Alison Hall: Women and the unfair distribution of land in Scotland

As part of a series of articles during this year's Our Land Festival, Alison Hall takes a look at the way women are sidelined when it comes to land ownership

ANDY WIGHTMAN, long-time land reform campaigner and now Green Party MSP, makes a point of saying that the biggest obstacle to progress in land reform is the lack of information and, in particular, information about land ownership. 

This is one of the reasons why he and others, rightly, campaign hard for greater transparency in land-related matters. If the biggest obstacle facing land reform campaigning is lack of information then the problem of lack of information on women and land ownership is a multiplication of this.

However, a lack of statistics and research on Scottish women’s ownership of land isn’t enough to hide the fact that women own and control minimal quantities of land in Scotland.

If the biggest obstacle facing land reform campaigning is lack of information then the problem of lack of information on women and land ownership is a multiplication of this.

The main reason this is the case is that historically men, well strictly speaking a small proportion of men, were able to own and control land. Here is not the place to provide a detailed history of (mostly male) land ownership, but two things need to be said. 

First, a few women have owned land and sometimes even quite a lot of it – for example, Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland (1765-1839), who was famed for her heartless clearances, owned most of the county of Sutherland – this is not an example we would want to promote. Secondly, at various points in history, women have been legally disbarred from owning property.

Up until the 20th century, women were excluded from political representation and discouraged from economic engagement except, of course, as a poorly paid or unpaid underclass. 

If a woman wanted to have access to a bit of land she more or less had to marry someone who had some. Even if she was left some land by someone she was usually encouraged to hand over power over it to a male relative.

There is one set of circumstances that contributes to women’s lack of land more than any other: succession and inheritance. Vast quantities of land in Scotland have been traditionally passed from a male owner to his oldest son for generations.

While Scottish women are perfectly entitled to hold and use land, in practice women are often systematically excluded from owning and managing land. The Scottish Government recently ran a consultation exercise on succession law and the promised new legislation will likely help. But the real problem is cultural. 

Inheritance and succession legislation does not (now) overtly discriminate against women. The law says that you can leave whatever you want to whoever you want. But, in practice, on the ground, and on a substantial scale, women are being let down by the system and are being heavily discriminated against.

The tradition in many farming and rural communities is for the oldest son to inherit land and for his female relatives to be overlooked when it comes to inheritance. This system is known as masculine primogeniture and it has been practised in Scotland since the middle ages.

The argument is made, from large estates down to smallholdings and crofts, that keeping quantities of land intact is of more importance than sharing land out. The dilution of landholdings by dispersing it between numerous benefactors was seen as undesirable and, instead, landholdings were encouraged, by markets, by proprietors and by governments, to accumulate greater and greater holdings so that today, land is held by fewer and fewer people. 

While Scottish women are perfectly entitled to hold and use land, in practice women are often systematically excluded from owning and managing land.

This is part of the reason why oldest sons were regularly handed all of the land while younger male siblings, as well as almost all women, were pawned off with comparatively little in the way of compensation.

The second reason that this system flourished was that women were effectively seen as second class citizens who were meant to find their way in the world through marriage. It may be the case that the law on inheritance no longer overtly favours males over females.

However, feudal traditions persist in farming communities such that women and girls are systematically excluded from owning family farms or a share of them, and this can still be seen as acceptable and normal. 

It became customary to pass on land and farms to the oldest son and to exclude daughters from inheriting. So powerful was this idea of gender supremacy that daughters, granddaughters, sisters, female cousins, aunts and other female relatives could be passed over until a distant male relative could be found to take on an inheritance. 

By these means, women have been deprived over centuries and even millennia from owning land that they would have been entitled to if they had been born male.

So powerful was this idea of gender supremacy that daughters, granddaughters, sisters, female cousins, aunts and other female relatives could be passed over until a distant male relative could be found to take on an inheritance. 

Each individual family handles things a little differently. Some women from wealthy families are 'compensated' or 'bought off' to preserve an iniquitous system. Many women are packed off into marriages with what looks a lot like a dowry comparable to any tribal bride-price. 

Although nowadays these marriages are as subject to modern standards of romance and love as any others, the sense that they are economic arrangements is equally apparent. Many women are given a wee sop – some shares or a handout to help them on their way. Some get nothing at all. 

The overall picture is one in which the chosen son and heir gets the bulk of the land while his female relatives are left bereft.

Andy Wightman notes that: "Bearing in mind that ... over half of Scotland even today has been held in the same family for at least a hundred years, the chances of women and children obtaining any meaningful stake in landownership through inheritance remains a distant prospect. 

"It is a prospect, it might be added, which is the source of much bitterness in many landed families, though it is seldom articulated in public." 

Women in rural communities were (and often still are) socialised and cajoled from infancy into the idea that their future role is to be a wife – although many today are educated and hold down good jobs. 

He adds in an important footnote that "this is particularly the case in farming families".

If women and girls are being systematically excluded from ownership and control of land, would they not be expected to feel bitter or, perhaps, more appropriately, quite legitimately aggrieved and enraged?

Women in rural communities were (and often still are) socialised and cajoled from infancy into the idea that their future role is to be a wife – although many today are educated and hold down good jobs. 

When I was a child in the 1960s we went to great community parties run by the SWRI and the Sunday school where a popular game was 'The Farmer Wants a Wife'. Oh and the follow up line is: "The wife wants a child." 

No prizes for guessing which role was given to the boys and which to the girls. If a girl had any inclination to be a farmer she was given clear messages that that was not fitting or expected. She would have had to go against the grain of her community.

More equitable distribution of land to women would be one way of beginning to erode the stranglehold of an increasingly small minority who gain power, wealth and prestige from their ownership and control of so much of Scotland.

It could very reasonably be asked why most people should give a damn about this. Most people, the vast majority in Scotland, do not have access to land at all. As is frequently pointed out, over half of Scotland is owned by less than a thousand people. So why should most people care if women and girls are being systematically shafted by their own families? Frankly, it’s a good point.

Undemocratic access to land and the hugely iniquitous distribution of land generally is something that needs to be changed, and changed dramatically, if Scotland is to be counted as a modern and progressive nation.

But here’s the thing. More equitable distribution of land to women would be one way of beginning to erode the stranglehold of an increasingly small minority who gain power, wealth and prestige from their ownership and control of so much of Scotland.

One of the consequences of passing wealth from father to oldest son has been the consolidation of land in increasingly large packets. In the past it was argued that land needed to be kept in one large lot because to reduce its size by sharing it out among inheritors would tend to deplete the overall estate. 

Think about this logic: it would mean a larger and larger share of land ending up with a smaller and smaller cabal of people – a clear path to entrenching and increasing inequality. 

This is to look at things from the point of view of the minority and of markets and not from the point of view of people, communities and the majority. Think about this logic: it would mean a larger and larger share of land ending up with a smaller and smaller cabal of people – a clear path to entrenching and increasing inequality. 

If land was divided between more inheritors it would mean that more people got a smaller amount, but it would help to create a much more equal society and give far more people the ability to be involved in farming and other rural industries.

These days, with the state of the markets, and big supermarkets dominating supply and prices, farmers need to be able to do things on a vast scale to compete, but that’s a question about farm management and not farm ownership. Farmers are already in co-operative producer organisations to work together to come to market and there is no good reason why many smaller farmers could not cooperate in a variety of ways to protect their livelihoods.

It is often shameful and very hurtful for women and girls to be treated as second class citizens by their own families. This can lead to experiences of alienation, anger and distrust within families and cannot be good for women and girls’ mental health. 

In some instances, the argument will be given that this is the tradition in these communities and should not be questioned. However, if this was happening in a poor developing nation or tribal societies, most people in the West would be quick to criticise. 

Perhaps it is time we began questioning this sexism in our own backyards. Let’s bring this issue out into the open and give it the public airing that it deserves.

Perhaps it is time we began questioning this sexism in our own backyards. Let’s bring this issue out into the open and give it the public airing that it deserves.

A meeting is being held under the Our Land banner for anyone who is interested in these issues. It will be at the Rattray Community Connect building on High Street, Rattray, Blairgowrie, Perthshire PH10, from 7pm to 8.45pm on 30 August. The meeting is free and bookings can be made here.

The meeting is an exploratory one in which participants can share their experiences and the overall aim of the meeting is to see what might be done to change this outmoded, unjust and oppressive state of affairs.

Picture courtesy of Alison Hall

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