Crofting, cùram and the black, black Comhairle

‘The minister and the factor are the cause of all the misery and ruination’, I said last week on live radio. I wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone I know personally, perish the thought. No, I was, in fact, paraphrasing a view held by many of my fellow countrymen, and especially in that context, various writers over the years about the havoc wrought by these two archetypes. 

The Highlands, explored in literary form, invariably appear to have been torn asunder by these two men: the greed of the factor and the creed of the minister. Between them, many people believe, the landlords and the church pulled down the ancient edifice of Gaelic culture and left it in ruins.

Even to this day, nothing is more guaranteed to get a social media debate going than religion or land. The latter blew up into a Facebook squall last week, with the news that Comhairle nan Eilean has taken legal advice on whether it can include crofts in the valuation of assets, when recouping the cost of providing care.

It was always going to be a turbulent discussion. You have a heady mix of poorly-understood legislation, a local authority which is damned either way, and the rampant emotionalism that seems to accompany every invocation of the word, ‘croft’. Crofters are felt by many to have a moral right to the land, and to be automatically justified whenever pitted against authority. There is a sense in which Comhairle nan Eilean cannot win this debate. Like any organisation which finds its views at variance with those of the crofting community, or even one section of it, the council will inevitably be portrayed as a latter-day Dòmhnall Munro.

Crofts and/or houses which are owner-occupied are straightforward enough. The real controversy centres around tenanted crofts. If you are merely paying rent to a landlord . . . how can the croft’s value be calculated as belonging to you?

Unfortunately, the legal opinion sought by the Comhairle states that one possible way is to file for bankruptcy against the crofter, or his estate after he has passed away. This unpalatable course of action would be time-consuming, potentially costly and by no means certain to produce the desired result for the local authority. Insolvent crofters breach the 1993 Crofting Act. Nonetheless, only the landlord can apply for an order to have them removed, and even if they do so, the events that follow are firmly outwith the council’s control.

So, this is clearly an extremely vexed question and, like everything else of the kind, may well be slogged out on Facebook, but it certainly won’t be settled there.

What the discussion does throw up, however, is an interesting attitude around the perceived intrinsic worthiness of crofting. Evidently, from the comments I have read, many of us feel that it is part of island heritage and deserving of protection. Some even accuse Comhairle nan Eilean of instigating a modern version of the clearances.

The conceit there is that crofts and crofting ought to be the province of the indigenous population. That is an argument which, in the context of language and cultural preservation (where, by ‘culture’ I mean way of life and not some tweed nailed to driftwood, calling itself ‘art’) might have some merit.

We suffer, because of our remoteness, a tension between maintaining a viable population in these islands, and protecting our increasingly fragile heritage. How do you reconcile the need for people to keep services running, and shops and schools open, with the desire to shore up these things which are unique and precious about our islands?

For too long, there has been a concentration on Gaelic as a language, and little heed paid to the fact that it has – and requires – an underpinning culture. Crofting is undoubtedly part of that. Unfortunately, the moral argument posited by many against the Comhairle’s position falls down slightly on the fact that tenancies change hands for sometimes eye-watering sums of money.

You simply cannot have it both ways. If tenancies can be sold to the highest bidder, where is the mechanism for favouring – say – young islanders? It doesn’t exist.

Crofting, like Gaelic, has been subject to a tiùrr of legislation, but there has been the same mistake made in both cases: a failure to recognise the plant in its native soil, or to take measures that might have nurtured it there. With language, experts talk about intergenerational transmission – the passing of the language from parent to child, far and away the most natural learning process. The richness of vocabulary and idiom is then preserved in a wider Gaelic community, not least because communities have an inbuilt code that is mutually intelligible to its members.

In fact, now that the language campaign is waking up to the fact that it has neglected community in its working-out, I wonder whether there isn’t greater scope for an integrated approach to the promotion of Gaelic and crofting. Not, I hasten to add, in some twee, ‘living museum’ way, but an acknowledgement that there are vestiges of both traditions still extant here, into which new life could be breathed. And that they have a close relationship with one another in the communities where they grow wild.

It would take vision to realise, of course. Some years ago, the Crofting Commission published a paper which explored the possibility of designating Scottish crofters as an indigenous people. I wonder whether, under the new Islands Act, and with an eye to further crofting legislation in the next parliament, it may not be time to rekindle that spark of an idea.

Imagine: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highland Council, the Crofting Commission, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all working together on policy for the Gàidhealtachd from the inside.

We have much still to learn from the old slogans: the language, the land, the people; and strength through unity.

And the prisoners heard

Sunday afternoon sunshine lured me outside to sit on my recently-painted decking to read, write and contemplate. There were birds singing in the trees and lambs bleating in the croft beyond, but not a sound other than that to pierce the stillness. I had recently risen from morning worship with my congregation, and was in exactly the right frame of mind for a bit of contemplation.

I was also filled with an enormous sense of wellbeing. These are days filled with uncertainty, trepidation and, for many, grief. None of us knows when it may be our turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, we know that God is with us, and that ,while a shadow may well encroach, it can never devour.

So, while the world’s media is talking in terms of a global crisis, of catastrophe and lockdown, God is enabling me – and many more besides, I think – to experience this as the day of small things which we are warned not to despise.  As I sat in the warmth of this early spring day, I thought about the week just gone by, and the ways in which I have met with Christ in the long hours of solitude.

There is his word, of course, and prayer. These are constants. Normally, though, they are the launchpad for what Lady Bracknell disparagingly referred to as ‘a life crowded with incident’.

I am rediscovering my inner introvert, however. This week, I have  delivered a number of lectures and tutorials, spoken on the radio about my favourite Scottish novels, attended a meeting of the Stornoway Trust, and participated in a whisky tasting – all without budging from my dining table. In between, I walk, cook, clean, read and write. In the evenings, I chat to friends and family, listen to music, and catch up on television programmes, films and podcasts that I’ve missed.

Friday was glorious. I finished classes, and took the dog for a long ramble on the machair. Confusedly dressed in wellies, linen trousers and a cashmere hoody (I like to acknowledge all seasons in one outfit), I got spectacularly rained on. Showered and pyjama-clad, I lit the wood burner and laid out my various samples of Jura whisky and wild water from the Stornoway Trust Estate in time for the Instagram tasting event.

It was not, I am quite certain, the 46.7% ABV 21-year-old malt that gave me the feeling of complete serenity, but the sense that this was a day of privileges, dispensed by the hand of a gracious God. He has enabled me to continue doing my job, and fulfill other obligations while remaining safe and not feeling isolated in the least.

Discussing this with a Christian friend on Sunday evening, she said that she was concerned by the number of people – believing people – who are not doing so well. She hears from folk who say that lockdown is beginning to pall on them, who say they miss the human interaction of church. These are by no means all people who live alone either.

All of which set me wondering what’s wrong with me that, six weekends in, I am still only able to see the positives.

I have come to a number of conclusions. Ultimately, I don’t go to church for the social aspect. In fact, quietly and without anyone else noticing, I ceased attending organised fellowships of any kind more than a year ago. Church has been a place of worship for me, and that continues to be possible by God’s grace through the technology which it is our privilege to access and enjoy. Yes, there are people whose society I miss, and I will be glad to see them when we are once more able to share a pew. Until then, however, I am getting the essential parts of the church experience at home.

Like many others, I am gratified by the way in which being a church quite literally without walls has enabled new people to join us for worship. An open door may theoretically be welcoming, but there is still a threshold to cross which can seem like a journey of a thousand miles to the stranger. Online worship presents no such barrier.

A lot of Christians are invoking the image of Israel’s captivity to describe where we are at. I don’t disparage other people’s feelings or experiences, however, when I say that this is not my view of things at all.

Christ has freed his people, and we do him no justice if we consider ourselves captive still. We ought to be like Paul and Silas who sang and prayed in their cell at midnight. The walls could not contain them because their hearts were fixed upon worshipping God. He was there with them, he is here in my house too; and he is with all his people wherever they are. Ask the suffering and persecuted church if you can’t believe a Wee Free woman.

My favourite part of that account, though, is the following four words: ‘and the prisoners heard’.

Those who are still enslaved, not by government lockdown, but the bonds of sin – what is our witness to them? Perhaps he has brought us out of our comfortable churches into the information super-highway so that they will hear us, not weeping and complaining, but lifting up our voices in praise of the Christ who will never leave nor forsake us.