While there is an update to be made on our old friends Charles Henry & Co (the ‘not solicitors’), it will have to wait, because we have some new and very, very special friends. And excitingly, these friends involve us in both Scots land law and Channel Island based entities, who don’t operate in Scotland, apart from when they do. This is a long one. I won’t blame you for saving it for the weekend. but it is worth it, honest.
Highland Titles, for they are our subject, purport to sell people a square foot of land in Scotland, and allege that on that basis, the purchaser is entitled to call themselves a Laird (or a Lady). They first came to my notice as a result of an advert on twitter – by @highland_titles – which also landed in front of a Scots property lawyer, @loveandgarbage.
The result was a wonderful exchange, immortalised here, in which a former President of the Law Society of Scotland and the Regis Professor of Scots law at Glasgow University play a part. (Go and read it, I’ll be waiting).
The point of the exchange being that very small plots of land (‘souvenir plots’) cannot be registered under Scots law. And without registration, there is no ownership of land. @highland_titles promptly blocked every lawyer involved.
I couldn’t resist adding a couple of comments.
@highland_titles But they don't actually own it, in the sense of, well, owning land, do they?
— Nearly Legal (@nearlylegal) February 10, 2015
@highland_titles Calling them 'landowners' is a teensy bit of not actually true. 'Beneficial owner of a right to the land' is not landowner.
— Nearly Legal (@nearlylegal) February 10, 2015
And that was me blocked too.
As a firm rule in life, ‘don’t annoy Scots property lawyers’ is up there with ‘don’t get into a land war in South East Asia’ and ‘don’t eat the yellow snow’. Even as an English solicitor, I know this. However, it seems Highland Titles haven’t come across that rule, for on a site called ‘Highland Titles Scams’ (but clearly operated by Highland Titles and used to insult their critics) this appeared. [Edit 13/02/205 – at some point during today, this post was deleted. No matter, we have a screenshot.] Again, I’ll be waiting for you to get back (and they moderate out critical comments. I tried.)
The point where the former President of the Law Society of Scotland is called ‘belligerent and ill-informed’ is a special treat.
So, naturally, it didn’t end there. (For example the legal academic @malcolmcombe’s post).
You may have seen Highland titles make frequent reference to the ‘advice of their Scottish lawyer’ (occasionally their ‘real’ Scottish lawyer’). Here it is. Now I am not a Scottish lawyer, but I am a lawyer and I recognise an exercise in saying nothing at all in a way the client wants to hear. This is a very good example of that craft. It floats the possibility of, without committing to, various other possible forms of ownership of land other than ‘real rights’, such as ‘personal ownership’ or ‘beneficial ownership’. What it doesn’t do, which Highland Titles insist it does, is say that people can own land in Scotland other than by registration.
As @loveandgarbage has dealt with in a tour de force of a post on the legal issues:
- The only form of ownership of land in Scotland is registered land.
- There is no such thing as a ‘personal right in land’ in Scots law
- There is no such thing as ‘beneficial ownership’ of land in Scots law
- (Oh and salmon fishing rights are registrable, and time shares are not property rights at all, in Scotland.)
So, these ‘sales’ of land conducted by Highland Titles are, at the very best, a mere contractual promise. They are categorically not ownership of land, in any way shape or form.
Why is this significant? Well, the fig leaf that this set up hides behind in its title peddling is that:
“Owners of Scottish land have the legitimate right to assume the style of Laird, Lord or Lady, but it is impossible to simply ‘buy a title’. There are websites that claim to sell Royal titles or titles of nobility, but these are fakes. Highland Titles is a reputable company and we wish to distance ourselves from such claims.
We sell plots of land in Scotland, and our customers are free to adopt the titles of Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe if they choose to do so. These are descriptive titles that simply replace the title of Mr, Mrs or Miss that you already use.”
So, in order to for Highland Titles to pretend that adopting the title ‘Laird’ has some justification, it has to be tied to land ownership in Scotland. But nobody paying money to Highland Titles actually owns any land in Scotland, not even one square foot. They are not landowners in any way at all (at least not in Scotland).
While on the title thing, we might pause to note the statement of The Court of the Lord Lyon (which apparently deals with Scottish titles. I suppose someone has to), that:
“Ownership of a souvenir plot of land does not bring with it the right to any description such as ‘laird’, ‘lord’ or ‘lady’. ‘Laird’ is not a title but a description applied by those living on and around the estate, many of whom will derive their living from it, to the principal landowner of a long-named area of land. It will, therefore, be seen that it is not a description which is appropriate for the owner of a normal residential property.
“It cannot properly be used to describe a person who owns a small part of a larger piece of land. The term ‘laird’ is not one recognisable by attachment to a personal name and thus there is no official recognition of ‘XY, Laird of Z’.
“The words ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ apply to those on whom a peerage has been confirmed and do not relate to the ownership of land.”
On the Highland Titles site, this is amusingly translated as:
“The Lord Lyon has no official governance of the sale of land or the adoption of the style of Laird by the new owner, though this is a not uncommon misconception. In a recent letter to one of our customers, Lyon clarifies that he is not involved in the matter of Lairdships.”
Highland Titles have fairly extensive form in what one might call creative interpretation. One example would be the assertion on the Highland Titles Scam site that:
Well, apart from, as one example, this ASA decision in March 2014 that “We considered that consumers were likely to understand those statements to mean that through the purchase of a souvenir plot of land from Highland Titles they would gain the right to use a title to which they would not otherwise have had the right.” and that “the website was ambiguous and likely to mislead’.
So, to round up this part, Highland Titles’ assertions about their selling land and about their customers becoming ‘landowners’ in Scotland are complete hogwash. What is more, they have been told this on a number of occasions, and are persisting in representations which they know, to put it at the lowest, are very possibly untrue.
In short, they are charging £30 quid to tell you to change your name to Laird X by telling people you want to. Though note:
“The Master Title Deed is a legal document accepted in many jurisdictions, that asserts your right to be known by your new title. You have this right as a Scottish estate owner.”
Oh no you don’t.
Why does any of this matter? Well, people have been doing some digging. And a Scots land campaigner called @andywightman has come up with this.
The Scottish land is owned by a company called Highland Titles Ltd. It is registered in the Channel Islands, Alderney, owned by Douglas Wilson and Helen McGregor as Trustees for The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, a charity registered in Guernsey. The trustees of the Charitable Trust are Douglas Wilson and Helen McGregor. The address for contact is C/O Mr P Bevis. Peter Bevis was a trustee of the Charitable Trust and also a director of Highland Titles Ltd until some point in 2014. (We’ll come back to Mr Bevis in a moment). But as it is a Channel Islands charity, there is no obligation to publish accounts or any further details. Nor are any accounts published of the Alderney registered company. Given that the five year plan of Highland Titles Ltd was to sell 100,000 plots, that is a minimum of just under £3 million (without UK tax) over 5 years. And at a square foot a time, there are many more millions to come, as long as the supply of wannabe Lairds holds out. This might help explain that ‘non-committal but what the client wants to hear’ solicitors’ letter.
The Highland Titles Trust site is nicely ambiguous about its activities
“The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, a Guernsey registered charity, owns Highland Titles Ltd, which works in Scotland to conserve and protect nature. Others may just hold out a begging bowl for the taxpayer to fill with government funding or lottery grants. We make our own money and commit to:
promote and care for the Scottish natural heritage
help people enjoy it responsibly
enable greater understanding and awareness of it
promote its sustainable use, now and for the future”
As well it might be ambiguous, as any charity registered outside Scotland but occupying land or carrying out any activities in any office, shop or similar premises in Scotland would have to register with the Scottish Charity Register, which would mean publishing accounts and so on. And Highland Titles Charitable Trust really doesn’t want to do that.
Indeed the Highlands Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland has had a brush with the Office of the SCR, with a first direction to the Trust to stop misrepresentation later reversed on submissions from the Trust.
Those submission make interesting reading. In particular the submission that:
“The Trust is based in the Channel Islands, with two current Trustees (Dr Bevis recently retired as a trustee) who both live in Alderney.” [my emphasis]
That is the trustees including Helen McGregor.
That was in May 2014. But in December 2014, a company was registered with Companies House as a Scottish company. Highland Titles Ltd. The directors are Peter Bevis and, um Helen McGregor. Both the Company’s registered address and the given address of both directors is a farm called called Tulloch, in Inverness-shire. And here, ‘Peter and Helen’ welcome you to Tulloch for all your bell ringing experience needs. They spend ‘part of the year’ in Alderney, but moved to Tulloch in 2002. [pdf of the webpage here].
There seems to be a little tension between these two accounts of where certain people live.
By the way, Tulloch is owned by Quexus Ltd., a company registered at Trident Chambers, PO Box 146, Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
And there we are, so far. It is amazing where someone telling fantasy stories about how one can own land in Scotland will lead you. For that, and also for the following video, onto the naughty step go Highland Titles.
[Update. Given Highland Titles’ assertion, noted above, that “There are websites that claim to sell Royal titles or titles of nobility, but these are fakes. Highland Titles is a reputable company and we wish to distance ourselves from such claims”, it would be a little embarrassing if the predecessor version of the present company (same ownership) and indeed Peter Bevis had claimed to be selling noble titles. That would, after all, make them mealy mouthed hypocrites. Ooops. And Ooops. (and yes, screenshots taken, in case).]