Highland Titles sell souvenir plots of Scottish land. They have only done so for the last ten years, but selling souvenir plots of land has been a simple, legal process in Britain for at least fifty years, endorsed and popularised by the highest in the land.
Her Majesty’s Solicitor General for England and Wales in 1971 was Sir Geoffrey Howe, Queen’s Counsel, Member of the United Kingdom Parliament and an Officer of the Crown He praised the potential benefits of selling souvenir plots for fundraising in a parliamentary speech in the following terms “it helps the balance of payments and it gladdens the hearts of our continental cousins and enables them to obtain a splendidly medieval looking deed of title, which, no doubt, they display at some appropriate place in their homes.” He welcomed the fact that anyone might “purchase a ‘square foot of Old England’ for a comparatively modest sum”. He brought out the lighthearted nature of the sale by explaining that people might use their plots for “pole squatting” or flying an American flag. However he also expressed concerns about the burden that registering these titles would impose on the Land Registry. He anticipated that many millions of plots might be sold and registering them might in turn impose a considerable burden on the registration process.
A few years later, the law in Scotland was similarly updated, leaning heavily of the English definition of a souvenir plot and similarly exempting the sale of souvenir plots from registration, in a way that would lessen the Registrar’s workload. Considering the costs of registration, the low value of souvenir plots and the considerable benefits of permitting the trade, this exemption may seem reasonable.
In Scotland, the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 (and before it the Land Registration Scotland Act, 1979), permit souvenir plots of land to be sold but specifically denies purchasers the right to register the purchaser of the land. Purchasers do, however obtain a limited form of ownership which is less than a “real right”. A real right is not the opposite of an imaginary right, but a Scottish conveyancing terms meaning one which is enforceable against third parties. and capable of being recorded in the Register of Sasines or registered in the Land Register of Scotland. You would not, for example, be able to pledge your investment in a souvenir plot against a loan. But probably you would not want to!
As you may imagine, getting the law right is fundamental to our business. My wife is a lawyer. I have a great respect for the law. The business was only started after our scottish solicitor gave the business model, the selling of souvenir plots, a clean bill of health. Two firms of Highland lawyers both agreed that our customers purchase an interest in the plots of land we sell and in 2015, in the face of one or two opinionated “academic” lawyers who took to social media to doubt that the land could be sold in this way, our lawyers advised us to take counsel’s opinion in order to establish the facts with even greater certainty.
Through our lawyers we instructed an Edinburgh Queens Counsel, a senior advocate with a special interest in land use, judicial review and human rights to address the question of precisely what our customers had purchased. The advice we received was thorough and reassuring. The sale of souvenir plots do confer on the purchaser a personal and beneficial interest akin to that conferred on the purchaser of a fishing right, and to that extent it is legitimate to sell souvenir plots of land. However the QC did add the caveat that in the absence of registration, all that the purchaser of a souvenir plot can acquire is a personal right against the seller. I believe that all our customers have ever wanted or expected is to identify their plot of land, so they can visit it and have the satisfaction of knowing that their plot, at least, is being lovingly protected and restored.
In addition, the Highland Titles’ website incorporates a public land registry, which enable our customers to enjoy some of the benefits of registration without placing a burden on the official Registers of Scotland.
Nobody should be surprised that it is possible for the lawful owner of land to subdivide and sell it in any size plots that he wishes. Human rights law protects how we own and enjoy our property. The most famous sale of souvenir plots was perhaps the sale of by Friends of the Earth, to prevent the land being incorporated into the M40 motorway.
The field was sold to supporters in small plots. This delayed the construction of the motorway significantly by allowing protesters formally to appeal the compulsory purchase of each of the 3500 individual plots.
Some years earlier, pop group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band decided give away one square foot plots of a Welsh field. Their album, The Good Earth, came out in October 1974. Its cover showed a square foot of turf. Each copy carried the message: “The owner of this album is entitled to rights over one square foot of the earth situated at Llanfrechfa in the County of Brecon, Wales, Great Britain, subject to registration by December 31, 1975.”
“It is remote and I can’t now remember how we came to buy that particular piece of land, it just seems to have happened;” says Manfred Mann. “I do recall that we only paid a few hundred pounds for it. We thought it was a good idea and we wanted to give people a bit of land that was going to be untouched and it looks as though we found the right piece of land.”
So 40 years on, what was the result of this project? Journalist Patrick Barkham, writing in the Guardian, found that the project had been a great success.
“The first time I went, I was quite cynical about the whole thing,” says Andy Taylor, founder of the Manfred Mann fan club and one of thousands of plot owners. “I thought: ‘What can you do in the Welsh hills? No-one’s going to spoil them,’ but when I got there it was amazing.
“All these other hills have been planted with regimental lines of conifers by the Forestry Commission and it’s the one natural piece of land in the middle of it.”
So the question remains, why does Scottish Law prevent the registration of souvenir plots? The answer appears to be contained in “Registration of Title Practice Book The Policy and Practice of Land Registration in Scotland“So basically everyone has to suffer because it would be too bothersome to register the details of people who love Scotland so much that they wish to own a little bit of it for sentimental reasons. Is there something more in this stubborn refusal by the Scottish government to provide a simple mechanism by which souvenir plot owners may protect their land by registration? Is it not possible that whilst the politicians are always willing to protect the interest of the rich and powerful, the small man, who lacks the facility to use the law, was ever badly served?
Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
Highland Titles agreed wholeheartedly and saw this as long overdue. They contributed to the consultation process. The extension of registrable land ownership to ordinary people is long overdue and everyone should campaign to bring about reform of the law.