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.

 

 

 

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.