Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2433

Who are the lords of the land?

This article is over 7 years, 5 months old
As Toffs and Tories panic about land reform, Raymie Kiernan says their vast estates are stolen goods that we must take back
Issue 2433
Britains biggest landowner Lord Buccleuch, and a field boundary created by an 18th century enclosure
Get off my land! Britain’s biggest private landowner Lord Buccleuch, and a field boundary created by an 18th century enclosure (Pic: Allan Warren on Wikimedia Commons, Andy Warrington on

Big landowners have been frothing with rage over fairly mild plans for land reform by the Scottish government.

Aristocrats in particular are upset by even the idea of challenging their control over vast swathes of land. 

Castle-dwelling baronet and Eton graduate Guy David Innes-Ker, the 10th Duke of Roxburghe, for example, takes exception to putting some land under community ownership. 

The Earl of Seafield thinks that if a few people do own most of the land, “there is very little evidence to show this is a bad thing”.

Toffs and their Tory friends act as if any reform to land ownership is a radical and threatening assault on a situation as natural as the hills.

But the land didn’t just happen to find itself concentrated in a tiny number of hands.

It took a bloody history of violence and robbery to steal it from the poor.

Britain’s largest private landowner is the Duke of Buccleuch with over 240,000 acres, mostly in Scotland.

He’s worth up to £1 billion, and his Buccleuch Group of companies have interests in everything from food to fracking.


The duke’s archaic title was created in 1663 by the king, Charles II, whose father got his head chopped off during the English Revolution two decades earlier.

His family was rewarded by the monarch for its role in the English Civil War—defending the unearned privilege of his class and the old feudal order on which it rested.

For the majority of human existence, people lived in cooperative, classless societies, often nomadic, with no conception of exclusively owning the land they lived on.

Control over specific areas of land came about as part of the development of agriculture, cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals.

But even in early farming settlements, this control was a much more collective thing than the private property we understand today.

Later, as techniques advanced, it became possible to produce a surplus of food that could enable growth or protection from periods of scarcity.

Over centuries the layer of people who managed and distributed that surplus ultimately crystallised into ruling classes.

The inequity of land ownership went hand in hand with the emergence of such class societies.

Throughout history new ruling classes, states and empires have annexed and seized territory, then tried to make it seem like it had always been theirs.

Conjectural map of a mediaeval English manor, showing the common land in the north east corner

Conjectural map of a mediaeval English manor, showing the common land in the north east corner (Pic: William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923)

But by the 17th century in England, something else was happening.

It was a time of massive upheaval, and ownership of land was a major flashpoint between competing factions of the rich and the poor that they exploited.

Society still had many feudal features. Peasants with small and medium holdings tilled the bulk of the land.

But the seeds of capitalist production had been germinating for many decades. 

The proportion of wealthy farmers employing wage labour had grown substantially. 

So had the number of landowners happy to extract wealth from the land they controlled by renting it out to them.

New crops and techniques allowed commercialised, capitalist farmers and their landlords to achieve new successes.

But they had their eyes on a bigger prize—the common lands where all peasants had the right to graze their livestock.

In a great wave of “enclosures” they fenced off these commons, grabbing profitable new fields for themselves.

This also fuelled the growth of cities by forcing poor peasants off the land to become wage labourers.

As market relations and commodity prices became the driving force behind the development of production this fuelled more clearing of land.

Historian E P Thompson described enclosure as a “plain enough case of class robbery, played according to the fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property owners and lawyers”.

People resented the rich who were destroying their means of survival, and sometimes they fought back.

An account of one village in what is now Cambridgeshire described how “hundreds of women and boys, armed with daggers and javelins, in a very tumultuous and riotous manner, entered upon the grounds”. 

They “threw open the gates, and broke down the quicksets [hedges] of the said enclosure, and turned great herds of cattle upon the premises”.


But the great land robbery continued—and the patchwork of fields criss-crossed by hedgerows we see in today’s English countryside are the result. 

Yet despite the increase in cultivation Britain went from being a net grain exporter to a net importer.

Although more people were working on the land than before, the proportion of the total population doing so decreased.

The enclosures were neither a one-off, nor simply a continuation of what had gone before.

As socialist author Martin Empson argues in his book Land and Labour, “Enclosing common land and forcing people from their homes was a fundamental part of the rise of capitalism.”

This is what the revolutionary Karl Marx called “primitive accumulation”—the plunder that gave early capitalists the means to invest in production.

Much of the brutal colonialism of Europe’s empires was also part of this process, as was the Atlantic slave trade that devastated Africa.

The birth of capitalism is a long time ago, and today the most important type of accumulation is based on capitalist production—exploiting the labour of waged workers.

That hasn’t replaced the scramble for territories and resources that drove land clearances, but given it new teeth.

The past decade has seen major struggles over land rights in many poorer countries, as corporations try to clear out villages and tribes to grow cash crops such as biofuels.

In Canada and parts of South America, indigenous people find themselves in the way of pipelines and roads that states are desperate to build to boost their exports in a global market.

Environmental disaster and the threat of climate change make a mockery of claims that the land is best looked after as the private property of the rich.

With real common ownership and the productive powers of today’s society we could use the land to achieve wonders for humanity.

That might sound impossible. But everything the rich have they took—and there’s no reason it can’t be taken back.

After centuries, Scotland is scarred by the clearances

Chief Glengarry who evicted his clan

Chief Glengarry who evicted his clan (Pic: detail from painting by Henry Raeburn)

Scotland has “the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world”, according to campaigner Jim Hunter.

The remains of homes on the island of Fuaigh Mòr, cleared of people in 1841

The remains of homes on the island of Fuaigh Mòr, cleared of people in 1841 (Pic: Sarah Egan on Wikimedia Commons)

The vast majority of land in Scotland is privately owned, and just 432 people—or 0.008 percent of the population—own half of this.

Meanwhile over 80 percent of the population squeeze onto just 6 percent of the land. 

Scotland is unique in that most of its land was still owned under feudal tenure laws until they were abolished just 14 years ago.

And thanks to the Tories these latterday lairds now enjoy a juicy tax break on any land they use for shooting or hunting.

The disparity of land ownership in Scotland is so extreme because of the particularly violent imposition of capitalist agriculture in the Highlands.

This involved the destruction of whole Highland communities in the late 18th century and well into the 19th century. 

Landowning clan chiefs believed that they had an ancestral right to make money off the land. And a spike in the price of wool gave them an opportunity to do this by introducing sheep farming. 

But these rights did not extend to the common people who had lived on their estates for generations. These existing tenants were now in the way of sheep—and profit.

As Karl Marx observed, the chiefs “transformed their nominal right to the land into a right of private property, and as this came up against resistance on the part of their clansmen, they resolved to drive them out openly and by force”.

The state was more than willing to help in these Clearances. It was already repressing the Highlands to stem support for the Jacobite rebellions.

The Highlands were emptied by force, boosting production and creating thousands of refugees.

Many had to emigrate to the cities or overseas.

Read More

A People’s History of the World by Chris Harman (£12.99)

Land and Labour— Marxism, ecology and human history by Martin Empson (£12.00)

The Landgrabbers by Fred Pearce (£9.99)

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.

Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance