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