The Oscar for best (souvenir) plot goes to…

With reference to Scots law, Alexandra Lane discusses a misleading gift contained in this year's infamous "Everyone Wins" goody bag.

22nd April 2022

Controversially, the ‘Everyone Wins’ goody bags gifted to this year’s Oscar nominees included “the title of Lord or Lady of Glencoe, along with a small plot of land in Scotland”. However, the recipients may be disappointed to learn that this particular ‘freebie’, distributed alongside gourmet foods, cosmetic surgery, and luxury trips, confers neither title nor ownership.

The title of Lord or Lady of Glencoe

The Court of the Lord Lyon regulates coats of arms and recognition of titles in Scotland. The Court has stated that “Ownership of a souvenir plot of land does not bring with it the right to any description such as ‘laird’, ‘lord’ or ‘lady’.”

The words ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ do not relate to land ownership, rather they are used by those who have had a peerage confirmed. The promise of such a title coming with a small parcel of land is false, and has been previously investigated by the Advertising Standards Agency. 

What is a souvenir plot in Scots law?

Ownership of land in Scotland has been tied to registration since the 17th century, and registration in the Land Register of Scotland is the essential element to transferring ownership of a piece of land. Without registration, the purchaser (or donee) cannot obtain a real right of ownership of the plot. A tiny plot of land of the type included with the goody bags is referred to as a ‘souvenir plot’.

The concept of souvenir plots of land in Scotland is not new. The Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 recognised the concept of a ‘souvenir plot’ and prohibited the registration of such a plot in the Land Register. A souvenir plot was defined as “a piece of land which, being of inconsiderable size or no practical utility, is unlikely to be wanted in isolation except for the sake of mere ownership or for sentimental reasons or commemorative purposes.” 

Reform via the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 retained the prohibition on registration of souvenir plots, and defines a souvenir plot as one which is “of inconsiderable size and of no practical utility, and is neither (i) a registered plot, nor (ii) a plot the ownership of which has, at any time, separately been constituted or transferred by a document recorded in the Register of Sasines.” 

Why is it not possible to register souvenir plots?

The rationale for refusing registration of souvenir plots in the 1970s was due to concern for the Keeper of the Register and their staff spending time registering these plots, to the detriment of more practical transfers of land which required registration. It is also unlikely that it would be possible to plot such small areas accurately on the cadastral map of the Land Register. 

Wider policy concerns also exist. For instance, having such small portions of land makes any future disposal of a larger area difficult due to the agreement required between many landowners and, if it is possible that there are too few landowners in Scotland, the notion that there can be too many may also be true. There is also a cultural and political argument, which has endured for many years, regarding who should possess and control land in Scotland.

On a practical level, registering of a plot, if permitted, would be disproportionately expensive: a plot costing as little as £30 would still incur conveyancing costs, as well as registration fees of a minimum of £80. Hidden costs of ownership may also arise from what appeared to be a harmless gift – real ownership of a property (even one as small as a souvenir plot) may bar first-time buyers from accessing help to buy schemes, which usually require that they must not have owned a property in the UK at any time. 

A personal right?

Despite the clear prohibition of owning souvenir plots in Scotland, this has not stopped several businesses claiming to convey a “personal right” or “beneficial ownership” of the land to the unsuspecting aspiring Lords and Ladies.

A personal right in Scotland falls short of a real right, which is free from challenge against all persons: a personal right is merely enforceable against the person with whom the contract is made. The purchaser is left with little recourse if the plot is resold, or the seller becomes insolvent. The concept of beneficial ownership is not recognised under Scots property law.

Conclusion 

The legalities surrounding the right to the land possibly do not concern the average purchaser of a souvenir plot, in the same fashion that people are happy to part with money to ‘purchase’ an acre of the moon, or a star. The vast majority of buyers are happy with a memento or souvenir of a holiday to the Highlands, and would not wish to take on the administrative burden and potential pitfalls associated with true land ownership. 

So long as the acquisition of a souvenir plot is regarded in that light they are, at most, a harmless diversion.