Original publication by Cathleen O’Grady for theatlantic.com on 20 May 2022
A net-zero land rush is sweeping the country, and both locals and wealthy “green lairds” are trying to buy in.
The wind turbine judders to life with a boom that echoes down its central shaft. It rotates slowly at first, then gathers speed as its blades pick up the direction of the wind. Andy Clements, who looks after the small wind farm on the tiny Scottish Isle of Gigha, steps out of the control hub at the base of the turbine and looks up with satisfaction. A minor problem required a restart, he tells me, but now the turbine is once again generating “pennies falling from heaven.”
Gigha is long and narrow, about six miles north to south, and the surrounding sea is bright turquoise, shading to deep navy over the nearby kelp beds. A 20-minute ferry ride to the east lies the Scottish mainland, deep green and brown under a moody autumnal sky. To the west are the much larger islands of Islay and Jura. Beyond them, the open sea stretches all the way to Canada.
The turbines dotting the hill are Gigha’s three “dancing ladies,” nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity. Harmony, a newer model, was added later. Since 2005, Gigha’s residents have sold power from the small wind farm to the national grid, generating hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Twenty years ago, when the inhabitants of Gigha—who numbered about 100 at the time—decided to buy their island from its millionaire owner, they were at the forefront of a national wave of community buyouts. Now more than 500,000 acres of land are in community ownership—almost 3 percent of the country—and more buyouts are in the pipeline.
The buyouts are part of Scotland’s decades-long effort to modernize its system of land ownership. Lingering medieval practices and laws that favored the rich have resulted in the “most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world,” according to a briefing paper given to U.K. lawmakers in 2013. The paper reported that about 500 people—less than 0.01 percent of the population—still hold about half of the country’s privately owned land. Since 2001, grants from the national Scottish Land Fund have allowed Gigha and other rural communities to buy their land from often-absentee “lairds,” or landlords. Residents of these communities can now rent their housing from communally owned trusts, and use income generated from assets like wind farms to improve their local infrastructure.
Clements, who married a Gigha local and has lived on the island for 25 years, says that 95 percent of its houses were “below tolerable standard” before the buyout: “They were shocking—you had water running down the walls and windows.” Many houses have not yet been renovated; the community trust spent too much, too quickly, and has had to rein in its ambitions after finding itself in significant debt. But before the island was in community hands, Clements says, they “didn’t have the opportunities to do a lot of what we’re doing now.” Lack of funds, and lack of control over the housing owned by the laird, held them back.
Advocates of community ownership say the model is also a powerful way to address the climate emergency. Across Scotland, community landowners have not only installed wind farms but planted forests and restored carbon-guzzling peatlands. And because the money—assets, government grants, and income from tourism and energy generation—stays in community hands, the model can meet social needs as well, says Fraser Stewart, a public-policy researcher at the University of Strathclyde.
Rural communities are not the only landowners in Scotland with an eye on the land’s potential. Over the past year, several foreign and domestic corporations have purchased vast estates, hoping to offset their carbon emissions or sell carbon offsets to others. In 2020, the Scottish brewery BrewDog announced plans for ecotourism, reforestation, and peatland restoration on the more-than-9,000-acre estate it had recently purchased in the Scottish Highlands. In September 2021, the financial-services company Standard Life bought its own carbon-offsetting Highlands estate, angling for a head start against rising decarbonization costs. Three months later, Aviva—another financial-services company—announced a similar plan.
Alongside these corporate “green lairds,” wealthy individuals are buying large properties in hopes of restoring wilderness and regenerating carbon sinks. Magnus Davidson, a rural-economy researcher at the University of the Highlands and Islands, says some of these millionaires and billionaires are collecting trophies much like traditional lairds, the only difference being that the new trophies are forests and peatlands instead of hunting and fishing souvenirs. Other new owners aim to profit by managing the land for carbon storage and biodiversity.
The interest from “green lairds” is driving up land values, and prices in some areas have doubled in recent years. Private sales are on the increase too, with many buyers’ identities hidden. “Land prices at the minute are escalating so rapidly that buying land in Scotland is one of the safest and most lucrative markets you can get into,” says Peter Peacock, a land-rights campaigner and former minister in the Scottish Parliament. “And that’s got all sorts of consequences … Only large, wealthy buyers can buy, because prices are so high, and that means communities are getting more and more squeezed out.”
As Scotland’s government plans another round of land-law reform, the country is grappling with the role that land will play in reaching the national target of net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2045. Who owns the country’s land, how much acreage each owner controls, and what those owners ultimately do with their holdings will affect not only the health of the planet but the future of the human communities that currently live on hot property.
Land is “not just dry stuff—it’s rural and urban; it’s the seas up to the territorial limits; it’s up in the sky, it’s down beneath,” says Andy Wightman, a land-reform campaigner and former member of the Scottish Parliament. Wightman, whose book Who Owns Scotland drew attention in the 1990s to Scotland’s archaic and idiosyncratic land-ownership system, runs a website that collects public information about the owners of Scottish estates. “The governance of land on our planet is fundamental to everything,” he says. “It’s where we live, what we eat … It is everything, so it touches on everything.”
At every turn in rural Scotland, old landscapes jostle with new. Oil rigs out at sea give way to offshore wind farms. Regimented forestry plantations stand alongside small patches of softer, wilder native woodland. Sheep graze near onshore wind turbines.
A five-hour journey from Gigha, within the boundaries of Scotland’s largest national park, lies Kinrara estate, which BrewDog bought last year. About 70 miles away, on the country’s east coast, offshore oil is still booming. But here in Cairngorms National Park, native pinewoods and forestry plantations line the snow-capped mountains. At Kinrara, as in much of Scotland, estate managers have long prioritized the deer and game birds that draw paying visitors eager for hunting vacations. The result is limited biodiversity: The hillsides, efficiently cleared of young trees by hungry deer, are thickly coated with heather. In the company’s plans, a computer-generated image optimistically depicts a regenerated woodland with a mix of native holly, willow, alder, and rowan trees on the now-bare slopes. Targeted fencing will keep new saplings safe from grazing teeth.
The term green laird is used to express concern about the concentration of ownership and power, says Hamish Trench, the chief executive of the Scottish Land Commission, the public body created by the Scottish government to advise on land policy. But “corporate ownership is not, by definition, a bad thing,” he says. “There’s no reason why a corporate owner of land can’t be a good landowner.”
Escalating land prices are a worry, he says, because they will force smaller players, such as communities or even just non-millionaires, out of the market, limiting diversity in Scottish land ownership and keeping power concentrated in only a few hands. Land has recently sold for two or even three times its expected value, according to Trench. A report by the estate agency Strutt & Parker found a 30 percent increase in farmland for sale in the Highlands and Islands in 2021 compared with the five-year average, and a jump in price for farmland suitable for afforestation. Valuation methods now account for the carbon-capture and rewilding potential of land, according to the report.
“It’s just not a fair starting point,” Davidson says: With so few people able to own land, many who might want to enlist it in the quest for net-zero—including communities—are locked out. And with government grants for carbon-sink restoration, and talk of tax breaks for conservation, he adds, “we run the risk of funneling a lot of taxpayers’ money to a small number of private individuals and companies who own the land.”
Scotland’s largest private landowner is Anders Holch Povlsen, a Danish billionaire who made his fortune in the fashion industry. Povlsen, who lives in Denmark, has been steadily buying up estates to regenerate the forests and peatlands and restore biodiversity. His company, Wildland, has planted millions of trees, all with a view to eventually restore ecosystems so that they can self-sustain. The hunting lodges and mansions on his estates now offer high-end tourism experiences. Povlsen is a controversial figure; although some laud his ecological achievements, others are concerned about the power his resources can wield.
Povlsen’s flagship estate, Glenfeshie, is just a stone’s throw from BrewDog’s land. The broad River Feshie, scattered with pale rocks, winds its way through a valley that is in the early decades of a resurrection: Hills once cropped bare by deer are now dotted with clusters of young native woodland. Pine marten, wildcats, and other rare species thrive. The landscape here offers a glimpse into a Scotland before rampant deforestation, before sheep farming and deer hunting kept the hillsides covered with heather. It’s a return to history that environmental campaigners hope to see on many of Scotland’s old hunting estates—including Balmoral estate, owned by the Queen, also within Cairngorms National Park.
But restoration in Glenfeshie is not a precise re-creation of the past; with less snow in the mountains every year, and snowpack more fleeting, its recovering ecosystems must be equipped to handle the climate of the future. The rejuvenation of Glenfeshie extends beyond its borders: It is one of several estates that have joined forces to restore the degraded local ecosystem on a much larger scale. The Cairngorms Connect project covers a continuous 230 square miles, about the size of New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. Proportional to Scotland’s tiny landmass, it is roughly equivalent to restoring ecosystems across almost all of South Carolina.
Glenfeshie is the largest of Povlsen’s 12 estates in Scotland, which together make up a 230,000-acre empire—larger than the Scottish holdings of the Queen or any other royal. In the Cairngorms—the country’s mecca for hiking, biking, and outdoor pursuits—there’s some support for a wilderness corridor, and opposition from those in favor of more traditional use of the land for hunting. But farther north, where economic opportunity is thin on the ground and a sudden influx of tourism has slammed into communities ill-prepared for it, Povlsen has come into conflict with locals.
“You can’t just replicate the success of Glenfeshie here,” says Davidson, who lives in the nearby town of Thurso and whose familial links to the region go back generations. His grandparents’ house sits cozily in a copse near a wild, roaring north-coast beach; he can trace the eviction of his daughter’s sixth-great-grandfather on her mother’s side from a nearby estate. The counties of Caithness and Sutherland, more than 100 miles north of the Cairngorms, are socially and culturally distinct from regions farther south, he says: less tourism, and more rural remoteness. Communities struggle with a faltering local economy and aging populations. Although marketing by Povlsen and others has brought in a rush of tourism, the resulting low-paid seasonal jobs are not a compelling reason for young people to remain, Davidson adds. Meanwhile, rocketing housing prices—with stock snapped up by Airbnb investors and wealthy buyers seeking second homes—drive ongoing rural depopulation. Schools have been closed and services cut, leaving communities even more fragile.
A local nuclear power plant once offered the kinds of jobs that keep people in the region—stable, well-paid, and not subject to the whims of tourists. But the plant is now in the process of being decommissioned, and there is nothing yet to replace it. “There’s this huge socioeconomic challenge ahead,” Davidson says. “For the first time in generations, you can’t just leave school and walk into an apprenticeship that will last you your lifetime.”
Residents have thrown their support behind a proposed local spaceport—the first in the U.K.—that would rival more remote launch sites such as those in Kazakhstan and New Zealand, shooting small satellites into space and creating jobs. Povlsen has fought back against the spaceport—which would be located on land owned by a local community—citing potential environmental damage to the region’s peatlands, a rich carbon sink and part of the largest blanket bog in the world. At the same time, he has invested in a different spaceport proposal in Shetland. Wildland has also resisted the installation of various wind farms in the region, citing their visual impact on the landscape. Many locals were enthusiastic about these wind farms, which would bring not just jobs but also direct income through a scheme that pays grants to communities that host them.
Wildland did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but Bob Reid, the company’s recently retired development director, says that Wildland emphasized visual impact in its case against the wind farm because that was its strongest legal argument, but the objections run deeper. Wildland’s resistance has been reported in local media as the community’s David against Povlsen’s Goliath, he says. But behind the spaceport and wind farms are also corporate interests—respectively, an aerospace company, a transport company, and a finance, steel, and energy company that has been embroiled in a U.K. financial-crime scandal. Reid argues that the infrastructure would be better placed elsewhere: Rockets from the spaceport, for instance, would pose a risk to human settlements near the launch site, as well as to the islands over which they would need to travel to reach the North Pole; a spaceport on Shetland would have no such problems. And although the wind farms would take advantage of generous government subsidies for renewable energy in high-wind areas, they would frequently have to idle their turbines in order to prevent excess energy from flowing into an overloaded national grid. But local support is understandable, he adds, because of the economic benefit they promise.
Globally, the idea of a “just transition” to a net-zero world is gathering steam. At COP26, the United Nations climate conference held in Glasgow last November, activists and community leaders from around the world gathered to demand international policies that would help society’s most vulnerable—those at risk from the most-catastrophic impacts of warming, and those facing poverty and joblessness as the world pivots away from fossil fuels.
For workers in the fossil-fuel industry, there’s “an understanding of what a just transition looks like,” Davidson says—it almost always begins with retraining for new jobs. But conversations about achieving a just transition for land use, he says, are only beginning.
In Sutherland, a historical wound underlies the current tensions over land. Beginning in the mid-18th century, landowners across Scotland, including the then–Countess of Sutherland, converted their estates to profitable large-scale sheep farms, evicting large numbers of tenants from their homes. Famine, emigration, and chronic poverty ensued. The Highland Clearances are vivid in cultural memory, especially in Sutherland. That still-sharp sting feeds some of the suspicion of efforts to “rewild” the landscape. After all, Davidson points out, many of the areas considered “wild” in Scotland were in fact forcibly cleared of people.
A roughly 40-minute drive from the proposed spaceport is the valley of Strathnaver, the site of one of the Clearances’ most brutal episodes. From 1814 to 1818, an agent acting on behalf of the Countess of Sutherland ruthlessly cleared dozens of tenants from the land, sometimes setting cottages on fire. Thousands were evicted by the countess over the course of the Clearances. “I have lived to see calamity upon calamity overtake the Sutherlanders,” wrote the stonemason Donald MacLeod, whose family was evicted from the Strathnaver village of Rosal and who later emigrated to Canada. “The country was darkened by the smoke of the burnings.”
Low walls of tumbledown stone, kept in place as a monument, mark the outlines of the cottages that once stood here. Surrounding the ruins of Rosal is a commercial forest of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine, owned by the public body Forestry and Land Scotland.
Fear and suspicion of rewilding are fueled in part by the painful history, but an exact recurrence is unlikely, Davidson says. Tenants have far more rights today than during the Clearances: Many tenant farmers—called crofters—have the right to fair rent, and to pass their tenancies down through their families. Landowners can’t simply evict them.
A more realistic concern for residents, he says, is “economic clearance”—decisions by powerful landowners that make it harder for communities to make a living and compel young people to leave the region to find work. And there are still cases of tenants being forced out, he says: “What did BrewDog do when they bought Kinrara estate? Fired the gamekeepers and sold their houses.” BrewDog, in an email response to The Atlantic, says that one of these two gamekeepers found a new role during his notice period, and the other was allowed to stay in his home rent-free until he found a new job.
Rosal was once one of the largest townships in Strathnaver. Today, the view from the hillside of Beinn Rosail shows no sign of human habitation. The nearby road is screened by the trees. Phone masts are hidden by hills. Any nearby houses are out of sight.
But there may soon be people living here again. Local communities are debating whether to buy the land and lightly “repeople” it—a term used by critics of “rewilding,” including Davidson—possibly allotting small pockets of land for people to live on and develop as small-scale woodlands.
Much like green lairds, a new generation of community owners is becoming more aware of the benefits of managing their land with climate in mind, Trench, of the Scottish Land Commission, says. But unlike the green lairds, they are not awash with the money needed to buy and restore the land. Last year, the Langholm Moor community buyout raised £3.8 million to buy 5,200 acres of land from the Duke of Buccleuch—who was the largest private landowner in the country, until overtaken in recent years by Povlsen. The Langholm community aims to restore the land to the point of achieving official nature-reserve status, bringing in tourists and creating local jobs; like the green lairds, they plan to sell carbon credits from their restored forests and peatlands.
“We’re at the start of a very big journey,” says Jenny Barlow, the estate manager of the nature reserve in the making. The land has been burned, drained, and managed with an intensive focus on game birds, she says. The team is beginning to grapple with the mammoth task of rewetting the bogs, blocking up ditches, and encouraging the right trees to grow in the right places, all the while battling invasive Sitka spruce seeded from nearby plantations.
Communities like Gigha, which bought their land long before natural capital and net-zero were buzzwords, did not have climate at the center of their ambitions like Langholm. But many nonetheless punch above their weight on climate action. A report published last year by the advocacy organization Community Land Scotland documents dozens of climate initiatives on community-owned lands. Like Gigha, many have installed wind farms. Some are restoring natural carbon sinks, like the Carloway Estate Trust, on the Isle of Lewis. Others are reducing transport emissions by building paths for safer cycling and walking, installing electric-car infrastructure, or introducing car-sharing schemes to reduce private car ownership. In many cases, these projects feed into one another—the Huntly Development Trust, for instance, bought a small farm, installed a wind turbine on the land, and now uses the turbine’s proceeds for other projects, including low-carbon transportation.
On climate policy, low-income communities “aren’t really getting a say in the conversation at any meaningful level,” says Fraser Stewart, the public-policy researcher, who calls himself a “scheme bairn at heart”—a child who grew up in government housing. But community owners can shape their climate initiatives to meet the most urgent local needs, he says. Like the residents of Gigha, they can use the money for housing that will withstand an unstable climate; like the members of the Westray Development Trust, in Orkney, they can use wind-turbine proceeds to buy fuel vouchers for residents who can’t afford to heat their home. These communities are at “the sharp end of climate change,” Stewart says. But they “stand to benefit by far and away the most, if you can get this moment right, and you can do this transition well.”
Such local initiatives are better at building trust and instigating real behavior change than government or outsiders, says Bobby Macaulay, one of the authors of the report on community-owned climate initiatives: “A lot of what we need to do to reach net-zero is about changing the way we live, and in ways that we might not necessarily want to do.” Changes imposed by outsiders or government authorities are likely to be met with strong resistance, he says. “Whereas if it’s someone in your community, then you might actually listen to them.”
But even advocates of community ownership say that the model is far from utopian. On Gigha, Clements says, “you can’t please everybody.” In the years since the buyout, the islanders have struggled not only with debt but with infighting over development priorities.
The responsibilities of community ownership are heavy, says Wightman, the ex-politician and author. Despite his reputation as an ardent supporter of community ownership, it’s not always the right step and shouldn’t be the only choice open to communities, he says: Many communities buy their land as a last resort, stepping in because they want more say in where they live, and they don’t have other options. Some communities have taken over failing estates. “You wouldn’t ask parents to take over a failing school, or a local community to run a failing police service,” Wightman says. “Why should we expect local communities to become landowners for a failed system?”
Underlying the drive toward community ownership, he says, is Scotland’s dearth of truly local government. The huge areas served by “local” authorities—the Highland Council, for example, is responsible for an area nearly the size of Belgium—mean that communities have little power without buying their land. (Although “community councils” are intended to serve smaller areas, they are underfunded and largely powerless.)
Private landowners can also effect change at a far greater scale and speed than community landowners, says Peter Cairns, the executive director of Scotland: The Big Picture, which promotes and manages rewilding. Whereas community organizations can be “paralyzed by bureaucracy and politics,” he says, people like Povlsen “click their fingers and stuff happens quickly and at scale.” The ideal, he suggests, would be a merger of the models: the financial resources and agility of an individual owner combined with real community participation in decision making.
Jeremy Leggett, a solar-energy entrepreneur who recently bought two estates in Scotland, is trying to achieve that merger. Last May, he moved into Beldorney Castle, which is nestled in a valley between a forestry plantation and patches of native woodland. Boxes line the hallway outside the castle’s refurbished, modern kitchen, while Leggett’s whippet dozes in a sunbeam near the back door. The plantation’s days are numbered, as are the sheep that keep the hillsides close-cropped; already, the land at Beldorney is “fluffier” than the buzz-cut grazing ground on the other side of the valley. Over the coming decades, if all goes well, the hills will be overtaken by the restored woodland that Leggett calls the “Forest of Hope.”
Neighboring landowners have offered to join with Leggett to restore a corridor of woodland. And he hopes to demonstrate that ecotourism and carbon offsets can be more profitable than traditional land uses like sheep farming. The profits likely won’t be eye-popping, he says—“No one’s going to be going on holiday in the Bahamas”—but he believes sustainable turnover is possible.
Leggett has taken to heart many of the critiques of the green laird. He will be a minority shareholder in the company that manages his land; the remainder of the shares will be held by other investors and ordinary people who invested via crowdfunding. It will focus on creating local jobs and will seek local input on its decisions, he says. And he will not be leaving his estate to his family; any shares still belonging to him when he dies, or in 10 years’ time, will pass into a trust run by a majority of Highland Scots. “There’ll be no risk of my family, love them as I do, selling the whole lot onto ‘Donald Trump Woodland Golf Courses,’” he says.
Leggett grapples with his role in the land rush, even emailing Trench to ask, “Am I more part of the solution, or more part of the problem?” Trench, he says, replied that he was “categorically more part of the solution.” But some, like Davidson, still consider his approach a form of green lairdism. In the first round of fundraising for his venture, Leggett raised nearly £10 million in just a few weeks from “high-net-worth individuals”—contacts from his previous entrepreneurial venture. The Langholm Moor community, meanwhile, is scrambling to raise the £2.2 million needed to buy the second half of Buccleuch’s estate before it goes on the open market on July 31. If the first half of the Langholm buyout had happened later, with the current land market, it likely would not have gone ahead either, Barlow, the estate manager, says.
In Scotland and elsewhere, the net-zero land rush is likely just beginning. As more countries introduce carbon taxes and emissions targets, carbon sequestration becomes a more attractive investment. Some green lairds have been open about this motivation, Trench says: “What we’re seeing is people speculating that carbon value will continue to increase—and therefore they can afford to pay more now, because it’s still likely to be quite a safe bet.”
There are good reasons to be wary of carbon offsets as a real climate solution, says Matthew Brander, a carbon-accounting researcher at the University of Edinburgh. For one thing, the carbon stored impermanently in forests and peatlands isn’t a perfect counterweight to carbon emissions: “If a forestry project takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it for a hundred years, and then puts it back into the atmosphere when the forest dies or is burned or harvested, then those two just aren’t equivalent.”
There’s also the crucial question of what would have happened without the carbon-offset payment, says Barbara Haya, a carbon-offsetting researcher at UC Berkeley. Offsets are useful if emitters pay to bring about additional carbon sequestration, beyond what would have happened without that payment. But in many cases, so-called offset projects would have gone ahead anyway. “Many, if not most, offset credits on the market do not represent real emissions reductions,” Haya says.
Because carbon credits are currently so cheap, many companies lean on them to meet carbon-neutrality goals, enabling them to avoid real emissions cuts, Haya says. Shell, for instance, offers loyalty-program customers “carbon neutral” gas based on its offset programs, which include a forest in Scotland. Without independent oversight, offset projects can also lead to human-rights abuses. In Peru, Uganda, Indonesia, and elsewhere, corporate offsets have led to evictions and violent clashes—not unlike the Scots who lost their homes and livelihoods during the Highland Clearances centuries ago. “Whenever you have a lot of money going into areas where there’s a large imbalance of power and wealth, so often it’s the less powerful or less wealthy that end up being harmed,” Haya says.
Peacock, the ex-politician, is one of those sounding the alarm about the net-zero land rush in Scotland, calling on the Scottish government to act swiftly before the problem takes root. But the trend, he says, is clearly global: “It’s leading to the commodification and the financialization of the climate emergency … and it’s going to happen more widely, that’s my prediction. It’s coming to a cinema near you.”