by Alastair McIntosh
“It worries me when I hear of people of Scots descent putting obstacles in the way of native land rights claims in countries like Australia or the States. They should study their own history, mostly untaught in schools, and come to see that this is unbecoming behaviour. It is a betrayal not just of native land rights of the first nation peoples with who they now live, but also of our own people.”
Today in Brazil, which has probably the most inequitable land ownership pattern in Latin America, fully 1% of the population posses only 45% of the land. But in Scotland, a recent survey by Andy Wightman reveals that two-thirds of the privately owned land is held by just 1,000 people. These would represent one-fiftieth of one percent of the population, were it not that many are absentee landlords and therefore non-resident, being Englisharistocrats, Arabian oil sheikhs, Swiss bankers, South African industrialists, racing car drivers, pop stars, arms dealers and others not noted for their socio ecological awareness. Their sole qualification to own Scotland is that they are rich.
There are no controls on who can buy what quantity of land, no requirements of residency as in many other countries, few controls over how a landowner can use or abuse land except where buildings are concerned, and Scotland is thought to be the only country in the world still retaining a formally feudal system in which tenants are “vassals” in law to their “feudal superiors”. “Lairds”, as landowners are known, can and do abuse communities by evicting tenants, monopolising or taxing commercial activity and damaging the environment for bloodsport management. There are also so-called “improving landlords” who pump money in to make better these ills, but local residents then remain in a position of living under patronage which can readily be withdrawn and diminishes their own sense of responsibility.
The outcome is a deep-seated disempowerment and even social dysfunctionality. I believe it is reflected in the disproportionately high levels of unemployment, smoking, alcohol abuse and possibly in the West of Scotland’s high incidence of heart disease. A relatively recent history of land usurpation and collapse of cultural confidence has literally left us heartbroken. Most of our indigenous communities in Highland Scotland are on native reservations in so-called crofting (subsistence farming, fishing, etc.) “townships” on the poorest land. Little wonder their communities are hardly viable, at least not so in modern agricultural economic terms.
The Scottish feudal system dates back to the twelfth century when it was designed to reward military and fiscal loyalty to David I’s Normanised court. It is a colonising system that is closely tied in with the whole process leading up to the industrial revolution whereby land in Britain was “enclosed” – which is to say, privatised. Thereafter land became a market commodity, the worth of which was not how many people it could support butwhat profit it could yield. To this day the people of Britain – England as much as Scotland – remain largely alienated from their decreasingly “green and pleasant land”. The psychology of this is worrying, and over thegenerations its pathology has been magnified by the global imprint of British colonialism.
How did such a national disgrace come about? I will focus here on Scotland, as my friend George Monbiot discussed mainly England in an earlier Resurgence article and I am not well qualified to write about Wales.
After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 under King James VI of Scotland and I of England, strenuous efforts were made to “civilise” the tribal parts of Britain and Ireland, as well as to commence overseas colonisation. James established a colony in North America (tellingly featured in Disney’s surprisingly anti-colonial film, Pocohontas). He divided the Irish and Scots Gaels by the “plantation” of poor mainly Scots Protestants on indigenous Catholic land in Ulster – so setting in train 400 years of sectarian bitterness by wronging the indigenous Irish and wrongfooting the settlers. And in Scotland to force subjugation of the Highlanders, he kidnapped 12 of our most powerful chiefs after persuading them on board a ship, supposedly to hear a sermon by the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles.
These were taken away to the Scottish Lowlands and not released from jail until the following year, 1609, after they had agreed to go to our most sacred island and sign the Statutes of Iona. The statutes undermined Gaeliclanguage and thus culture by requiring that the first son of any family with more than three-score cattle had to be educated in English. This meant going away to boarding school instead of learning clan tradition. It alsorestricted traditional hospitality and prevented patronage of the bardic poetic schools. Together with the later outlawing of tartan and the kilt, freedom of assembly and even the bagpipes in the Act of Proscription thatfollowed the last battle on mainland British soil – Culloden in 1746 – these measures had a cultural neutron bomb effect. They destroyed the soul of indigenous society whilst leaving outward authority structures intact. Incolonising minds, the way was cleared to colonise the land and to manipulate the people into tools of Empire building abroad.
Previously the Gaelic language and bardic traditions had been central to maintaining the mythopoetic reality of the peoples. The bards connected with the equivalent of our songlines and dreamtime. As political advisors to the miltary cheifs, they represented an intelligentsia who were free to move between territories even during war and so they held in place relatively dignified behaviour during harsh times. This included an ethic of servicefrom chief towards the people. Some of their nature poetry suggests that they also codified ecologically sustainable relationship by defining totem and taboo. Indeed, each letter in the Gaelic alphabet is represented by a tree, making the very language structure totemic.
A bard basically had power to curse or bless. He or she (and one of the most famous of them all, “Big Mary of the Songs” of Skye, was a woman) fulfilled the shamanic role in Celtic society. The best bards were variously prophet, poet and cultural healer; as Mircea Eliade says of shamans in the epilogue to his classic book, Shamanism, they “played an essential role in the defense of the psychic integrity of the community … provid(ing) the impetus for linguistic creation and the rhythms of lyric poetry. Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom.”
Some of the bards were clearly well aware of their spiritual role. Poetics gives opportunity for what, in Christianity, is known as the movement of the Holy Spirit. Cultural expression of this was damaged by the internal colonising measures of the newly formed British state with its emphasis born of Classical Platonism on the presumed objectivity of the rational. The managerial technocratic mindset of Empire was therefore able to take over with minimal resistance. The fact that this was perceived as a spiritual defeat or loss is amply attested to in the bardic record. For instance, writing around 1874 after the people of Bernera had had their grazings landtaken off them to be converted into a sporting estate where the laird could kill deer and grouse, the Isle of Lewis bard, John Smith, addressed the Holy Spirit thus:
O gentle Spirit of graciousness!
If you lived in our midst,
you would give healing and release
to people withering with wounds;
you would inspire the hearts of widows
to sing with joyful strain,
and you would not leave them heartlessly
in the dark prison of their pain.
You would extinguish the fire of enmity
in the eye of wildest gaze;
you would pacify and quieten
the dark and brutal brow;
you would remove the look of wickedness
from the barbaric tyrants’ face,
take their greed for wealth from them
and cast treachery from its place….
But I fear that you have left us
and fled to heaven above;
our people have grown in wickedness
without the presence of your love;
the skin of surly selfishness
encloaks them all around;
nothing I know can pierce it
but the arrow of the Lord.
(Translated from the Gaelic by Professor Donald Meek.)
This internal colonisation of a part of the British isles, like that of most other indigenous peoples, was thus an inner psychospiritual, as well as an outer socio-political colonisation. Of course similar events had happened in Ireland further back in history, in Wales still further back, and as for the poor indigenous English, history from Roman to Norman times justifies the observation of folksinger Dick Gaughan’s that they are perhaps the mostcolonised people in the world! The cultural psychopathology of Empire building owes perhaps a little to the psychology of opressed becoming oppressor, just as the abuser is often a one-time abused child.
>From the second half of the 18th through the 19th century, between a quarter and half a million people were forced off their lands in Highland Scotland – some burnt out by fire or hounded with dogs – and dispatched to be factory fodder for the industrial revolution or on emigrant ships bound for settling the colonies. Improved strains of sheep and wool demand for the Napoleonic wars made it more profitable to ranch sheep than to keep tenants. Added to the fact that the now-Anglicised sons of the clan chiefs had developed metropolitan appetites for what money could buy including women, drink and gambling debts, the stage was now well set for the diaspora known as the “Highland Clearances” where whole villages were pushed off their land.
One of the many harrowing but corroborated accounts of this process is recorded in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica from just over a century ago. Many of the people of the Hebridean island of North Uist had been “cleared” to make way for sheep. Catherine MacPhee described the process in words that, as she was probably well aware, have the prophetic resonance of a Micah or Isaiah:
Many a thing have I seen in my own day and generation. Many a thing, O Mary Mother of the black sorrow! I have seen the townships swept, and the big holdings being made of them, the people being driven out of the countryside to the streets of Glasgow and to the wilds of Canada, such of them as did not die of hunger and plague and smallpox while going across the ocean. I have seen the women putting the children in the carts which were being sent from Benbecula and the Iochdar to Loch Boisdale, while their husbands lay bound in the pen and were weeping beside them, without power to give them a helping hand, though the women themselves were crying aloud and their little children wailing like to break their hearts. I have seen the big strong men, the champions of the countryside, the stalwarts of the world, being bound on Loch Boisdale quay and cast into the ship as would be done to a batch of horses or cattle in the boat, the bailiffs and the ground officers and the constables and the policemen gathered behind them in pursuit of them. The God of life and He only knows all the loathsome work of men on that day
My own probable great great great great grandparents, Alexander McLennon and Mary McNeil, were probably cleared from Urray near Strathpeffer after the Balfour family racked up the rents to make way for sheep in 1792. In some families, old people alive today have heard eyewitness accounts of such atrocities. Because our skins were white, we became ready material for assimilation into the whole colonial enterprise of Empire building. Sucked into Highland regiments to escape destitution, or dispatched on emigrant ships to settle new worlds, our peoples became oppressors of other native peoples in colonising their lands. To such groups as Aboriginals and Native Americans today, we can but ask forgiveness and understanding, and seek mutual solidarity in restoring reverence towards the Earth and one another.
In Scotland we now have a strong contemporary land reform movement which has succeeded in moving the “land question” well up the political agenda. Several Highland village groups have now got their land back, mostly by having to buy it, but doing so after lowering the price by “market spoiling”. This entails generating media publicity for their moral claim of right and so putting off other bidders who see that we, the natives, arerestless! Buying back our own traditional lands may seem like buying one’s freedom out of slavery, but for the time being it is the only way forward that we can see which avoids violence against the person. Even during the19th century “Crofters’ Wars” of rent strikes and protests nobody on the landlords’ side ever got killed, even though the British state responded by sending in gunships and marines to islands like Skye and Lewis. A vast majority of Scots want to keep it that nobody gets hurt! But whilst necessarily working within market paradigms to ensure peaceful engagement, we hope to establish patterns and examples of successful community ownership and thereby increase political pressure for legislatively assisted land reform under a future British or Scottish parliament.
In my own work in the Hebrides (I grew up on the Isle of Lewis) I use an approach that I call re-membering, re-visioning and re-claiming in helping, as the Brazilian Paulo Freire would call it, to “conscientise” communities. That is, we must re-member what has been lost both in material and psychospiritual terms, then re-vision how we would like to restore the three-way human ecological relationship between community, nature and the inner self of each person, then work towards re-claiming not just life, but life abundant (cf. John 10:10). Because there probably never was an ideal past, the emphasis on the re- prefix signifies drawing back not just from the past, but from the ongoing progression of spiritual reality – the reality of life which is love in all its passions. It is because love must be central to this work that literally entails recalling the Holy Spirit (in that fasion that Quakers well understand) that it is imperative we try to work by going hard on the issues, but gentle on the people.
To me the theology of this is all very exciting. Just as the origins of loss of the land was viewed by our forbears in spiritual terms, so some of our contemporary campaigning work is inspired and legitimatised by our own 19th century liberation theology and its modern variants (see James Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community). Inspiration for this has come from various distant sources, in addition to drawing on our own unblocked wells. One is the English 17th century liberation theology of Ranters, Levellers, Diggers and early Quakers (see Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down and The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution). Another is 20th century Latin American liberation theology and the pedagogy of Paul Freire. Others include what are often non-Christian spiritual approaches, such as the endeavours of many Australian Aboriginal and native North American community groups.
Such internationalism has opened us to a deep sense of solidarity with indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. Getting there was not always easy. For some Scots it took a certain humility to learn at the feet of “third world” peoples. There is a racism that is implicit to most of us as white people who, in the spiritual death throes of our bygone imperialist culture, sometimes grasped at the straw of the myth of white supremacy. As late as 1992 I was criticised in the Hebridean press for making comparisons between our own people and the “third world”, but now such links are increasingly seen as self-evident. For example, when the Assynt crofters got their land back off the global meat baron, Lord Vesty, one of their leaders, Alan MacRae, made comparisons with tribal peoples worldwide who he had been inspired by. At a Glasgow University conference in 1994 he set Assynt in global perspective by asking:
Why did it happen? It was waiting to happen. History had stood still too long in Assynt. All people living close to the land draw strength from the land. For any indigenous people their nature is all wrapped up in the land. Heritage is not a commodity. It’s what makes people what they are. Man (sic) is just as much a part of nature as any other animal, and is perfectly entitled to protect what is his own. It’s his land. The landlords have failed the land.
In 1995 the question of native Scottish land rights was raised by Assynt crofter Bill Ritchie to a sympathetic hearing at the United Nations’ Commission on Sustainable Development in New York. The British officials present apparently responded with “stunned silence”. Such an assertion of bioregional values was unexpected from home turf!
It worries me when I hear of people of Scots descent putting obstacles in the way of native land rights claims in countries like Australia or the States. They should study their own history, mostly untaught in schools, and come to see that this is unbecoming behaviour. It is a betrayal not just of native land rights of the first nation peoples with who they now live, but also of our own people. My attitude to non-Scots in Scotland is that they are warmly welcome to be and belong here, but only if they do not act with a presumption of superiority or abuse of power through such factors as disproportionate wealth. On the question of identity and belonging, people like me in effect say: We can only foster you into recovering a sustainable community (and you helping us do likewise with your insights) if you are willing to belong not by power over, but by willingness to cherish and be cherished by this place and its peoples. I have heard of a similar attitude of acceptance being taken between some white Australians and Aborigines. I applaud it. It is the means by which we can re-locate our sense of reality – not in the viscicitudes of psychologically constructed and power dominated financial systems – but in ecologically real estate, the land, which is central to human freedom, dignity and fulfilment.
Environmentally, as the poor have long known, the Earth can no longer afford the rich. The land matters to us because it is land, not money, that represents the primary means of production. Land is the location in which community is rooted. It is nothing other than that natural nature in which human nature comes to know itself. As the historic process reveals, colonisation of land and colonisation of the mind go hand in hand.
In seeking to reverse this and cry freedom, it is not necessary to live directly from the land, but it is necessary to live with it or have ready unimpeded access to it – even if actually exercised only in the wild places and magical regions of the mind. A people denied the option of connection with their land are a people dispossessed of both place and self; a people for whom a “land of hope and glory” has no more reality than an annual dusting off by the plebs at the Proms while the rich watch smugly from their boxes.
The question of community land rights in Scotland or the rest of Britain and worldwide is therefore much more than just the right to plant trees, catch a fish or be free from egotistical dominion of ownership. It is the question of who we are, what we are, were we are and how we are as a people struggling to articulate the fullness of our humanity. It was in expression of these deep truths that God said through Moses in Leviticus 25, “Thou shalt not own the land in perpetuity because the land belongs to me.” It was in resonance with Leviticus 25, through quoting Isaiah 61 that Jesus launched his ministry in Luke 4 by calling not just for social justice, but also ecological justice (the so-called “acceptable year of the Lord”, or “Jubilee”).
As the Scots lyricist Dougie MacLean sings it, “You can’t own the land; the land owns you.”