By W R B Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore MSc MA FSAScot Council Member of the Council of Scottish Armigerous Clans & Families
As members of a Clan Society, we appreciate and want to celebrate Scottish history and culture, such as wearing our tartan and taking part in highland games, wherever we may be in the world. This also includes following a traditional chief, the Duke of Montrose for the Grahams, (or in the case of an amigerous clan like the Cunninghams, seeking a chief); a respect for chieftains, who often are heads of leading cadets (eg Breadalbane) and armigers; a respect for the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon in the granting of undifferenced arms and recognition of heads of name of families; and acknowledging the traditional Scottish hierarchy of Crown, peers, feudal barons, lairds, and esquires (any armiger).
However, there are some organisations out there, mainly based outside of Scotland[i], that sully our heritage and mock our ancient feudal history with a scam that nets them a fortune. This is the practice of buying Scottish estates and then selling off one square foot plots under the pretext of conservation and the claim that such ownership entitles the purchaser to call him/herself Laird, Lord (sic) or Lady.
Some may dismiss this as just a bit of harmless fun, but as a Scot, I am not amused that a part of our cultural heritage is being ridiculed and angry that people are being defrauded and placed at risk of prosecution. The websites used to promote this scam are, of course, generally attractive, persuasive and seemingly plausible but are, in fact, a tissue of misleading information. The truth they do not want you to know is as follows:
First, in order for sale of land to be legitimate in Scotland it has to be recorded in the Scottish Land Register, the keeper of which, in accordance with Section 4b of the Registration of Land (Scotland) Act (1979) will not record “a piece of land ……… of inconsiderable size or no practical utility” Thus, the plots of land they supposedly sell remain the legal property of the vendor as no transfer of real rights has taken place.
Though it is possible to legally buy land by contract (as in a house purchase) there are strict rules of contract that must be followed (such as both parties signing the contracts before witnesses and/or recording it in the Register of Sassines) which are not generally implemented by these scammers. Thus, despite having a pretty piece of parchment, the purchaser of the plot, only has a personal right to it. There is nothing, therefore, to stop these individuals, when they have sold all the plots, from selling the whole estate to a new owner (who has no obligation to honour the “rights” of the purchasers of these “souvenir” plots, which are trumped by his real right to it), before dissolving the firm and disappearing with their fortune. Many supporters of this scam disingenuously argue that if this were true, no purchase of goods and services could take place in Scotland as they are not registered. However, this is to claim that apples are oranges: land sale is governed by different laws from other forms of sale and purchase and thus cannot be compared in this way.
Second, there can only be one Laird (Lady) of an estate. This is why I can no longer be “of Ardoch” – the Lord Lyon having recognised Professor Thomas MacKay as “of Ardoch” by grant of Arms in acknowledgement of his having bought the ancient feudal barony along with the house. These peddlers of fake titles would have their customers believe that a single one square foot of land (the size of an average floor tile) entitles them to become a laird/ lady, without any reference to the size of the estate or to the Lyon Court, by whom such designations have historically been recognised.
Third, they compound their calumny further by telling their customers that Laird and Lord are interchangeable as they have their origin in the same root “laverd”. This is as true as saying that sensible and sensitive are interchangeable as they share the Latin root “sensus”. Lord, in the UK, is only used by members of the peerage whose titles have been granted by the Sovereign, while lairds are members of the Landed Gentry. (In the Channel Isles, where some of these companies are based, the feudal barons are called Seigneurs, and I know of no Seigneur who would dream of calling himself “Lord”, even though such baronies could be bought and sold too.) The correct translation of the Scots word Laird into English is Squire (ie Lord of the Manor).
They further encourage their clients to complete forms that will permit them to change their documents (eg driving licences or credit cards) to show their new status (sic) so as to reap benefits usually reserved for the nobility. However, the forms are for a change of name and not a change of title; thus many of their victims now have Lord or Lady as their first name. Such altered documents, unless they bear a title before the name (such as Mr, Mrs, Ms), could lead to prosecution in the UK, if it is deemed that the person has obtained goods or services under the false pretences of being ennobled. Also, they may unwittingly use a dignity to which they have no right as did an Englishman, until challenged by a descendant of the true Earls, was calling himself “Lord Glencairn”.
Fourth, they tell their purchasers that they will be exclusively entitled to use a coat of arms and a special tartan. In Scotland, arms must by law be registered in the Lyon Court and they are the personal property of the grantee and his/her descendants. If any other person uses them, it is a criminal offence, the penalty for which is an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment. Yet, these scammers, lead their customers to believe that hundreds of people can use the same arms. Sadly, the insignia, which they have had designed by somebody who knows nothing of heraldry, are a mockery of properly designed arms. Reading, for example, the description of the Blackwood arms, it sounds like something from a Fantasy Novel and is immediately clear that they have no knowledge of heraldic terminology (there is no fesse on the shield), nor of Latin, as the motto had a glaring grammatical error (now corrected)! As to the tartan, I know of no law that prohibits anyone from wearing whatever tartan they like, though convention dictates that it should be the tartan of one’s clan.
Fifth, many of these scammers use the additional hook of conservation. If this was a true part of their work, surely there would be more evidence of it on their websites. Where are the pictures of newly planted trees? Where are the figures showing number of trees planted or the number of local people employed in conservation? It is not possible to plant a tree in every one square foot plot as trees require a greater distance between them if they are to reach maturity. In other cases, much of the estate is peat bog, which is unsuitable for tree planting and requires different management and conservation, or a designated area of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), which is protected by law. The only source of information about the supposed “conservation” is the company that has already used misleading information to get sales and, thus, is not a credible source.
Finally, if these unscrupulous charlatans are not challenged, it could encourage other people to ignore the Lyon Court in cases of Clan recognition and Chiefship, which surely is a road to chaos (but that is another article, I think). To this end, a website http://www.scots-titles.com has been set up to educate people and expose these scammers. It is already having an effect as one company have, in retaliation, made unsubstantiated allegations against the founder of the website on their Forum, and another (the oldest founded in 1983) has abruptly ceased trading (it was later merged into a sister company).
My hope is that through providing accurate information to as many people of Scots descent as possible that the pool of potential victims for these scammers is so reduced as to put them all out of business.
[i]Scottish Lochaber Estates, Lochaber Highland Estates, Scottish Highland Titles and Highland Titles, are all based, not in Scotland but on the tiny island of Alderney in the Channel Islands (not part of the UK), while MacSothis.com, is based in Wales. However, Native Wood Preservation Ltd and Scottish Laird.com are both based in Scotland, the former in Glasgow and the latter in Glendaruel, Argyll.
This article has undergone several revisions since it was published in Clan Graham News – this is in response to feedback from readers. WRBCG