Scotland: A continuing conversation
8th February 2018
Prompted by a twitter chat about Pete Kravitz’ seminal ‘Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction’ I locate my copy on the dusty analogue bookcase, recently installed in my 58°0′N hideaway. I now live, play and work at the same latitude as Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to my East and Alaska’s Raspberry Island to my West. I suspect our microclimates and frustrations are all too similar. I locate the phrase that’s been annoyingly just out of grasp to fingers, tongue, and mind. Near the end of the introduction I find it.
“As the empire began to decline, the English aristocracy, accelerating a process that began with Queen Victoria building Balmoral, turned ever larger parts of rural Scotland into the huge sporting estates which constitute a third of the country’s landmass. People were evicted from their homes for the sake of sheep and sport. What would the population of Scotland be now if the Highland Clearances had never happened?”
Pete Kravitz edited his book for Picador back in 1997, the year that saw Scots vote overwhelmingly in support of the devolved Holyrood Parliament. It was a time of fresh thinking, aspirations and hopes that finally the flaws and Londoncentric thinking that had blighted the rest of the UK and Scotland in particular, was coming to an end and that Scotland could get on with the business of being responsible for making her own mistakes – herself.
Donald Dewar, our first, First Minster found his task of clawing back powers from the firm grip of Westminster bureaucrats difficult, facing a built in reluctance to relinquishing control of matters beyond those of education, health and housing. Thankfully, drip-by-drip, powers were gracelessly released, although I note that both ‘space’ and ‘time’ remain confusingly reserved to Westminster. Who knows what nefarious plans are in store for them…
Among the devolved powers there nestles one that has prompted today’s ramblings, Land Reform. The long and emotive subject that sets the teeth on edge for a many a Scot here and furth. Its importance was acknowledged almost as soon as Holyrood opened for business, when the chamber debated the following motion in September 2000:
‘That the Parliament expresses its deepest regret for the occurrence of the Highland Clearances and extends its hand in friendship and welcome to the descendants of the cleared people who reside outwith our shores.’
I met some of the descendants of the cleared people last summer, whilst working in one of the Visitor Centres that used to be considered vital to the rural economy, well that is before Visit Scotland reckoned they could be replaced with a cheery thumb’s up post on Instagram. These returnees foreign by accent, but familiar in names and faces were looking for connections to land, places, stories and their lost history. Many of them want to come back, but like many of their less travelled compatriots they look on the survivalist economy and dreams sharply dissolve.
Since Holyrood’s democratic mea culpa, we’ve seen the Abolition of Feudal Tenure, the Community Empowerment Act in 2015 and two land reform acts in 2003 and 2016. All important pieces of legislation, the fact that our baronial overlords are getting het up about them suggests that something must be working.
As great as this is, there’s still the nagging doubt that the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government is simply not doing enough. It’s great that we have community empowerment, that estates once controlled by absentee, tax sheltered landlords can be brought into the Common Weal…but,(oh how I despise the introduction of the word ‘but’) here’s the rub, the land is transferred, the previous landlord heads off to whatever sunny, non-inquisitive bolthole he counts his money in and the new landlords, aka the community, suddenly find themselves thrust in a world of business plans, risk assessments, making the books balance, employing specialists, safeguarding the environment, making the land it accessible for all and all on the crypto currency of bawbees.
The proverbial Caithness wildcat was unceremoniously chucked in among the tweed clad pigeons earlier this week when Community Land Scotland put out a call for the repopulation of cleared land. The BBC reported this and opened their article for online comments. Soon the page was littered with such banal utterings as; ‘Mugabe land grab’, the ‘envy of class politics’, ‘wind swept moors’ ‘barren mountains’ ‘no access to electricity’ and ‘inaccessible during the winter’. Life is really too short to get involved in some of these internet debates, particularly when you realise that you are as intractable as your typing opponent. What struck me most about the responses was the prevalence of the defeatist attitude, the ‘it’s aye been that way’ diktat of the unimaginative who infest much of civic Scotland, the joyless wee men who didn’t threaten to burst your ball if it landed in their garden, they just silently binned it.
It occurs to me that for every solution brought forth on how to normalise Scotland and restore the depopulated lands North and South of the Central Belt, there is an almost coordinated echelon of Naysayers, the type who declaim, “We’ve tried change, it disnae work.” the same dour lot who rebuked Andrew Carnegie, when he donated $10 million to the Scottish Universities for new science and engineering programmes. They’ve aye been with us.
We know the multifarious problems associated with repopulating the Highlands. Mountains, moors, weather are not the only difficulties there are a limited amount of jobs going, most of them usually in local government, NHS, education or Environmental charities protecting our wildlife from afar.
There’s little in the way of affordable housing, with some traditional croft homes being replaced copybook McMansions hogging the best of views, with lights off for all but a few ‘airbnb’ weeks of the year.
There’s the creaking infrastructure; pot holed single track roads ill prepared for the onslaught of North Coast 500 travelers. Carbon-fibre Ferrari super cars are not built to traverse a cattle grid at anything above 15mph. On top of this calumny, a corporate philosophy infuses the land, dictating that such fripperies as banks and post offices are best kept where the majority of the populace live.
Both the North and South of Scotland need people, both suffered from the Clearances. People in work pay taxes, taxes take care of infrastructure costs, schools, hospitals, utilities etcetera. Those night time satellite pictures of Scotland bring the problem sharply into focus, the vast majority of us live in the Central Belt. That 100 mile wide and 30 mile deep coast-to-coast strip of land that houses 3.5 million people squeezed into a world of limited space, traffic congestion, an unaffordable housing market, air pollution, poorer health and a precarious jobs market that allows such a thing as zero hours contract to massage the unemployment figures.
Brought there by the need of 19th century industrialists for massive workforces in the heavy industries of coal, ship building, iron, steel, and train building. Those jobs have gone and we now exist in the tertiary employment world of service industries, banking, insurance, telecommunications…app development.
Without any change, there’s no reason to doubt that the Central belt will continue its growth into a congested, sprawling urban landscape. Glasgow has a greater population density of 8,520 per square mile than that of Los Angeles. Sutherland at the toppermost North of Scotland has a grand total of 2.3 people per square mile…
Having laid out much of the doom and gloom negativity, all that’s left is to explore the possible solutions. Do come back next week as I try to make sense of the complexities around reforestation, the proposed devolution of immigration policy, the small house movement and the intricacies of giving land away for free!