In 1996, Canongate published my first book, Who Owns Scotland. It provided an overview of the topic of landownership in Scotland and details of over 1500 landholdings covering just under 70% of the land area of Scotland. It followed the earlier work of the same name by John McEwen, published by EUSPB (Edinburgh University Student Publication Board) in 1977.
Within a few years, it became clear that the landownership was of some practical utility to people but not in the restricted format of the pages of a printed book which would rapidly become out of date.
Around 2000, the internet and computer mapping had advanced and it was possible to move online in a way which was impossible in 1996. I constructed some mock-up pages and canvassed opinion about making such information available on the internet. The response was positive and I raised some money from generous sponsors through the Caledonia Centre for Social Development to begin the process of research.
My ambition was to map who owns Scotland in a far more systematic and detailed way than I had had time to do in the book which was compiled from sources of varying quality and has known errors and omissions. I thus decided to research all landholdings from the raw title deeds held in the National Archives of Scotland and recorded by the Registers of Scotland in the Register of Sasines and Land Register. This was a slow and time-consuming process but provides far more consistent and reliable information.
The website was launched in 2001 with the intention that it would be esentially complete within three years. It took far longer due to the fact that I had to do the work on an unpaid basis and could not afford the time to undertake the necessary extent of research.
At this time, the then Scottish Executive was considering the the need for this kind of information resource and, for reasons I never agreed with, decided that it was not necessary. I continued to expand the site and am grateful to Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise for having funded studies into landownership in the their areas.
It was now time to redesign the website to make it more dynamic and easy to update and use. I began working with Noel Darlow, a web coding guru from Ayrshire and, in June 2003, we launched a website based on a dynamic online database which saved a lot of time in editing content.
In 2005, the Ordnance Survey contacted me and, over the course of some months, made it clear that the agreements I had entered into with them to use their mapping were no longer appropriate. As a result, all OS mapping was removed from the site in 2007. The whole sorry tale is told here. This required abandoning the use of OS mapping and transferring all data to alternative out of copyright maps - principally OS One inch mapping.
Further complications arose in May 2009 when I was informed by the Registers of Scotland that an arrangement I had with them for free research access was to be terminated on the advice of auditors who (rightly) pointed out that RoS had no legal basis to be waiving search fees. This prompted me to review the whole project and how it was financed as I now faced costs of several thousand pounds per annum in research fees.
Version 3 of the website was launched in September 2009 as a subscription-based site. Subscription income, however, was never really adequate to cover the costs in time and fees to update and expand the website in the way I hoped to. Search fees are currently £3 + VAT for each property title examined. Several titles may need to be examined for each property. With 2000 properties on the website, therefore, it would cost at least £7500 per year simply to keep each record no more than one year out of date.
In 2016 I was elected as a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Given the demands of the job I now had no time at all to maintain the website and very soon thereafter I made the website free to access. I regretted not having the time to keep the project going but had little choice in the matter.
Since 2021 I have been exploring how to relaunch the site using more modern technology and how to financially sustain my ambitions to increase the coverage of the landownership data and ensure no information is more than one year out of date. In 2022, I engaged a website developer, Parthian Systems, to develop a new platform that would be easy to maintain and provide the user with a reliable and attractive means of viewing the landownership data.
The site was launched in its current format in September 2022.