On 3 April 2018, this article appeared on the website of the Guardian: Residents of Connecticut town offered square foot of Scotland and title of laird. I imagine it was aimed at its US readership, penned as it was by a US correspondent, but it appears in the “Scotland” (the country, not the place in Connecticut) section of the website.
Anyhoo, it is fair to say there were some issues with what can charitably be described as a puff piece. There was a bit of a reaction to it. Including from me. A Twitter thread ensued, beginning here.
In that thread I ask six questions, of varying degrees of importance. None were answered, despite my best efforts at polite cajolery. At some point in the thread, I highlight to the journalist Adam Gabbatt the potential that I might write a blog post about his article, subject to him clarifying any issues. No clarifications followed. As such, here is my promised blog post.
In no particular order, these were my questions, with a bit more flesh on the bones where relevant.
In the text of the article it is noted that the bunch of people who engaged with Highland Titles have “become landowners“, or similar. How do they become landowners if they are not able to register their land in accordance with the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012?
Second, it is noted that they can “become a Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe”. Nowhere is it noted that “Glencoe Wood” is not actually in Glencoe, the actual place. I asked whether the journalist knew this, because it probably is worth clarifying. I mean, if I somehow acquired a bit of land in, say, Portlethen just south of Aberdeen and renamed it Dunnottar Wood and assured people they could become a Laird, Lord or Lady of Dunnottar, I suppose that is fine, but they might want to know it is a fair distance from Dunnottar Castle. (It is a comparable distance from the Highland Titles Reserve at Duror to the Glencoe Memorial Site, according to Google Maps.)
Third, where is “Loch Linnie“? I think what was meant was Loch Linnhe.
Fourth, in the article it notes “the site’s conservation status will stop the new landowners building on their 12in x 12in plots.” What conservation status? Is it one recognised by law? Not that conservation activities need to fall within local, national, EU or international designations, but it would be useful to know these things.
Fifth, on the basis it was noted that Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland is a registered charity, I asked where it was registered. This was an unnecessary question on my part. It is registered in the Channel Islands. Guernsey, to be precise. Many businesses and charities operate out of the Channel Islands. Some countries have rules about what entities are able to own land assets. (Yes, actually own, not souvenir plot non-publicly-state-registered own.) Scotland is not one of them. The unregulated Scottish land market something that has been looked at a few times over the years, including recently by a research team that I formed part of. Highland Titles Limited, the landowning entity that grants souvenir plots to its customers, is registered in Alderney. It is in turn owned by Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. All of this is perfectly in order. From an academic perspective and an information to the customer perspective it might have been nice if some of these points had been drawn out, but I appreciate newspapers have word limits in a way that this blog post does not and it would have been quite a shoehorn to get a discussion of contemporary Scottish land reform into the piece.
Sixth, I asked if it was possible to explain the statement “Because you’re a landowner in Scotland, albeit a small plot, you get to use the title of ‘Laird’…And Laird translates to Lord or Lady.” How does this landownership (see above) allow you to be a Lord? And what does the Procurator Fiscal to the Court of the Lord Lyon, who deals with enforcement matters to do with heraldry and Scottish coats of arms, say about this? This was another unnecessary question on my part, because I know his view. I quote what was said (in 2014) below.
Over the last 2 years, the procurator fiscal has dealt with a number of enquries relating to businesses which sell small plots of land (typically 1 sq. metre) to customers who are told that on becomming an ‘owner’ of the land, they may call themselves the ‘Laird of X’. This office is only concerned with the use of un-registered heraldry either by the business selling the land (e.g. as displayed on the ‘certificate of title’) or by the purchaser assuming the ‘arms’ as their own. The use of such un-registered heraldry is an offence under Scots law.
Okay, that does not actually strike at the practice, but it does make clear the limits of one of these lordships, ladyships or lairdships. Granted, the Guardian article also does this, by quoting the Marketing Director of Highland Titles where he noted those with souvenir plots are “not going to get access to the House of Lords“. (That does raise an interesting concept for Lords reform, actually…)
Anyway, enough of that, why am I still writing about this? That is a darned good question. In a way I wish I wasn’t. File my repeated writing about souvenir plots alongside the tiresome “debate” about Scots Gaelic. My two reasons I suppose are as follows.
First, the Guardian article has stickability. I have no doubt it will turn up more readily on the internet than this here blog post in the future. So be it. I still thought there should be at least one more readily accessed explainer about it than my Twitter thread.
Second, this gives me a chance to air some of the things I find of professional interest, including previous work on land registration and recent work about land markets. Sure, some might observe that my writing about Highland Titles again is either quasi-obsessive or ripe to give more publicity to an operation I have no stake in. Again, so be it. I will try to mitigate future writing on the subject, but who knows what the future will bring.