From the Province of the Cat #17: Progress has only one commandment: contribution

Don Dornigail Broch with Ben Hope in background (Photo: Kevin Williamson)

Beside Don Dornaigil broch with Ben Hope in background (Photo: Kevin Williamson)

 

One last article on Bella before I join Mike on holiday (not literally) and its the July ‘From The Province of the Cat’ column.  It’s a good one.

Earlier this month I had the fortune and pleasure to participate in a ceilidh in Scourie, West Sutherland, to mark the end of the “Moving Times” project organized by Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh, or The Mackay Country Community Trust to give it’s full moniker in the Beurla, or English. It was the Summer solstice and the sun was shining and the light hung in the western sky out in The Minch all night. No part of Scotland has ever looked more beautiful to me as did Scourie that night and not just because Scourie is a natural harbour on a rocky coast surrounded by mountains, or that the sea looked so blue it dazzled the eye, or that the cry of the curlew seemed to reach the furthest corners of the world and the heart, or that the air tasted of the coconut scent of whins. As lovely as all these things are it was not they who made the night of the 21st of June so special. It was the fact that the village hall was full of local people and visitors alike, all enjoying poetry, song, music and conversation in their own community. In short, here was a people in a landscape: culturally I know of no other way to measure beauty. Politically, that there are still people in such a landscape, is significant.

In the North West Highlands these nights are unfortunately rare. The reason is that the population is a fraction of what it once was. For example, off the coast of Scourie, there is the island of Handa, which is roughly a mile by a mile and a half in size. According to the census of 1841 63 people lived on there. The potato famine of 1848 saw the island empty of its human population.

The Reverend Alexander Falconer, writing in the Statistical Account of 1793, recorded that the people of Scourie “lived by farming and fishing” and he remarked on their self-sufficiency in both food and craftsmanship. “The families”, he went on, “want for none of the necessaries of life, having bread and potatoes, fish and some flesh, wool and clothing, milk, butter and cheese, all the fruit of their own industry.” So, a thriving population in a beautiful place – yes. But it was not all “milk, butter and cheese”.

For in Sutherland, in Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh, the people of the Clan Mackay have long been used to the militarization of the Highlands well before the years following Culloden and the formation of NATO with their oppressive ow flying jets. The far North has always produced a sturdy breed of men and these have always been the favourite of those who conjour up wars. The Lairds of Scourie, the Mackays, built a fortified house in Scourie in the late 16th Century. It was extensively altered and enlarged in the early 1840’s to become a coaching inn known as the Stafford Arms, now the Scourie Hotel. This was the birthplace in 1640 of General Hugh Mackay of Scourie who rose to become Commander-in-Chief of the army in Scotland for William and Mary in 1689 and a Privy Councillor in the Scottish Parliament. He fought at Killiecrankie and was killed in 1692 during the Nine Years War in Belgium at the Battle of Steenkerque. The Mackay’s being devout Protestants did not fight at the Battle of Culloden but that did not stop them from being co-opted into the army of the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries to suffer the same fate as countless others both on the many battlefields and through the cynical betrayal of the ethnic cleansing which befell them at home.

Lord Reay sold the estate including Scourie in 1829 to the Duke of Sutherland with the Clearances in full swing. The factor Evander MacIver came to live in Scourie Lodge in 1845. He was given a free hand to run the estate and he could, and did, evict people. For fifty years he and his word were law. He wrote “There is no duty I performed during my services as factor in Sutherland on which I look back with more satisfaction than the time, trouble and care I expended in carrying out the transportation of so many families from the poor position of crofters in a wet climate and a poor soil for cultivation to the more fertile lands of Canada, Nova Scotia and Australia.” The B and B my wife stayed at in Scourie, the family who owned it, were entertaining their relations “home” for a visit from Australia. We were all at the ceilidh together.

At the root of all of this human activity, the history and the culture, lies the future of Scotland. The day after the ceilidh we travelled North, circumnavigated the 3D “hunt the Hymermobiles” video game which is the road around Loch Eriboll at the end of June, turned right at the North end of Loch Hope and drove down the very narrow road to Dun Dornaigil, the Iron Age broch which dominates the approaches to Strath More, sitting as it has done for almost 2,000 years beneath the craggy Munro of Ben Hope. Just before Dun Dornaigil is Altnacaillich (the burn of the women) where Rob Don Mackay, the Bard of Strathnaver, was born in 1714. Beyond that is Gobernuisgach (the water of the goats) where there is a lodge and some other buildings which sit at the confluence of three major burns and their providing glens, the most notable of which is Glen Golly as it was the home of Rob Donn and the subject of many of his songs. Except that Rob Donn was not a landscape poet in the way of his contemporary Duncan Ban MacIntyre. Rob Donn wrote about people and throughout his lifetime (he died in 1778) Glen Golly and Strath More were full of people. The Gobernuisgach Lodge was built to house Victoria and Albert on one of their Highland jaunts. By that time in the 19th century most of the people had been cleared and of course a tent or canopy would never do for Her Majesties picnic. The Lodge and the buildings around it and the entire 96,000 acres which constitute The Reay Forest (the ancient hunting grounds of the Clan Mackay) and now are part of  the Grosvenor Estate which is owned by the Duke of Westminster.

In Rob Donn’s day these hills and glens teemed with black cattle. Along the river courses human settlements grew oats, barley and other crops for these are fertile straths, some of the best agricultural ground in Sutherland, although it would be hard to discern so now with the land lying dormant and that heavy, almost oppressive silence in the air of emptiness, of a vacant humanity. As Dun Dornagil bears stony witness to the human continuity of these glens goes back for millennia. What has happened to The Reay Forest, to Strathnaver and Sutherland in general is inhuman. The future of our country is wasting in these sporting estates where no-one lives and nothing is created. It is nothing short of criminal.

One who knew this and did something about it was Allan MacRae of Assynt. As a crofter and one of the founders of the Assynt Crofters Trust he worked towards and fought all his life for the right of the people to own and work their own land. In his 1939 play “Galileo” Bertolt Brecht has his compromised hero say, and I paraphrase, “Progress has only one commandment: contribution.” Allan MacRae’s contribution to the revolution of community ownership of the land was immense and how, in the light of my recent memory of the stillness of human absence in Strath More and Glen Golly, the news of his untimely death came as a loud and unwelcome reverberation of loss. Allan was unflinching in his belief that the people had the right to their native land and only by ownership of it could they begin to repopulate the emptiness, to improve it, to work it and to create a community of people some call a nation.

When Lord Vesty decided to break up his huge land holdings in North West Sutherland and put the North Lochinver Estate on the market in 1992 little did he know that he was starting something no amount of watering down by successive governments could stop. Community ownership in the crofting counties of Scotland is now a reality. On the 1st of February 1993 the Assynt Crofters Trust took title of the land formerly known as North Lochinver Estate and was the first community group to buy their land that way. In October of 1992, I remember, my theatre company, Grey Coast, were touring a play “Songs of the Grey Coast” around the Highlands and Islands and one of our performances was in Lochinver. We donated the box office, a few hundred pounds, to the Assynt Crofters Trust much to the Scottish Arts Council’s horror. That was our small “contribution”. The reason I set the theatre company up was to try and make art and the public manifestation of politics the servants of the people’s creative imagination. Part of that imagining was that people would return to the empty lands. In Assynt they are returning, as the people have to, to every empty cleared strath, if Scotland is to have a future in the modern world. Only the political illiterate and the artistically irrelevant would or could not understand that events such as these need addressing. It is to the cost of our lives and the value we place on the price of everything if they are not. Many in the arts say that they hate politics, often they do so with pride, little knowing, or caring, that their disengagement empowers the land owners like Vesty and the Duke of Westminster, keeps Glen Golly empty and allows multi national capital concerns to benefit at the expense of the people. This, in a reasonable age, would be called corruption. We do not live in a reasonable age. Now this is called balance. In 2013 art cannot be seen, by its funders, to be committed to anything other than art, by which, in the main, means profit for somebody. It is a kind of cultural psychopathy.

Twenty years before the Grey Coast began touring the Highlands in 1992 7:84 had been blazing the trail with such productions as “The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil” and “Joes’s Drum”. How strange it is then to see that now, all these years later, one of the main contributions by the National Theatre of Scotland in the run up to the referendum in 2014 is a production of “The Great Don’t Know Show”. In the “No” corner is David McLennan (of 7:84 fame) and in the “Yes” corner is David Greig of… well, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. To claim not to know, or infer, not to know why Scotland should become independent, or the opposite, is a manifestation of political ambivalence and cultural cynicism. Is this the best our National Theatre can do? This is not a “contribution” in terms of Brecht’s Galileo; it is obfuscation equal in its inadequacy as the Scottish Governments recent recommendations through its Land Reform Review Group is a dog dance backwards from real and progressive change in regard to taking land ownership away from a rich few and giving it over to the people of Scotland. Land, like poetry, belongs to everyone.

With the Grey Coast Theatre Company I wanted the theatre, the event, to be a place of real debate where ideas could find their poetic expression in a public forum for the benefit of all. The National Theatre of Scotland seems to want to be seen to be part of the debate about Scotland’s future… but not really. This attitude stills the air of Sutherland and adds to the silence of human absence. Allan MacRae, who was a very private man, knew the necessity of public engagement. When he spoke in public it was as if he was speaking for all of those who had come before him and who were yet to come, as much as for those who were present. Again, to quote Bertolt Brecht – and it was if he had been writing about Allan MacRae, but yet he was writing about those vital archetypes, like Allan, which fortunately history throws up in each generation as is necessary: this is form the song “In Praise of the Fighters” from the play “The Mother” of 1930.

“Those who are weak don’t fight.
Those who are stronger might fight
for an hour.
Those who are stronger still might fight
for many years.
The strongest fight
their whole life.
They are the indispensable ones.”

Allan MacRae who died on Tuesday 25th June 2013 was one of “the indispensable ones”.

The business of who owns the land is not a debate which has to be had in an obscure committee meeting within the Scottish Parliament on a dark Wednesday in late November or January but is in fact, as Scourie has reminded me, at the dynamic heart of what a new, modern, young, urban and urbane independent Scotland will mean for its citizens. To stand at the bottom of Glen Golly with the Sun shining on Ben Hope to the East is to crave for “ceartas”, which in English translates as “justice”. To be satisfied only with the beauty of the view is to be satisfied with the enormity of the waste.

© George Gunn 2013 

Comments (44)

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  1. Enjoyed this. One factual correction. Edmund Vestey sold North Lochinver Estate in 1989. It was sold to Scandinavian Property Services Ltd which went bust in 1992. The Assynt Crofters Trust then acquired the estate from the administrators in February 1993.

  2. I’ll come back to this more fully but have to say now that the disparaging of David Grieg in such a manner is a disgrace and displays only bitterness at your own place, George

  3. andywightman says:

    Good read. Just one factual correction. Edmund Vestey sold North Lochinver Estate in 1989 to Scandinavian Property Services Ltd. When it went bust in 1992, the Assynt Crofters Trust acquired it from the liquidator in February 1993.

    1. George Gunn says:

      Dear Andy
      Yes you are right I guess that is why I’ll never make much of a hash at being a journalist. What rhymes with journalist?
      All the best
      GG

  4. muymalestado says:

    Thank you George. Your very last sentence has it all. Decades of appreciation of the landscape distilled into full meaning.

  5. I’ll remember this one: “Land, like poetry, belongs to everyone.”

  6. Great stuff George. I can hear that Curlew.

    Put me in mind of these lines from Norman MacCaig’s “A Man in Assynt”:

    Who owns this landscape? —
    The millionaire who bought it or
    the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
    with a deer on his back?

    Who possesses this landscape? —
    The man who bought it or
    I who am possessed by it?

  7. It’s more than a pity George that you can’t help yourself from spoiling a heartfelt, thoughtful essay by having a go at your fellow theatre makers in Scotland. This is another example of the narrow-minded bitterness that is ironically one of the main reasons why so many remain in grave doubt about the independence question.

    Most glaringly, your sneery reference to David Grieg, the most successful and arguably greatest Scottish playwright ever, and a thoroughly engaged political artist, smacks of nothing so much as pettiness and possibly jealousy. Or is it that renowned trait of ridiculing those who dare to succeed beyond Scottish shores? Whatever, shame on you, George. I’m inclined to think Grieg will be seen to have made as great “contribution” as any Scottish artist in this period. If you want to argue that, let’s.

    And your statement that ” in 2013, art cannot be seen, by its funders, to be committed to anything other than art, by which, in the main, means profit for somebody” bears no relation to what’s happening in Scotland right now. Didn’t you read Fiona Hyslop’s speech for example? Or are you perhaps ” a manifestation of political ambivalence and cultural cynicism “?

    ” Many in the arts say they hate politics” you say. Maybe so, but there are clearly very very many in Scotland who are engaging with politics on many levels, not least in taking on “the funders” in a far more cogent manner than you appear capable of here.

    I’m pleased to see BC generally has shown a lot more respect to those who are still undecided than your macho posturing. How dare you accuse such folk of ambivalence and cynicism. And if it’s just NTS you were aiming that silly salvo at, do you actually think they should come out as an organisation in support of any one position?

    You pepper your essay with Brecht quotes. Well let me throw a couple back at you on this particular question of the still questioning-

    “People who understand everything get no stories”

    “When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’ it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up”

    I do battle pretty much every day with the question but the sort of spite peddled here hardens my resolve that, like Brecht saw with his own eyes, the socialist cause can only entertain disaster when it allies itself with any nationalist one.

  8. flyagaric says:

    George,

    The ‘Great Big I Don’t Know Show’ will seek contributions from all sorts of artists who espouse all sorts of positions. David Maclennan and I are curating, not writing. I will, of course, solicit you to write a poem, speech, scene, or rant to go in it. I might even ask your permission to use some of this essay here.

    The show will change every night and in every location in which it tours. It will not seek phoney balance but genuine and heartfelt thought about politics and our future. We will not only commission from professional makars. We will commission words from all sorts of folk: teachers, detectives, adventurers, shepherds… also children, we’re particularly interested in children. Perhaps George you’ll suggest folk you know who’d be good. The show will have music, song, flytes and will also involve a good deal of head on politics.

    That’s the show.

    As for me. I’m a member of the Yes campaign. I’ve been pretty vocal about that on twitter and in the press. I’m involved in a number of projects to try and get folk to vote ‘Yes.’ Most of those will come to fruition next year but if you want the detail I’ll send it you and you can get involved. I use the social media, I’ve written essays and come 2014 I’ll be on the streets handing out leaflets.

    But The Great Big Don’t Know Show is not about me and it’s not part of the ‘yes’ campaing. It’s a show for the National Theatre of Scotland. NTS is built to represent every scot. At the moment, at least 30 percent of scots say they will vote yes, 30 percent say they will vote no and 40 odd percent say they don’t know. David Maclennan and I felt that we wanted a show which reflected the whole country back at itself at a time of great reflection. We wanted folk to come together and celebrate their own democracy. After all, we are all going to have to live together whichever way the vote goes in 2014. That’s why we developed the format.

    We call it the ‘I don’t know show’ because only a partisan crowd would come to the ‘Great Big Yes Show’ or the ‘Great Big No’ show. But Dvaid and I hope that everyone in every small town or big city we visit will feel able to take a punt on a show that offers everyone the chance to air their feelings and thoughts in a truthful and interesting way.

    I’m surprised, George, to hear you write so damningly of doubt. I half doubt you really mean it. Do you? Can you? Are you so full of certainty? None of your other writing has led me to believe that. Personally, I’m full uncertainty: politically, socially, and in matters of identity I just never feel comfortable with solid unshakeable faith. It always seems somehow neurotic. A person who says, ‘I don’t know, but I think this might be the way forward, what do you think?’ seems infinitely more believable to me than someone who says ‘this is the only way! I know it for certain!’

    You say you want ‘real’ debate in theatre but when I offer a show constructed to allow a real debate you say you want ‘certainty’. I never thought I’d hear you wanting to silence anyone’s opinion?

    Anyway, whatever the art does, I’ll be shedding my fair share of shoe leather on pavements for a ‘yes’ vote and I hope you will too. If you’re involved in the campaign you’ll maybe know the ‘Yes’ campaign strategy is to target ‘don’t knows.’ The theory is, we already have the ‘yes’s and they’ll turn out. We’ll never get the ‘no’s. So the best single step anyone can take towards Scottish independence is to persuade a ‘don’t know’ over to yes.

    In the light of that strategy, I felt a show called ‘The Great Big I Don’t Know Show’ which was fun, musical, rambunctious, diverse and representative might be not a bad wee contribution to the struggle… but hey, what do I know?

    Keep on Keeping on.

    Dx

  9. i before e except after c…and Gr..grrr always do that.

  10. oighrig says:

    Off topic here, but, Tam, please tell me why “nationalist” seems to be such a dirty word here in Scotland. I consider myself a nationalist and see it as nothing but admirable.

  11. George,
    The ‘Great Big I Don’t Know Show’ will seek contributions from all sorts of artists who espouse all sorts of positions. David Maclennan and I are curating, not writing. I will, of course, solicit you to write a poem, speech, scene, or rant to go in it. I might even ask your permission to use some of this essay here.
    The show will change every night and in every location in which it tours. It will not seek phoney balance but genuine and heartfelt thought about politics and our future. We will not only commission from professional makars. We will commission words from all sorts of folk: teachers, detectives, adventurers, shepherds… also children, we’re particularly interested in children. Perhaps George you’ll suggest folk you know who’d be good. The show will have music, song, flytes and will also involve a good deal of head on politics.
    That’s the show.
    As for me. I’m a member of the Yes campaign. I’ve been pretty vocal about that on twitter and in the press. I’m involved in a number of projects to try and get folk to vote ‘Yes.’ Most of those will come to fruition next year but if you want the detail I’ll send it you and you can get involved. I use the social media, I’ve written essays and come 2014 I’ll be on the streets handing out leaflets.
    But The Great Big Don’t Know Show is not about me and it’s not part of the ‘yes’ campaing. It’s a show for the National Theatre of Scotland. NTS is built to represent every scot. At the moment, at least 30 percent of scots say they will vote yes, 30 percent say they will vote no and 40 odd percent say they don’t know. David Maclennan and I felt that we wanted a show which reflected the whole country back at itself at a time of great reflection. We wanted folk to come together and celebrate their own democracy. After all, we are all going to have to live together whichever way the vote goes in 2014. That’s why we developed the format.
    We call it the ‘I don’t know show’ because only a partisan crowd would come to the ‘Great Big Yes Show’ or the ‘Great Big No’ show. But Dvaid and I hope that everyone in every small town or big city we visit will feel able to take a punt on a show that offers everyone the chance to air their feelings and thoughts in a truthful and interesting way.
    I’m surprised, George, to hear you write so damningly of doubt. I half doubt you really mean it. Do you? Can you? Are you so full of certainty? None of your other writing has led me to believe that. Personally, I’m full uncertainty: politically, socially, and in matters of identity I just never feel comfortable with solid unshakeable faith. It always seems somehow neurotic. A person who says, ‘I don’t know, but I think this might be the way forward, what do you think?’ seems infinitely more believable to me than someone who says ‘this is the only way! I know it for certain!’
    You say you want ‘real’ debate in theatre but when I offer a show constructed to allow a real debate you say you want ‘certainty’. I never thought I’d hear you wanting to silence anyone’s opinion?
    Anyway, whatever the art does, I’ll be shedding my fair share of shoe leather on pavements for a ‘yes’ vote and I hope you will too. If you’re involved in the campaign you’ll maybe know the ‘Yes’ campaign strategy is to target ‘don’t knows.’ The theory is, we already have the ‘yes’s and they’ll turn out. We’ll never get the ‘no’s. So the best single step anyone can take towards Scottish independence is to persuade a ‘don’t know’ over to yes.
    In the light of that strategy, I felt a show called ‘The Great Big I Don’t Know Show’ which was fun, musical, rambunctious, diverse and representative might be not a bad wee contribution to the struggle… but hey, what do I know?
    Keep on Keeping on.
    Dx

  12. Below is a post from David Greig. he was unable to post without moderation,probably because he hasn’t posted here before. He asked if I could because didn’t want to wait till BC got back from holidays…

    Hi George,

    The ‘Great Big I Don’t Know Show’ will seek contributions from all sorts of artists who espouse all sorts of positions. David Maclennan and I are curating, not writing. I will, of course, solicit you to write a poem, speech, scene, song or rant to go in it. I might even ask your permission to use some of this essay here.
    The show will change every night and in every location in which it tours. It will not seek phoney balance but genuine and heartfelt thought about politics and our future. We will not only commission from professional makars. We will commission words from all sorts of folk: teachers, detectives, adventurers, shepherds… also children, we’re particularly interested in children. Perhaps George you’ll suggest folk you know who’d be good. The show will have music, song, flytes comedy and will also involve a good deal of head on politics.

    That’s the show.

    As for me. I’m a member of the Yes campaign. I’ve been pretty vocal about that on twitter and in the press. I’m involved in a number of projects to try and get folk to vote ‘Yes.’ Most of those will come to fruition next year but if you want the detail I’ll send it you and you can get involved. I use the social media, I’ve written essays and come 2014 I’ll be on the streets handing out leaflets.

    But The Great Big Don’t Know Show is not about me and it’s not part of the Yes campaign. It’s a show for the National Theatre of Scotland. NTS is built to represent every Scot. At the moment, at least 30 percent of scots say they will vote Yes. 30 percent say they will vote no and somewhere around 40 percent say they don’t know. David Maclennan and I felt that we wanted a show which reflected the whole country back at itself at a time of great reflection. We wanted folk to come together and celebrate their own democracy. After all, we are all going to have to live together whichever way the vote goes in 2014. That’s why we developed the format.

    We call it the ‘I don’t know show’ because we figured only an already partisan crowd would come to see the ‘Great Big Yes Show’ or the ‘Great Big No’ show. We hope our title attracts all three categories of voter. David and I hope that in all the small towns, highland villages, or big cities we visit, the show – both in politics and style – will appeal to the whole community. I will offer communities the chance to air their feelings and thoughts about the future of Scotland in a truthful and interesting way.

    I’m surprised, George, to hear you write so damningly of doubt. I half doubt you really mean it. Do you? Can you? Are you so full of certainty? None of your other writing has led me to believe that. Personally, I’m full uncertainty: politically, socially, and in matters of identity I just never feel comfortable with solid unshakeable faith. It always seems somehow neurotic. A person who says, ‘I don’t know, but I think this might be the way forward, what do you think?’ seems infinitely more believable to me than someone who says ‘this is the only way! I know it for certain!’

    You say you want ‘real’ debate in theatre but when David and I offer a show explicitly constructed to allow real debate you say you want ‘certainty’. I never thought I’d hear you wanting to silence anyone’s opinion? What is a real debate if it doesn’t start with the possibility that the audience don’t know something and wish to hear from different people before making up their minds?

    Anyway, whatever the art does, I’ll be shedding my fair share of shoe leather on pavements for a ‘yes’ vote and I hope you will too. If you’re involved in the campaign you’ll maybe know the ‘Yes’ campaign strategy is to target ‘don’t knows.’ The theory is, we already have the ‘yes’s and they’ll turn out. We’ll never get the ‘no’s. So the best single step anyone can take towards Scottish independence is to persuade a ‘don’t know’ over to yes.

    In the light of that strategy, I felt a show called ‘The Great Big I Don’t Know Show’ which was fun, musical, rambunctious, diverse and representative might be not a bad wee contribution to the struggle… but hey, what do I know?

    Keep on Keeping on.

    Dx

    1. George Gunn says:

      I hope David gets t read this or maybe you could supply me with some way I could get ahold of him?
      gg

  13. While I agree with what George says about land ownership in the Highlands (who wouldn’t?) his disparagement of the National Theatre of Scotland is disappointing. Finding ways to open up the independence debate to the public and get people talking in a balanced, informed environment, away from the fundamentally biased media, is exactly what NTS should be doing. To sneer at David Greig – whose ‘Midsummer’ and “Prudencia Hart’ were just two of his plays which have entertained, informed and delighted thousands of people in and out of Scotland – in such a mean way is petty. Lack of common courtesy unaccompanied by any humour whatsoever is emphatically *not* in the Highland tradition. It distracts and detracts from the strength of the vitally important message about the still-parlous state of land ownership in Scotland.

  14. George Gunn says:

    Dear Tam
    I’m no nationalist. Never have been. I have nothing against Maclennan or Grieg. I know them both. I would defend the latters right to write what he likes, even if I haven’t seen it all and not liked much of what I’ve seen. But that’s me. For what its worth I thought Black Watch was well produced right wing propaganda. Everybody else seemed to love it. I’ve had this discussion with John Tiffany so it’s no secret. It seems to me, Tam, that there has to be a space where discussion can take place. And isn’t that what Bella Caledonia is for? I suspect all of what the state produces and calls art. If that is a Scottish state or a British state it is all the same to me. What I want to see from our national theatre company is a theatre which addresses the real concerns of the people of Scotland, The subject of which is history and the object of which is freedom. That was Brecht’s big story. It’s mine.It’s yours. All I am saying is that I do not see this happening. What I see is marketing. I admire your energy, Tam, always have done and I also admire your defense of those you care about. That’s only natural. Many people have slagged my work off in less considered tones than the ones you and I are employing. There are no egg shells underneath my feet. I always have considered you a comrade, not an enemy and that is the way it will remain for me. In the political spectrum the country that is Scotland is going through fundamental changes. Now you may want Scotland to remain as part of the British state. That is your right.But from where I sit, in the far North of Scotland, I can see no benefit whatsoever from that continuation. The poor around me are getting poorer and the rich, the likes of the Duke of Westminster, are getting richer. I ask you, how does that change by remaining British?

    1. George, long time no see!
      As Matt Baker quoted Hume and much employed in the CS stooshie- ” Truth springs from arguments amongst friends ”
      Above all, thanks for bringing bertie brecht back into the picture. I’ll give you a belter bb poem to end here that fits.
      But please don’t paint me into any Union Jack corner. All my political life I have believed in smashing the British State by any means necessary. That’s why I stood for election in 1992 with the democratic slogan ‘For the IRA, against the British Army’ Just because I stand against Independence, doesn’t mean I side with Unionism in any shape or form. It is undoubtedly a difficult position I find myself in at the moment. Pretty much all my friends and respected peers support the Yes campaign. Tom Leonard is the only person I’ve found so far who has a similar position to myself. At the moment, the only principled option I can see is to call for a boycott of the referendum. I can see the argument from pals that this amounts to accepting the status quo but I’d say its more an orthodox Marxist position summed up in the slogan ‘Neither Westminster Nor Holyrood but International Socialism’.
      To me the only way to smash the British State is through working class revolution. Anything else will turn into its opposite and disaster for the progressive forces supporting it.

      The problem was illuminated for me in Ane Satyre of the Three Estates. My character Divine Correction kept insisting ” Ere I depart this natioun, I shall mak Reformatioun!” This was clearly David Lyndsay’s position too. They looked on Reformation as the key solution to Scotland’s problems. And what happened with Reformation? The theatres were closed, plays burnt and Three Estates never seen in its entirety for over 500 years. Things can so easily turn into their opposites – counter-revolution is inevitable unless change is built on very firm foundations of accepting the need to smash the capitalist state. Instead, we see all advocating that Scotland can somehow usher in a good wee capitalism. Uniting with bourgeoise parties, and you certainly know the SNP is one, is useless to the working class and oppressed. Any form of separatism is doomed but like I say understandable. Brecht picks up on the doubt of despair, as you’ll see. I’d say the Yes campaign is built on understandable politics of despair.

      Others have taken up your comments on Scottish culture so I’ll leave that for now…

      Hope we catch up soon.

      In Praise of Doubt By Bertolt Brecht

      Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
      Cheerfully and with respect the man
      Who tests your word like a bad penny.
      I’d like you to be wise and not to give
      Your word with too much assurance.

      Read history and see
      The headlong flight of invincible armies.
      Wherever you look
      Impregnable strongholds collapse and
      Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
      The retruning ships
      Could be numbered.

      Thus one day a man stood on the unattainable summit
      And a ship reached the end of
      The endless sea.

      O Beautiful the shaking of heads
      Over the indisputable truth!
      O brave the doctor’s cure
      Of the incurable patient!

      But the most beautiful of all doubts
      Is when the downtrodden and despondent
      raise their heads and
      Stop believing in the strength
      Of their oppressors.

      * * *

      There are the thoughtless who never doubt
      Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
      They don’t believe in the facts, they believe only in
      themselves.
      When it comes to the point
      The facts must go by the board
      Their patience with themselves
      Is boundless. To arguments
      They listen with the ear of a police spy.

      The thoughtless who never doubt
      Meet the thoughtful who never act.
      They doubt, not in order to come to a decision but
      To avoid a decision. Their heads
      They use only for shaking. With anxious faces
      they warn the crews of sinking ships that water is dangerous.
      Beneath the murderer’s axe
      They ask themselves if he isn’t human too.
      Murmuring something
      About the situation not yet being clarified, they go to bed.
      Their only action is to vacillate.
      Their favorite phrase is: not yet ripe for discussion.

      Therefore, if you praise doubt
      Do not praise
      The doubt which is a form of despair.

      What use is the ability to doubt to a man
      Who can’t make up his mind?
      He who is content with too few reasons
      May act wrongly
      But he who needs too many
      Remains inactive under danger.

      You are a leader of men, do not forget
      That you are that because you doubted other leaders.
      So allow the leader
      Their right to doubt.

  15. George Gunn says:

    Dear David Greig

    no, I’m not full of certainty. Neither am I bitter, or jealous or any of the other stuff people accuse me of. But I do know that the Scottish people should be able and have the political system which allows us to democratically find our own way. I take your point entirely and actually the show sounds good and I have at least six writers in Caithness who might be of use as they have just written,each of them, a short stage play. I teach a class, or try to, of creative writing at North Highland College and I have ambitions for it to become more. I’ll gladly contribute anything if it furthers the cause of Scotland and the theatre, poetry – in fact all the stuff we love. My piece in Bella was actually about why the ownership of land s so vital and I guess if I have a problem its is that I don’t feel it’s taken seriously and I repeat; it is fundamental to the future of our country. You and I can have an argy bargey about anything we like – the National Theatre of Scotland is obviously something we both care about. I have tried to engage them as much as I can with my own community and they have come to do stuff twice. Home was one and the other was Transform with Thurso High School. Both productions were very well attended but my only concern with both was the subjectivity of them. I guess, like me, you are obsessed with narrative. What’s the story? That’s the presbyterian director in my head. So lets forget all this needless rammying and let us talk about what you want to do. As I’ve said, I’ll help if I can.

  16. George Gunn says:

    Dear Tam

    Yes, I agree the SNP are pretty hopeless but fortunately the future does not belong to them. The future is full of dangers but what I would say is that I believe they lurk in Westminster rather than Hollyrood. I think the Scottish people are capable of sorting out the mess. Or as Norman MacCaig was fond of saying “I see no reason why Scotland can’t got to hell on it’s own hand cart.” Allan MacRae, for example, knew full well that The Assynt Crofters Trust no r the Crofters Union were perfect. They were not and remain not. But he worked with them and that’s all I was meaning. I want justice in both politics and the arts but I must work with what I have. I make theatre with what in Aberdeenshire they call “the lave”, I eat, drink and talk with them – they are my own people. They are all I have – they are all there is. We can argue – and for god’s sake lets keep arguing – about the way to the future. As far as I can see – and today I can actually see Orkney – if we miss this opportunity then we will live long to regret it. The solution is walking down the streets of Leith as it is walking down Rotterdam Street in Thurso, or crossing the beach at Dunnet.

  17. Douglas says:

    Interesting thread, and I agree about land ownership and the Highlands, George Gunn.

    As for the International Socialist Revolution Tam Dean Burns, I can’t believe people are still taking Marxism seriously as a vision for the future, though it still has value as a critical tool.

    Stalin killed more people than Hitler, Mussolini and Franco put together.Lenin also used mass murder as a policy tool. The most vicious, stifling and depraved regimes in the history of Europe are Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Ask the Poles or the Ukranians, or the millions who died in the Gulags. Or the Estonians or the Lithuanians.

    It’s typical of the “Marxist position” to come up with a convoluted route to avoid doing the obvious thing to empower people in Scotland, which is voting for independence in this case.

    There are far too many on the left in Scotland who still come out with the same empty slogans, duped by the Allied View History, which made it a crime in 1945 to equate the murderous reign of the Soviets with Hitler. So many still live under the false paradigm today.

  18. Wullie says:

    Very all very easy this armchair theorising 70 years on. Stalin’s victories, at enormous cost in human lives, are what allows us the luxury of exercising what freedoms we have now. There would be no Jews left in Europe had he failed and quite possibly our own folk could have been enslaved and shipped to the camps.
    The thread has, however, wandered off-topic, the problem for land reform is surely how to engage our urbanised population in the land issue. Only independence can solve our problems, certainly not Wetminster or it’s namesake duke & co.
    How can you compare the smell of summer whins to coconut if you’ve never seen a coconut?
    On that profound note……..

    1. Douglas says:

      Wullie, cheers, I agree this is off topic, sorry.

      But Stalin liquidated somewhere around 50 million human beings. He was as every bit as dangerous as Hitler and just as ruthless: criminally insane.

      There is a section of the Left in Scotland who despite all the facts, continue to refuse to equate the crimes of Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany. Why?

      Agree with you about Westminster, but Marxist posturing about boycotting the referendum while we wait for the International Socialist Revolution is of the same mentality – if not the same substance or effect – as the CP calling the Social Democrats in Germany in the 30’s “social fascists” while Hitler was busy winning power and the liquidation of the POUM in May 37 in Barcelona when Franco was the enemy at the gate.

      Sorry again for going off topic, but it gies me the dry boke…

  19. Douglas says:

    Bella, which of the following books which claim to explain the totality of human history and even predict its future is the odd one out?

    1) The collected works of Karl Marx
    2) The Holy Bible (Old and New Testament)
    3) The Writings of Nostradamus.

    I agree it’s a trick question…

    …one answer would be the writings of Nostradamus, because nobody ever shed a drop over his prophecies.

    The other answer would be the Bible, which was at least written by more than one individual person.

    Anybody who takes Marx at face value today never Freud, never read Neitzsche, and never read 20th century history…. .

    1. Serves me right for mentioning Marx. Should have known it would lead to sterile knee-jerk reaction about Stalin and suchlike. Blaming Marx for Stalinism is like blaming Jesus for Archbishop Winning. And invoking Freud and Neitzsche as authorities on anything but bankrupt 20th century deformities leads us nowhere.
      I should have stuck to the questions of the relevance of Ane Satyre of the Three Estates and the Reformation to the present debate to see if anything worthwhile came out of that…

  20. Douglas says:

    Tam, what is Marx? A wee bit Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labour, a wee bit of Ricardo, plenty of French Revolutionary politics and some Saint Simon. Then add a lot of messianic Judaism and shake and stir…serve to the Scottish intelligentsia and watch them drink it down for 150 years, and still after all the catastrophes, come back for more…I doubt there are many Marxists left in Poland, Stalin shot the entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party in 1941 after all.

    Why would human history have a happy ending? And how could one man ever work out in the British Library on his tod in 19th century London?

    I agree that Stalin distorts Marx, that is obvious, and so did Lenin. But the Scottish radical left still uses the same language as the CP always did.

    Anyway, my issue is not that you’re a Marxist but that you’re waiting for the revolution when you could vote yes and actually make a difference to the lives of the poor in Scotland…

    1. James Coleman says:

      Go on yersel’. Douglas one of the most sensible posts about those Internationalists believing in and sitting waiting for Godot and the workers’ revolution in the West. It never ceases to amaze me how so many can be so misled by so much absence of ideas.

  21. George Gunn says:

    Marx was actually very insightful about the Highland clearances and he spent a long time studying the cynical systems of James Loch which resulted in quite a lot of my forebears digging through the Manitoba snow, up to their ears and literally, a lot of them, freezing and starving o death. Everything is connected. Tam Dean Burn is worth his weight in gold as far as I’m concerned much as I disagree with him about almost everything (or is that nothing?) but we both love Marx and Brecht and where I’m sitting in Thurso that is a good thing.

  22. Douglas says:

    George, greetings to you in Thurso from Duin Eidean..

    There is a lot of Marx, and especially the younger Marx, that is still relevant, particularly on ideology for example. But Marx was no psychologist. He dealt in overarching historical theories, rarely in human beings. When he was writing, the psychological language we use to describe human beings didn’t even exist. The subconscious, the divided self, the death drive….

    There were hundreds of social theorists and revolutionaries writing at the same time as Marx who nobody remembers today because they never had a Lenin or a Stalin to popularize their works and abuse of their theories. Just as there were thousands of mystics wandering around the Middle East when Jesus of Nazareth appeared on the scene.

    Why did Marxism win out? Lenin and Stalin is the answer. Just as Christianity took hold because of Paul the Apostle. Which is to say, if Menshevism had won out against Bolshevism, there would be no Marxism today most probably. That is a truly historical perspective.

    Which is to say, you can’t talk about Marxism without looking at what those who claim to be Marxists have done when they reached power. On account of a utopia.

    The question to be asked is, why do so many people who work in culture still fall into the same trap as the generation of the Scottish Renaissance? Where is the self critique on the Left in Scotland? I don’t see much of it about.

    Most of the main victories won by the Left since 1945 have been on individual human rights issues.

    An independent Scotland would give us the framework to make small but real change to the lives of the poor, and take down some of the barriers of this class ridden society.

  23. Aeneas MacKay says:

    I enjoyed the article, though I didn’t agree with its end points, but I was surprised at this line:

    “The Mackay’s being devout Protestants did not fight at the Battle of Culloden”

    The wars of the crowns were not wars of religion, but the Mackays certainly played an active part in the 1745-46 campaign. It was their intrepid actions at the Skirmish of Tongue and the Battle of Littleferry that helped break the Jacobite cause for good (and snared the Earl of Cromartie hiding under his bed).

    The Mackays also fought for the Hanoverian cause in 1715, and even in the less well known 1719 campaign.

    These events are well known to MacKays and to Scottish historians generally.

  24. George Gunn says:

    Dear Aeneas, of course the Mackay’s were involved in the Jacobite uprisings and their job was “to keep the back door closed”. It ultimately did them little good as the history of the 18th and 19th centuries unraveled. Fighting for the Hanoverian or Stewart interest did us little good.

  25. Hi George, Sorry that due to Mike Small’s holidays our conversation wasn’t able to proceed at normal pace. I was keen to make my point once but now it looks like i’ve made it three times!

    Nevertheless I did read your reply and I’d like to get in touch with you outwith a public forum to discuss possibilities and so on. Not quite sure how to arrange that? I expect I can get your email from NTS?

    I’m sorry that our discussion ended up distracting somewhat from your pertinent and beautifully put point about land reform. I spent some time in the Basque Country and it’s fascinating to see, there, a landscape not unlike the highlands, but with villages and towns and infrastructure and industry. In some ways lovers of the picturesque might decry it but for me it was a palimpsest of a Scotland that might have been. the idea of industry as an ‘eyesore’ can be a class based aesthetic. Personally I love the descent into Kinlochleven, beside the great pipes. The sadness for me is that the aluminium smelter that used to be there has gone, not that the hillside does not remain ‘pristine.’ Nowadays industry need not be huge and dirty. We have potential industries involving renewable energy, interlinked by communications and so on. If independence unlocks land reform, which in turn unlocks the highlands as once more a place of people and not just tourists, it will have been well worth the struggle.

    David

    1. David, You comment that

      “If independence unlocks land reform, which in turn unlocks the highlands as once more a place of people and not just tourists, it will have been well worth the struggle”

      What is interesting is that independence is not necessary for serious land reform (highland, lowlands and towns & cities). 95% of the powers are already devolved but for whatever reason they have never been deployed. This hints at deeper problems around how we deal with elite power – something that Tam Dean Burn hints at in a previous comment. I don’t see any signs of a willingness to confront landed power in economic and political terms. This is frustrating to almost everyone I meet. We had a good craic about this at Allan Macrae’s funeral this week. it’s about more than independence – it’s about liberation. I fear that indy may well simply lead to an entrenchment of elite power within an increasingly centralised state apparatus modified to serve its interests even more successfully than the existing setup.

      1. cirsium says:

        Andy – it is not a deeper problem, it is the same problem. Tom Nairn’s description of the British state as the monkey’s dead hand sums it up well. Independence is the only way to prise the dead monkey’s grip loose.

    2. Wullie says:

      Re’ Kinlochleven. The hydro scheme still provides power to the grid, a dripping roast you might say.
      The BA smelters, now sadly reduced to one, kept generations of folk in the Highlands and provided employment to many other than their own employees.
      Off north myself, a good forecast.

    3. George Gunn says:

      Dear David
      you can get me on peedie@urbanbothy.fslife.co.uk

      all the best
      gg

  26. bellacaledonia says:

    Apologies for botched intervention David/George – having approved your comment you can now comment freely … (the boring bureaucracy of web publishing)

  27. Aye well, if only we could all be as righteous as Tam Dean Burn, eh?

    1. Always thought I was trying to be more lefteous than righteous but I can imagine how I might come across. You previously asked what is the point of me. Perhaps this exchange sums that up to some extent. However much I would want to offer a Marxist alternative to the yes/no/don’t know show, when it comes to it I don’t really have the analysis, method and writing skills at my fingertips to do so. It’s all a bit curmudgeonly carping and critical in a way I see the No camp operating and I loathe their tactics. I attempted to debate with Kevin previously but grew very unimpressed with the way I was coming across and pulled it. But I will keep chipping away at things as best I can. And a positive point of me portrayed here is to get passionate about our culture and in having a go at the likes of George for his having a go at our peers, highlight and reconcile differences, help us clarify and move forward together a wee bit. And I do also see the point in putting my own name to any contributions I make…

  28. George Gunn says:

    The business of debate is not the art of manners. What you feel, what you believe, that is the important thing. The tradition of flyting is a good Scottish art. Henderson and MacDiarmid is a good example. These times are too important to be left to the merely eloquent. We need passion as much as we need economics. It’s part of the measurement of our lives. So, Tam, keep at it. Feel free to have a go at me any time you like.

  29. Wullie says:

    It’s daft to think we can ever radically sort the Scottish land problem under the British state and its ruling class with too many vested interests north of the border.
    The Scottish Government runs essentially on pocket money, access to the nations wealth is denied and much work needs to be done to convince the people that land reform is a priority.
    What’s particularly depressing is the propensity of voters in the Crofting Counties, who are at least are aware that there’s a problem, to still elect lairdlings & non-entities.

  30. George Gunn says:

    Dear Wullie
    unfortunately that is the legacy of the Crofters Holding Act of 1886 when the Liberals under Gladstone made crofting “secure” and was supposed to, technically, put an end to the clearances. It didn’t stop emigration however. That is why we have these fatuous Lib Dem mps and msps like Lord Thurso and Tavish Scott. It is changing but you are right, until we have our own country and raise and spend our own taxes then we will not develop a mature democracy. Vast sporting estates owned by people who do not live in Scotland is not democratic. The trouble is the urbanites do not see it as vital. Landownership underpins everything and destabilises everything.

    1. Wullie says:

      Exactly so Cheorge. A Danish shopkeeper named Pavlson? is currently nailing one Highland estate to another and his landholding now apparently rivals that of the Duke of Buccleugh. His native land sensibly restricts foreign ownership of anything bigger than a Danish Pastry, otherwise the Germans could buy the bulk of it for holiday homes.

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