The idea of individual (or private) ownership of fixed parcels of land is a relatively recent phenomenon, and by no means universal. Tom Johnston’s skill as a historian was to be able to demonstrate that the rapine, murder, massacre, cheating and court harlotry that led to the accumulation of land in the hands of Scotland’s feudal barons was rooted in historical fact. In particular, Johnston exposed how one of the greatest land grabs was engineered - that of Scotland’s extensive Burgh Commons.
The vast territories granted to Scotland’s Royal Burghs were designed to act as a bulwark against noble power. According to Johnston, such acreages, together with other common lands, extended in the latter part of the sixteenth century to fully one half of the entire area of Scotland.
But this valuable inheritance did not to last long:
"Until the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 the landowners and the commercial bourgeois class controlled all burghal administration of the common lands, and controlled it in such a way that vast areas of common lands were quietly appropriated, trust funds wholly disappeared, and to such a length did the plunder and the corruption develop, that some ancient burghs with valuable patrimonies went bankrupt, some disappeared altogether from the map of Scotland, some had their charters confiscated, and those which survived to the middle of the nineteenth century were left mere miserable starved caricatures of their former greatness, their Common Good funds gone, their lands fenced in private ownership, and their treasurers faced often with crushing debts. As late as 1800 there were great common properties extant; many burghs, towns and villages owned lands and mosses; Forres engaged in municipal timbergrowing; Fortrose owned claypits; Glasgow owned quarries and coalfields; Hamilton owned a coal pit; Irvine had mills, farms and a loom shop ...."
By the time the Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations in Scotland reported in 1835.
“Wick had lost in the law courts its limited right of commonty over the hill of Wick, and owned no property; Abernethy owned nothing, nor did Alloa. Bathgate was the proud possessor of the site of a fountain and a right of servitude over four and a half acres of moorland. Beith had no local government of any kind; Bo’ness owned nothing; Castle-Douglas owned only a shop; Coldstream was stripped bare, not even possessing 'rights in its street dung'; Crieff had two fields; Dalkeith nothing; Dunkeld nothing; and Dunoon, nothing”"
Nor is such overt municipal corruption and common land annexed ancient history. Take the case of the Cuillin of Skye which were put up for sale in March 2000. Much of the outcry which followed centred on whether or not MacLeod actually owned the Cuillin in the first place. Extensive research culminated in the Crown Estate commissioning a QC’s opinion which concluded in essence that MacLeod owned the Cuillin since his 1611 Crown charter was “capable of including the Cuillin” and he had enjoyed “possession” for an uninterrupted period of at least 20 years. It is important to note that the Crown never examined the question of whether MacLeod’s ancestors had actually been granted the Cuillin in 1611. It is clear that the land put up for sale had never been granted to MacLeod and to this day remains a Crown Common. But the laws of landownership in Scotland are constructed in such a way that render such questions irrelevant. Land which was never granted to MacLeod has become, by default and by neglect by the guardians of the public realm, part of the private possession of one man. It is hardly surprising that the Crown Estate never sought to dig deeper.
Many of the displaced people ended up in burgeoning industrial cities such as Glasgow, where their descendants formed an integral part of the Labour movement.
(The legacy of Scotland’s Burgh Commons is still present across Scotland, for example,in the North and South Inches of Perth, the racecourse at Musselburgh, the mussel beds at Tain, the links at Dornoch, the 1700 acres of Lauder Common and the other commons of the Borders which form the basis for the Common Riding ceremonies each summer)
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