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.

 

 

Buns, Fences and Self-belief

An inferiority complex is hardly anything to boast of, but mine really comes effortlessly: brought up a Gael, a Wee Free, a female (the gender apparently assigned to me at birth), and a wearer of spectacles, I had somewhat of a head-start. Add being painfully shy and the youngest of four siblings into the mix and . . . well, what are you going to do? Early on, having accepted my lot in life as a timid, narrow-minded, myopic maw, I embraced under-achievement.

I was, nonetheless, interested in the people I came from as soon as I was taught about the reasons behind the 1886 Crofting Act. It appeared that I belonged to an endless line of truaghans, forever requiring to be helped up and helped out. The more I read of the Gael, the more this seemed to be the case. Famine. Grinding poverty. Emigration. Lack of ambition. Ill-advised allegiance to lost causes. An infinite list, it would seem.

Growing up in the age of the IDP – affectionately nicknamed ‘I Don’t Pay’ – and the HIDB, and Board of Agriculture housing grants, there was a pervasive sense that people like me lived by the begging bowl.Policy relating to the development of the Gàidhealtachd was once described as ‘chucking buns across the fence’, as though to appease some invisible beast. The beast in question was usually referred to as ‘the Highland problem’. What our government, and those tasked with developing us described in this way, though, was just normal, everyday life to us. We had grown used to being perceived as a burden.

It wasn’t about the Gaels being charity cases, though, nor was it about being unable to fend for ourselves. Indeed, it was about something else entirely; it was about the fact that we never got to be in control of our own destinies. And we never fought for that control because we simply never believed that we were good enough.

To be honest, I’m not at all sure why I’m using the past tense. Although I am well and truly over the Hebridean cringe, many more are not. You see it manifest daily on social media, and in letters to the press, critical of our local institutions – the inept Comhairle, the corrupt Trust – while lauding what takes place elsewhere. Why aren’t we like Orkney, Shetland . . . anywhere but here?

It’s a destructive and defeatist argument which gets us precisely nowhere. We are not Orkney or Shetland – but neither, sadly for them, are they us. So, instead of wasting time on whingeing, what are we going to do?

Let’s start by understanding the bun chucking in a new light. Government policy, changes to legislation, development initiatives – these are not charity; they are initiated to mitigate against the one thing that we can never change: geography. Remote from the centres of power and distant from markets, these necessary measures have always been an attempt to level the playing field.

That done, we generally get on with things. When the HIDB was created, it ushered in a period of economic development; with the birth of Comhairle nan Eilean in 1975, islanders showed unprecedented levels of initiative and entrepreneurship. Ditto the IDP; Ditto the 2003 Land Reform Act. This is how we roll. If you build it, we will come. Give us a fair chance. We don’t request special treatment, or positive discrimination – just an even-handed crack at doing the best we can.

This is why I believe there is still an argument to be made for the largest capacity interconnector that SSE can build. Sometimes it takes an islander to know islanders. There are those willing this to fail, just so they can wallow in the satisfaction of having been right to negatively compare their own home islands to other places.

Never mind them, though, because there are others, those triers, just waiting for the playing field to be evened out. Islanders always take advantage of the opportunities that development creates. I have every confidence that this scenario will be no different. Once that cable gets the go-ahead, there will be no shortage of schemes, no lack of vision. Projects will most definitely come.

I can understand the regulator being reticent about giving the go-ahead to something which might, on paper, be under-subscribed. It has to be paid for, and it’s their job to ensure that much needed development in the Western Isles doesn’t end up costing the UK consumer money.

What they cannot know – and what we have to prove – is that they are dealing with no ordinary place, and no ordinary people here. Let history speak for us, and show that we never knowingly passed up a chance to make things better for ourselves.

The word ‘insular’, meaning inward-looking derives from the Latin word for ‘island’. I think there are times when that is a strength: let’s look inward at all the ways in which we Hebrideans maximised every opportunity we ever got – not to be like anywhere else, but to be absolutely true to ourselves.