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This Land Ain’t Your Land (part 2)

Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 22nd September 2014, last updated: 4th March 2019

this land 1

Who owns the other 85% of British real estate? A group of families, about 189,000 of them, collectively own about 40 million acres. But the 8000 families with the largest land ownership are not obliged to produce any information about how much they own.

The largest share (we know about) is claimed by the Duke of Buccleuch (pronounced Ba’kloo), the freeholder of a quarter of a million acres. The original title and lands were given to the eldest of Charles ll’s illegitimate children in 1663. When the boy was fourteen he was brought to London, given a title and married off to a wealthy countess. Once married they were formally made Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. Clearly Charles ll had a fondness for the boy, but another relative, James II, later had him beheaded. The descendants of this illegitimate boy have sat on the land ever since, and the current Duke runs The Buccleuch Group, a corporation of businesses based on the land’s resources.

The Duke of Westminster (133,000 acres) owes his massive fortune to a Norman ancestor, Hugh De Gras Veneur, who forcibly seized land during the Norman Conquest of 1066. Hardly seems fair that the descendant of this violent robber now owns Mayfair and Belgravia, 300 acres of the most valuable real estate in the world. But that’s the landed gentry business. Much of the modern gentry still own land stolen by William the Conqueror and his friends in the first recorded “land grab”, which forced the Anglo-Saxons to become second class citizens in their own country and formed the prototype of the two-tier society, a peculiarly British sickness.

Not all of the 8000 richest land owners are British (or even Norman) gentry. Alcan, a Canadian based Aluminium Company have managed to acquire 135,000 acres of the West Highlands. They recently sold a tiny crumb of it to (3.7 acres) to the Kinlochleven Community. 71,000 acres of the Glenavon and Braulen Estates are owned by a mysterious Malaysian Tycoon who spends most of his time in Kualar Lumpur and calls himself Mr Salleh when he visits Scotland. Most of it though is owned by some more familiar names: the Duke of Northumberland (131,000 acres), Prince Charles (141,000 acres), Earl of Seafield (101,000), Marquess of Bath (100,000 acres), Duke of Atholl (145,700 acres), Lord Rutland (only 60,000 acres? How on Earth does he manage?). And the list goes on.

These landowners benefit from combined assets of £3.3 trillion. As the economist Hernando de Soto Polar argues in his book The Mystery of Capital (2000), there is an absolute connection between land ownership and prosperity, and poverty always exists where no land is owned. Land provides plentiful resources in the form of tenancy, wood, fish and farming. In reasonably managed circumstances land and wealth automatically go together. Incredibly though, large land owners receive a payment from us the tax payer, in the form of an EU agricultural subsidy, for all farmland on their estates. This amounts to about £20,000 a year for every 220 acres.

During the ten years from 2000 – 2009 the top 50 recipients of the agricultural subsidy received a total of £168 million from the tax payer. These include the Duke of Buccleugh, the Earl of Moray, Lord Inchcape, the Duke of Roxburghe and the Earl of Rosebery. Frank A Smart and Son Ltd, a company that owns 39 farms in Speyside received the largest subsidy, a staggering £1.2 million. In 2008 they recorded a profit of £3.1 million. The subsidy is paid whether the land is farmed or not. In 2009 this same company sold 24 plots of agricultural land with planning consent to developers, making a further profit of £2.9 million.

The UK government doesn’t audit this subsidy and according to the journalist Jack Thurston “refused to supply” current figures on his request. But according to Thurston the Duke of Westminster – he of the most valuable real-estate in the world – receives a farm subsidy from the EU. Do you think he needs it? Does the Buccleuch Group, with recorded profits in 2012 of £1.4 million, need a subsidy? When we talk of benefit cheats we don’t automatically think of Dukes and Earls, but maybe it’s time we did.

The land registry, supposedly a record of all land ownership in Britain, is only a partial report. At the moment you are required to register any land which is sold as freehold or leasehold. Vast acreages of Britain have not been sold in centuries but remain firmly under hereditary control, so there is no obligation to say how much you have, or even to really know. As a result about 40% of land held in Britain is not even recorded in the Land Registry, which begs the question, who is the registry for? It must be remembered that the largest freeholders have long been the law makers who had strong links with parliament and until very recently sat in the House of Lords.

When Kevin Cahill wrote the first comprehensive study of land ownership in Britain for many years he found the task irksome, with information withheld at every turn and secrecy endemic. He said his book was “… a call to analyse the economic consequences of what the landed aristocracy did to another portion of the population and to ensure that those economic effects – a rigged and overpriced land market, a farming sector maintained almost wholly by public subsidy, diverted ultimately into the pockets of large landowners, and a defective Land Registry to conceal ownership of the UK – do not persist any longer.” (Kevin Cahill, Who Owns Britain and Ireland, 2001).

That call was made 12 years ago, but as yet shows no sign of being answered.

this land 2

About the author

Written by: Stewart Borland

Comments on this post

  • Ruth Hammons
    06/10/14 - 06:09

    I am of Scottish heritage and very proud of it..I love Scotland and traveled there to seek my history and Clan information. And a grand one it once was…once a large portion of Scotland was owned by Clan Keith. We were the clan of Dunnottar Castle, which is today in ruins, but a very interesting place with a wonderful history. If only things had turned out differently there might be vast lands of our Clan still in use. Not all that long ago the last of it was sold after the death of the 13th Earl of Kintore. His son, the 14th Earl of Kintore, the Chief of Clan Keith. We fought at Bannockburn, Calloden and many other locations for the freedom of Scotland. My Clan’s early life was much like that of ‘Braveheart’ and Wallace. Then Robert the Bruce, the King honored many clans after battles with lands and titles. Thus Clan Keith, who keep the Honors safely in Dunnottar Castle and the kings horses, and had quite a run of time until lean times came and musch of the land was lost. The Marishall (Marshall) of Scotland, was a Keith and built the Marishall College in Aberdeen. I traced the route from Dunnottar, to Kineff Kirk (church still in use to this day!!) where the honors were buried in the floor, hidden safely until dug up and sent in a large trunk to Edinburgh Castle–where they have been ever since…and are wonderful to see ‘in person’! Walking the land of the Castle and the remaining buildings was such a wonderful experience….as if my ancestors ‘reached out and touched me’ with the special feeling of the place. My mother, who is nearly 97, is the fourth great-granddaughter of Marianne Keith, the wife of Chief Justice Randolph and cousin to Thomas Jefferson. Another branch of the Clan Keith came to Virginia where Rev. James Keith founded a church and is buried there. The Keith’s and Marshall’s, once here, scattered all over and we have the Highland Games today to get to know others that are the ancestors of our Clan. As it turned out on the other sidf eof my mothers family a man named Soloman Tetherow was an early Wagon Mastor on the Oregon Trial–whom went out to blaze the trail for the West. I am happy to have a copy of his note book of that journey! The land they settled is still in the Tetherow/Totherow name to this day and is a golf course in Bend Oregon…so if ever there and golf…take in the course and you will be walking in the footsteps of my history! ;-] I have been so luck to have my mother in my life for so long and soon she will join the ancestors gone before and catch up on the once colorful heritage of her family….which she never knew about until late in life. So Scotland, Aye and Oregon or Bust!!!

  • Thursa Wilde
    06/10/14 - 13:27

    Thank you for your comments Ruth. Your family has such a rich history, how wonderful! it must be a source of great pride 🙂 Dunnottar Castle is one of the most dramatic locations in Scotland. I believe it was there that Mel Gibson’s film ‘Hamlet’ was shot.

  • Hally Hardie
    06/10/14 - 14:23

    So, are the Highland Titles estates just temporarily under the control of all the Lords, Ladies and Lairds or are they really ‘owned’? Do we bow to an ownership of which we may not approve and maybe know nothing?

    I would like to think that we have reached a time when perhaps all of the UK be ‘owned’ by the State, but otherwise administered, such as now,
    in Freehold and Leasehold terms. It cannot be right that land given away on a whim in the long distant past should still have all the benefits and privileges that seem to accrue to them. If the House of Lords is going to get reorganised in the near future, then perhaps that will be the time to review how all land in this country is owned/administered.

    • Douglas Wilson
      06/10/14 - 16:11

      Hi Hally,

      Thank you for your question. The land bought by our customers is owned by our customers, who obtain a personal right to the land through a contract of sale. As we sell souvenir plots of land (as defined by the Registers of Scotland), the transfer of ownership does not need to be (and indeed, cannot be) registered. The registered owner of the land is Highland Titles Ltd, which is wholly owned by The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland – a charity registered in Guernsey, number CH444. This ensures that the land can only ever be used or managed as a nature reserve.

      Please also note that our customers do not obtain any of the privileges enjoyed by those who sit in the House of Lords.

  • Owen Darragh
    10/02/19 - 00:42

    Hi I’m Owen,

    I have been looking into my Gran’s side of my family. She was from Perth shire and mentioned all of her relatives had to rent farms from the duke of Atholl.
    Do you know if the clan chiefs kept records of this, and if so is there a way to find it?


  • John Kean
    07/07/20 - 16:27

    Dear Sir / Madam

    Thank you for such an interesting site and commentary on what truly touches everyone who is a part of the UK: guests, citizens or otherwise. We have a fascinating history and yes l agree plenty of room for everybody who has a connection spiritually or otherwise with the nobles’ lands where we live our temporary existences and care for it for the next resident / “owner.” Why should London be uniquely cosmopolitan in Britain we need some interesting people scattered around since many younger ones are moving abroad and it’s a land requiring people to look after it and appreciate it and why not people who love it. Were they drawn here due to reincarnation from a previous existence here? Who knows.

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