Response to criticism on Twitter
Written by: Donald
Published: 23rd February 2015
Back in 2015, we received some criticism on Twitter: some fair, some unfair. The criticism led to accusations of Highland Titles being a scam – something that we obviously find very offensive.
This discussion has been held largely within a community that are unlikely to ever be Highland Titles customers, so only one side of the argument has been seen and the views of the very large numbers of our satisfied customers remain unheard. We are keen to address that imbalance.
So far, we have chosen not respond on Twitter as it’s a medium we struggle to fully understand, but some genuine questions have been raised. Here are our answers:
Is Highland Titles a scam?
No. Selling souvenir plots of land is not to everyone’s liking, particularly as the land is – by definition – of little practical use. But it is not a scam. Please indulge us as we pose a few questions of our own:
1. Would a scam operation succeed in obtaining advice from Scottish solicitors that confirmed the legality of our business model?
2. Would a scam operation work successfully with the Advertising Standards Authority to ensure its marketing copy complied with the ASA Code of Practice?
3. Would a scam operation have a 30-day no-quibble refund policy?
4. Would a scam operation achieve a satisfaction score of 9.6/10 on the independent review site Trustpilot and 97% on Trip Advisor? Would Trip Advisor award their prestigious “Certificate of Excellence” to a scam?
5. Would a scam operation even be found on an independent review site?
6. If we were a scam operation, wouldn’t our customers be upset, rather than delighted?
7. Would a scam operation be so readily contactable?
8. Would a scam operation donate tens of thousands of pounds annually to local charities and good causes? And would their assistance be accepted?
9. Would a scam operation arrange an annual gathering of its customers, so that they may meet us in person?
We are incredibly proud of what we do and what we have achieved as a business.
We accept that we will always divide opinion. Some people think the idea of owning a souvenir plot of land is strange and unusual. Some people even appear offended by the concept; but then again the idea of owning anything is offensive to some people.
The overwhelming majority see our product as it is intended; a bit of fun and the chance to be part of something constructive and rewarding.
It is a fact that our business brings not only pleasure, but also some serious benefits to Scotland and the local area. Over 6000 “Lairds” visited their plot last year, most of whom were overseas visitors.
Across the world, people are wondering where to go on holiday this year and thousands are deciding to visit Scotland at least in part because of the Highland Titles Nature Reserve. The souvenir plots of land are giving them a real sense of connection. Ultimately, the Scottish economy benefits from the tourists who come to Scotland and we are proud to be making our contribution.
Our newsletters are not only read by over 10,000 people, but when we ask questions about the direction of the estate or landowning experience more than 5000 will regularly participate. Hundreds of people attend our Highland Gatherings from across the world, where they meet us and see the progress of our Nature Reserve projects. Many of our sales are made to existing customers.
We challenge our critics to find another Scottish gift company that engages so well and so often with its customers.
Are we actually selling land?
The Twitter debate revolved around the legality of selling souvenir plots of land. It is unfortunate that we failed to realise that a good number of the people on Twitter were genuinely interested and were asking reasonable questions rather than mischief making. Some of those people even had legal qualifications, and through our actions of blocking people and remaining silent, we alienated them and disrespected their opinion. For that, we apologise.
The advice of our Scottish solicitors is that our customers obtain a personal right to their souvenir plot of land. Since the Twitter debate, they have reiterated their confidence in their advice. We do not hide the fact that these plots cannot be registered. Quite the opposite; that information is displayed prominently on our website.
We therefore find it strange to find such a sudden spike in interest in our business. The recent Daily Record article, for example, used the word “revealed” in its headline, and then proceeded to describe what has been the legal position in Scotland since 1979. But then Land Reform and Tax Transparency are two very topical issues, and given that our Alderney-based business sells souvenir plots of land, we find ourselves right at the point where the two debates meet.
Much of what has been said on Twitter is anonymous, but there are some written opinions on the internet that are attributable and deserve careful reading.
A firm of Scottish solicitors (not acting for Highland Titles), Halliday Campbell WS, have stated:
“The important thing to bear in mind is the difference in Scotland between a real and a personal right. It is the real right that people recognise as ownership and Scots law has always required delivery of the thing bought to create that real right. To use the posited example, if I “buy” your kettle, I don’t “own” it until you give me possession of it. If you keep it and sell it to someone else, I can sue you but the sale is still effective.”
The Registers of Scotland have stated
“A real right of ownership in land (in the sense of a right that is enforceable against third parties) can only be obtained by registration in the Land Register or by recording a deed in the Register of Sasines as appropriate.”
We think there is a clear implication from this statement that some other form of ownership in the land is possible to obtain.
On the Scottish Parliament website, Ross Finnie MSP stated
“Inability to register a souvenir plot means that the purchaser can only get a personal right of ownership…… In view of the fact that titles cannot be registered to the plots, it is not known what rights and responsibilities attach to the “owners” of the small plots of land, but any such rights and responsibilities would be of a personal nature. For the same reason is it not known what acreage of Scotland has been ’sold off’ in plots of a very small size. It is not known how many such schemes there have been in the last 20 years. The Registers of Scotland have no knowledge of any problems caused by them.”
Most of our detractors seem to think that we do not sell the land because our customers cannot register their plot. We feel there is plenty of legal evidence and advice that supports our position.
If our position were to be legally challenged (in the conventional way), we could easily change our product offering. Some of our competitors lease their souvenir plots of land. We could give our customers the chance to dedicate, name or sponsor their plot of land and their customer experience would not be affected. But we have confidence in our product, backed up by 13 years of successful trading in an industry that is over 40 years old.
There is no shame in changing and adapting around regulatory and legal challenges. It is simply part and parcel of running a business as it matures. Should we need to change, we will change.
We strongly believe that our customers receive our product in the spirit it was intended: a souvenir. Something of no real practical value, but nevertheless something they can visit, stand on and rightly claim as their little piece of Scotland. Or at the very least, they can claim the plot is considerably more theirs than someone else‘s.
How much money are we making?
Highland Titles Limited is a successful business. There are people (not least on Twitter) who think that’s newsworthy. Apparently, we need to sell just 16 million one square foot plots at £29.99 in order to rake in £479 million! At the current rate of sales, we would all be over 1000 years old before that happened.
We think there are two reasons why some people are keen to speculate and comment on our finances: our Channel Islands location and The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland.**
We have been based in the Channel Islands since 2006. Yes, it is a nice place to live and work. But we are here for personal reasons, not tax reasons. We have been accused of avoiding Scottish taxes by not basing in Scotland. By that same logic, we are avoiding Japanese taxes by not being in Japan.
We have no problem with people asking whether the sale of Scottish land should be taxed in Scotland in the future. That is a good question, but it’s surely going too far to say we are avoiding a tax that doesn’t currently exist.
It is ironic to say the least that the same people arguing that we should pay tax on the land sales are also arguing that we don’t sell any land.
We pay any and all taxes that we are liable for and have never tried to avoid or evade our obligations to pay tax. We are not even certain that we would pay more tax if we were a Scottish charity. There is a wide range of tax incentives available for Scottish charities, and even if we did pay more tax, there would be less money to spend on our charitable objectives. Perhaps some people would prefer that, but not everyone would.
Highland Titles Limited was formed by Dr Peter Bevis in 2006. He gifted the company to The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland which ensures that the land we sell can only ever be used for the purposes of conservation. It is a charity registered in Guernsey, number CH444.
It is a ‘purpose’ trust; the purpose being conservation in Scotland. There are no beneficiaries. There are two trustees, neither of whom can be remunerated by the Trust.
To summarise the situation, Dr Peter Bevis gifted a profitable company to a Charitable Trust which ensures the land we sell can only ever be used for the purposes of conservation. It is a sad that such a charitable gesture is viewed with suspicion.
We have also been criticised for not making our accounts public, even though there is no requirement for us to do so. Aside from commercial confidentiality and our right to privacy, we realise that however much we do, there will always be some people we can’t please.
To provide an example, we once provided a large grant towards the cost of a new playground at the Duror Community Centre. The Community Centre was delighted, but others simply criticised us for not paying for it all. I’m sure you can all guess how much the critics contributed towards the cost.
Although we are based in the Channel Islands, our business spends a lot of money in Scotland. Here is a brief summary of how Scotland benefits from our work:
- The Highland Titles Nature Reserve attracts thousands of overseas tourists each year
- These tourists stay in local hotels and spend money in local shops. If each tourist spends just £100 during their stay, it is reasonable to assume that millions of pounds have been spent in Scotland over the last nine years as a result of Highland Titles
- Our conservation work creates work for local contractors
- Our Nature Reserve has transformed an inaccessible commercial forestry plantation full of non-native trees into an official 4* tourist attraction that people can enjoy
- We spend a substantial six-figure sum on advertising every year, and an advert for Highland Titles is an advert for visiting Scotland
- We spend a significant sum of money every year with our web developers, marketing agency and software developers, all of whom are based in Scotland. We therefore help to create employment in Scotland and raise tax in Scotland, even if it is subsequently sent down to Westminster.
We do a lot for Scotland. With a bit of luck and support, we can do a lot more.
Are we actually interested in conservation?
Our conservation work is far too extensive to list here, and it is backed up with physical evidence. We hope it will suffice to say that we have indisputably transformed an inaccessible commercial forestry plantation into an amenity woodland. We have already planted thousands of Scottish native trees, and we will plant thousands more.
The Highland Titles Nature Reserve is an official 4* tourist attraction and everyone is welcome to visit. It’s more enjoyable if you’ve bought a plot though, it has to be said.
In amongst the cynicism, however, there were some genuine questions.
We’ve been questioned about why one of our nature reserves has rhododendrons and Sitka spruce trees (two non-native species). This is because we deliberately bought land that was largely commercial forestry so we could return it to a more natural state. There wouldn’t be much point in purchasing something that was already in a pristine natural state. If we did, no doubt we would be criticised, much as the RSPB were in 2012
In the fullness of time, we want to remove all the Sitka from the land we manage. We don’t like Sitka (does anyone?), but we will have to wait until it’s economical to remove it. There will be huge costs involved in getting rid of the old forestry plantations, not least because of the new planning laws that make it harder to install forestry tracks.
Others have suggested that there was never any chance of the land we own being developed, and therefore the “prevents development” argument is invalid, but windfarms and commercial forestry are clear evidence that development does occur in remote areas.
Shouldn’t the sale of souvenir plots be stopped?
We appreciate that even if you accept that our work benefits Scotland, you still might feel that the sale of souvenir plots of land should be stopped. We respectfully disagree.
In terms of Land Reform, the aims of our company are broadly in line with the aims of the Scottish Government, who want to ensure Scotland’s land “benefits the many, not the few”.
That is exactly what we are doing. Without the likes of Highland Titles, owning a piece of Scotland is an impossible dream, given that plots of woodland are rarely available for anything less than a five-figure sum.
As far as our customers are concerned, having some form of ownership of land in Scotland is better than having none at all, and because we manage the land on their behalf, we can legitimately claim to have brought together thousands of like-minded people with an interest in Scotland. Frankly, we think that’s wonderful.
Of course, we would prefer that our customers were able to register their purchase with the Scottish Land Registry. That they are presently unable to do so is wholly due to the inadequacy of the laws currently being reformed.
We also believe there may be a Human Rights issue here.
Article 1 of the First Protocol of the Human Rights Act imposes an obligation on the State not to interfere with the peaceful enjoyment of property. There is no violation of this right, however, if such interference is carried out in the public interest.
In 1981, The Registers of Scotland refused to register ownership of souvenir plots of land due to a scarcity of resources.
“A scheme to sell off 1000 one square foot plots and register the titles thereto would employ the Keeper and his staff, public servants, in a way which could be detrimental to the expeditious registration of the titles of those whose interest was practical rather than sentimental or commemorative.”
Are we really expected to believe that within the offices at the Land Registry there exists such a chronic shortage of staff, such that it could not have been addressed in the last 38 years? Surely the burden of work has been eased to some extent by technology: there weren’t many computers around in 1981.
And is it really in the public interest to have an incomplete record of landownership interests in Scotland?
We are still trying to find out exactly what the situation is in Northern Ireland, but it looks as though their law permits the registration of souvenir plots of land. Under Northern Irish law, the Registrar can designate an area of souvenir land and record the details of ownership therein for a small fee. Clearly, the problem in Scotland is not insurmountable.
Can you actually become a Lord or Lady?
Most people consider this as harmless fun, and helps to create a feeling of community amongst our customers. It provides an extra bit of novelty. We accept that some people may not like it, but people’s personal preference is the full extent of the issue here.
For reasons unknown, the Lord Lyon (for those who have never heard of Lord Lyon, the Scottish Government describes him as having jurisdiction over the use of Arms and Heraldry in Scotland) is occasionally referred to as an authority on the use of the word “Laird” by our critics.
Lord Lyon has no authority or jurisdiction over the use of the word Laird, and we have a letter sent by Lord Lyon to one of our customers confirming this.
It’s been suggested we should change our sales literature based on the recent legal debate. As discussed above, our legal position remains the same and we are therefore confident that our advertising reflects the reality of the situation.
Whilst our main website is carefully worded after working with the Advertising Standards Authority to get the right messaging, other advertising under our control could be improved and we need to invest more in training our representatives and introduce checks into all our advertising.
It was embarrassing to see an old Google advert of ours that mentioned “noble titles”. Our website has never advertised noble titles, and we are confident that there has never been a time when our customers could get through the online check-out process thinking they were about to be knighted by the Queen.
That advert was not created with the intention of deceiving, but with the intention of showing potential customers an advert that contained the same text as their search. It didn’t appear very often, but the reality is that some people hear about Highland Titles and the Laird, Lord and Lady merchandise, and then search for ‘noble titles’ because they are at the beginning of their research and don’t fully understand what we do.
If an advert contains the text ‘noble titles’, it is likely to perform better (i.e appear higher and cost less) than an advert that doesn’t contain that text if the customer has indeed searched for ‘noble titles’.
We have actually blogged on the differences between our approach and those who are looking to buy a title.
We are not trying to justify the advert. It was a mistake. It might have saved us a few quid, but it means some people have bundled us in with some fairly horrific websites on the internet that we try very hard to distance ourselves from.
And if you’re still not convinced….
If any of our customers feel we have misrepresented the law, then we will have no issue in refunding their cash. They just have to ask.