Aiste / Essay: Strì an Fhearainn: Story of the Land, Mairi McFadyen for Bella Caledonia
This column was first published on Bella Caledonia and in the Sunday National, Sunday 16th June 2019
The story of land is fundamental to our past, present and future. With a renewed sense of urgency in the context of climate breakdown and a growing awareness of landed power and its malign influence over our democracy, the case for land reform is coming again to the fore.
Following the independence referendum in 2014, the OUR LAND initiative fronted by land reform campaigners Andy Wightman MSP and Lesley Riddoch burst onto the scene, pushing the most recent Land Reform (Scotland) Act over the line in 2016. After achieving this goal, the energy seems to have dispersed into other campaigns. We need a new and invigorated movement to push the land reform agenda. At state level we need urgent action; at the grassroots, we need active citizens. Consciousness raising, knowledge sharing, creativity and collaboration are as vital to the movement as key markers in official state legislation.
When most people think of ‘activism,’ they might imagine people chained to trees and buildings, shouting slogans at protest marches or angrily complaining. Activism can be that, but it is much more than that. Activism enables us to participate directly in culture, civic discourse and in a participatory democratic process, so often marginalised to ticking a box. It opens up opportunities and possibilities for individuals and groups to connect, organise and make things happen.
Creative and cultural activism gives energy and colour to movements of all kinds. Art and artistic expression – understood to take in all forms of visual representation as well as music, literature and theatre – can galvanise those involved and communicate to those outside what the movement is all about. Performance can bring people together in conviviality and common purpose, creating a space to imagine and rehearse alternative realities. People are often inspired not so much by the nuts and bolts of what is important (e.g. facts and figures, legislation) as by what is interesting and exciting.
Art has the power to create and communicate a collective story, articulating who we are, where we come from, and what we stand for.
A great example of the power of storytelling is The Cheviot, Stag and Black Black Oil written by John McGrath in the 1970s and toured by theatre company 7:84. This play captured the collective imagination, reflecting back to communities their own history and culture, often for the first time. It is widely heralded as a hugely important cultural moment and a tipping point, connecting the radical roots of land agitation to the modern story of community land ownership. This was a case of people resourced by culture – to use Hamish Henderson’s famous pronouncement, when poetry becomes people.
While land reform is not solely a Highland or rural issue – and to frame it as such allows those of a certain political persuasion to marginalise, trivialise and contain it – there is something about the sheer scale of privately-owned land in these areas.
There is a history of resistance in song, poetry, radical publishing and direct action here too. I wrote in a previous column about the effect of the clearances, with landowners exploiting land for profit. By the 1880s, endemic poverty, famine and discontent gave rise to riots, rent strikes and land seizures, which in turn led to the emergence of the first Highland Land League as a political force using direct action in the form of land raids. Published in Inverness between 1873 and 1882, The Highlander was one of the UK’s most radical campaigning weekly newspapers, edited by John Murdoch (1818 – 1903). Songwriter, poet and land rights activist from Skye, Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (1824 – 1828) was an icon of the struggle over land rights. The songs of Mairi Mhòr show the influence that The Highlander had on the opinions of Highlanders, even though the paper was mainly in English.
In 1882, crofters in Skye were threatened with eviction after refusing to pay rent to Lord MacDonald until their animal grazing rights were returned. Around a hundred men, women and children armed with sticks and stones instigated an attack on a fifty-strong police force in what is now known as the ‘Battle of the Braes.’ When it was realised that this unrest could not easily be contained, British Royal Navy gunboats were sent in to meet further uprising in Glendale. The publicity that followed the Crofters’ Wars led to the election of MPs. The government-led Napier Commission led to the Crofters Act of 1886, which granted crofters security of tenure. This was a watershed moment that shaped subsequent land reform as we know it today.
The second Highland Land League, founded in 1909 – separate from, although an imitation of the first – was a left wing political party active in Scotland in the early twentieth century. Land action continued into the 20th century, with post WW1 land raids on Raasay, Vatersay on Barra, Coll and Gress on Lewis, and in Knoydart into the 1940s – a story immortalised in song.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the first community buy-outs took place, with the Highlands and Islands – Assynt, Eigg, Gigha – leading the way for others to follow.
When it comes to the land question in the Highlands, the material issue of dispossession is further complicated by a dominant visual culture, largely shaped by the European Romantic imagination. The Highlands is often imagined as a wild, peopleless landscape with majestic stags, kilts and castles – a dreamlike place that belongs to the past.
The process of mythologising – of blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined – began in the late 18th century with the well-documented influence of James MacPherson’s translations of ancient poetry, Ossian (1760). Here, a public growing weary with the dry rationalism of the Enlightenment were mesmerised by these sublime and otherworldly folk tales of poetic melancholy from a magical land far away on the northern fringes of civilisation. Versions of this imagined Scotland were later projected onto the world stage through the international success of the Waverley novels of Walter Scott. In the 19th century, this ‘exotic’ Highland culture was soon appropriated by Lowland Scotland and became the iconography of the nation.
By the late 19th century, a fashion for all things tartan prompted those who could afford it to emulate their Queen in buying sporting estates, in a process sociologists call ‘Balmoralisation.’ This was popularised by a popular visual culture that was perpetuated by artists of the time, who built a reputation on the depiction of the familiar stags, empty glens and tartan. In reality, the Highland region became a source of military might for the British Empire and a huge, untapped grazing ground for the growing sheep-rearing industry with thousands cleared from their land. A whole culture was decimated and its material artefacts became the markers of a new British elite.
Symbolic of this era is the iconic image of Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851). As Murdo MacDonald has pointed out, ‘there is a grand disjunction here between those who hunted deer but did not need to and those who would have liked to hunt deer to sustain them and their families, but were prevented from doing so.’ This tension came to a head with the Pairc Deer Raids in Lewis in 1887.
Potent cultural imaginings can become contemporary realities that can affect politics in the present day. Take, for example, the current discourse around ‘wildness’ in Scotland. As any ecologist worth their salt will tell you: There is no Wild Land in Scotland. Often, what we take to be wild land is really a closely managed political ecology that has turned these landscapes of Victorian privilege into the familiar canon of Scottish scenery. As a consequence, huge areas of the Highlands are maintained in a state of near desert to support the recreational bloodsports of deer stalking and driven grouse shooting.
What is being ‘protected’ is a vision of what Scotland’s landscapes should look like, that has its provenance in an elite way of seeing and ultimately serves the vested interests of landed power. The glaring question is this: where are all the people?
Scotland the Brand
Highland visual culture is also bound up and perpetuated by commercial interests through the tourism industry. Postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard has described the spectacle of contemporary culture as ‘the desert of the real itself’ – a simulacra that masks and eventually replaces history, not through a process of exploring social struggles that are its past or its lived present, but through a pastiche of consumable culture. This equates to the process of disneyfication of culture and heritage.
If we had Balmoralisation in the 19th century, today we have Outlanderisation. This is promoted with an orchestrated marketing campaign led by state-supported Visit Scotland. As a positive, Outlander has inspired people to learn more about the history, language and culture of the Highlands, but the question remains: why do we continue to exploit a fictional story when there are so many other stories we could draw upon? And not just forgotten stories, but a dynamic, living language and culture?
Tourism is an engine of economic growth; it creates jobs, it generates profit. Many would argue that tourism is desperately needed to sustain rural communities in the Highlands. At the same time, tourism is complicit with global capitalism’s depthless markets and is implicated in global climate breakdown through mass international travel. There has to be a better way.
Citizen artists and culture-makers
Throughout the centuries, Romantic representations have provided not only a psychological escape from contemporary reality, but also an escape from the history – and future – of Scotland itself.
The problem is not so much that this version of Scotland exists, but rather that so many cannot see it for what it is. People don’t understand the cultural politics of how this visual culture came to be. This affects the public’s ability to not only know the story of their own place – through no fault of their own – but also their ability to imagine any alternative. Without knowledge of why things are the way they are, the possibilities for political transformation are limited.
Activism is an invitation to gather and connect across and between different backgrounds, knowledge and experience. In order to underpin lasting change, we need to raise consciousness and educate. We need to augment and amplify the movement for land reform with culture and creativity, reconnect with our radical roots and resource ourselves with the food of poetry and song. We need to challenge the dominant visual representations of the Highlands and create new art – a new visual culture – for our time.
All of us enlarge possibility by understanding our role as citizen-artists, as culture-makers. All politics on its own can do is react to or cope with the current situation; artists imagine new possibilities. In order to underpin lasting change, we need to first collectively imagine what the landscape of the future could look like.
We need to get fully behind our parties and politicians who are pushing the land reform agenda. At the grassroots, we need to explore new ways of engaging politically though fun, irreverence and imagination. Organise locally. Invite speakers and performers. Do local research. Make maps. Publish local zines. This kind of convivial energy is exciting: it challenges the inevitability of injustice and gives people hope that, when we come together, we can do things better and that change is possible.