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.

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.