Andy Wightman’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, like that of many another author, coincides with the publication of a new work – though in the case of Wightman, this is not something new, but the third edition of a book which first appeared in 1996 as ‘Who Owns Scotland?’ republished in 2011 as ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers; Who Owns Scotland (and How They Got It).
Wightman has been involved in examining these questions since his days as a university student, and the topic itself goes at least as far back as the late Tom Johnston’s ‘Our Scots Noble Families’.
Wightman, however, investigates further than Johnston, who as an active Secretary of State for Scotland, was prescribed by time and circumstance from investigating the many instances of privatisation of public lands that Wightman enumerates and details in his book.
During the discussion ably chaired by Ruth Wishart, Wightman spent time outlining the reduction of commonties over time, in part a result of the creakily oligarchic nature of Scottish local government between the late fifteenth and nineteenth centuries (though some might argue that little has in fact changed) and the pressures on contemporary local authorities whose powers and sources of income have both reduced in recent times.
As has been pointed out elsewhere , legislation on land ownership in Scotland remains fraught because definitions remain uncertain. Even current attempts to make law transparent seem contentious and open to challenge, and while Wightman is to be congratulated for his several attempts to challenge preconceptions, he himself is neither a lawyer nor a legislator (though he appears to be seeking to become one next year).
Tom Johnston was not a lawyer either, of course, yet his influence on the Scotland of his day remains with us, at least in part. Wightman, on the other hand, still has much to say in this contested area, and this new edition will doubtless add to the debate.
Details of the most recent edition of ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’ were not yet available, but the previous – Andy Wightman,’ The Poor had No Lawyers; Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It), Birlinn 2011 £9.99 isbn 9781841589602 may still be available.