More than a Destination

About ten years ago, I found myself on a small, open boat, bound for Kitchener’s Island. Before you consult the Landranger Taobh Siar map, stop, you maw – it’s in Egypt. While we were making our way, a smaller boat still came alongside us and we were joined by three tall, dignified figures. These men and women were Nubians – indigenous people of southern Egypt – and they were there to sell their beads and trinkets to the day-trippers.

They are a displaced people whose ancient culture was no defence against the march of ‘progress’ – moved aside for the Aswan Dam, they grieve to this day for the loss of ancestral lands. And many eke out a living hawking crafts to rich, white tourists making their way to an island no longer known by its native name.

I wonder what they would make of other age-old civilisations actively choosing that life. Little did they think that, among the pasty-faced travellers who bought bracelets from them that afternoon, were people whose own way of life is being willingly subsumed by the great god of tourism.

People here in the Western Isles talk about tourism in reverential tones, as though it is some sort of moral good. Whenever the prospect of other kinds of economic development is raised – wind turbines being the obvious contemporary example – there is much swooning and tutting and cries of, ‘what will it do to tourism?’ For reasons I cannot fathom, almost everything we do here in the islands has got to be measured against that particular yardstick, as though, like some hideous aping of Brigadoon, we only exist when seen through the eyes of others.

The tedious Sunday issue is the same. Those who like the six-day uniqueness of Lewis and Harris are told that they are selfish, backward and ‘what must tourists think?’.

Well, with all due respect to them – and speaking as an occasional tourist myself – I don’t see why we should actually care. If they are going to visit, they should be pleased to find that we haven’t conformed to some mass-market idea of ‘Hebridean-ness’, but continue to uphold our own traditional values and way of life. Besides, surely we are more than just a destination.

Aren’t we a living community?

In order to go on being a living community, I contend that we have to look to agricultural metaphors – cherish our roots, and encourage our young shoots to grow. That, for those of you with a more literal turn of mind, means protecting our heritage, and nurturing our younger generation.

One of the great white hopes of our recent past has been the advent of community land ownership. It has taken its place alongside apple pie and motherhood (and flipping tourism for some) in the annals of all that is good and positive. I’m not persuaded, however, that it’s the panacea some would claim. The system of crofting tenure in its current form has really meant that the Gàidhealtachd has been wresting land from private control, only to watch the open market in holiday homes and tourist development turn us back into an off-season wilderness. If the tinkers could only see how we have moved from maligning and distrusting them to positively encouraging itinerant wanderers into our midst, the irony would probably knock them off their feet. Anyone with the necessary cash can buy a croft tenancy – or several – and turn these acres over to chalets, glamping pods or gypsy caravans, and there is not one single thing the landowner (community or otherwise) can do about it.

There is, of course, room for tourism in the Western Isles economy. We have many good quality, hotels, bed and breakfasts and guest houses; we have some high-end self-catering, and some good camping facilities. In the years to come, Stornoway’s port development will ensure that we are much better equipped to welcome cruise ship traffic. I recently lunched in a local hotel, where ours was one of only three tables occupied at the peak period. Obviously, local people are not enough to keep the doors of such businesses open. Summer visitors will undoubtedly swell the numbers and fill the tills, which can only be good for the hotelier and the conscientious people he employs.

I understand, too, that people want to come and witness the beauty and the heritage of our islands for themselves. That said, I object to the attitude that manifested last summer amongst some would-be visitors, on being told that locals were reticent about the reopening of our ports in the midst of a pandemic. ‘You can’t stop us’, some (a minority, I would hope) said, ‘the islands don’t belong to you’.

That’s told the land buyout brigade, eh?

Well, no, of course the islands don’t belong to us. What any born and bred islander will tell you, though, is that we belong to them. Lewis is much more than a lovely place to live for the native Leòdhasach; it holds us to itself in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Ask the Leòdhasach abroad to explain his cianalas, and he can’t, but it is the flip-side of loving the place that grew you.

However, that love has to express itself in practical ways for the Leòdhasach (other islands are available) at home. We have to be mindful of the fact that this IS a community. People who live here all the year round want to enjoy a little summer freedom, and not to have to constantly jostle with visitors because our entire economy has been given over to tourism. Equally, we have to provide for those who do come, and we have to allow that there will always be an industry that caters to them.

So, what’s the answer? Well, think of those other two indigenous plants, Gaelic and crofting. In fact, think of economic development in general. What have they all got in common?

Regulation. There is no regulatory body for tourism, though. Indeed, there is no real definition of ‘tourism’. That’s why, despite the extravagant claims made on its behalf, it is actually quite hard to pin down in any assessment of our islands’ or our country’s GDP. There is tension between tourism and Gaelic, tourism and land use, tourism and almost every form of economic development.

Yet, it grows unchecked, like a falasgair on tinder-dry mòinteach.

The land, the language, the people

Last night, I dreamt I went to Mangersta again. It seemed to me I stood in a passing place leading to the village, and for a while, I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream, ‘fosgail an geata’, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spikes of the gate, I saw that the houses were empty of anyone who could understand me.

Before this vision of mine is entirely fulfilled, can’t we utter some of the forbidden words? Isn’t it past time to talk about why one of Scotland’s last indigenous communities, wrapped and bandaged though it is by legislation, has failed to be protected by any of these measures?

We have reached a point where serious academic research backs up what we have all known for some time: the Gaelic language is in crisis because the community that nurtured it is in crisis.

This is not a problem that can be solved by Gaelic agencies because, quite honestly, this isn’t a purely linguistic problem. And it’s hard to talk frankly about the real issues because people will rush to call you ‘racist’ for using vocabulary that excludes – words like ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’ for example. Because the struggle has focused purely upon language acquisition for so long, they walk among us who will claim, ‘is Gàidheal mi’ just because they’ve learnt to speak Gaelic.

Well, I have news for such people: is not Gàidheal thu; is Gaelic speaker thu. There is much more to being a Gael than just speaking the language.

And there is much more to being an islander than just living here. People, sadly, are failing to recognise this, and that is contributing to the death of community. I have firsthand experience of people who bought crofts here in (yes, in) Lewis expressly for the purpose of starting a business. They, and many others like them, think that, because they have bought and paid for a parcel of land here, they have become islanders.

But, just as learning Gaelic does not make you a Gael, owning property in Lewis does not make you a Leòdhasach. And that’s okay, because – presumably – you’ve got your own cultural identity.

So, we get ourselves a culturally diverse Gàidhealtachd and everyone is agreed that this diversity is a good thing.

Except, not everyone. I don’t, for one. At this point, some of you will have decided that I’m just being racist. I’m not; I’m being realistic. We have reached a point where an indigenous people with its own language and way of life is under threat. It’s time to stop being so damned polite and right-on. And so, I am now going to launch into saying the unsayable.

We need a new approach. A complete sea-change in how things are done ought to begin with legal recognition of the indigenous people who inhabit the Western Isles. Once that status is conferred, there has to be robust support for crofting and for Gaelic. I’d like to see the Crofting Commission and Bòrd na Gàidhlig working together – they already share a building (in Inverness, for now, Rome wasn’t built in a day) anyway. One might almost say gun robh e meant.

And we have to look at land ownership legislation. Much is made of the community right to buy – but it’s largely meaningless in the nurturing of real community as long as anyone with a fat enough purse can bag a croft, regardless of background. Young local people cannot hope to compete with that, or with the other blight on our society: housing for tourism.

Tourism is low-hanging fruit for people hoping to make a fast buck, or development agencies looking for an easy ‘win’. It is used as a battering ram to foist change (Sunday opening) or to oppose development (wind farms).

‘What will visitors think’?’ is the constant refrain.

I don’t care what visitors will think. This isn’t a reservation or a living museum exhibit. We were born and brought up here and we are committed to it. But we have complacently permitted the ongoing vandalism of our way of life, and smiled politely as it is dismantled around us.

The recent publication of ‘The Gaelic crisis in the vernacular community’ is a wake-up call. We need legislation that will empower the Crofting Commission and the landowning community trusts to put land the way of young islanders. Under the ‘new normal’, people like me will be at home a lot more during daylight hours. At a stroke, this providence has reduced the sad phenomenon of dormitory communities. What if we saw the economically active generation combining their main occupation – broadcasting, lecturing, weaving, graphic design or whatever – with crofting? Imagine land being worked, and villages where you see activity in the middle of the day; imagine Gaelic being spoken as the older folk pass their skills on.

Maybe I’m a dreamer. I hope I’m not the only one.

I am not saying that incomers shouldn’t be welcome, that would be ridiculous. But I am saying that if we really are serious about our culture, we have got to stop it being reduced to a commodity. If we don’t act now to stop the exploitation of our heritage, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the thing we’re selling no longer exists. Native islanders – and I include myself in this – have been remiss in not providing a better welcome for those who come to live among us. We consistently fail to demonstrate that there is more to places like Lewis than just scenery and much more to our culture than a few songs or scraps of tweed.

Community, like heritage, is codified in our conduct, and in our relationship, both with the place we call ‘home’ and with one another. You can’t package that up and sell it.

In the post-lockdown period, we have seen the ugly side of tourism. Not just the dirty camping phenomenon, but a disturbing attitude. All over social media, would-be visitors and those seeking to make money from them were talking about ‘rights’. The ‘rights’ of anyone who wanted to visit Lewis, for example. ‘It doesn’t belong to the islanders’ one man said, ‘and I can come if I want’.

No, it doesn’t belong to the islanders; that much is true. But we belong to the island in ways no visitor can comprehend.

As a student, I read Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a beautiful book about his travels in Australia. In it, he wrote:

‘The whites were forever changing the world to fit their doubtful vision of the future. The Aboriginals put all their mental energies into keeping the world the way it was’.

We are the Aboriginals: custodians of our ancestral lands, speakers of an ancient language through which we construct and comprehend the Gaelic community. It is past time for us to recognise that and to take steps to protect what has been left in our care.

It is time for our indigenous status to be formalised; it is time for everyone to recognise that these communities would be nothing without their people. And it is time for us, as a people, to recognise that we are nothing without the heritage that give us our identity.

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.