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Scottish common ownership

Scotland has a tradition of common property rights. They include rights arising from commonties, grazing rights, peat-cutting rights, salmon rights, rights to use harbours and foreshore, mineral rights, sporting use rights, ownership rights, rights to usufruct, rights of access to resources and rights of passage over land and inland water. Commonty in Scots Law means; a piece of land in which two or more persons have a common right. A widespread example of such common property is living in a  tenement. Those who own or rent a flat also hold other parts of the property,  e.g. the stairs or close (and have its common responsibility - your turn to clean the stairs!) and access to the communal back-garden  It does not mean state-owned or public-land but could be parish/burgh land.

It is estimated that half the land area of Scotland was still common land in 1500. They provided areas of free access. It was not a "free for all" but their use was covered by sets of rules that were well established and understood locally. No-one could make financial profit. The resources of the commonty were solely for personal uses, and individuals could not, for instance, cut timber for sale or rent grazing to someone else. By the mid 19th century, virtually all this common land had been divided into the private property of neighbouring land owners. Subsistence farming could not survive without access to the resources that the commons traditionally supplied and their loss was a major factor in forcing local people to abandon the way of life that had sustained generations before them and join the mass of people leaving the Scottish countryside. "Ferm touns" or collective farm settlements, of Scotland’s subsistence agriculture, which survived in northern areas into the 19th century, were a traditional arrangement that typically could not have survived without the resources provided by a commonty which provided many of the resources needed by a community at no cost apart from the inhabitants’ own labour. The commonty also offered a degree of flexibility to meet fluctuations in population or food supply, that was not possible within the formal restrictions of privately held land. The image of commonties as barren wastes was the perspective of the land-owning class, who were seeking to do away with commonties and the "ferm touns" they served.

A green is a small area of common land usually closely associated with a settlement, whether a town or village or single clachan. These greens provided an area where cows could be milked, markets and other events held, garments bleached and a host of other common and communal activities carried out. The greens associated with many fishing communities were used for the drying and repairing of nets, the salting and drying of fish and other related activities. One specific type of green were the overnight and river crossing stances associated with traditional routes and drove roads.

A loan was a common route through private property to and from an area of common land or some other ‘public’ place. The distinction between this and a right of way was that the loan was itself common land and not just a right of use. Their former existence of others is indicated by street and  place names, like Loanhead.

A moss is a wet area where peats can be dug and historically many were used in common by local inhabitants. Common mosses were the same form of shared property. The common status of surviving common mosses has often gone unnoticed because they have been of relatively little use since the decline of peat cutting in the eastern and central Highlands.

Rigs were narrow strips of cultivated land, sometimes up to around 15 metres wide. Traditionally, adjacent rigs were used by different cultivators and the rigs periodically re-allocated between them. This system was known as runrig. Lands lying runrig were invariably associated with an area of rough ground or hill land that was also shared in common. These two types of land were the longstanding basis of farming in Scotland before the Improvements of the 18th  and 19th centuries. Originally, many areas of runrig, together with their shared hill ground, were held by two or more proprietors. Each owned a number of rigs, which were interspersed with the rigs of the other owners and each owner had an undivided share of the ownership of the common hill. The common hill was thus a commonty and the runrig lands equivalent to a commonty on arable land.(Bishopbriggs was originally Bishoprigs)

Burghs were established in Scotland from the 12th century. The creation of Royal Burghs was to provide the Crown with a convenient counter-balance to a feudal aristocracy which threatened to assume supreme power in the State. It was necessary that the King’s burgesses should have absolute freedom from the jurisdiction of the neighbouring baron and should have an adequate patrimony. The Kings, therefore, granted wide privileges and vast territorial estates for the common good use of their chartered burghs. In 1617 the jurisdiction of the Magistrates of Rutherglen extended from Polmadie on the south side of the river Clyde to Carron; the entire parish of Ayr at one time belonged to the Burgh of Ayr; Aberdeen once possessed lands which extended many miles in circuit round Aberdeen, granted by the Kings of Scotland, for the use of the town. Edinburgh’s common land, the Burgh Muir had a total area of approximately 5 square miles. The last open area of common land remaining of the Burgh Muir is now Bruntsfield Links. The Border towns still retain the tradition of the annual Common Ridings, reasserting the boundaries of it.

 Even the towns which did not hold their charters from the Crown, but from the neighbouring baron, possessed wide territories of commonity. The lands over, which property rights and privileges of use were held by the burgh were the burgh commons. The loss of the burgh commons stemmed in large part from an Act of the Scots Parliament in 1469. This Act had suppressed the popular election of Councils and led to the dominance of burghs by local land owners and wealthy merchants. The evidence in the reports shows how these land owners and merchants, with their relations and allies, had appropriated the burgh commons to themselves through generous land grants and cheap feus.  Labour politician Thomas Johnson wrote extensively about Burgh commons and its loss, being a sympathiser of "municipal socialism" and nationalisation

Crown Commons were land held directly by the Crown and are thought to have originated out of the once extensive Royal Hunting Forests. The lands that became Crown Commons were areas within those forests where traditional communal use, which had predated the establishment of the forests, continued after the system of forests broke down in the medieval period. While these Commons were most heavily used by people living nearby, anyone unconnected with the area could also use them. Crown Commons had certainly largely disappeared by the early 19th century. An Act in 1828 allowed for their division and the land was then shared out between the adjoining land owners.

Crofters’ Common Grazings are an example of a common property resource where legislation has been used to safeguard equitable access to the resource by those entitled to a share in it. Many, but not all crofts have two parts: the in-bye land - arable ground on which the crofter’s house is usually built; and rough grazing held in common with neighbouring crofts, usually a much larger area of rough hill pasture – the common grazings. While the land involved is mostly owned by private land owners, the local crofting communities have secure legal rights of occupation and use. This is as a result of the Crofting legislation of 1886 and 1891 that followed a period of riots, rent strikes, political agitation, land raids and government commissions of inquiry in the aftermath of the Highland Clearances. crofting common grazings still cover a substantial part of the Highlands and Islands - 541,750 hectares or around 7% of Scotland’s total land area. The management of common grazings is governed by regulations which are administered by local committees appointed by the grazings shareholders. There are some 853 registered grazing committees and a further 200 unregulated grazings. The main functions of these committees has until recently been to administer, manage and improve the grazings primarily for livestock production

During recent decades, an increasing number of rural communities mostly in the Highlands and Islands have become directly involved in the ownership and management of land within their locality through purchasing, leasing or some form of management arrangement. It is estimated that over 94 community land trusts control around 130,242 hectares which amounts to some 1.98 percent of rural land. Many of the early instances of this were remote rural communities whose members were largely the tenants of a single large private estate and who set up a collective body which bought the property on the open market, preferring to be their own landlord than have another new private landlord. In a number of celebrated cases (Assynt, Eigg and Knoydart), community purchases took place when the private land owner had gone bankrupt or run into financial difficulties and the community was able to negotiate with the main creditors or the financial receivers. To purchase properties, local communities form a democratic body with an appropriate legal structure to represent the whole community or make use of an existing one.



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