Rights on the Margin of Existence

Cultural imperialism has become so sedimented into public and private life in Scotland; it goes largely unquestioned.  @IainMacKinnon75 investigates.

“It is very encouraging to hear the concept of human rights and the realisation of human rights embedded at the heart of a ministerial speech on land reform.”

This was the response from Community Land Scotland’s (CLS) policy officer, Peter Peacock, to the speech made by Aileen McLeod, Scottish Government Minister for Land Reform, to the CLS annual conference in Inverness held on Thursday and Friday (21st and 22nd May).

landaction1_500On Friday morning Dr McLeod had placed the land issue at the centre of political debate in Scotland when she told the conference of a real sense in which “countries are defined by their land”. Because land reform “sits within a programme of democratic renewal and empowering communities”, she added that the Government’s upcoming bill would need to reflect human rights and the public interest. In particular she emphasised the importance of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

International law, she said, “places a duty on Ministers to use a maximum of its available resources” in order to meet peoples’ “rights to housing, food and employment”.

On the previous morning Peter Peacock had outlined the wide-range of political activities in which CLS are involved, affirming that CLS were putting human rights and the public interest at the centre of their advocacy efforts.

He outlined CLS’ selective interventions in the Community Empowerment Bill and the Land Reform Review process – emphasising, for instance, the need to focus on ensuring the right remit and structure for a proposed new Scottish Land Commission. His presentation, and the use of the language of human rights by the Minister in her speech the following day, illustrated the organisation’s clear and effective strategy for political advocacy.

Interestingly, Dr McLeod focussed on the “social and economic” aspects of the UN covenant, eliding the fact that it also centrally includes the right “to take part in cultural life”. This cultural aspect of the covenant was brought to life near the end of Jim Hunter’s talk to the conference on recent developments in the public policy environment around land reform. He concluded with a warning against the use of maps to designate the ‘wild land’ of Scotland – emphasising that land that is unpeopled today, and therefore considered by some to be ‘wild’, was not always so.

The emeritus professor of history at UHI backed up his argument on ‘wild land’ with the powerful story of a young woman, Jessie Ross, from the now deserted village of Ascoilemore in Strathbrora, Sutherland. In 1821 she and her young family were evicted from their home there by a dozen or so men, led by a sheriff officer called Donald Bannerman, and supported by a man called William Stevenson. Between them the eviction party had consumed 13 bottles of whisky during the 24 hours or so before they descended on Jessie Ross’ house.

His telling of the story vividly evoked the brutality of the eviction, the intimidation of the children, and the trauma that must have been felt by members of the family being put out of their home and left to the winds.

It seemed to me that the Ross family’s trauma was probably heightened, perhaps immeasurably so, by an aspect of that dreadful encounter that Jim Hunter did not discuss: its unequal cultural dynamics.

Given the names of those involved, and the period and place that this clearance took place, it is highly likely that Bannerman and Stevenson were English language monoglots. Jessie Ross, meanwhile, was almost certainly a native Gaelic speaker who knew no English. If so, the orders – and probably the curses – their evictors barked would have been unintelligible to the Ross family; Jessie’s pleas in return would not just have been ignored by her persecutors – they would have had no meaning to them. For me, the idea that the Ross family would have been unable even to raise a voice in sensible complaint against the brutality they endured in Strathbrora that day, only deepens the dehumanisation they suffered.

Who were Bannerman and Stevenson? They were the henchmen of the ideology of ‘improvement’ which, building on the political economy of Adam Smith, inspired the dominant agricultural development strategy of the 19th century. According to James Loch, the architect of the tenurial changes on the Sutherland Estates, ‘Improvement’ was also “the improvement of a people”: the drunken eviction party were bringing ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ to the cultural darkness of the Gaels – or ‘Highlanders’ as some English monoglots prefer to describe us these days.

Scholars like the historian Jürgen Osterhammel, and Edward Said in his book ‘Cultural Imperialism’, have demonstrated that such attitudes and deep structural inequalities are typical of power relations under colonial and post-colonial regimes.

In her presentation on ‘language and power relations in the 19th century Highlands and Islands’ at last year’s Rannsachadh na Gaidhlig conference at Edinburgh University, Sheila Kidd of Glasgow University disclosed some of the built-in structural inequalities that faced Gaels as internal colonisation tightened its suffocating grip upon their world. These included the dramatic verbal obstacle they faced in trying to express themselves, and defend themselves, in English ordered law courts and educational institutions – and the misconceptions, misrepresentations, and possible miscarriages of justice that these structural inequalities carried with them.

What have been the long-term effects of these structural inequalities? A couple of decades ago that fine contemporary Gaelic poet, Catriona Montgomery, examined the condition of her language and her people and asked if today we are holding on to the rocks of time “by our very fingertips”? Is it not an intriguing fact that land reform today is flourishing best in those very areas – the Outer Hebrides – where Gaelic still hangs on by its fingertips?

By the end of the conference the contributions, stories and ideas that had been shared had brought me deeply into what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘the space of questions’.

Through its approach to land reform legislation, the new Scotland seems prepared to lead the way in establishing a human rights based approach to political decision-making. Jim Hunter’s well-received speech made it clear that the claim for land reform in Scotland today is significantly based on the restitution of land from which people have been lost.

Yet that loss was not the loss of land alone; it accompanied, and was part of, a deeper cultural trauma and the loss of many of the basic human rights to participate in ordinary cultural life – in education, in the public realm, and even in the home.

Cultural imperialism is inextricable from many of Scotland’s violent clearances of its people from their lands, like the one so eloquently described by Jim Hunter in his talk. And it seems to me, as it seemed to Catriona Montgomery, that cultural imperialism has not gone away. Rather, it seems to me that it has become sedimented into public and private life in Scotland; it goes largely unquestioned.

The establishment of the present state of physical and metaphysical inequality in the country of Scotland has forced a people and the language by which they express themselves to the very margins of their existence.

Material and cultural inequality are two parts of the one stream. In the new Scotland, how should we consider the relationship between land reform and the right to a cultural life, and how should that relationship help to direct political action and advocacy?


Comments (29)

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  1. Broadbield says:

    What is also forgotten is that The Lowland Clearances (see book of same title by Peter Aitchison) started before the Highland Clearances, which get the most publicity, and affected far more people than the latter. Cultural and social imperialism is alive and well in the Lowlands.

    Land reform must not be just about the Highlands, but should encompass all of Scotland including our villages, towns and cities.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on! The whole of Scotland was affected. Sir Frank Mears highlighted the debilitating loss of population from the Border counties in his 1948 plan for Central and South East Scotland.

    2. Redgauntlet says:

      I’d say you two thrawn Lowlanders are entirely missing the point of the article, which is about cultural imperialism and how it was used as a tool against the Gael to steal his land, to colonize him and do everything possible to extirpate every trace of his or her culture.

      The Lowland clearances did not entail cultural imperialism. They did not lead to the near extirpation of Lowland culture and the death of Lallans….

      1. Broadbield says:

        No, these two positions are not necessarily contradictory.

        But I wonder how helpful the stories of the brutality of clearances throughout Scotland (and in England and other parts of the UK too) are when we try to move forward in 2015 towards Land Reform. They were undeniably horrific, but so were the pogroms after Culloden, or the Norman Conquest, or the pillages of the Norsemen, or the way the Romans treated the conquered, or more recently the great European wars, or those in Iraq and Afganistan, or Northern Ireland. Perhaps South Africa showed the way, even if it hasn’t been perfect.

        Yes, we have to have an historical context and understand how history informs and shapes the present, but resurrecting individual stories of tragedy, highly emotionally charged, when discussing Land Reform gives the impression that a major impulse for Land Reform is the righting of old wrongs.

        In 150 years will we still be watching old WW2 films?

        1. Redgauntlet says:

          Well, I am talking about the extra dimension to the Clearances, the cultural annihilation of the greater part of the Gaelheldtachd, which is a project with a very long history stretching back to James VI which merely reached its climax with the Clearances. And no impartial observer can surely fail to see something like a guilt complex or hostility maybe just an irritability re Gaelic culture and especially the Gaelic language in a disturbingly high number of pro indie Scots. A kind of suspicion or resentment…

          What you do in these situations, I would say, is reparations, remembrance and restoration. The state has to acknowledge its complicity in the full scale assault on Gaelic Scotland which took place, roughly from 1750-1900. Secondly, the Clearances ought to be remembered in some public way, a national day – why are all the national days Lowland national days? And thirdly, you try to restore the language and promote the culture, you do much, much more than the SNP are doing in terms of Gaelic. And obviously land reform too, but that is just a part of it.

          To say that the clearances in the Lowlands were as traumatic to Scottish culture as the Clearances, is, I would say, an unsustainable argument.

        2. Redgauntlet says:

          In terms of the time-scale, how far back can you go? I hear you man, I understand the point. But I would be interested in seeing a study done on 1000 of the poorest families in the greater Glasgow area and their origin. I would bet that there is a disproportionately high number of families of Irish and Gaelic origin who make up the poorest of the poor in Scotland to this day…

          1. Broadbield says:

            I agree with much of what you say, apart from reparations. We, the descendants are neither responsible nor are we the injured parties. There are similar arguments re slavery. How can we, or even the companies involved (although many have disappeared), be held liable for things that happened so many years ago, when society, its ethics and morals were so different? And, as I said where do you stop? What about the Americas, where the US among others, was founded on both slavery and genocide, having stolen the lands from from the original inhabitants. I would much rather we try to improve the lot of all our current citizens by reducing inequality and so on and by promoting local cultures – “old” Scots, the Doric etc as well as the Gaelic.

          2. Redgauntlet says:

            Hi Broadbield.

            I´m not talking about reparations to individual families – that would be unworkable, impossible to do, and wouldn´t necessarily lead to a change for the better for the Highlands – I´m talking about the State and its duties. The British State but also the Scottish State. A great part of political philosophy – Hobbes, Locke, etc – right up to the 19th century concerned itself with the relationship between the individual and the State and often property rights. The individual forgoes absolute freedom to do what he or she likes, and pays taxes and tithes, in return for protection from the State.

            What do you call it when the State, far from protecting those individual rights, actively colludes in stripping a minority of the population of their rights and stealing their land, stigmatizing them because of their language and their culture? That is what the Clearances were to a large extent. But the order is important: first Gaelic culture was stigmatized and repressed, then came the Clearances.

            The first thing that has to happen is the British State and the Scottish State acknowledge their part in the holocaust of Gaelic Scotland, our very own “Nakba” as they call it in Palestine. And then start doing more than just what they do in the rest of the country, which is what I mean by reparations. To repair some of the damage which the British State caused to a whole culture. To come up with a plan in conjunction with local communities for a viable Highlands and Islands.

            And, please, to respect, promote and further Gaelic. We lost the referendum. Would we have lost it by more votes with a Gaelic question on the ballot paper? It is far better to lose standing up for what you believe in that tiptoeing around the ignoramus prejudices of the Lowland Scot.

      2. Graeme Purves says:

        No. I get that point entirely. The removal of people was pursued with particular brutality in the Highlands because there was a strong ethnic and cultural dimension to the “improvement” agenda. I don’t dispute that for a moment. But the concentration of land ownership and the power relationships associated with it resulted in a haemorrhage of population across rural Scotland, with adverse social, economic and cultural consequences everywhere. Land reform is a big issue for all of us. You only need to look at the the current pattern of ownership in the Borders.

  2. Broadbield says:

    Clarification: The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution 1760-1830 by Peter Aitchison, Andrew Cassell

    1. MBC says:

      And beyond 1830. In 1830 industrialisation and urbanisation had barely begun. In 1830 around 70% of the Scottish population lived in the countryside or in small rural towns and hamlets of less than 2000 people.

      By 1860 those ratios were reversed. Those three decades of the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, not only saw mass migration out of Scotland, but within Scotland, relocation of a mainly rural or semi-rural population to large urban centres with resultant overcrowding and lack of housing which has continued to this day.

  3. Justin Kenrick says:

    “It’s over now. Leave it, move on. There’s nothing left for you there”

    said the uniformed man, forcing them onwards from their lands to become impoverished factory labour or the colonisers of others land.

    “It’s not over. See it, be here. There’s everything for us here if we dare”

    says a community land movement that:

    – recognises that alienation smashed across continents from each tiny atom splitting clearance here;

    – that recognises that such land reform is needed in cities too (in a way that means the cities don’t take the story from where land reform is needed most, but know that to make it effective in the cities it must have first succeeded where the clearances scoured the land); and that

    – recognises the way the most marginal First Nations/ indigenous/ Aboriginal peoples and communities in the lands the atom splitting colonised, are insisting:

    “We are here on our lands. We are sovereign in a way far deeper than nation states based on borders between powers. Our sovereignty is based on our care for our lands and each other, and our welcoming of those who come who want to share in that care. Yes we are often divided against each other by the powers that would exploit such divisions, but No, we recover ourselves when we see our true wealth lies in our land and people, and good relations between them and also with stranger-guests who are welcome to make this home if they treat it as such, and not as a place to be wrecked for their profits or reshaped into their image”.

    And then people say “ah that is a romantic delusion”. Saying this is their way of avoiding seeing the savagery that is happening, their way of avoiding feeling the audacity of hope rising in them, their way of avoiding the hard work and deep rewards that follow from entering this hope, this struggle, this recognition that the future of those on the ‘margins’ shapes the future of us all.

    Get this right and the rest falls into place like dominoes.

    Get this wrong, and injustice continues.

    Continues until enough folk say:

    “This isn’t any more of a romantic illusion than the incredibly hard and richly rewarding work of love.

    “There is no delusion in these histories, in these struggles for land and life that are being waged across the planet right now. It is make or break: will we help heal the place where we are, supporting and supported by all those others in their particular places seeking to do the same?”

  4. bringiton says:

    The problem with Scotland has been the culture of Dependency and land ownership is at the heart of that issue.
    It has been in the interests of the wealthy elite to foster dependency and as we have seen during the referendum were prepared to spend large sums of money ensuring we don’t depart from that model.
    One of the reasons that Labour are being eradicated in Scotland is because they were seen to be supporting the elite in denying ordinary Scots basic rights.
    It is going to be a long haul to drag feudal Scotland into the 21st century but at least it looks like we are now on the way.

    1. Euan McAndrew says:

      Preventing people from realising their potential has been a long standing strategy deployed by ruling and land owning classes. When the labour movement began, improving the people’s lot via education was critical to labour’s leadership, labour has now firmly strayed from these priorities and philosophy.

      Outcome is a dependency culture, lack of confidence and people knowing their supposed place. In other words the status quo facilitated by a mailable population.

      Enter SNP, they had the temerity to boost people’s confidence and ensure access to education. Those with vast sums of money or land are worried that some of their wealth will be used to pay for this confidence raising experiment and that educated people will then demand more. A double edged sword that could see the rich loose the lot.

      Some of the large highland estates have potential to house and provide a living for thousands of people, but that is denied as it impinges on a dozen or so peoples summer retreat, with a few exceptions, i.e. a few exceptional far sighted land owners. Grouse moors and other treeless landscapes are not natural, they are man made and sustained for pleasure of the rich.

      Similarly, landscapes like some of our most deprived housing schemes are not natural, they are man made by tories and maintained by labour. labours biggest grievance against the SNP appears to be that the SNP has created progressive movements for change in the schemes, leaving labour out in the cold.

      Does for instance Dugdale, Rennie or Davidson believe Scotland is subsidised or is this an opinion that has to be supported for continuance of union at all costs. A debating point where you have been given the false premis to defend.

      Of the three mentioned, I warrant only Davidson has the capacity to read widely, digest and come to a conclusion. The other two are place people of the worst kind, one comes across as the class informer the other as someone who acts upon second hand information eves dropped at the water dispenser.

      To date I can’t think of a community buyout that has not succeeded, new people with new ideas, skills and enthusiasm have populated these glens and islands, long may this trend continue. Many of the best and brightest, coming from out with Scotland

      Ongoing work on community land ownership should not be conducted in isolation and it has urban parallels. Let’s hope that the work started in the poorest of our communities by the SNP to raise living standards through enhanced confidence and education continues. A life blighted by consequences of labour mistakes and tory austerity, be it rural or urban, is a life blighted.

      What’s the alternative, Scotland goes back to labour – what a nightmare that would be!

  5. George Gunn says:

    Good article. I would, however, ask you to consider that Donald Bannerman would have been local. Bannerman is a common enough name in Caithness and Sutherland and they are associated with the Clan Gunn and in 1821 the mentioned Donald Bannerman, if local, would have been a Gaelic speaker. This highlights the greater problem as indicated in the piece: what we do to ourselves, how we internalise our oppression and normalise it. One of the deep psychological scars the Clearances left on both the evicted and the residual population was a profound sense of cultural shame. it goes beyond words.

  6. Iain MacKinnon says:

    I take your point George. Bannerman’s first name is also suggestive that he might have been local. I did hedge it with “probably” but that hedge should probably have been stronger. The wider point remains, as you say, and I feel this consists both of the internalisation and normalisation of oppression and the highly structured cultural inequality which helped foster these processes. I hope that Sheila Kidd will publish her excellent presentation which I mentioned in the article. It focused on the role of interpretation in law courts but also touched on the fact that the Napier Report consists substantially of translations of interrogation between English speaking commissioners (although admittedly some were Gaelic speakers) and Gaelic speaking witnesses. It brought home to me the pervasive everyday nature by which the colonisation of minds was being achieved.

    1. Malcolm Bangor-Jones says:

      There were one or two sheriff officers in Sutherland who only had English but most were local Gaelic speakers. Those with the worst reputation, such as Bannerman and Philip Mackay (also chief constable) were local, and that’s perhaps why they were so hated. A good number of the estate ground officers (the eyes and ears of the estate factors or agents) were also local men. Laying the identity of these men aside, we have really yet to get to grips with landlord/tenant relations: too often they are caricatured. They may well have been a varying mix of deference, gratitude, simmering resentment and protest.

      1. Iain MacKinnon says:

        Hello Malcolm,

        I’ve been in Canada for work and with only occasional e-mail access or I would have replied sooner. Many thanks for this clarification.

        The thoughts in my original article came out in a rush after the Community Land Scotland conference which generally I found very encouraging. After writing the thoughts out I felt edgy about sharing them, but I decided to do (thanks to Mike) and see how they were received.

        One of the reasons I felt edgy is because I don’t know much about Sutherland history, and so I’m grateful to you for confirming that there was at least one non-Gaelic speaking sheriff officer in Sutherland in the 19th century. I’m also feeling edgy because I am aware that I am recontextualising what has previously been framed as mainly a class or development determined process as one in which imperialism is also massively implicated.

        I agree with you that more work needs to be carried out on social relations in the Highlands and Islands in the 18th and 19th century. Your work has already made important inroads in this direction and I look forward to you publishing further in this area.

  7. Hamish Kirk says:

    The struggle continues. Land, Peace, Bread and Work !

  8. Redgauntlet says:

    As for that greetin, girnin cry baby, William Astor and his trout fishing reminisces (William “me, me, me” Astor he should be called), somebody should remind him that being in possession of stolen goods, whether intentionally or not, can constitute a crime….the land which clan Campbell “owned” was not their land to sell, almost certainly not….the Campbells who were aye on the side of the British State…

  9. ben madigan says:

    destruction of gaelic culture happened in scotland and ireland – for the same reason.

    all i can suggest as a guiding principle in Scottish land reform (however it comes about) is an updated version of the irish land league slogan from the 1880s – the land of scotland for the people of scotland

  10. highlandgirl says:

    Very good article Iain. Land and the people cannot be seperated. We are of the land !

  11. Steven says:

    Anyone who would like to read about the Clearances as they happened in various parts of the Gàidhealtachd could always purchase the bilingual Gaelic-English book: Fògradh, Fàisneachd, Filidheachd : Parting, Prophecy, Poetry. Available on Amazon and from other booksellers such as The Gaelic Books Council in Glasgow.

  12. Saltiregrace says:

    One of the worst aspects of the Highland Clearances were that we done it to ourselves. Scottish clan Chiefs sold their people into slavery, landowners cast their tenants out like garbage. the Scottish ruling class prostituted themselves in the alter of British Imperialism. it is all to easy to blame the English but countless Scots profited on the backs of African slaves and participated in brutal massacres. In 1707 the Scottish ruling class sold our nation to the only bidder, in the name of greed. Gaelic culture was actively suppressed, the scots language as downgraded, deemed not good enough to be written down. Even today most of us would find it difficult to read a book written in the words we speak. We have degraded our culture, language, our nation as some how inferior. Perhaps this is the cause of the so called Scottish effect. We have been the oppressed and the oppressors in our own land. We must reclaim this truth and tell this story in our own words only then will be able to reclaim our power and learn agin tae believe in oursells, each ither n the nation we cin mak. Saor Alba

  13. Patrick Hogg, Biographer of Robert Burns says:

    One of the finest pieces of writing I have read for years. This subject is the lynch-pin for change and progress in Scotland. Let us end the Feudal Order. It is poison, it has eroded our cultural existence for centuries and engenders gross inequality. For God’s sake clear this sickening embodiment of inequality from our beautiful land or just clap us back in bloody chains enslaved where so many people are in their mind……….Freedom is a foreign entity when the Kailyard still rules in many a Tory heid!

  14. Saltiregrace says:

    The story of our people is the story of our land that is why ,and reform is so important. Our relationship with our land defines so much of our lives and our society. What is barren shall be fruitful
    again. What is desolate shall again prosper.

  15. Helena says:

    Indeed, as is the case now, it’s often the insiders who are complicit in damning their own kin, their own land and culture. However, they are aided, and abetted by the ring masters in london, otherwise they could not get away with it. The mindset of some, who continue in the demeaning of their own culture, people and heritage, will take a bit of shifting, but it’s happening, and our young are savvy, we must keep them engaged and make sure that the old establishment rules over mindset, gets the boot, once and for all.

  16. Darby O'Gill says:

    Do you think there is a link between the insurrection of 1745 and the later Highland Clearances? By supporting a useless Catholic despot, whose only interest was regaining his family’s title to all of the UK, against a reigning Protestant monarch, did the people of the Highlands not in some way contribute to their own fate?

  17. Saltiregrace says:

    Yes we need to do everything we can to challenge the establishment knows best mindset and replace it with the idea that those living everyday lives not the ground are best placed to know what Thor communities need. We need to move from a model of profit for the few at any cost to the many to one promoting social justice equality and better quality of life for all.

    In terms of the relationship between the rebellion of 1745 and the highland clearances I think the rebellion gave the ruling class the excuse they needed to try and annihilate Gaelic culture. After Culloden the British army containing many scots marched through the highlands killing and raping whoever they found even those in areas that had come out in support of the British crown. In the years between Culloden and the clearances many Highlanders became part of the British army fighting for it in for example the seven years war. Both Catholic and Protestant communties were destroyed by the clearances. Many of the landowners seemed to adopt a colonial type mindset that they were the progressives and the people were lazy savages. Either way the land should belong to those who live and breath and love and die upon it.

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