I was thinking of Easter 1916 in Dublin and remembering September 2014 in Scotland so I went on Easter Monday to Strath Naver in North West Sutherland to contemplate on why we were being encouraged to commemorate one and being manipulated into forgetting about the other. I did not expect to meet Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Queen Maeve or the Aishling of my lost generations of Mackay’s and Gunn’s, but only to breathe the clean Spring air of Easter and walk down from Skelpick into the heart of one of the most beautiful straths in Scotland. Yet no matter the magnificent wine colour of the copper birches which burnish the Eastern slopes, the dark peaty water of the gravel-cut river and the iced white anvil of Ben Clìbric towering to the South, my mind drifted like a ship hypnotised by the storm onto the rocks of the unfinished business of history. Easter 1916 was a theatrical coup which changed a nation and shocked the world and is now seen for what it was – the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The campaign for an independent Scotland leading up to the referendum in September of 2014 was a colourful carnival of ideas which excited a new generation into politics and has been managed into a layby by a paranoid British state and a cautious Scottish government.
Even if there had been a positive outcome to the referendum in 2014 what we would have been celebrating on Independence Day in March 2016 would not have been the Workers’ Republic as dreamed of for Ireland by James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizens Army, and shot while tied to a chair and already dying by the British Army on May 12th 1916 in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. Scotland, we were told, would be a modern, progressive democracy. If Scotland was an independent country in 2016 would we who live in it now notice any difference to the country as it was two years previously? The calming balm offered by the SNP to both the middle class in Scotland and the UK state in London in answer to that question is, “No, you would not.” Arguing about how best to raise tax in order to not encourage the wealthy to re-locate instead of setting out to the people how you will spend the revenue for the benefit of all is not progressive politics. I’m not sure if it’s even modern. Arguing about economic holes caused by the fall in the oil price to a Westminster Chancellery who do not know the difference between “balancing the books” and a multi trillion deficit is a waste of time. What should be the political energy driving us forwards is dissipated into semantics and abstraction and the sight of all the bald women and men fighting for a comb which is the TV leaders debates in Scotland is a discouragement bordering on melancholy. A pointless mediocrity is shuffling to Holyrood to be endured.
To walk in Strath Naver is like walking back in time. Like the light from distant stars which are so far way that by the time their light reaches planet Earth the generating body is dead. So it is with sporting estates. To look upon Strath Naver now is to look upon the nineteenth century. What you see is a beautiful empty landscape which, for all its aesthetic natural richness which pleasures the eye, cannot satisfy the appetite for art, for unity, because it is a landscape with no people in it. The burial cairns at Skelpick are 5000 years old and are testament to humanities long engagement with this land. These Neolithic remains are extant because they are higher up than the more historically agriculturally exploited lower slopes and strath-bed which, since that time, held an active population. Brochs and hill forts whisper as you pass, as do the many clearance townships such as Achanlochy and the individual raised houses where the voices still kiss the stones. The shochads (plovers) whistle and the lairags (skylarks) are soothing as even, strangely, are the sheep because the lambing is upon us and life, inevitably, goes on. All life except human life. Unless it is connected to the raging kennet barking of the enclosed hounds which savage the air as you pass this estate house and that hunting lodge.
Is it for this that people voted “No” in September 2014? One of the ideas expressed in the Proclamation of 1916 was “The right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland.” In Scotland that idea is being bitterly resisted by the ruling class. It is the desperate self-interest of those who will lead us into the void. To witness the political “status quo” in North West Sutherland is to see vast acres of land literally doing nothing. These are the frozen cultural materials and stolen lands of displacement and enclosure which began in the 1770’s, reached their cruel peak after the Napoleonic War and have staggered from appropriation and one economic crisis to the next ever since. These are the assets which belong to the Scottish people and are wasting away under the ownership of a few wealthy individuals. Anachronistic land owning on this scale makes the numerically small, residual population passive, powerless and silent. The vibrancy of their history and the possibilities of the future are denied them because there is no real political will abroad to shift the crooked paradigm and make this landscape active once more.
The Easter Sun may have been shining but the atmosphere of injustice was palpable as I walked along. Small columns of 4×4’s occupied the narrow road and ferried the anglers to various beats along the Naver River. The anglers themselves cast and re-cast their flies upon the water as if they were whipping the river into submission or trying to flay the empty strath alive. In a field below a broch a young red deer stag, trapped behind high fences, ran in ever desperate circles searching for an escape. Over a gate hung the tail-less carcases of five foxes, bowing in supplication to murder. Pheasants rose up in startled panic, as if shrieking out their useless grief. The overgrown gardens of estate houses held close the tenacious frost of Winter, because no matter how much the Spring insisted on the Voar colours, or that the buttery primroses stared green lidded and yellow eyed like Queen Maeve herself out from beneath the riverbank, there was a deep coldness to the ground so that you might get the impression that no-one could really live here no matter the history.
But that would be a mistake because the archaeology tells a different story. This hopeless scenario of under-use and dereliction is what has to change or nothing else in Scotland can change: who owns the nations land, what they do with it and why, is the fundamental, vital question we as a democracy must address. If we do not then I fear for our democracy. How many more times must this be shouted from the hills?
But who actually is there to tell this story of on-going Highland dispossession?
Among those leading the Uprising, and responsible for it, during those hectic, desperate and violent days of Easter 1916 in Dublin, were poets, playwrights and actors as well as teachers, workers and a sizeable and formidable band of women. The Rising, if nothing else, was a dramatic event. Legend has it when Countess Markievicz, the revolutionary Sinn Fein nationalist and actor at the Abbey Theatre, was asked if the poster she was putting up was for a play she replied “Yes, it is!” When asked again if it was a play for children, she replied “No, this one is for adults.” What she was pasting onto a Dublin wall was the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Up to the 23rd of April 2016 The Abbey Theatre will be performing “The Plough and The Stars” by Sean O’Casey, the last two acts of which are set during the Easter Rising of 1916, and the third play in the “Dublin trilogy”. During the actual Rising it was alleged that rifles for the IRB were hidden beneath the stage and that the first republican casualty on Easter Monday was an actor from The Abbey.
The Abbey is now the National Theatre of Ireland. Amid all the celebrations, ceremonies, soul searching and the usual re-writing of history, the people of Ireland are at least being told their story, they are finally being allowed to have a perspective. As I walked out of Strath Naver on Easter Monday past and turned my face to the sea I wondered when the National Theatre of Scotland would tell the tragic story of what I had just walked through. So far their contribution to the dramatizing of our Northern narrative and the development of Highland theatre has been a production of “Whisky Galore”. Their engagement with the Referendum in 2014 was tangential at best. The recent successful revival at the Dundee Rep of “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil” has born witness to the fact that the story of that play still needs to be shown to all of the people. But John McGrath, the plays author, is with his 7:84 Theatre Company in the grave. The Scottish cultural establishment like their radical Highland theatre to be safely “historical” just the same way as the Irish establishment like James Connolly and his revolutionary socialism to be “gloriously” dead.
It’s not that there is a dearth of gifted playwrights and actors in Scotland, far from it and many of the best of them hail from the Highlands. Even with the recent austerity cut the National Theatre of Scotland still has by far the biggest budget of any producing theatre in the country so why this indifference to such a fundamental and relatively untouched area of the nation’s story? The Abbey Theatre was founded in 1904 and the NTS only recently in 2006 so comparisons are obviously unproductive and it is, at best, wishful thinking to imagine that the NTS was set up along the same literary and revolutionary lines as its Irish sister: it was not. On the other hand Ireland and Scotland are both lands full of poets and dreamers and with the ever narrowing focus and irrelevance of the mainstream media and the ever internalising and trance inducing nature of social media the need for an active and engaged theatre in Scotland, where people can be brought together in a public space to share in a communal story, becomes increasingly important and especially in the so-called liminal and peripheral areas. Understanding that where Scotland physically stops is also to understand that this is where Scotland culturally begins.
The general attitude among those who took part in the Easter Rising in 1916 was “We belong to an old traditional and proud culture and we will no longer be treated as second class citizens”. The racist opinion of the British to the Irish – and this was one of the main objections to Home Rule – was that they couldn’t run a government or, in fact, run anything at all. In Scotland we have grown too used to such sentiments. For the brave Irish men and women at the beginning of the 20th century the cultural revolution led to the political revolution and they were glad to endorse it. We saw an inkling of that consciousness, that transition, at work in Scotland leading up to the Referendum in September 2014. Our comparatively well behaved and mild exercise in consultative democracy did shake the British establishment, but it did not fall. Three years after the Easter Rising Sinn Fein declared an Irish Republic and it was then that British Empire began to fall apart. It is now, thankfully, all but gone. Only in Scotland, in places like Strath Naver, do we tolerate its ghost, its continual wasting and immoral presence in the form of sporting estates and empty space. What else, other than poetry and history, do I have to blast this corrosive remnant to smithereens? The Scottish people are about to vote, to demonstrate yet again, that we have the right to govern ourselves. Yet after May 5th 2016 we will, in reality, still be governed from without.
As the events of that crucial Easter Monday in 1916 began to unfold one of the Risings leaders, the poet Joseph Plunkett, was reported to have said, “At long last the curtain is open and we are on stage. This day will be remembered!” In Strath Naver, in Scotland, we still await that moment, that day.