Hundreds of foreign property owners stay secret despite new rules 3

Hundreds of foreign property owners stay secret despite new rules

A “loophole” in new legislation means more than half of the offshore entities which own hundreds of Scottish properties including estates, forests and castles are allowed to remain secret.

Scotland's Secret Owners property scottish tax havens

The Register of Overseas Entities, managed by Companies House, requires overseas companies that own UK land or property to declare the people who have a controlling interest in them.

However, the beneficial owners of over 3,000 Scottish properties bought before 8 December  2014 – including those owned offshore – do not need to comply with the law. This compares to a cut-off date of 1 January 1999 in England and Wales – a nearly 16-year longer timespan than in Scotland.

A land reform expert said the loophole “was never necessary”. Transparency campaigners stressed that the law means land north of the border will “hold more secrets”, and called on Westminster – which set the law – to extend it.

The UK Government said the Scottish date was chosen as offshore buyers of Scottish property were not required to reveal where their company was incorporated pre-December 2014, so extending it would be “ineffective.”

The Ferret found that 3,016 Scottish properties were owned by 1,578 offshore entities at the end of 2021. However, 842 companies – 54 per cent of the total – did not need to disclose their beneficial owners because they bought their property before December 2014.

Some 262 disclosed voluntarily, with the beneficial owners of the 580 companies that did not need to comply with the law staying secret. A further 286 companies who were required to reveal their beneficial owners had not yet done so.

We calculated that if the Scottish cut-off date was the same as it is south of the border, 2,927 – 97 per cent – of all 3,016 properties would need to reveal their beneficial owners.

Land reform campaigner and former MSP, Andy Wightman, previously warned the loophole would mean swathes of offshore owners would avoid the register, including those registered in tax havens.

Properties such entities own included Pitmain Estate near Kingussie, Glenogle Estate in Angus, Tarbert Estate on Jura, Glenbuchat Estate in Aberdeenshire, Glenavon Estate in Moray, Strathfillan Forest in Stirlingshire, Taymouth Castle in Perthshire, and the Roxburghe Hotel on Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

The offshore owner of the Edinburgh Kimpton Hotel, formerly the Roxburghe, does not to reveal the property’s beneficial owner. cc-by-sa/2.0 – © kim traynor.

Wightman claimed Registers of Scotland (RoS) has records of every offshore owner of land and property in Scotland, and argued the regulations could have required all beneficial overseas owners to register. RoS said some entities revealed their legal jurisdiction before they were required to pre-2014, and this information is included on the register.

“It is for Scottish ministers to provide a detailed explanation as to why they agreed to the regulations being drafted in this way and the cut-off date being December 2014,” Wightman told The Ferret.

The Scottish Government said the date was determined by Westminster and confirmed it was chosen to align with the date when the 2012 land registration act came into force.

“The UK Government decided on this approach in order to provide certainty for parties involved due to incomplete data prior to this date,” added a spokesperson.

Juliet Swann, senior policy officer at Transparency International UK said: “This loophole means Scotland’s land holds more secrets” with more landowners south of the border having to reveal their beneficial owners due to the longer cutoff date.

“Westminster should expand the scope of the law to cover all offshore companies holding real estate across the UK,” she added.

The UK Government said it had worked with the Scottish Government and RoS to develop and implement the register. “The government agrees the register should be as comprehensive as possible, but we also want to avoid creating legal uncertainty for people buying properties,” said a spokesperson for the department for business and trade.

“Prior to 2014, overseas purchasers of Scottish property were not required to supply the land registry with their jurisdiction of incorporation, and there is no way to consistently identify this pre-December 2014 – so extending the register back before this point would be ineffective and lead to inconsistent information being available for buyers.”

Scotland-only property register

A separate, Scotland-only property ownership database, the register of persons holding a controlled interest in land (RCI), was launched on 1 April 2022, with landowners required by law to register by 1 April 2024.

Unlike the Register of Overseas Entities (ROE), the RCI does not have a cut-off date. However, Wightman argued the RCI will not close the loophole allowed by the ROE due to a series of flaws.

He said that while the ROE verifies the information submitted with authorities in the company’s country of origin, the RCI does not.

RCI also has “no effective compliance as police would need evidence on wrongful declarations and have no means of assessing which might be”, as well as “very weak sanctions,” he argued. Land owning companies found in breach of the ROE will be prevented from selling their property

Registers of Scotland said when a UK firm is the registered landowner or tenant, it will not need to register on the RCI if it has already had to register as part of other transparency regimes listed in RCI regulations.

Wightman added: “There has been a failure of both governments to work properly together. As a result overseas entities need to register in two separate registers.”

Land reform minister Mairi Gougeon said the government was “committed” to improving transparency of ownership of land in Scotland.

The RCI aims “to shed light on who is responsible for decisions about property”, while the ROE “seeks to tackle money laundering by shedding light on who benefits from that property”, she told The Ferret.

“Together, the RCI and the ROE will provide a better understanding of who owns, controls and benefits from Scotland’s land.”

Gougeon added: “We fully supported UK wide emergency legislation, introduced following the invasion of Ukraine last year, which established the ROE – and have always been clear that we will, in due course, review any duplication between the RCI and ROE in relation to overseas entities.”

Main image: nz_willowherb. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Scotland’s secret owners is a Ferret investigation exclusively produced in partnership with The Herald. The Ferret is a media-coop, which works with its members to produce investigations in the public interest. Sign up to our newsletter to find out more or become a member at

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