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.

 

 

 

Now the Precious Years are Gone

I was not part of the exodus from the Gàidhealtachd last weekend. The crowds making their way over land and sea were a mildly interesting sideshow – a filler at the end of the Gaelic news, a spectacle from which I tried hard to avert my eyes. It is certainly not that I don’t care for the music of Runrig, because they have been the soundtrack to my life since I can remember. These guys made a song of my outlook and experience over four decades and, all things being equal, I should have been there for the last dance.

Some things are just too much, though. Apart from that long-ago concert in the hangar at Stornoway airport, I shared every other Runrig experience with my husband. If I had gone to listen to them once more, I would only have spent my time looking for him in the crowd.

And so, I spent Saturday and Sunday in an island that seemed emptied of half its population. Sometimes, I would hear a snippet of their music on the radio, or catch a glimpse of them on television, and I would remember . . .

My mind goes back to the year that I turned fifteen, when they came to play in Stornoway, and I was just so excited at the prospect. And then, horror of horrors, a controversy broke out: their gig was going to clash with the preparatory services for the Stornoway communion. With any other band of their reputation, that would have been brushed aside. Runrig, though, were different. The date was changed, plans remade, and the Free Church minister in Stornoway received an apologetic phone call from Donnie Munro.

You are never too big, or too important to be respectful. This, after all, was the band that sang, ‘cum ur n’ aire air an Iar is air an àite a dh’ fhàg sibh/keep remembering the west, and the place you left’.

When I say that I grew up with them, I don’t merely mean that they were there as the years went by. I have already alluded to their part in forming my political consciousness, and for articulating the dumb love that I felt – feel – for home. Every year, when I speak to students about our history as a Gaelic people, I can do no better than quote Runrig’s ‘Fichead Bliadhna’. It expresses far better than I ever could the disgrace of successive generations kept in ignorance of their own past:

I learned many things
The English language, the poetry of England
The music of Germany
The history of Spain
And even that was a false history

Twenty years for the truth
I had to wait
I had to search
Twenty years of lies
They denied me knowledge of myself.

It was because of Runrig I took an interest in the Highland clearances, because of Runrig I cared about politics, because of Runrig I first read Carmina Gadelica, because of Runrig I discovered the land wars, because of Runrig I understood that Gaelic was more than just a dying language.

They sang more than merely big songs of hope and cheer: they were the singers in my bloodstream who have stayed mainline all my life.

Everything that matters to me about being a Gael, about being an islander – I can find it somewhere in the canon of this band’s work. Their polite and deferential approach to the Rev Murdo Alex Macleod in 1991 was indicative of something that owes much to the soil in which they were nurtured. Every word I ever heard them sing was shot through with love of place, love of nature, love of people and that matchless Gaelic spirituality that shaped our best lyricists. So many of their melodies recall congregational worship, with the psalms at its centre:

Song, sacred, eternal
Lift on high the voice of the people
Song, I am reconciled
Let it rise up from the moorlands

One of the most memorable evenings I spent in their company was at the now infamous gig on the banks of the Ness, when the deluge threatened to sweep us all away. We were, Donnie and I, soaked to the skin, shivering and muddy. It took hours to get back to the hotel, to get showered and warm, but we agreed that it was the finest of all our Runrig experiences. Until, that is, they came back to the HebCelt and we watched the sun set over Stornoway to their unmistakeable sound. Home, Runrig, and the man I was sharing my own last dance with, though neither of us knew it then.

Many have paid their own tributes to Runrig; most had the courage to be there with them as they said that aching goodbye. Mine, however, happened that night, out on the castle green. But Runrig’s own words, as always, speak for me more eloquently than I could ever do for myself:

But now I know and I don’t want to believe it
Where does it leave you now
That the precious years are gone

I know you well, you’ll be nothing but grateful
Never let it be said they were spent in thoughtless ways
Warm winds blow ‘cross the ties that bind forever
For a place in the sun and for the hearts of love a home

(Photo credit: Marie MacDonald)