Improving community engagement

Improving community engagement in the Scottish uplands by influencing policy content

Improving community engagement in the Scottish uplands by influencing policy

UHI research, led by the Centre for Mountain Studies, identified key benefits of engagement for both community resilience and the sustainable development of upland estates in Scotland which has had significant influence on Land Reform Policy in Scotland. As a result, policies that regulate land management now emphasise mutual engagement between landowners and communities, and government guidance that draws on the research is given to landowners on how to meet these requirements. The research has also informed the policies and practice of Scottish Land and Estates and the Scottish Land Commission, enhancing engagement and generating positive impacts for both communities and landowners.

Unit of assessment | Area Studies


Since devolution, a key area of policy for the Scottish Government has been land reform, which may be characterised as an ongoing process intended to modernise Scotland’s system of land ownership. In 1998, the Land Reform Policy Group stated that the core objective of this process was ‘to remove the land-based barriers to the sustainable development of rural communities’. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 provided an early landmark in this direction. Among other key reforms, the Act gave new rights to communities in rural areas by enabling them to collectively purchase land from private landowners.

Research, led by UHI researchers, began in 2007 during a pause in the land reform process following the 2003 Act. While the Act had concentrated on facilitating a new model of ownership (namely, the purchase of estates by communities), there had been little academic or policy scrutiny of how different types of existing landowners managed their estates in the interests of sustainable development and community resilience (i.e. the ability of communities to respond to changes and sustain themselves in the long-term).

The research project ‘Sustainable Estates for the 21st Century’(2007-2012) sought to address this gap through in-depth case studies that provided empirical examples across different ownership types from across Scotland’s uplands. The research included: extensive participant observation by researchers on estates; over 200 hours of recorded interviews and discussions with estate representatives, community members, and other stakeholders; and a postal survey, completed by private estate owners who collectively owned 688,000 ha (1.7 million acres) of Scotland’s uplands. From the outset, the project placed a strong emphasis on stakeholder engagement. This included the involvement of an advisory board of representatives from both estate communities and the land-owning and land management sectors before and throughout the project, and presentations to the Scottish Government and stakeholder groups as it progressed.

Consequently, the research was already widely known before it was completed. Broadly, this research provided an understanding of the most important ways in which owners and managers of large, rural estates influence those who live and work on and around their estates. In particular, it provided evidence that:

  1. Landowners’ decisions have impacts on the resilience of communities (i.e. their control over their own long-term sustainability and adaptability to change).
  2. Landowners also have roles to play in facilitating business and lifestyle opportunities by sustaining rural employment and supporting community entrepreneurship.
  3. Good dialogue and partnership working have mutual benefits for both landowners and estate communities. Benefits to communities include increased access to external funding sources that may aid socio-economic development, and re-engagement in traditional land-based employment such as forestry and agriculture. Benefits to landowners may include a reduction in potential for conflict, access to skills and knowledge, and the development of resilient and innovative businesses on their estates. This further benefits the communities themselves.
  4. The development of long-term relationships between community and estate representatives – one where engagement is ongoing, open and flexible, rather than a one-off exercise – is most effective in facilitating dialogue and partnership working.

Three key outputs from this research give a flavour of the depth of influence this research has had:

Research team

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