimistic image of a woodland that has been regenerated with native rowan, willow and alder trees. Targeted fencing will keep new saplings safe from grazing teeth.

The term green laird is used to express concern about the concentration of ownership and power, says Hamish Trench, the chief executive of the Scottish Land Commission, the public body created by the Scottish government to advise on land policy. He says that “corporate ownership of land is by no means a negative thing.” “There’s no reason why a corporate owner of land can’t be a good landowner.”

Escalating land prices are a worry, he says, because they will force smaller players, such as communities or even just non-millionaires, out of the market, limiting diversity in Scottish land ownership and keeping power concentrated in only a few hands. Trench reports that land has been sold at three to four times the expected price. A report by the estate agency Strutt & Parker found a 30 percent increase in farmland for sale in the Highlands and Islands in 2021 compared with the five-year average, and a jump in price for farmland suitable for afforestation. According to the report, land valuers now take into account the potential for carbon-capture as well as rewilding.

“It’s just not a fair starting point,” Davidson says: With so few people able to own land, many who might want to enlist it in the quest for net-zero–including communities–are locked out. And with government grants for carbon-sink restoration, and talk of tax breaks for conservation, he adds, “we run the risk of funneling a lot of taxpayers’ money to a small number of private individuals and companies who own the land.”

Scotland’s largest private landowner is Anders Holch Povlsen, a Danish billionaire who made his fortune in the fashion industry. Povlsen, who lives in Denmark, has been steadily buying up estates to regenerate the forests and peatlands and restore biodiversity. His company, Wildland, has planted millions of trees, all with a view to eventually restore ecosystems so that they can self-sustain. His estate, which includes hunting lodges as well as mansions, now offers high-end tourist experiences. Povlsen has been controversial. While some admire his environmental achievements, others worry about how much power his wealth can exert.

Povlsen’s flagship estate, Glenfeshie, is just a stone’s throw from BrewDog’s land. A broad River Feshie winds through the valley, which is dotted with pale rocks. Hills that were once bared by deer now have young, native forest. Pine marten, wildcats, and other rare species thrive. The landscape here offers a glimpse into a Scotland before rampant deforestation, before sheep farming and deer hunting kept the hillsides covered with heather. It’s a return to history that environmental campaigners hope to see on many of Scotland’s old hunting estates–including Balmoral estate, owned by the Queen, also within Cairngorms National Park.

But Glenfeshie restoration isn’t a complete re-creation. With less snow falling each year and snowpack that lasts longer, the recovering ecosystems have to be able to adapt to the changing climate. The rejuvenation of Glenfeshie extends beyond its borders: It is one of several estates that have joined forces to restore the degraded local ecosystem on a much larger scale. The Cairngorms Connect project covers a continuous 230 square miles, about the size of New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. It is approximately equivalent to the restoration of ecosystems in almost every part of South Carolina due to Scotland’s small landmass.

Glenfeshie is the largest of Povlsen’s 12 estates in Scotland, which together make up a 230,000-acre empire–larger than the Scottish holdings of the Queen or any other royal. There is support in the Cairngorms, which are the country’s most popular areas for outdoor activities like hiking and biking. However, there’s also opposition to traditional hunting on the land. But farther north, where economic opportunity is thin on the ground and a sudden influx of tourism has slammed into communities ill-prepared for it, Povlsen has come into conflict with locals.

“You can’t just replicate the success of Glenfeshie here,” says Davidson, who lives in the nearby town of Thurso and whose familial links to the region go back generations. His grandparents’ house sits cozily in a copse near a wild, roaring north-coast beach; he can trace the eviction of his daughter’s sixth-great-grandfather on her mother’s side from a nearby estate. The counties of Caithness and Sutherland, more than 100 miles north of the Cairngorms, are socially and culturally distinct from regions farther south, he says: less tourism, and more rural remoteness. Communities struggle with a faltering local economy and aging populations. While Povlsen’s marketing has created a tourist boom, the resulting seasonal, low-paid jobs aren’t enough to convince young people to stay. Despite the fact that housing prices are rising, with stock being snapped up both by Airbnb investors as well as wealthy people looking for second homes, rural population is still declining. Schools have been closed and services cut, leaving communities even more fragile.

The local nuclear power station once provided the kind of job that keeps people here–stable and well-paid jobs, not dependent on the tourist whims. But the plant is now in the process of being decommissioned, and there is nothing yet to replace it. “There’s this huge socioeconomic challenge ahead,” Davidson says. “For the first time in generations, you can’t just leave school and walk into an apprenticeship that will last you your lifetime.”

Residents have thrown their support behind a proposed local spaceport–the first in the U.K.–that would rival more remote launch sites such as those in Kazakhstan and New Zealand, shooting small satellites into space and creating jobs. Povlsen has fought back against the spaceport–which would be located on land owned by a local community–citing potential environmental damage to the region’s peatlands, a rich carbon sink and part of the largest blanket bog in the world. At the same time, he has invested in a different spaceport proposal in Shetland. Wildland has also resisted the installation of various wind farms in the region, citing their visual impact on the landscape. Many locals were enthusiastic about these wind farms, which would bring not just jobs but also direct income through a scheme that pays grants to communities that host them.

Wildland did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but Bob Reid, the company’s recently retired development director, says that Wildland emphasized visual impact in its case against the wind farm because that was its strongest legal argument, but the objections run deeper. Wildland’s opposition has been described in the local media as “the community’s David against Povlsen’s Goliath”. But behind the spaceport and wind farms are also corporate interests–respectively, an aerospace company, a transport company, and a finance, steel, and energy company that has been embroiled in a U.K. financial-crime scandal. Reid claims that infrastructure is better placed elsewhere. Rockets launched from the spaceport would present a threat to settlements and the islands they would need travel to get to the North Pole. A spaceport located on Shetland, however, would not have such issues. And although the wind farms would take advantage of generous government subsidies for renewable energy in high-wind areas, they would frequently have to idle their turbines in order to prevent excess energy from flowing into an overloaded national grid. But local support is understandable, he adds, because of the economic benefit they promise.

Globally, the idea of a “just transition” to a net-zero world is gathering steam. At COP26, the United Nations climate conference held in Glasgow last November, activists and community leaders from around the world gathered to demand international policies that would help society’s most vulnerable–those at risk from the most-catastrophic impacts of warming, and those facing poverty and joblessness as the world pivots away from fossil fuels.

For workers in the fossil-fuel industry, there’s “an understanding of what a just transition looks like,” Davidson says–it almost always begins with retraining for new jobs. But conversations about achieving a just transition for land use, he says, are only beginning.

In Sutherland, a historical wound underlies the current tensions over land. Beginning in the mid-18th century, landowners across Scotland, including the then-Countess of Sutherland, converted their estates to profitable large-scale sheep farms, evicting large numbers of tenants from their homes. The result was famine, emigration and persistent poverty. In Sutherland, the Highland Clearances remain vividly in our cultural memories. This sting is still sharp and fuels suspicions about efforts to “rewild the landscape.” Davidson points out that many areas in Scotland considered to be “wild” were actually forcibly cleared.

A roughly 40-minute drive from the proposed spaceport is the valley of Strathnaver, the site of one of the Clearances’ most brutal episodes. From 1814 to 1818, an agent acting on behalf of the Countess of Sutherland ruthlessly cleared dozens of tenants from the land, sometimes setting cottages on fire. Over the course of Clearances, thousands were expelled by the countess. “I have lived to see calamity upon calamity overtake the Sutherlanders,” wrote the stonemason Donald MacLeod, whose family was evicted from the Strathnaver village of Rosal and who later emigrated to Canada. “The country was darkened by the smoke of the burnings.”

Low walls of tumbledown stone, kept in place as a monument, mark the outlines of the cottages that once stood here. The public agency Forestry and Land Scotland owns the commercial Sitka spruce and lodgepole pin forests that surround the ruin of Rosal.

Fear and suspicion about rewilding may be fuelled by some of the past’s painful memories, however, Davidson states that it is highly unlikely for this to happen again. Today, tenants have more rights than ever before the Clearances. Many tenant farmers (called crofters) are entitled to fair rent and the ability to transfer their tenancies through their family. They can’t just evict them.

A more realistic concern for residents, he says, is “economic clearance”–decisions by powerful landowners that make it harder for communities to make a living and compel young people to leave the region to find work. And there are still cases of tenants being forced out, he says: “What did BrewDog do when they bought Kinrara estate? BrewDog replied to The Atlantic by email stating that the one gamekeeper found another job during the notice period and that the other could stay at his house rent-free while he searched for a new position.

Rosal was once one of the largest townships in Strathnaver. The view looking from Beinn Rosail’s hillside shows no evidence of human settlement. Trees cover the road. Phone masts are hidden by hills. All nearby homes are hidden.

But there may soon be people living here again. Local communities are debating whether to buy the land and lightly “repeople” it–a term used by critics of “rewilding,” including Davidson–possibly allotting small pockets of land for people to live on and develop as small-scale woodlands.

Much like green lairds, a new generation of community owners is becoming more aware of the benefits of managing their land with climate in mind, Trench, of the Scottish Land Commission, says. They aren’t able to afford the necessary money, unlike green lairds. Last year, the Langholm Moor community buyout raised PS3. 8 million to buy 5,200 acres of land from the Duke of Buccleuch–who was the largest private landowner in the country, until overtaken in recent years by Povlsen. Langholm’s community plans to bring tourists to the area and create jobs. They plan to also sell carbon credits from the peatlands and forests they have restored to help them achieve official nature reserve status.

” We are at the beginning of a huge journey,” Jenny Barlow (the estate manager for the nature reserve) says. The land has been burned, drained, and managed with an intensive focus on game birds, she says. The team is beginning to grapple with the mammoth task of rewetting the bogs, blocking up ditches, and encouraging the right trees to grow in the right places, all the while battling invasive Sitka spruce seeded from nearby plantations.

Communities like Gigha, which bought their land long before natural capital and net-zero were buzzwords, did not have climate at the center of their ambitions like Langholm. Many people are still doing more than they can on climate change action. A report published last year by the advocacy organization Community Land Scotland documents dozens of climate initiatives on community-owned lands. Like Gigha, many have installed wind farms. Some are restoring natural carbon sinks, like the Carloway Estate Trust, on the Isle of Lewis. Some are working to decrease transport emissions through safer walking and cycling, installing infrastructure for electric cars, or creating car-sharing programs that reduce car ownership. In many cases, these projects feed into one another–the Huntly Development Trust, for instance, bought a small farm, installed a wind turbine on the land, and now uses the turbine’s proceeds for other projects, including low-carbon transportation.

On climate policy, low-income communities “aren’t really getting a say in the conversation at any meaningful level,” says Fraser Stewart, the public-policy researcher, who calls himself a “scheme bairn at heart”–a child who grew up in government housing. He says that community owners have the ability to shape climate policies in their favor, so they can meet local urgent needs. Like the residents of Gigha, they can use the money for housing that will withstand an unstable climate; like the members of the Westray Development Trust, in Orkney, they can use wind-turbine proceeds to buy fuel vouchers for residents who can’t afford to heat their home. These communities are at “the sharp end of climate change,” Stewart says. But they “stand to benefit by far and away the most, if you can get this moment right, and you can do this transition well.”

Such local initiatives are better at building trust and instigating real behavior change than government or outsiders, says Bobby Macaulay, one of the authors of the report on community-owned climate initiatives: “A lot of what we need to do to reach net-zero is about changing the way we live, and in ways that we might not necessarily want to do.” Changes imposed by outsiders or government authorities are likely to be met with strong resistance, he says. “Whereas if it’s someone in your community, then you might actually listen to them.”

But even advocates of community ownership say that the model is far from utopian. On Gigha, Clements says, “you can’t please everybody.” In the years since the buyout, the islanders have struggled not only with debt but with infighting over development priorities.

The responsibilities that come with community ownership are enormous, according to Wightman (an ex-politician, author, and former politician). Wightman, an ex-politician and author, is a staunch supporter of community ownership. However, this may not be always the best option for communities. Some communities have taken over failing estates. Wightman states that you wouldn’t expect parents to assume control of a failing school or local community running a failed police department. “Why should we expect local communities to become landowners for a failed system?”

Underlying the drive toward community ownership, he says, is Scotland’s dearth of truly local government. Because of the vast areas that “local” authorities serve (the Highland Council is for an area almost as large as Belgium), communities are unable to buy their land. Although “community councils”, are meant to be smaller, their funding is inadequate and they have little power. )

Private landowners can also effect change at a far greater scale and speed than community landowners, says Peter Cairns, the executive director of Scotland: The Big Picture, which promotes and manages rewilding. Whereas community organizations can be “paralyzed by bureaucracy and politics,” he says, people like Povlsen “click their fingers and stuff happens quickly and at scale.” The ideal, he suggests, would be a merger of the models: the financial resources and agility of an individual owner combined with real community participation in decision making.

Jeremy Leggett is a solar-energy entrepreneur and recently purchased two Scottish estates. He is currently trying to accomplish that merger. He moved in to Beldorney Castle last May. It is located between a forest plantation and native woodland. The castle’s modern, refurbished kitchen is lined with boxes, and Leggett’s whippet lies on a bench near the back door. As the days of the plantation are over, so are those who keep the hillsides cultivated. Already, Beldorney’s land is more “fluffy” than that which provides grazing for the cattle. Over the coming decades, if all goes well, the hills will be overtaken by the restored woodland that Leggett calls the “Forest of Hope.”

Neighboring landowners have offered to join with Leggett to restore a corridor of woodland. And he hopes to demonstrate that ecotourism and carbon offsets can be more profitable than traditional land uses like sheep farming. He says that while the profits won’t be huge, “Nobody’s going to go on vacation in the Bahamas”, but he thinks sustainable turnover can be achieved.

Leggett took into consideration many criticisms from the green laird. The company that will manage his land will have him as a minor shareholder. Other investors or ordinary crowdfunding users will hold the rest of the shares. He says that the company will be focused on local job creation and seeks local input in its decisions. And he will not be leaving his estate to his family; any shares still belonging to him when he dies, or in 10 years’ time, will pass into a trust run by a majority of Highland Scots. He says that there is no chance of his family selling all the land onto Donald Trump Woodland Golf Courses. Leggett struggles with his part in the land rush. He even emailed Trench asking, “Am I more of the problem or the solution?” But others, such as Davidson, consider his method of “green lairdism” to be a form. In the first round of fundraising for his venture, Leggett raised nearly PS10 million in just a few weeks from “high-net-worth individuals”–contacts from his previous entrepreneurial venture. The Langholm Moor community, meanwhile, is scrambling to raise the PS2. 2 million needed to buy the second half of Buccleuch’s estate before it goes on the open market on July 31. Barlow, estate manager says that if the Langholm buyout was done later than it did, then the market would have been very different.

In Scotland and elsewhere, the net-zero land rush is likely just beginning. Carbon sequestration is becoming a more appealing investment as more countries implement carbon taxes and emission targets. Some green lairds have been open about this motivation, Trench says: “What we’re seeing is people speculating that carbon value will continue to increase–and therefore they can afford to pay more now, because it’s still likely to be quite a safe bet.”

There are good reasons to be wary of carbon offsets as a real climate solution, says Matthew Brander, a carbon-accounting researcher at the University of Edinburgh. For one thing, the carbon stored impermanently in forests and peatlands isn’t a perfect counterweight to carbon emissions: “If a forestry project takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it for a hundred years, and then puts it back into the atmosphere when the forest dies or is burned or harvested, then those two just aren’t equivalent.”

There’s also the crucial question of what would have happened without the carbon-offset payment, says Barbara Haya, a carbon-offsetting researcher at UC Berkeley. If emitters want to achieve additional carbon sequestration beyond the amount that was paid for offsets, they can use them. In many cases however, offset projects would still have been implemented. Haya states that “many of the offset credits available on the market don’t represent actual emissions reductions.”

Many companies rely on carbon credits to achieve their carbon neutrality goals. This allows them to reduce real emissions. Shell, for instance, offers loyalty-program customers “carbon neutral” gas based on its offset programs, which include a forest in Scotland. Offset projects without independent oversight can lead to abuses of human rights. In Peru, Uganda, Indonesia, and elsewhere, corporate offsets have led to evictions and violent clashes–not unlike the Scots who lost their homes and livelihoods during the Highland Clearances centuries ago. Haya states that when there is a high level of wealth and power in an area, it can often be the poorer or less well-off who are harmed.

Peacock, the ex-politician, is one of those sounding the alarm about the net-zero land rush in Scotland, calling on the Scottish government to act swiftly before the problem takes root. But the trend, he says, is clearly global: “It’s leading to the commodification and the financialization of the climate emergency … and it’s going to happen more widely, that’s my prediction. It’s coming to a cinema near you.”

This Atlantic Planet story was supported by the HHMI Department of Science Education.

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