Crofting, Calvinism & the Colonised Gaels

Geekery comes in many forms, but I have always been particularly susceptible to the uniquely Teuchter variety. Now, before you leap to conclusions, no, I cannot name you every model of Massey-Ferguson ever to set wheel upon the Isle of Lewis; nor am I qualified to identify a brand of dip merely by its bouquet. However, I enjoy the complexities of Calvinist theology and of crofting regulation in almost equal measure. It has been easier to indulge the former, because there are places you can go and books you can read which will help the picture clear.

Crofting legislation, on the other hand, has been a right patchwork quilt. Now, however, someone has actually written ‘A Practical guide to Crofting Law’ – that someone being the well-kent lawyer, Brian Inkster, a bit of an expert in the feannag of crofting law and all its associated vagaries. This is not a legal tome for professionals, but a very usable little book which covers all the main aspects of crofting and its relationship with the law of the land (yes, pun intended).

I warmed to it immediately when I saw that page 1 of chapter 1 contained the word, ‘therefrom’. He was only placing crofting in its historical context – something I do myself fairly frequently for bored students – but couldn’t suppress a lawyerly adverb even at this early stage in the proceedings.

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It’s a depressing feature of life in the Gàidhealtachd that any description of who we are or what we stand for must always involve talking about organisations. We are surely the most regulated people in all of Creation. Reading Mr Inkster’s description of the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Land Court, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. All our resident malcontents (and more than a few non-resident) pile the blame onto churches for the perceived stifling way of life here, but no one ever seems to wonder quite why we need so many bodies to keep an eye on our language, our land, our economy – and that’s before we even get started on the plethora of environmental designations that Scottish Natural Heritage has at its disposal. Before you put a spade in the ground, you’d better find out if it’s a RAMSAR site, an SSSI, an NNR . . .

We have accepted it, though, as our lot (pun eile) in life. Like every other endangered species on the planet, the Gael has to be subject to much monitoring and scrutiny. There are more schemes and safeguards linked to us as a people than your average violent offender.

Everything, from the air that we breathe to the words that we use is subject to policy. If I start a business, join a committee or put up a polytunnel, there is an agency that needs to know. We have island plans, community partnerships, rural networks – all designed to protect us. We are like wayward teenagers, not trusted to get the bus home by ourselves in case we talk to strangers.

Ah, but, Mr Inkster’s book brings us neatly, in chapter sixteen, to that wee glimmer of freedom – the Teuchter equivalent of turning twenty one and being given the key of the door: community buyout. You’ll have heard of it because it’s been quite the apple pie and motherhood of the Gàidhealtachd over the sixteen years since the 2003 Land Reform Act was passed. The Act afforded the crofting community a right to buy and become its own landlord – not piecemeal, croft by croft, but to purchase an entire estate as one crofting body if so desired.

Now, I’m not rubbishing this development. It’s difficult to, when you recollect the heroism of Assynt, and of Eigg, in challenging absentee landlordism before there was tailor-made legislation to assist their endeavour. What I am merely pointing out is that the crofting community right to buy is something that had also to be granted via an Act of – albeit the Scottish – Parliament. It is arguably benevolent in its tendency, but still regulation nonetheless. Mr Inkster refers to the ‘Scottish ministers’ many times in this short chapter, reminding even the most gung-ho of community trusts that they have what they have at the behest of government, and of the reams and reams of law which have made it possible.

It’s easy to fool ourselves that we are freer than we actually are. Human beings are incredibly gullible, and very liable to convince themselves that there exists no authority higher than their own. That anyone from the seven crofting counties still believes this to be the case is extraordinary, when you consider the weight of legislation under which they live, move and have their being.

When I was a child, we marked the centenary of the 1886 Act, which put the word, ‘crofting’ onto the statute books for the very first time. It has always been cited as a great stride forward and, I suppose it was in many ways. But it was also the beginning of state-sponsored interference in a way of life which had existed previously on its own terms. Yes, it mitigated against some of the worst excesses of private landlordism, but it also sank the Gael into that abiding sense of being a permanent ward of state.

I think we are more at risk than ever these days of regarding ourselves as ‘looked after’. By the time the centenary had come and gone, organisations like the Crofters (as it was then) Commission, the HIDB and even the embryonic Scottish Crofters Union were household names. The folk leading the organisations and formulating policy were known to those most affected by their decisions. Even more crucially, those leaders were affected by their own policy too – because they lived in the communities regulated by these organisations.

Quietly, insidiously, the state moves the machinery that regulates Gaeldom further and further from its beating heart. Leadership has to come from within – for our land, for our language, for our economy, for our very way of life.

I, for one, am tired of seeing the Gàidhealtachd being run like a colony from Edinburgh. It’s long past time for the natives to get restless.

 

 

Land, people & misleading language

The motto of the Highland Land League – ‘An Tìr, an Cànan ‘s na Daoine’ – laid out the pattern of priorities for the region in the second half of the nineteenth century: land, language and people. It also made famous the adage, ‘is treasa tuath na tighearna’; the tenantry is mightier than the landlord.

I would agree that the land, the language and the people (though not necessarily in that order) ought to enjoy the same precedence today. There is a triangular relationship between them, and to try removing any single one is to compromise the integrity of the whole. It is through that prism I understand my community, and wish to present it to the world. It was interesting, therefore, to read of the visit made by a group of Papuans to Lewis recently, under the spiritual guidance of Alastair McIntosh from the Centre for Human Ecology.

Alastair’s theology and mine may differ somewhat, but we can certainly concur on the revelation of God that is manifest in His creation. The maker’s thumbprint is upon everything we see. It was land, of course, and the question of whose it is to possess that drove much of the Old Testament narrative, and this, in turn, inspired some nineteenth century Highland ministers to preach rousingly to their congregations about the inherent right of an indigenous people to steward its own territory.

Those rights were codified first in the Crofting Act of 1886 – and ultimately in the Land Reform Acts of 2003 and 2010.

The 1886 Act was an effective full stop to the worst excesses of clearance – it prevented the eviction of crofting tenants without a very good reason. It also furnished the statute books with the first mention of the word, ‘croft’, and set in motion a whole category of legislation that baffles finer minds than my own right up to the present day. Those laws were once a necessary protection to subsistence crofters, who lived in a region which had been systematically abused and neglected by turns over several centuries.

In more recent times, however, and particularly since the passage of the 2003 Act, the role of crofting law seems to have changed. The nature of crofting communities certainly has, with fewer and fewer being the tenants of a private landlord from whom they may require protection. Indeed, the Point and Sandwick areas visited by the Papuans, are fortunate to have enjoyed the protection of a community landlord since 1923; long before any laws existed to facilitate such models of ownership.

Yet, a small number of people in those communities, persist in the belief that they are the natural successors of those men who raided Aiginish Farm in 1888. Perhaps some are related by blood – I don’t know – but that is where any coincidences begin and end.

The representatives of Point and Sandwick spoke to the Papuans of their aspirations to build turbines on ‘their land’, and I am sure the visitors had no reason to cast doubt upon this version of events. However, in all their travels around the peninsula, I wonder whether any of the delegation inquired as to where the fabled wind farm would be sited . . . because the answer would, truthfully, have to be ‘oh, not in Point – or Sandwick’. In fact, they would be built upon the grazing provided to the crofters of these areas as a supplement, a compensation for the lack of suitable pasturage within their own boundaries.

Crofting law made provision for their forebears to have adequate grazing for their sheep and cattle, when people depended on the land for their livelihood. Now, the story is told that this is an age-old struggle between an oppressed people and its heartless landlord. I wouldn’t mind, but this is such a misrepresentation as to be almost laughable.

I say ‘almost’, because I tend to think that history is too important to be manipulated like this. We can learn a valuable lesson from it, but only if we take events as they really happened. And even then, only up to (pardon the pun) a point.

What the few people in the four townships are engaged in is not, in fact, a fight against ‘officialdom’; it is a struggle against reality. They have painted themselves as latter-day Glendale martyrs and appear now to be taking the fantasy global.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the people who claim to speak for the ‘four townships’ love the land that they were brought up on. Perhaps there is some mysterious and spiritual link there; I don’t know. But it is stretching credulity somewhat to suggest that their souls ache for a bit of grazing,  upon which – likely – few of them set foot before the photo opportunities made it expedient.

Living under community land ownership is something of which I’m sure many truly oppressed people dream. What Point and Sandwick Trust have apparently failed to convey to their visitors is that they are in that happy position already: they were born into that situation, indeed, both individually and corporately.

I would suggest that, if they want to pick a fight with officialdom, a good place to start might well be the UK government. They it was who signed up to all the UN legislation for the protection of indigenous peoples . . . secure in their mistaken belief that no such categories exist in the whole of the British Isles. Take up that fight if you really feel that the land, the language and the people are worthy of the effort.

That particular slogan may well have some mileage left in it, if the people stop fighting one another for the land that they already possess. And, as for ‘the tenantry is stronger than the landlord’ – I’d say that sentiment is obsolete in a world where these are one and the same.

 

 

 

Arts Centre with an Inferiority Complex

I turned 11 years old in the centenary year of the Crofting Act of 1886. The social and historical significance of this piece of legislation has never left my consciousness since then – learning about how the Gaels had suffered before security of tenure; of communities broken and scattered; of a way of life halted; of a population depleted; of emigration for want of a better choice. The kernel of truth planted in my young mind in 1986 led me on the path to where I am now, both professionally, and in my concern for this community and this culture.

And the doorway to my own people, to a better sense of my own identity, was opened by none other than An Lanntair.

This was my first awareness that such an organisation even existed. It encouraged schoolchildren all over the island to explore the history leading up to the passage of the Act. The arts centre, operating out of a network of unsuitable rooms in the Town Hall, did a phenomenal job with the iconic Às an Fhearann exhibition. And I cannot have been the only person for whom it was a seminal experience.

It was because of An Lanntair, then, that I set off on a path of discovery which led me to see not just the intrinsic value in Gaelic and crofting culture, but the injustice which our community has suffered down through successive generations.

We were, just a couple of centuries prior to that, a strong, sea-going, Gaelic kingdom. Our laws, our culture, our mindset and, yes, of course, our language, were all thoroughly and completely
Gaelic.

But, by 1886, we were broken, scattered and well on our way to being ashamed of everything that identified us as different.

Different to what, you may ask?

Well, different to the mass culture that surrounded us – the English-speaking, English-thinking, imperialist mindset that could not bear to look upon difference without wishing to homogenise it. They
set about dismantling our language. You have, no doubt, heard tales of
schoolchildren thrashed for using their mother tongue, of the maide-bualaidh, and of the maide-crochaidh.

They didn’t beat our language out of us, though, or our culture – they shamed it out of us. I suppose, they educated it out of us. If you want to get on in the world, you will have to stop being so . . . different. That was the message. And, worst of all, though I say ‘they’, it was more often than not perpetrated by those from inside the culture who had, themselves,been made ashamed of their roots.

Make no mistake, that is still the message. Only now, it is done under a different guise. We are not told to stop being different in order to get on; we are told that preserving our difference breaches equality legislation. And we are told, like before, that our otherness makes us a laughing stock, and an embarrassment to ourselves.

And who is leading the charge against our difference, our otherness?

An Lanntair, sadly, that’s who. Housed these days in an expensive, if ugly, purpose-built centre, the local bastion of arts and culture is turning on the community it was created to represent.

I know the argument, such as it is. It’s all about exploring new horizons, and pushing the boundaries . . . But as a centre for arts in a minority and fragile culture such as ours undoubtedly is, can An Lanntair really look itself in the mirror and say it is doing the right thing? Of course not. This is a clear case of carry on regardless.

We have had two soundings of community opinion in recent times. The Stornoway Trust election showed a real appetite in the community for maintaining the precious remains of our heritage as much intact as we can. And the We Love Lewis and Harris Sundays Facebook group has a membership in excess of 2300 at the time of writing.

An Lanntair has taken no cognisance of what is unquestionably the prevailing
view. It has carried out a frankly bizarre trial, opening one small part of its operation and extrapolating from that to surmise that there will be great demand for its other services. There is no joined-up thinking in evidence here, and there is utter disregard for the culture of the area.

I would support the removal of local authority funding to a different cultural provider. Perhaps the £60k + could be distributed amongst the Comuinn Eachdraidh network, or the Fèis movement to more directly support island heritage. Whatever else An Lanntair is doing, it is not doing that.

Actually, it is complicit in sabotaging a very precious element of who we are, all in the name, not of pushing boundaries, or challenging norms as they pretend, but of appeasing a vocal minority who either understand nothing, or care nothing for the very thing which makes
this place special.

Apologists for this cultural vandalism have tried to invoke equality legislation. Who is being discriminated against? You may well ask.

Well, An Lanntair’s predecessor opened my eyes to who I am, and where I came from, and what is valuable about my history and heritage. My eyes cannot be closed, therefore, to what is being done, or why. This is not about equality; this is not about fairness – it is about shame. An Lanntair is choosing to represent those who are ashamed of this island and its identity, and is disingenuous enough to call that progress.

The shame is all theirs, however. That kind of progress dates back to well before 1886. We fell for it then, but we won’t be falling for it now; we are not ashamed of our heritage, we are not ashamed of who we are.

And I don’t think that an arts centre with an inferiority complex is the kind of thing this community really needs.