SO 170 people have quit the National Trust for Scotland over its decision to appoint Neil Oliver as president. Is that all? Some suggest the real number is higher – others think Yessers are less likely to have joined the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in the first place since the charity is still strongly associated with stately homes and Victorian mansions.

But there is a further twist to this story.

The controversial appointment of Neil Oliver is actually a radical departure for NTS. Yes, the historian, archaeologist, author and TV presenter has described the prospect of a second referendum as a “cancerous presence”, did say Alex Salmond is a “round, wrecking ball of a man, shaped only to do damage” and described the Highland Clearances as “migration”. I’m not going to get into a slanging match here, but let’s just say that if NTS simply wanted to gain international profile, it could have chosen the very courteous Sam Heughan.


The extraordinary thing is not that Neil Oliver is a Unionist – that’s par for the course amongst conservation bodies. No, the surprise is that Oliver actually represents something progressive and new for NTS – he isn’t a duke or an earl. He doesn’t own several castles or tens of thousands of acres of Scotland or sit in the House of Lords. Oliver is – whisper it – a commoner.

READ MORE: Fury as new Royal Navy flagship is sold to Brazil amid Rosyth job crisis

The first commoner – as far as I can see – in the history of the organisation. Until now, NTS mined Scotland’s aristocracy to find the public face of the charity -- selecting two Dukes of Atholl, the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Marquess of Bute, the Earl of Airlie, the Duke of Buccleuch and most recently Jamie, Earl of Lindsay.

Indeed, in 2014, NTS named the Duke of Buccleuch as their Great Scot of 2014 during the annual Tartan Week festivities in New York for his “tireless efforts to promote the cultural and natural heritage of Scotland”.

So never mind the appointment of Neil Oliver (for a minute).

I’m not a member of NTS because it’s long been a landowners’ club with outdated views about land, control and democracy into which an outspoken opponent of home rule and the land-reforming Scottish Government is a perfect fit.

Let’s go back in history a bit.

The late Gordon Edmund Mingay was Emeritus Professor of Agrarian History at the University of Kent and perhaps the foremost chronicler of rural life in Victorian England. He wrote several influential books including the Rural Idyll, and The Victorian Countryside, both published in the 1980s. He was no radical – so his account of the National Trust’s origins is interesting.

During the 1870s three successive land access and public ownership bills were blocked at Westminster because they threatened to infringe private property rights. By the turn of the century, more conservative forces were stirring to see off the threat of land reform. As Mingay writes: “Relics of the past and of nature provided a kind of visible guarantee of historical identity to be preserved from the arbitrary standardisation that a cosmopolitan industrialisation seemed to threaten. With mounting international tension and a mounting concern for internal order, the past and the countryside were presented as a collective inheritance expressing the essential national spirit; and these images were pressed into the service of patriotism and the definition of national identity. The National Trust embodied both these notions.”

The trust arose from the work of the Commons Preservation Society, which had been fighting legal battles to save common land since its foundation in 1865. In 1894 the National Trust was set up as a body that could buy and hold land and buildings for the benefit of the nation. The National Trust for Scotland was set up in 1931.

Mingay writes: “From the start the trust had strong links with large landowners and sought to work with the existing system of private landlordism, always eschewing compulsion. As landlordism fell into economic crisis in the 1920s through the combined effects of death duties and depressed agricultural prices, the trust came to see the greatest threat to the landscape and historic buildings of the countryside as arising from the collapse of the great estates. As the trust started to campaign for tax relief for the owners, it increasingly voiced an ethos of paternalistic stewardship, which presented the traditional, private owner as the most appropriate custodian of country estates and houses and trust ownership as strictly a last resort.”

The question of who chairs NTS may appear to be a matter only for the charity and its 330 thousand members. But NTS owns and manages a lot of land with a lot of tenants – and until very recently it has managed the Inner Hebridean island of Canna like a Victorian landowner, offering only tied housing to employees and short-term leases which left local people with pre-Eigg buyout levels of disempowerment. As a result, dozens of islanders who arrived with the dream of owning land, building a home and having a stable future on Canna left within months. But according to newspaper reports last week, NTS has finally decided to let the 15 remaining islanders control efforts to attract new residents, in the hope they can finally boost numbers. It’s not clear if that means ownership of land and housing assets will now be transferred to the community – hitherto the charity has insisted that the specific terms of the bequest meant Canna and its assets must be owned by the nation (via their charity) -- not private individuals no matter how needy or local.

But a similar legal impassse was successfully resolved on neighbouring Rum several years ago, when the government-run quango Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) transferred land to a community trust of islanders. And in 2013, with the full support of trustees, the Scottish Parliament overruled Sir William Burrell’s stipulation that the Burrell collection could never be loaned abroad. As tricksy lawyers demonstrate every day, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Yet despite watching the fabric of Canna crumble alongside the Gaelic music, poetry and literature collected by John Lorne Campbell and the redoubtable Margaret Fay Shaw, NTS has continued to insist no legal change in ownership is possible – even if it’s necessary to stabilise island life. If that position has now changed – if the charity has finally decided to bite the bullet, tackle the lawyers and join the 21st century, I’ll be the first to applaud. But forgive me if I hae ma doots.

Ownership and control of other people’s lives is a hard habit to quit. And NTS owns 120 castles, country houses and other properties, 400 islands and islets, 190,000 acres of countryside; 46 Munro mountains; 394 miles of mountain footpaths; 70 gardens nourishing 13,500 plant varieties; seven national nature reserves and 45 sites of special scientific interest. It’s true that some might have been vulnerable to over-use, dereliction in private hands or inappropriate development without NTS as guardians.

But times have changed.

The role of local people in maintaining natural habitats has finally been recognised. The capacity of communities to safeguard what matters to them is accepted – their right to be involved in asset ownership and management is being built into legislation.

Organisations like NTS need to acknowledge this new policy environment and make clear the old days of aristocratic patronage are over.

They may think the “modern” choice of Neil Oliver does just that.

But sadly, the charity has just jumped from the frying pan into the fire. The custodianship of national assets is not uncontroversial – it is political. With both a small and a large p. Never mind Neil Oliver’s stance on independence (for a minute) – what is his stance on community control and the fact 432 people or interests still own half of Scotland’s private land?

As Norman MacCaig wrote:

Who owns this landscape?

The millionaire who bought it or

the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning

with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? –

The man who bought it or

I who am possessed by it?

The president of National Trust Scotland, charged with safeguarding our nature and culture, should espouse the communitarian values that are shared by the vast majority of ordinary Scots. So by Norman MacCaig’s yardstick, does NTS’s latest appointment pass muster? I leave you to be the judge.