It is impossible to visit the picturesque Perthshire village of Kenmore, on the banks of Loch Tay, without sensing history.
The village square is lined with terraced black and white farm cottages that speak of the old estate, with an 18th century church at one end and the gates of Taymouth Castle, where Queen Victoria honeymooned, at the other.
Opposite the houses is the old, 16th century tavern that until recently was Kenmore Hotel, with an open fire and quaintly sprawling layout. Oliver Cromwell and his soldiers ate here; Robert Burns carved lines of poetry into the walls; Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited. To walk in Kenmore is to breathe the spirit of times past, to brush up against the ghosts of antiquity.
Nothing stays still. Time moves and time changes, both in personal lives and community lives, and change cannot be automatically resisted. It brings the possibility of growth as well as decay.
But there is something unnerving about the fact that a large part of Kenmore has been gobbled up by a giant American developer, Discovery Land Company (DLC), with a view to building over 200 luxury homes aimed at millionaires, as well as sports and wellness facilities, in a 320-hectare, gated complex. Peasants, keep out.
The company has described Loch Tay to the American market as “an untouched playground”. But Scotland’s land is not a holiday plaything for the visiting rich. It’s the family silver: the most valuable asset of the people who live and work here.
Land is not just about environment but about politics: the politics of ownership. Just last year, the Scottish Government issued a land rights and responsibilities statement which emphasised community ownership and access, as well as a “human rights” approach to “help achieve social justice and bring a fairer society for the common good.”
DLC’s plans are not about that egalitarianism, but about creating an elite community for the super wealthy. The old hotel at the heart of the village is currently closed, and “no entry” signs are posted around the estate that once offered locals and visitors freedom to roam.
DLC operates using 50 different company names, so it’s difficult to know the full extent of its acquisitions. But, according to the local protest group Save Loch Tay, DLC owns Taymouth Castle Estate, Newhall Woods on the banks of the Tay, Glen Lyon Estate, Loch Farleyer, Kenmore Hotel, Kenmore Beach, Kenmore beach parking, The Paper Boat cafe – which, like the hotel, has been closed down – and Kenmore boat hire. It is a vast tranche of land, and protestors, who have set up an online petition, claim that the development threatens the sustainability of the wildlife and woodland surrounding the Loch.
The tightrope between development and destruction is always tricky, but a government that emphasises land as a community asset should surely have more control over such a massive, community-changing takeover. What does an international development company care most about: local people or personal profit?
57% of Scotland’s rural land is in private hands
Scotland has a sad and troubled past relationship with its own land: its people swept from crofts where they made their living; the needs of the many continually at the mercy of the entitled few. Currently, government estimates suggest 57% of rural land is in private hands, including those of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
The way a country owns and administers its land is a clear indication of the political identity of that nation and the power balance within it. Scotland has been accused in the past of having the most unequal land ownership in the western world.
When my children were small, we lived by the sea and roamed the beaches. There was always the tendency to connect in a personal way to familiar landscapes, to appropriate it in some way.
We used the triangular rock emerging from the sand as a landmark and it was “ours” because we made up a story about it, and only we called it the witch’s hat. But, in our hearts, we knew that nothing was ours really, that the rock was more permanent than we were and the salt spray of the sea would continue to lash it after we were gone.
Foreign companies replacing feudal landlords is not acceptable
The ephemeral nature of life makes “ownership” a tricky and troubling concept, and “legacy” a more crucially important one. There is something deeply ironic about Kenmore, of all places, where history is so viscerally alive, being at the centre of a project that is so at odds with the current moves in Scotland towards community ownership and land reform.
Foreign companies replacing feudal landlords is not acceptable. The land is ours, not as individuals because nature outlives us, but as a nation. We are not owners but caretakers, and the responsibility of caretakers is to nurture and protect that which must eventually be passed to others.
Catherine Deveney is an award-winning investigative journalist, novelist and television presenter