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.

The Crook for all Lots

‘You’ll have been picked up by the CCTV’, the elder informed me solemnly on Sunday. I had tiptoed past his gate early on Saturday morning, glad rags from the previous night’s carousing in my hand, and thought that I might just get away with it. The confusion of waking up in a strange bedroom in Stornoway had probably been at fault; after all, experience should have taught me by now that wayward women cannot fly under the surveillance system of the Free Church: EL-DAR.  There are Wee Free drones everywhere, and they can’t all be watching clothes lines.

I had gone out at the respectable hour of 6.30pm on Friday evening, to enjoy a meal and some speeches in a local hotel, to mark the occasion of the Estate Factor’s 25th year in post. We were doing so a year after the actual event because . . . well, they had been waiting for a blone to be elected in order to remember stuff like anniversaries, and organise parties . . .

A good time was had by all. Appropriate gifts were presented, including an inscribed shepherd’s crook, upon which the gentleman of the hour proceeded to lean in a rather too-settled manner as he articulated his thanks. I imagine there will be many future occasions when he leans similarly upon the stick, and regales his audience with wisdom from his considerable store.

Aside from providing the owner with a prop upon which to lean, however, the shepherd’s crook has a much wider variety of functions.

In fact, for those tasked with the management of sheep, there may be a requirement to travel over rough ground, and it is an aid to them on the journey. Anyone who has ever walked the moor will know the value of any prop which will help you stay upright, and out of the bogs.

Of course, your crook may well come in handy as a weapon too. Your flock can easily fall prey to predators – especially the lambs – and it makes sense for the protector of the flock to have a stick that he can wield in their defence.

And, the curved end of the staff is perfect for hooking a sheep around the neck in order to catch or move it to where you wish it to go.

While any and all of these functions might well be exercised by our Factor – either in his private capacity as a crofter, or his professional role as Estate manager – I am going to resist the temptation to speculate here on how he might use the crook to steer wayward Trustees. Far be it from me, either, to suggest how he might deploy his new weapon against . . . but let’s just leave that there.

A couple of weeks ago, the Factor put me right on an important point of theology. (I should point out that, though his duties are surprisingly wide-ranging, this is not normally considered one of them). He reminded me that sin could be committed in the thought, just as much as in the word or deed and, thereby, threw a carefully-constructed view on a given matter into total confusion. I have still not resolved that particular inner conflict.

But then, the Truth does not exist in order to make us comfortable with sin.

Theology, in fact, might well be seen as performing the same role in our lives as that shepherd’s crook, if it is deployed dextrously and for the purpose for which it was intended. And, make no mistake, by ‘theology’ here, I do not mean man-made rules, or academic theory: I mean the Scripture proofed truths which meaningfully direct our lives towards God.

When I have found myself in the terrain that, sometime or another, meets all Christians, I have been – on occasion – slow to reach for the supporting staff of theology. At this point, I am tempted to lean on another one altogether: that of my own wisdom. Let me tell you, though, nothing is guaranteed to sink you in the mire quicker than your own faulty reasoning. That is why Proverbs 3: 5-6 says,  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.

At those times when I have failed to do this (and they are many), the next thing that happens is I leave myself vulnerable to the enemy. When I miss the means of grace, when I let my prayer life weaken, when I fail to open the Word as often as I ought . . . of course the enemy senses that I am distant from the rest of the flock. He moves in slowly, preparing to pick me off. But God has given his people the crook to use as a weapon also; Scripture has so many reminders that there is nothing the enemy can do against the power of Christ. For me, the battles with Satan have been won many times through the strengthening of Psalm 27, and its triumphant reminder:

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

But, sometimes I find that the Shepherd still has to hook me around the neck, and pull me to himself. Wherever I am, however, no matter how far, his reach extends there, and he will draw me gently and lovingly back. It may be that he achieves this through the preaching of his Word; but more often, it is actually through the love that he communicates via his own people who are, of course, my people.

Like the shepherd’s crook we presented last weekend, then, God’s Truth is lovely, but its real beauty lies in its purpose: to support, to protect, and to draw us to Himself. If we make use of it, then it will uphold us in any situation.

 

 

 

Twenty-five is Silver, but Wisdom is Gold

A quarter of a century ago, I took a life-changing opportunity. It came in the form of the fledgling University of the Highlands and Islands, and its very first degree. It turned out a BSc in Rural Development really was for me.

I was a young Gaelic-speaker whose interest in her own culture was finally being validated. The eclectic obsessions and tangents that had never quite added up to anything clicked satisfyingly into place. Photos by Gus Wylie, a lecture from James Shaw Grant, articles written by Prof Donald Meek, all saying that the ‘rubbish’ I’d amassed in my head was not rubbish at all.

This mattered. And now I was beginning to have the tools to say what ‘this’ was.

Tertiary education ought to be a turning-point, and it was in my case. I learned so much about life, myself, and the Gàidhealtachd. It was then that I found out about the Highland famine, about people starving right here in the islands, about the 1872 Education Act, and the warped way that schooling had turned a people from its own culture.

In the quarter-century since Lews Castle College set me on that path of discovery, much has happened. There are, for instance, many more degree programs available, two of which I now teach on. Before coming back to the alma mater to work, in 2002, however, I spent four years in Ness working as a development officer, learning from, and about, people.

It was there I picked up two valuable life lessons: working for a committee is tough; and serving a community is thankless.

Fool me once and all that, but I have recently gone headlong back into the world of community development. By coincidence, the Factor of the Stornoway Trust estate –who works for the committee of which I’m now a member – was appointed twenty-five years ago too, the same year that the BSc Rural Development was validated.

I encouraged him to write me a guest blog to mark this milestone, and then swiftly gave up, because I’m not one to nag a Lewismen, and besides, I also know when I’m beaten. Like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, he has built up a natural resistance to being steered. Nonetheless, like a lot of folk who have worked for committees, I am a stubborn blighter, and will make a wee nod here to his silver anniversary, ge b’ oil leis. With any luck he’ll be sorry for not taking up his own pen instead.

The role of Factor has been fulfilled by some fairly monstrous figures – Patrick Sellar, Dòmhnall Munro – but our fellow’s name doesn’t really belong with those. Faint praise, you may think, but he’s an understated kind of cove, and I don’t want to make him blush.

Oh, alright, then. You’ve twisted my arm.

He’s funny. Not funny-peculiar. Well, yes, maybe a little peculiar. It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, working with the likes of . . . well, me. But he’s mostly funny-ha-ha. A sense of humour and – if possible- a sense of the ridiculous, make working for a committee bearable.

Come to think of it, there is actually one similarity between himself and Dòmhnall Munro – Matheson’s hated Factor, known variously as the Shah or the Beast.

I don’t mean his infamous treatment of widows. Despite some provocation, he’s managed not to oppress me much anyway.  In fact, I was thinking more of his influence in local life here in Lewis.

Munro was chair of the Parochial and the School boards of all four parishes; he was vice-chairman of the Harbour Trustees; Director of the Stornoway Gas Company; Director of the Stornoway Water Company; Deputy-chairman of the Road Trust; Baron Baillie, and much more besides.

Our Factor is Chair of Lewis Crofters, he is grazing clerk in Laxay, he is a committee member of the Lewis & Harris Sheep Producers, of the Lochs Show; he is a director of the Lewis & Harris Auction Mart, and much more besides.

That is largely where the similarity ends, though. One took all that he could out of Lewis and its people; the other puts all that he can back in.

He (mostly) quietly puts up with a lot. I know, because I’ve worked for a committee and for a community. People don’t count the long hours, or the extra miles; they only want to criticise. They don’t tend to value your point of view, or knowledge, because they’re too busy imposing their own.

And this is the real lesson I have gleaned over the past twenty-five years. No matter what area of life you find yourself in, look to the experience and wisdom of others who have been treading that path longer than you have. A course of study is limited in what it can teach you; but human example is boundless. This island is full of people with much to teach – and most of them are not in classrooms or lecture halls.

I have learned, and am still learning, from people who are usually older, but always wiser, than I. Wisdom can sometimes simply be the art of deferring to someone who knows more, or knows better.

Our society, though, is becoming increasingly hostile to that concept, seeing it as weakness to admit that you don’t know everything. Opinion is pushed into the vacancy left by knowledge and understanding. Youth is exulted over the sagacity of age, despite all the warnings from history that this is rank foolishness.

Well, here I am going on record, twenty-five years on, neither young nor old, and admitting that I am still very much on a learning curve. My favourite writer – Neil Gunn – put it perfectly, as ever, when he wrote:

‘Knowledge of ignorance is the end of so much knowledge, and the beginning of wisdom’.

Come back in another quarter-century and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have something to say that’s worth the hearing.