Western Islands

Landlords and Estates /
Uachdrain agus Oighreachdan

From: The Western Isles
History of Settlement
Eachdraidh Tuineachaidh
(A Tourist Brochure)

Ownership of Land

The ownership of land in the islands has always been a contentious issue. From the competing claims to the Western Isles by the Scottish and Norwegian kings, to the relatively modern land-raids of the 1920s, the land which provides food, shelter, and employment for the people of the isles has frequently been the cause of conflict. As in other parts of the Highlands and Islands, the people of this area suffered dispossession and hardship during the Highland Clearances, and many left the islands to settle in other parts of the world. The clan lands passed from the community to being the private property of landlords, and with few exceptions they have remained so.

Most of the estates in the Western Isles, though privately owned, are under crofting tenure, that is to say tenant crofters have agricultural, grazing, and housing rights which leave the landlord with little real control apart from some fishing, shooting, and mineral rights. Parts of Harris, Benbecula, Barra, and Vatersay are owned by the Scottish Office Agriculture & Fisheries Department (SOAFD), a situation dating from a time when the government purchased land to enable the creation of crofts in order to assist the relief of hunger and unemployment resulting from the lack of access to land by the local people. Some of these land settlements were made as late as the 1920s. ‘A Land fit for heroes’ was promised to servicemen returning from the first World War. The government however withdrew their promises and in some instances the land was taken by force by returning servicemen.

Around Stornoway and the adjacent east coast of the island, the land is owned by the resident community who elects a management Board of Trustees. This land was given to the community by the previous owner, Lord Leverhulme, before he disposed of his estates in Lewis in 1923.


On a visit to Isle of Lewis some years ago I was – at a business meeting – told about the trust fund established as a result of the gift described with red above.

Especially to me it was a very interesting story, and my humble question was:
“So you do not pay any local taxes? Surely the rent from the land will cover all community expenses?”

It did’nt take the Finance Manager many seconds to understand my question, and he said:
“Well, we do not collect very high rents. The income from the land is sufficient to maintain the castle and cover the expenses of a few little activities to beautify the city.”

I wanted to tell about the ideas of Henry George, but I was interrupted by the Finance Manager who said: 
“Per, may I tell about it?” 
He did not know Henry George, he had never thought of the land question before – but he immediately grasped the truth!
It was a gift from Lord Leverhulme to the Community. But it was taken by the citizens and capitalized. 
And on my tour in the city I also saw the difference in property prices: expensive in the city center and near the coast and cheaper in the countryside! As everywhere else. 
So the land is not held by the community – but by private landowners! And the citizens have to pay heavy taxes…

What went wrong?