by George Gunn
When the two MSP’s decided to leave the secure pastures of the SNP because their party will not commit a future independent Scotland to be outside of NATO they began a journey the rest of the Scottish people will have to eventually undertake, when we too must collectively decide to leave behind us the big fields of war. This, popular commentators will tell us, is either an honourable action based on conscience or a political misjudgement. For the two individual politicians and the independence movement in general the stakes could not be higher.
At the beginning of David Harrower’s strange and beautiful play “Knives In Hens” the character of the Young Woman says to her husband Pony William, “I’m not a field. How’m I a field? What’s a field?” The rest of the play is about, amongst other things, how to answer that question. The Oxford Dictionary variously describes a field as a “piece of ground used for pasture or tillage; ground on which a battle is fought; large stretch, expanse, of sea, sky, ice, snow etc or the whole of history; area of spheres of operation, observation, intellectual activities etc.”
To understand the predicament of my native place in the early 21st century I have been studying the history of Caithness and to do that you have to follow the progression of human activity from early settler to modern society and to chart that you have to know what it is you are looking at when you look at a field.
The field, in Caithness, is a comparatively recent invention. Prior to the 1770’s there were no big enclosed rectangular agricultural areas which specialised in growing one crop or rearing a single species. Before that the agrarian system was pastoral and suited to the needs of the native population. From the mid 1770’s this changed to a system which maximised output and profit which enriched the new breed of landowners and fuelled the state driven enterprise of war. In effect nothing much has changed in 250 years.
It is often difficult for a modern sensibility to comprehend what this new addiction to conflict meant. To set into context just what this “age of improvement” introduced it is instructive here to consider the life of the great Strathnaver bard, Rob Donn Mackay. He was born in the Winter of 1714 and from the day of his birth to the day of his death in August 1778 the state of Britain was continually at war.
It was not until after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that peace, of a sort, broke out in Britain. However, with a burgeoning Empire, there was always a small war to engage in somewhere on the planet. It was as if the field of Waterloo in Belgium had metamorphosed into the big battlefield of the whole world. As empire is the consolidation of markets and materials, which is the motor aim of capitalism as generated by the British Empire, then the ultimate conclusion of Empire through capitalism is global control. Ironically it was the evolving system of capitalism which outgrew the necessity of a single nation-state dominated militaristic empire to ensure its survival and in so doing the symptom has replaced the disease and become the greater plague-threat to the future of humanity infecting the very air we breathe and becoming a form of financial scabies.
The big battlefield of the world has reached its finite limit – unless we see space exploration as an extension of empire and markets – and capitalism, despite the cyber hallucinogen of the internet, has also reached the point where its inbuilt entropy bleeds it of its energy. On the other hand the advance in technology has meant that the concept of “production” has lost most of its meaning. Our hi-tech gizmology now services capitalism in the way that capitalism used to service industry: industry, as a result, is the new service economy. A bright light does not need to be shone on this to see that it is unsustainable as the manufacture of wealth becomes disproportionate due to the reduction in the agencies involved. These stateless corporations increasingly see no need to contribute to the tax gathering regimes in the particular states they are located. Witness Starbucks zero Corporation Tax contribution to the British exchequer. Google, E Bay and many others are taking a similar view and there is little the British Government can do about it. Or more accurately: there is little this “dog of a government”, to quote Norman Tebbit, are willing to do about it. Next to the big field of war is the big field of capital. Both their crops are fatal.
The death of Rob Donn in 1778 effectively marked the end of the Middle Ages in the Highlands of Scotland. By the year 1000 AD the first Norse farm settlements were well established in Caithness. At the back of the dunes which arc around Dunnet Bay there is a farm called Thordistoft. In Norse this “toft” refers to an area of cultivated land without a dwelling and was farmed, as the name informs, by a certain Thordis. It is interesting to note that in the Celtic place names of Caithness – and throughout the Highlands – there are few if any personal names to mark areas or features. Gaelic culture tends to describe rather than possess. If you took this Thordis forward in time to the mid 1770’s he would have recognised the landscape and husbandry practised upon it as being very much like his own. After the theft of the common lands and the enclosures of the late 18th century our sturdy Norse farmer would have recognised little of his surroundings. In the years before and after the Battle of Waterloo the landscape of Caithness was altered from the rolling patchwork of open park systems – tacks, wadsets, davochs, pennylands and run rigs etc – where bere and barley were grown and where the grazing animals were left to wander comparatively freely, to the regimented square fields so admired by visitors to the Far North today.
The price of these land enclosures was human. By 1800 thousands of people had been driven off their traditional pastures in the interior and forced to exist on the hard and precipitous coastal districts where the likelihood of having your children blown over a cliff was a constant threat. At Badbea the people were reported to tether both their animals and children for the same reason. Within forty years Caithness went from having a self-sufficient pastoral peasant economy which had existed for around 2000 years to a series of staked out “estates” where “entrepreneurs” such as Sinclair of Ulbster and Dunbar of Hempriggs emerged in the post-Napoleonic society of North Britain as substantial “landowners”. In almost every instance the “title” to the land was acquired after the enclosure.
But why was this system of big fields necessary at all? The answer was, of course, to increase production of grain, meat, wool and soldiers. A people who had created a society which self-regulated itself and despite the occasional famine managed to feed itself and maintain a constant population was reduced within two generations to passivity, poverty and periphery with nothing left to sell but their labour.
Waterloo was neither the battle to end all battles than the First World War – so beloved of David Cameron – was the “war to end all wars”. The creation of the big open fields of Caithness was the organisation of agriculture to serve the material needs of empire and war: in reality they became the big fields of war.
The labour that many young Highlanders in the 19th century sold was themselves into the British Army, an army whose officer class just some decades previously had been hunting to extinction their fathers and grandfathers. Throughout the 1800’s these Highland regiments were instrumental in the suppression of indigenous political cultures from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean. This then is the dreary reality of what has gone before in the Far North of Scotland. From pastoral to property, from independence to dependence, from community co-operation to individual wage-slave: this journey has not been a beautiful experience. The spillage of blood and loss of cultural identity never is. As a result the people have been silenced politically and culturally unable to resist outside ideas of progress and value such as the billeting of thousands of military personnel during the two World Wars and the subsequent siting of Dounreay on our Northern coast as part of the dispensation of post-war paternalism. The dependency of employment on a nuclear installation has infantilised and alienated the native population so that they neither know their past nor can imagine a future.
One way to cast off the debilitating experience of history and create a new reality is through the imagination. The big fields of war can be dug up and re-thought. Currently in Caithness 95% of the food bought is not produced locally and the majority of crops grown, animals raised and fish landed are exported. The price of fuel is unregulated and artificially high. As a result everything costs more than it should. In Caithness, as in most parts of the Eastern Highlands, Tesco controls the market, dominates the towns and villages and closes local shops. Consequentially take-aways, charity shops and pound stretchers of various hues blow in and out like tumbleweed. Tesco is another big field system. If it is not dug up then the food supply in the Highlands – and the whole of the rest of Scotland – becomes vulnerable. Energy production and food supply can, with a mixture of imagination and political will, be reclaimed. For example landowners and power utilities should not benefit from renewable energy – another big field – in the monopolistic way they do. There is no reason why an individual croft cannot have its own individual wind turbine generating all the energy required and the excess sold off to the national grid. If food producers followed the co-operative practices common abroad then local food can find its way to local markets and prices can be contained. This is not romantic or fanciful: it is extremely practical and it is the future if we desire a resident population on the ground in Caithness and the North Highlands after the middle of the 21st century.
The big field of capitalism can also be opened up and redistributed. The crisis in the money supply and the 2008 collapse of fractional banking – RBS, BoS, Lloyds etc – shows that making money from money which relies on perpetual debt is institutionalised madness. As history has shown this only makes a few speculators rich and the rest of us impoverished and allows governments the opportunity to unleash their reactionary austerity programmes which demonise the victims of fractional banking – the poor, the majority. This policy will also depopulate the North of Scotland. What Caithness requires is local, positive equity banking based on community needs and realistic returns – not speculation. Our society craves a financial facility which allows it to invest in itself in order for the community to benefit. These facilities should be kept local and accountable.
Caithness is a small part of the small country of Scotland. Scotland as it is currently constituted is a minority portion of the state of Britain. Britain is a member of bigger organisations such as the UN, the EU and NATO. An independent Scotland would desire, one hopes, to be a part of the world of nations so until something better is created the UN is that field. The EU is a big field we could negotiate with to re-cultivate its purpose. NATO on the other hand is a primary big field of war. In Caithness our sixty year relationship with the nuclear industry through Dounreay and the presence of HMS Vulcan and a US Navy base at Forse on our coast for almost as long has shorn from us any romantic or heroic notions as to what being on the front line of a nuclear war would mean. But as oblivion is no longer a mutually agreed military strategy and we have, as a result, no enemy it seems that the big field of war which is NATO has to be dug up and replanted.
The SNP have chosen to keep the big field of war which is NATO open and to cultivate it. Two of their MSP’S, John Finney and Jean Urquhart, have disagreed and as a result have left the SNP. It is no coincidence they are both Highland politicians. Their history and their instincts drove them in the direction they felt duty bound to go. Many people in the Highlands understand this fundamentally. That they will be attacked for their integrity is to be expected. They will be described as naïve and of not seeing the “big picture”. I suspect that in their blood they know well that NATO is the big field of war and that we should desire no part of it. But as Boris Pasternak wrote in the final line of his poem “Hamlet”: “To live your life is not as simple as crossing a field.”
John Finnie and Jean Urquhart have been brave. Like the Young Woman in Harrower’s play they have said “I’m not a field.” History has shown us how the big fields of war are made. Let the history of the future show that we in Scotland at least had the imagination to remake the big fields of war into the big fields of life and the Rob Donn’s of that future can live their long creative lives in peace.
© George Gunn 2012