Are these Sales Legal?
By a Scottish lawyer
There have been several articles in the British newspapers over the years, most of which have been positive, about the so-called Become a Laird Schemes. This regular media attention has made the companies offering this “service” popular in their principal markets of North America and Australia as novelty gifts. So what is the legal position?
Are these schemes legal?
It is perfectly legal to sell souvenir plots of land. There is not and never has been any legislation in Scotland to prevent anyone from selling souvenir plots of land to purchasers. Nor is there any law that prohibits a person from calling themselves whatever they may wish providing it is not for the purpose of misleading another or committing fraud.
That said, the marketing of the 1 square foot of land is not immune from criticism. Some people positively revel in claiming that these schemes are illegal. Some vendors fail to tell the purchaser that they only have a personal right to the land and not a right to register the land: i.e. there is no legal recourse against any third party (Highland Titles, explain the position very clearly on their web site. None of the other vendors do) if the estate was ever illegally re-sold (for legal position see here).
So if they are legal, what is all the fuss about?
First, less reputable vendors may mislead the purchaser as to what they are selling, usually by failing to provide sufficient information. The product is a very small plot of land (so small that although it can be located on a map, with current GPS accuracy it may not be possible to pinpoint the plot on the ground). Of course this is the precise definition of a souvenir plot “of inconsiderable size or no practical utility, is unlikely to be wanted in isolation except for the sake of mere ownership or for sentimental reasons or commemorative purpose”. It is improbable that any owner will care that they can only get to within a few feet of their special little plot. After all, the underlying sales pitch is often “become a Laird, Lord or Lady and help Scottish conservation”. So long as the money is going to a good cause and a square foot has been accurately defined, the inability to put a matchstick accurately into each corner, until GPS positioning improves, is hardly relevant.
Second, although the largest vendor has always been very precise about where the land they are selling is located (see here) not all Companies are so straightforward. No other Company explains precisely where the land is on their web site, relying on a mealy mouthed “details will be sent in the pack”.
Third, several of the businesses claim to be carrying out valuable conservation work. However, there is often little evidence to support their claims. The sole exception is Highland Titles, which owns and operates local nature reserves which are well supported by local volunteers and which are open to visitors, with guided walks in the summer months and tree planting parties in the winter.
A well known Member of the Scottish Parliament, who at the time was a Government Spokesman, is on record as saying,
“Selling square-feet souvenir plots of Scotland for a good cause is admirable… This is not the first time somebody has tried to do some good by selling a little piece of Scotland… There should be some means to encourage this.”
Does buying a small piece of Scotland entitle me to call myself Laird, Lord or Lady?
Correct use of the title Laird, Lord of Lady relies upon ownership of Scottish land. Technically anyone could adopt the title, but this would be akin to calling yourself a doctor without first obtaining a medical degree. When translating Laird as Lord, you should remember that Lord is a title that may be also used in England by members of the peerage and their families rather than landowners. Lairds are landed gentry (i.e. people with land). The words are interchangeable only in Scotland, because Laird just means Lord in Scots. They came from the same root laverd. Some people doubt this, but the large English and Scottish dictionaries are quite clear on the subject.
A Laird is traditionally someone who owns a sizable piece of land (usually an estate with tenants) in Scotland; the English equivalent would be Lord of the Manor, or in the vernacular, Squire. Lord in Scotland (as in England and Wales) now only refers to the nobility. Thus, it is clear that in English over the centuries the two words have been used in much the same way.
Ok, so I can be a Laird, Lord or Lady by owning a piece of Scotland?
Yes of course you can. The term Laird, according to the Lord Lyon, is not a title or dignity but a respectful description of the owner of an estate usually used by his/her tenants. In this sense, the descriptor is tied to landownership. However, Lord Lyon, being rather pompous, has given his opinion that lairds should generally own more than a square foot. Mind you, he also admits that he has nothing whatsoever to do with with the sale of laird titles, so his opinion in this instance is more of a personal prejudice than a matter of fact.
If one looks at it logically, the whole idea is simple and fun! Amuse yourself by imagining how many tenants can a one square foot of land support? But even a skinny person would encroach on their neighbours’ plots if s/he were to stand in the middle of it! The most popular size of souvenir plot is 10 square feet and perhaps this is the reason for that state of affairs.
So, by all means call yourself “laird” if you want to – there’s no law against it and it shows you love Scotland and salute its heritage and traditions – but you may end up just seeming ridiculous is you do not buy a large estate – at least 10 square feet.
And I’m helping Scottish Conservation, right?
Well take care. Some vendors say they apply some of the funds raised to conservation and some do not. Even the ones that do make the claim nay not be telling the truth! If this is important to you stick to one of the bigger Companies with a track record, like Highland Titles, who spend all of their profits on good causes.
A special warning about Dunans, where funds are being channeled through a charity so you can see how much has gone to a good cause. since 2009 they have spent the Princely sum of £250 and have now been struck off. They would have been hard pressed to rebuild the castle this side of the next millennium like that and appear to have used the charity to persuade people to part with their money.
Highland Titles have a track record of tree planting, placing bat boxes, laying paths, siting picnic tables and signs on their nature reserve near Glencoe and Lairds of Glencairn can enjoy the “Laird’s Retreat”, “an area of beautiful land in Argyll“.
If you really want to support conservation in Scotland, how much better to actually buy a tiny piece of the land you seek to preserve rather than just throw coins into the begging bowls held out by the likes of the John Muir Trust or the National Trust for Scotland, which maintain Scottish Heritage sites and carry out conservation of large parts of Scotland mainly as paid lackeys of central government – and struggle to support bloated infrastructures in the process.
These companies comply with the law by selling small souvenir plots. However, they have no more authority to create “Lairds” than Lord Lyon. Thus, from the outset, these companies should make it clear that they are simply selling the land required to justify assuming an ancient and dignified descriptive Scottish title.
Many of these companies are carrying out conservation work, but there is no independent verification or no contractual obligation with their purchasers to do so. For this reason we advise you to patronise the more respectable vendors if conservation is important to you.
In short, your purchase of a one square foot plot of land in Scotland will bring you a lot more than a pretty parchment and an inexpensive souvenir. Go Green and in the words of a well known MSP, “…just go for it.”