From The Province Of The Cat 9: The Big Fields Of War

Dunnet, Caithness (photo K. Williamson)


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

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  1. thisgreenworld says:

    One of the wonderful things about the independence debate is that it opens out all kinds of discussions about competing and complementary possibilities of what we mean by ‘a country’ (not just a field).

    The process is as important (if not more so) than the outcome – the means are more important than the end – the numbers of votes on each pile in 2014 are less important than the thinking and discussing that have happened in every voter’s head before they make the cross (fiery or otherwise).

    If the vote goes ‘aye’ then we’ll have had a multitude of options ready l-aired and thought-through – nato, tesco, or what so; ready for all of us to begin the building.

    If the vote goes ‘no’, well then, the genies are oot the bottle and there will be clamours for the changes that are possible without actual independence…

    …whatever that might be…

    I’m sure I’m not the only one that fears the SNP will water down their definition of independence so much by the voting day that a yes vote would actually make very little difference? It really does feel like for the SNP, the ends justify the means (aka ‘disciplined’) regardless of what is thrown out like refugee baggage along the road.

  2. picpac67 says:

    Many painful awakenings must occur before Scotland can free itself from the blight of militarism. There is no honour or glory in her sons and daughters fighting proxy wars for global capitalism or for the neocons in Washington, London, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Wars are big business, as are their spoils – oil in the case of Iraq and Libya, drugs in the case of Afghanistan (drugs which finance the CIA’s black ops, which British military planes are reportedly flying in to the UK, and which were the reason for the destruction of Flight 103, which killed the whistleblowers).
    There is no honour in fighting – or supporting – illegal and immoral wars based on lies (WMDs in the case of Iraq, Osama’s complicity in 9/11 in the case of Afghanistan – for which even the FBI has admitted there is no evidence). There is no honour in belonging to a state that continues to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity – lyingly passed off as defending “freedom and democracy” and “our way of life”. There is no honour in belonging to a state that is in the top 5 global arms exporters (£2.2 billion in the year 2010-2011).
    People must wake up to the fact that the war industry needs ‘customers’, and like many other industries it has to find ways of maintaining and possibly increasing sales. Peace must not be allowed to break out – that would depress sales. So wars need to be ‘provoked’. After the end of the Cold War in 1990, most normal people expected a “peace dividend”. It didn’t happen. Why? Because the arms industry (and the corporate-controlled Western governments) needed a new ‘enemy’. If there wasn’t a handy one available, one had to be engineered. Enter the “Muslim threat” and alleged global Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. As Hitler knew, it is possible to provoke conflict by staging ‘false flag’ events (like the fake attack on the radio station at Gleiwitz which provided the ‘justification’ for Germany to invade Poland). The invasion of Afghanistan was planned long before 9/11 – but it needed the catalyst of a staged attack (especially one which could be set up to be a media spectacle) to get the public to support the phoney “war on terror” – a brilliant marketing ruse, because such a war would, almost by definition, be unwinnable and therefore potentially ‘never-ending’.
    Indeed, an independent Scotland – for its own self-respect – would have to disengage from the NATO war machine. It would also – somehow – have to acknowledge that although individuals can and do behave ‘heroically’ in desperate situations, participation in illegal wars which constitute war crimes is anything other than noble.

  3. ““production” has lost most of its meaning.”
    No, the means of production used to be Capital, and the mode of production used to be Man.
    Now, the means of production is Man, and the mode of production is Capital.
    To understand this George, you need to read Marx’s critique of Adam Smith.

  4. Michael says:

    Well, brave is not a word I’d use but anyway after getting elected on an SNP ticket and benefitting from the money, hard work and campaigning of activists – just wee punters like me – round the country they bugger off because they lost a democratic vote at conference. Brave – no, not really. That doesn’t mean that their cause isn’t right but their actions can’t be justified. There is also the question of what we want independence for – in my case it is to deal with inequality, the smothering of our economic potential and our backwardness as a society. In the case of at least one of the resignees it doesn’t really matter on a personal basis if the country becomes independent or not. She is a well off successful businesswoman. Like me she’ll be fine either way. Sadly that’s not the case for millions of our fellow citizens – it’s them and their futures that should come first. If we put our success in 2014 at risk it’s those in the worst off circumstances that will pay the price. And then where will ‘principle’ get you?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hear what your saying but its very SNP-centric to suggest Jean and John have buggered off. Both remain in the front line of fighting for Independence, both within and outside the Scottish Parliament.

      The cause is much bigger than the SNP. Every activist needs to work out how they intend to further the Indy cause between now and 2014. If it means outside the ranks of the SNP then so be it. There are spaces to do this.

      NB The personal income of anyone involved in the great cause is neither here nor there unless – like Donald Trump – they are trying to use that wealth to influence policy and corrupt the democratic process.


      1. Galen10 says:

        Surely the point is that if either of the 2 who resigned had any conscience they would also have resigned their seats? They were elected as part of the SNP list I understand, so they have no moral right to remain after flouncing out of the party on a misguided point of principle. The people who elected SNP members (NOT those two individuals!) deserve better!

  5. David Moynagh says:

    Excellent and oh so true a pointer in the correct direction. We shall go backwards to go forwards in many respects.

  6. George Gunn says:

    In reply to Allymax Bruce. I take your point in relation to Marx’s points on Adam Smith. I suppose what I was trying to say was that the mode and the means of production have become morphed into
    a financial usuary where no real benefit to any society occurs as a result. As to the two MSPs I do not agree that they should have left the party, but I do think it was a very hard decision for them both, but I do not think its up to the SNP to decide if Scotland should remain in NATO – it is up to the Scottish people through a deomcratically elected parliament in an independent country either through a bill or a referundum.

    1. picpac67 says:

      Exactly. That’s why Scotland needs its own constitution, which would place decisions of this nature beyond the reach of purely party-political interests. There’s a window of opportunity now to insist that a constitutional convention be instituted (a DIY one if the politicians refuse to support the idea) to draft a founding constitution. Waiting until after the referendum would be fatal. The SNP is not interested in real democracy i.e. direct democracy. It is only interested in securing its power base and dominating the political scene after a successful referendum, while pretending to be the party of the Scottish people.

    2. Hi George, I wanted to say I really like your writing; it’s very poetic, and beautifully written. Yeh, the Marx thing takes a lot of re-educating what we have been told what Marx said/meant, and I think we are both on the same plane, George. So no problem fella. There is a really good conversation going on about Jean & John now in this article; this is healthy. I agree with all of what’s been said; yes, I know it sounds a bit like fence-sitting, but we are coming to realise our independence campaign is bigger than just the Yes vote. Good article, George, you’ve really set the heather alight!

  7. George Gunn says:

    or a referendum, even. Anyway, it’s for the people, not a party, to decide.

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