The Commonweal Project

The Commonweal of Scotland
is a project initiated by the Caledonia Centre for Social Development.

The main purposes of the project are to:
  • Begin the systematic collection of knowledge about a significant part of Scotland’s land use heritage and an important asset of households and the social economy, and to make it available to a wide range of civil society organisations, policy makers and other interested parties.
  • Contribute to the growing international interest in common property rights and the need to uphold these in the face of attempts to appropriate them by more powerful local and/or external interests.
  • Contribute to discussions about effective ways of asserting common property rights on behalf of disadvantaged groups and other less powerful groups who are threatened with their loss.
After many years of historical disputation there seems to be no reasonable doubt but that the earliest and universal form of land ownership was tribal or communal. The land was common property, and the conception of unrestricted private possession in the soil would probably be as alien to our pre-historic forefathers as the conception of private ownership of the atmosphere is to us to day. For more, see Thomas Johnston Working Paper

Common Property Rights

Common property rights belong to communities, community-based organisations and other social groups and may be regarded as a form of shared wealth or assets. Scotland has a tradition of common property rights. They include rights arising from commonties, grazing rights, peat-cutting rights, salmon rights, rights to use harbours and foreshore, mineral rights, sporting use rights, ownership rights, rights to usufruct
1, rights of access to resources, and rights of passage over land and inland water.

The means by which such rights were established is often obscure. Some date from medieval times (for example, rights of access to resources in commonties); others are much more recent (for example, rights to the use of the airwaves). Some rights, which were important in the past, have been eroded and some have been lost. In some areas the right to cut peat, for example, has been upheld but not exercised. Others have been undermined in a number of ways and for a variety of reasons (for example, inshore salmon netting rights). This process continues today. However, new rights are constantly being asserted and established or contested in law (for example, the right to use a particular Internet domain name).

Common property rights in Scotland are under threat and this important topic has been neglected by researchers, civil society and policy makers in recent years. Scotland has a long history of common property rights including: -
  • commonties
  • burgh commons (common good)
  • grazing and fuel rights
  • fishing rights
  • rights of access
  • Crown land
  • fairs, markets and public recreation rights
These property rights belong to communities, community-based organisations and other social groups and can be thought of as a form of shared wealth or assets. 

Common property rights are not just an important part of our historical Scottish heritage but also the basis and foundation in law of much cooperative social or community action. For example, municipal or community Common Good Funds may be dependent on the maintenance of rights to take sustainable yields from natural resources. Any loss of such rights represents a threat to a thriving social economy and a diminution of civil society.

Awareness of these rights and of the importance of maintaining them is therefore very important for the common good. Public awareness of the number, variety and extent of common property rights is particularly important at a time of land reform. There is a need for readily available, accurate and up-to-date information about the different types of rights, their number and extent.

It is also important that such knowledge is available at a time when socially excluded groups in a number of countries throughout the world are in danger of losing common property rights as a result, for example, of changing economic circumstances and household consumption patterns or the misuse of political and corporate power.