NOT so long ago I happened to hitch a lift with the factor of a large estate. He was a nice gent but his views on land reform were nothing short of hysterical. It struck me what a different world he inhabited: one of paternalistic, Victorian justifications for landed wealth – “locals can’t look after the woods!” – and nostalgic, anti-modernisation rhetoric.

“We’re going to become like Rhodesia!” he repeated, a telling

reference to what everyone else would call Zimbabwe. As with other “old-fashioned” lairds and their friends, comparisons between Mugabe and the SNP are never far away.

Scotland’s lairds seem to feel under attack. During the referendum debate our very concentrated land ownership patterns became a key issue, so much land remaining in the hands of so few symbolising the urgent need for change. The SNP suddenly acquired a burning interest in the issue, and last month draft legislation was put to Holyrood for a new Land Reform Bill.

Despite the fact that it’s all rather mild stuff and doesn’t propose any immediate redistribution of land whatsoever, the whole endeavour has been condemned repeatedly by landowners as “persecution” and “class war”.

So they’re fighting back – not just with rants in The Spectator but with glossy pamphlets and press releases. Scottish Land & Estates, the organisation representing 2,000 of the biggest landowners, produced a brochure entitled The Modern Face of Scottish Landownership in partnership with wealth management firm Turcan Connell.

The emphasis is firmly on landowners as custodians – benevolent sorts who look after the land and always “involve the community”.

Gairloch Estate’s blurb proudly states that no tenants have been evicted in the 519 years of

Mackenzie ownership. Pat on the back for them.

One of these “modern landowners” is Sir Francis Ogilvy, 14th Baronet of Inverquharity, pictured in the pamphlet on his 2,500-acre East Lothian estate. Sir Francis has turned Winton Estate into a profitable business with luxury holiday houses and clay pigeon shooting and so on.

He employs local people and plants trees and even has a woodchip boiler. He doesn’t seem to indulge in tirades about Mugabe-style land grabs either. In short, just the kind of guy the lobby might want as the “modern face” of landowners.

Colstoun Estate, owned by

Ludovic Broun-Lindsay, has also been pursuing the “diversified business model” of renovation and luxury/corporate holidays in the big house. Ogilvy is the factor, and the estate has recently decided to end the tenancy of farmer Andrew Stoddart. This means Andrew, along with his wife and children, will have to leave Colstoun Mains Farm which he has worked for 22 years.

Stoddart, who took on the farm in 1993, achieved a rent review and reduction after nine years in the courts. Sir Francis is the latest in a long line of factors since the tenancy began – 12, to be exact.

Stoddart also has a dispute over improvements and buildings on the farm. An appeal for compensation is understood to be on-going, though Colstoun Estate refused to comment.

IN other European countries, tenant farmers are supported with strong tenancy rights, but here tenants find themselves in desperate situations all too often, battling what can only be described as extremely powerful, wealthy men.

Broun-Lindsay is not just the laird in this situation – he’s also the Provost of the local council. Feudalism, it would seem, lives on in East Lothian.

Limited partnerships were an arrangement which left tenant farmers reliant on the promises of their landlords, with little security at all. Campaigner Andy Wightman describes them as “a vehicle for letting land while avoiding granting the security of tenure”.

The risk was entirely on the farmer while the landlord reaped the benefits. It is not known how many of these partnerships are still in force, but Wightman adds that “two generations of tenant farmers find themselves in these arrangements – it’s not good for farmers, not good for farming”.

The current equivalent, a limited duration tenancy, is little better. Essentially these measures return farm tenure to the Victorian era, undoing the work of post-war legislation which offered farmers protection from what was often both laird and local politician.

Almost half of the new Land Reform Bill is taken up by agricultural holdings – but somehow the radical solutions needed to address these problems aren’t included.

Despite this, landlords have heavily criticised the agricultural reforms, warning that landlords will stop issuing leases to tenants if they don’t think they’ll “get it back”.

But landlords seem to be one step ahead, as very few leases have been granted in recent years and the proportion of agricultural land taken up by tenant farming in Scotland has plummeted.

This is in stark contrast to the rest of Europe, where tenant farming is more widespread and tenants enjoy strong legal protections and often an absolute right-to-buy. Such measures are decried by our landed elite as unworkable “persecution”. Sadly the Scottish Government seems to have listened to them. Why does this elite still hold such sway? Is Scotland, despite all the hopeful rhetoric, still a society of deference?

I THINK we can imagine a genuinely “modern” face of land ownership. I don’t think it would look like one family owning vast swathes of land.

It would not look like a privileged individual protected by the might of the legal and fiscal systems, able to remove tenants at will – tenants who belong to the land as much as the “owners” do.

There is nothing modern about what we have now.

A modern landownership system would see power dispersed to individuals and communities so that they can have security and prosper – whether that’s through secure tenures or right-to-buy. Crofters enjoy these protections – but had to fight for them.

Tenant farmers face the same staggering injustices as the crofters did – Stoddart describes it as “another clearance” of families and workers from the land. For every person like him, there are many more who don’t speak out, too intimidated to do so.

Today is the deadline to send in your views on the Land Reform Bill. Make sure the Government understands it must outlaw exploitative time-limited tenancies and end these Victorian- era conditions and evictions.

Jen Stout is a campaigner with the Scottish Land Action Movement

The National view: It’s the last chance to have your say on the Land Reform Bill