Residents of the historic town of Langholm near Scotland’s border with England could hardly believe it when they heard last year that thousands of acres of moorland owned for centuries by the dukes of Buccleuch were up for sale.
It seemed inconceivable to many that the Buccleuch Estate, which is owned by trusts set up for the current duke and his family, would relinquish such a large part of an aristocratic inheritance that surrounds Langholm and spreads across other parts of southern Scotland.
“It came out of the blue . . . people were shocked that the estate was selling,” said Magaret Pool, chair of the Langholm Initiative, a community development trust that will this month complete the £3.8m purchase of 5,200 acres of the moor.
The deal is southern Scotland’s largest ever community land buyout by area or value, and is a test case for efforts to promote a form of ownership previously mainly limited to Highlands areas. It also highlights the decision by Buccleuch Estates to reduce what was until a few years ago the UK’s largest private landholding by area.
Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, told the Financial Times in 2015 of plans to significantly slim down his estates, a move he attributed mainly to concerns about the governing Scottish National party’s efforts to pursue land reform and promote greater community ownership.
Since 2010, Buccleuch Estates has sold or agreed to sell more than 41,000 acres of land in Scotland, leaving it with 186,500 acres. It has a further 11,000-acre estate in the English Midlands.
For Benny Higgins, a former Tesco Bank chief executive who was appointed executive chairman of Buccleuch Estates in early 2019, the sell-off is just the start. Over the next decade, further disposals would make the ducal business look “very, very different,” with perhaps 50,000 or more acres likely to go, Mr Higgins said.
“I’m pretty committed to reducing the landholding . . . such a concentration on land is just not sensible,” he said, adding that he wanted Buccleuch Estates to be known for its diversity of interests and was not interested in retaining the label of “one of Scotland’s biggest landowners”.
“We would be quite happy to let that fade away,” Mr Higgins said.
Buccleuch has already been displaced as the UK’s largest private landowner by Danish billionaire fashion investor Anders Holch Povlsen, who over the past 14 years has acquired a string of Scottish estates with a total area of more than 220,000 acres.
Mr Povlsen’s plan to rewild large swaths of the Highlands has been praised by many environmental campaigners, but has also raised questions about the influence of individuals in a country where, by one widely cited estimate by author and campaigner Andy Wightman, just 432 owners account for 50 per cent of all privately held land.
In 2016, the Scottish parliament passed sweeping land reform legislation intended in part to increase community ownership. And last year a report by the government’s Scottish Land Commission warned that the country’s high concentration of land ownership was damaging fragile rural communities.
Mr Higgins, who was commissioned in 2020 by the SNP government to advise on post-coronavirus economic recovery, said he was sympathetic to the goal of communities acquiring more land across Scotland. “More diversified ownership would be a good thing,” he said.
But the Langholm deal has underlined the challenges facing community groups, which must usually pay an assessed market value for the land they buy. Since 2016, the government has allocated £10m a year to a Scottish Land Fund to help finance purchases, but it has been oversubscribed and its current mandate runs out in May.
The Langholm Initiative, a public-private partnership set up in 1994 to try to revive the town, received £1m from the Land Fund, but a tight October deadline was set for the group to raise the rest of the money — a feat achieved just in time with the help of grants from private trusts and £200,000 from individual donors.
The trust has had to delay plans to buy a further 5,000 acres from Buccleuch — including a beautiful section of river valley that was traditionally a summer picnicking spot — until new funding is available.
Buying the land is just the start. Community groups must then ensure that they can generate enough income to make their holdings sustainable — no simple task in upland areas like Langholm Moor. The Buccleuch Estate and public bodies spent more than £2m in the decade from 2008 trying to increase grouse numbers on the moor while protecting other wildlife, but were unable to make it commercially viable.
Still, Langholm Initiative member Mairi Telford Jammeh brimmed over with enthusiasm as she showed recent visitors the wide expanse of winter-brown heather that will soon by owned by the trust. A bend in the single-track road that crosses the moor was one of the best places in the UK for viewing hen harriers and also the scene of recent encounters with feral goats and short-eared owls, Ms Telford Jammeh said.
“We’ve got a gem on our doorstep,” she said.
The trust hopes to develop the moor as a nature reserve that will promote tourism while restoring peatland and planting native woodland, converting an existing farmstead into commercial property, building new housing and possibly setting up a small solar power scheme and wind turbine.
Kevin Cumming, a member of the Langholm Initiative board, said that as long as it was financially sustainable, community ownership meant the trust could put its central goals of environmental protection and regeneration of the town ahead of maximising profit.
“We are not naive about the scale of the task, but the hope is that we are providing a blueprint for what other communities could do in the south of Scotland,” Mr Cumming said.