Dead in the Water?

There was a day when every village had its taibhsear: someone who could foretell future events. Inevitably, the visions were limited by the boundaries of his world – that is to say, he saw what would befall the local and the domestic sphere only.

To predict national and even international developments, however, that was the province of the true seer. Think of Coinneach Odhar, lifting that circular stone to his eye and telling Lady Seaforth that her husband, abroad in Europe at the time, was enjoying the company of other ladies. She had insisted on knowing where he was and yet, Coinneach faced the ultimate punishment for ‘speaking evil of dignities’. Legend has it he was put to death, simply for humiliating the lady before her people.

It’s the lot of the prognosticator, I suppose, to risk their own reputation by voicing what has not yet come to pass. Today, in all but the most despotic regimes, making a mistake will not cost your life . . . though it may well damage your credibility. Witness, if you will, the present silence of political pundits on the likely outcome of Mr Johnson’s election. Who wants to put their head above that increasingly unpredictable parapet?

In the Gaelic world, it is a tradition which some think was born out of a purpose other than ACTUALLY seeing the future. The filidh, according to ‘The Textbook of Irish Literature’, tended to combine ‘the functions of magician, law-giver, judge, counsellor to the chief, and poet’. Elsewhere, the word ‘filidh’ is sometimes translated as ‘seer’. So, this person originally was more than the mere poet we have come to consider them. Those other roles were obviously separated off at various points in history, but nonetheless, our poets were at one time also our seers.

Or were they?

In fact, I think it very likely that our poets were more in the order of cheerleaders. You know the kind of thing: ‘we will win this battle and crush the Campbells and their blood will stain the heather while we dance on their graves’. Sort of latter-day locker room pep talks for the clan. And then, full of vim and vigour, with the filidh’s words ringing in their ears, the men would do battle – and win. Thus, poem becomes prophecy and the filidh a seer.

It’s depressing, therefore, that while this tradition appears to be alive in Lewis, the would-be seers are using their dubious gift for a purpose other than cheerleading. For the last few months, we have had something resembling a Greek chorus emanating from parts of our island regarding the prospect of real development. The latest sad chapter of this prognostication reared its head – bizarrely- last Sunday evening.

The PR consultant for Point & Sandwick Trust released another of her copious blogs on the topic of how bad outside investment is for these islands. Sorry, no, not for these islands – for the shareholders of four crofting townships near Stornoway. In this extended piece of writing, we are told (repeatedly), that the interconnector is ‘dead in the water’.

Perhaps the intention behind this singularly morbid article, then, is that it should be regarded as self-fulfilling prophecy, a sort of anti-pep talk for the Comhairle, the Trust and Lewis Wind Power. Is superstition so strong with those behind the blog that they believe repeating the message again and again gives it some sort of power?

And, crucially, why does a small number of people derive such pleasure from the dashed hopes of the islands entire? If you haven’t already, ask yourselves who should be gleeful at the prospect of no cable, no renewables industry, no community benefit, for a place so in need of all these. What delight is to be had at the thought of Lewis continuing to lose its young people because we have failed to provide opportunities for them?

We have an unparalleled wind resource here in the islands. What we need now, in order to exploit that for the future good of all our people, is unity.

There has been talk – a lot of talk – about unfairness. It does not lie where some say, however. We would do well to remember the old Stornoway burgh motto: God’s providence is our inheritance. He placed these islands where he placed us and we cannot change geography. Working as one, speaking to the government as one, however, we could definitely mitigate against its disadvantages.

It’s apparent to almost everyone that the case for the cable, far from being ‘dead in the water’, is there to be made. How impressive it would be, how laudable, if those who have stood against progress thus far would add their voices to the clamour for what the Western Isles truly deserve.

Coinneach Odhar’s final prophecy was the desolation of his master’s broad lands, and the destruction of his line. I can’t – despite much evidence to the contrary – believe that this is really what anyone wants to see in Lewis. I hope we don’t forsake this one great chance to secure a future for these islands, simply because we failed to work in harmony.

That would leave more than just the cable dead in the water. 

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.