NW Sutherland: Visitors call it ‘The Last Great Wilderness’. NATO call it a cheap bombing range. (Photo: K Williamson)



As Scotland creeps closer to her date with constitutional destiny and the referendum in 2014 just how everyday reality is reported in the media continues to descend into the tragic comedy of bad story choices. These reflect the political preferences of the media company owners, as highlighted recently by Kevin Williamson in regard to the Edinburgh independence march.

Witness then the bizarre choice of the Press and Journal to highlight the episode of a man getting his head stuck in a litter bin in Aberdeen while ignoring the latest eleven day long NATO-led Operation Joint Warrior military exercise currently underway off the north west coast of the Highlands and Islands. While you may ask just what the individual was doing with his head inside a litter bin you may also ask what is the point of one of the world’s largest flotilla of warships, including a fleet of US vessels, twice yearly congregating in the waters off the north of Scotland?

The answer to the former is unknown (even unknowable other than that the poor individual was homeless and hungry) but as to the NATO exercise it is according to official sources “to train our forces in anti-terrorism”. So, again, Cape Wrath will be the recipient of high explosives fired from US warships well out of sight over the horizon, and the skies above Caithness and Sutherland will be full of various nations’ warplanes conducting “high energy evasive manoeuvres”. Of course, just as the man who needed the Aberdeen fire brigade to cut him free from the litter bin was not looking, I assume, for ridicule or infamy (just food?) NATO is parading its military hardware in the North West Highlands not for the sake of our security but to advertise its power. They bomb the living daylights out of Cape Wrath because it is one of the few places in the world – if not the only one – where they can. Operation Joint Warrior is also a fantastic weapons demonstration opportunity and many NATO client countries will be observing, cheque books at the ready, eager to acquire this lethal high-tech “anti-terrorism” hardware at the expense of the welfare of their native populations. Perhaps we should all stick our heads in litter bins. The Scottish press, other than BBC Radio Highland, in relation to this story, have done just that. They are not hungry, they are exploitative and deceitful.

Now Cape Wrath is a big lump of a thing, some 207 square kilometres in total. The Secretary of State for Defence, c/o Defence Estates Scotland and Northern Ireland, owns 14,877 acres of this, which is the northern part and includes Eilean Garbh, the recipient of the missiles and bombs. NATO can merrily fire live ordinance here and play war games without hindrance because in effect the Ministry of Defence owns the land and subsequently this part of the Scottish Highlands has become a bombing range.

So they do because they can. The origins of land ownership, use and succession, in Scotland belong to the feudal society of the Middle Ages in which they were developed. Other than tinkering around the sides no British or Scottish government has seen fit to interfere very much with the core issue of the rights of landowners. This is never more so acute than in the business of heritable succession; that is, who gets what when the title holder to the estate dies. The current rules of primogeniture whereby property such as land is inherited by the eldest male, to the exclusion of women and children, is still more or less extant in habit as opposed to legislation – “de jour” at odds with “de facto” – and in every initiative to modernise land law and inheritance politicians of all hues have tip toed nervously around landed interests. In his 2009 response to the Scottish Law Commission’s discussion document on legal rights over heritable property Fergus Ewing MSP, the SNP minister responsible for such matters, offered this rather flatulent thought:

“In considering this further, we all want to take account of the fact that the farming and land owning communities have on-going concerns about legal shares for children coming out of the whole estate and the impact this might have on the continued operational viability of land holdings.”

Andy Wightman, the land campaigner, had this to say about Fergus Ewing, the timorous beastie:

“This is quite remarkable. After 800 years of feudalism… with the most concentrated pattern of private landownership in Europe and with a land reform programme that aspires to achieve a rapid change in the patterns of landownership, an SNP government minister is thinking about the interests of the landowners before the interests of women, children, the landless and Scottish society.”

What is not remarkable is that it is in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that landownership has the most corrosive economic and cultural effect. It is not only NATO jets which undertake “High energy evasive manoeuvres”. The recent chicanery by the Applecross Trust which owns the 70,000 acre estate on the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross demonstrates that landowners will use all means, including bending the rules concerning charitable status, to protect their interests at the exclusion of all others.

This tension between “ownership” and “community” has ancient roots in the North of Scotland. One has the law behind it and the other is only a cultural echo. Feudalism, where the eldest male inherits the estate and where the pyramid of power starts at the top – with a king – and where everyone else must defer to this single ruler, is in historical terms a recent regime in the Highlands. Celtic society had developed, over a millennium, the more democratic power structure of “tánaiste” or “tanistry” whereby the chieftainship of the clan was drawn from a broad candidature spanning four generations who all shared a common ancestor. This meant that if a “chief” proved unworthy or a threat to the people in some way they could be removed. This principle of “tánaiste” was one of the tenets of The Declaration of Arbroath.

Tanistry also meant that power was given to the upper echelons of Celtic society by the consensus of the majority of the people. This encouraged the Chief to keep as many people around him – and on the ground – as possible. Modern Highland land ownership is the opposite of this. The divine right of Kings – feudalism’s ultimate condition – may have ended when the head of Charles I left his shoulders but the majority of Highland estates still act as if their will is divine. The result is that the Highlands have been emptied of people.

Modern politicians are also the product of feudalism. The personality of one man is now considered of more worth and media attention than the sense of social and economic justice he may advocate or the political process which brought him to power. So it is that politicians keep apologising to power and on behalf of private vested interests. This way feudalism continues whether or not the Scottish government abolished feudal tenure in 2004. The Succession (Scotland) Act of 1964 may have, in theory, abolished male primogeniture but there are still no legal rights for children to inherit anything. The inference on our modern democracy is profound.

The Gaelic word “clann” means, more or less, “children”. More accurately what is commonly referred to as a “clan” would be described in Gaelic as “fineachan”, meaning “families, or family names”; or by “cinneadh”, also meaning “family” but also refers to a group which grows from a common root. Children, as a term used to describe the clan, has passive implications. It means that we are obedient to the dominant will of our parents, our superiors. As it stands right now in Scotland our “superiors” – feudal, political and military – are resisting community ownership, betraying every principle by which they were elected and shooting up some of the most beautiful parts of our landscape. Just who, exactly, has their head in a bin?

©George Gunn 2012