2007 - 2022

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Peacock

I know that with our frazzled attention span reduced to a few moments we are already whizzing on to the next spectacle-meme and Larysa Switlyk (‘Unleashed’) is already a fleeting memory.

But the reactions are worth noticing, even our finest writers are confused. Alex Massie, reverts to his go-to line of patter that “there is no need for anything to be done at all” in a column in The Times.

There’s more than a whiff of tweed about his recounting of his own first shoot – where we’re told that he “killed the beast with a single shot” before explaining  inexplicably that – “The future lies in meat grown in laboratories.”

This trope that if you haven’t actually shot skinned and canned the content of your Fray Bentos, you’re a raving hypocrite is rife. But there’s more going on to this defensive twitch that the “Huntress” has revealed.

One of the best things to come out of 2014 was Andrew Tickell – aka the Peat Worrier – a sort of hirsute Alban Gore Vidal. But on the issue of hunting where he complaints of “yet another wave of incurious metropolitan commentary, dripping with dumb incomprehension and stereotyping” – it becomes problematic. Tickell’s commentary is always eloquent and his rapier wit is legendary. But there’s a danger of lapsing in to a prolix conservatism. In a rather beautiful piece Tickell recounts seeing ‘a pod of dolphins’, the ‘magnitude of a golden eagle, unfurled wing’ and ‘deadly toadstools’.

He goes on to explain: “all this life was double-threaded with death. And I’m not sure most urban weans in Scotland know anything similar.”

‘Urban’ is a code-word and you’d have to question whether the urban weans are really as cosseted and protected from death as the writer suggests.

The Cousinhood

This really isn’t about dumb incomprehension, it’s a moment where we have the potential for people to wake up and join the dots between land management, land ownership, environment and economy.

Way back in 2010 Jason Cowley at the New Statesman chartered the decline in interest in land ownership as a political issue that had after all dominated since the 18th Century. He argued that: “The explicit connection between land ownership and political power was not severed finally until 1999, when most of the hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords by New Labour.”

But such connections aren’t quite so easy to sever.

Describing the Duke of Bedford, (owner of Woburn Abbey, a 13,000-acre estate in Buckinghamshire, Woburn Golf Club and Woburn Safari Park, estimated to be worth £489m) he lays out how he is part of a nexus of landed power:

“He and his extended family are part of the “cousinhood”, the secretive network of 6,000 aristocratic families and their relatives who, through intermarriage, continue to own much of the land of the British Isles, and whose influence and control were historically exerted through the Conservative and Whig parties, the House of Lords, Oxford and Cambridge, the Crown and the armed forces.

The cousinhood, as well as the institutional landowners, continue to profit – often through uncovenanted benefits, such as when previously worthless land becomes fortuitously valuable – from the great land-grabs of British history: the Norman Conquest; the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, which freed up a quarter of the land of England and Wales for redistribution to allies including some Oxbridge colleges, and among families of influence that were prepared to embrace the new religion; Oliver Cromwell’s capture of Church and Crown land (much of the Crown’s lands were not returned after the restoration in 1660); the Highland clearances and the enclosures of common land into private estates from the end of the 17th century up to the mid-19th century. Even today, much of the land owned by the cousinhood is not registered; Her Majesty’s Land Registry has not carried out a cadastral survey of Britain, and it was confirmed to me that as much as 30 per cent of the land in England and Wales remains unregistered.

In 2007, the Land Registry expressed the ambition to embark on a nationwide survey of land ownership – nothing less than the compilation of a contemporary Domesday Book. Little progress was made. Like so many public bodies, the Land Registry is now being reduced and weakened by public spending cuts.”

This cousinhood – and its murky unregistered extent – is even worse in Scotland, where it distorts our landscape, contaminates our culture and our own sense of ourselves. If we are divorced from nature, as we surely are, it is largely because we don’t have access to it, don’t have ‘ownership’ of it and not because of our dumb incomprehension.


To get a sense of perspective about the level of this estrangement it’s worth noting that a fifth (a fifth!) of Scotland is managed for grouse shooting.

Amongst the giddy celebration of the rural let us realise the connections between this extreme form of inequality and its impact on land, ecology and carnage.

Ruth Tingay writes:

“Driven” grouse shooting – where “beaters” flush (drive) the terrified grouse towards a static line of armed hunters dressed head-to-toe in tweed and hiding inside grouse butts – is no less obscene as Ms Switlyk’s activities. The “glory” is defined by the number of red grouse shot (the more the better) and the “guns” often pose with the corpses at the end of the day, congratulating themselves on their potency.

Driven grouse shooting relies on the availability of high numbers of grouse to shoot. To achieve this surplus grouse moor managers incorporate three core elements of management.

The first is habitat manipulation (rotational burning of heather) to produce a mosaic of nutritious young heather for grouse to eat and older heather to provide nesting cover and protection from predators. The second is parasite control, which includes medicating the grouse with a veterinary drug dispensed via medicated grit and direct dosing, and also the mass culling of mountain hares that host some parasites. The third is lethal predator control – typically of foxes, weasels, stoats, crows, but some grouse moor managers are also involved with the illegal persecution of birds of prey.”

Far from any of this being ‘natural’ – the wilderness designation of large parts of Scotland is a myth. This is a designed landscape, and when you celebrate its wilderness status you are celebrating the political historical process that rendered it that way.

The idea of the urban-rural divide is also a myth that ignores the extent to which the urban has been ‘wilded’ and the rural industrialised.

Tingay continues:

“Red grouse are now maintained at such artificially high densities that they are badly affected by a disease (Cryptosporidiosis) usually associated with high density flocks of captive poultry. This disease, which spreads via the communal use of medicated grit trays, threatens not only the red grouse but also species of high conservation concern that inhabit grouse moors, e.g. black grouse.

The killing of predators on driven grouse moors is a relentless, year-round slaughter. The number of animals killed is unknown, as there is no statutory requirement for reporting, but the annual toll on predators must number in the hundreds of thousands, at least. Mountain hares are killed to such an extent (almost 38,000 reported in 2017 alone) that this protected species has suffered a catastrophic decline on grouse moors in the Eastern Highlands, including inside the Cairngorms National Park.

In addition to legal predator control, birds of prey continue to be illegally persecuted on some driven grouse moors, to such an extent it is causing population-level effects on iconic species such as golden eagles, hen harriers, red kites and peregrines.”

This model – where managed grouse contaminate wild birds can be seen across Scotland in other areas – the same is true where farmed salmon contaminate and undermine their wild cousins. But this is also the motif being held up to sell Scotland globally – salmon, grouse, deer are the icons of Scotland around the world – but they represent a a bland simulacrum of what a ‘nature’ Scotland might actually look like. The icons we revere are the very things which are contaminating our land. Funny that.

Whether its sheep, deer or grouse the culture and economy of hunting points to a Scotland in which we are strangers in our own country, alienated and disconnected from land itself.

But there is nothing ‘natural about any of this. As John McGrath wrote in the 1973 Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil:  “The Island of Rhum was cleared of its inhabitants, some 400 souls, to make way for one sheep farmer and 8000 sheep.”

What we need to ‘unleash’ is not another round of carnage but a new Scotland that rejects these models and structures of inequality and is for life and for democracy.





Comments (15)

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  1. Jamsie says:

    All for life and democracy Mr Ed.
    When do we start?

    1. Some of already have #keepup

  2. Mathew says:

    What happens on the Grouse moors of Scotland is small picture stuff. Today in the Guardian there’s an article on a WWF report that says there has been a 60% fall in numbers of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970.
    ‘It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global poulation is destroying the web of life’
    Globally human population is increasing at a rate of 1,000,000 EVERY 4 – 5 DAYS

  3. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Thinking further about Larysa Switlyk, my view is that the culling of animals like wild deer and feral goats is a necessity and that stalking is a humane and food-productive method. I have worked with stalkers as a pony boy and ghillie and have huge respect for most of them.

    However, a seemingly recently-shorn (and if so, not feral) blackface ram and the peacock shots are quite a different matter. To me, their obscenity is that they go beyond the necessary. They go beyond even straightforward hunting photographs that are about engagement with a way of life in ecological balance. By splaying out the animal’s dying beauty, they enter the realm of snuff movie pornography. It becomes a theft of the animals final dignity, even, an attempted theft of soul. The sexualised undertone of Switlyk’s style is evident not only from her jewelllery and fashion lines, but from her Twitter feed’s poses.

    Such an abject deficit of decorum is what Erich Fromm saw as necrophilia. He defined it as “the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction…. It is the passion to tear apart living structures.”

    Fromm saw within this human tendency (which includes reducing life to mechanical structures, the seeds of planetary destruction. It is the) core mechanism of the domination system.

    I consider that fox hunting ritual, for example, is not about fox control but about asserting a social class system over the countryside and reinforcing its networks. Even its language – the “whippers in” who control the dogs – penetrates our political language as “the whips”.

    It is important that the power totemism and fetishes of game hunting culture are disaggregated from the human role in ecological balance as a top level predator. There is inevitable overlap, especially as most culling is not state-funded but relies on paying guests. But in the past, this was usually held within a framework of respect, relationship and decorum. A good stalker teaches ecology to those who would otherwise live in ignorance of it and will frequently take distance from over-commercialised or American style “hunting” culture.

    Examples? The stalking chapter in Iain Thomson’s “Isolation Shepherd” where stalking “is not just a fetish.” Or the tweets of @WayfaringHind, a contemporary woman stalker in the Highlands. And from our Gaelic nature poets, Duncan Ban MacIntyre or Sorley Maclean – the latter with his stalking imagery of the bullet from the gun of love in “Hallaig”. Then there’s the very old quasi shamanic references in song to the deer, and though he is not a stalker, the way that feeds through into contemporary shamanic art in work such as that of Dougie Strang. Sorley again: “Time, the deer….”

    That’s the problem with hunt pornography. It violates the true love running in the carrying stream of our culture.

    1. Mathew says:

      ‘disaggregated from the human role in ecological balance as a top level predator’
      Where are you seeing or experiencing this ecological balance? Would love to know ‘cos I can’t find it anywhere.

  4. Dougie Blackwood says:

    The land argument is largely led by Andy Wightman and he goes through the land grab process in his book ” The poor had no lawyers”. I understand that there are snail’s pace actions to deal with land ownership in Scotland but this is something that should be driven by our Scottish government. Graeme McCormick is presently doing the rounds with a proposal for a land tax; unfortunately the government is not listening.

    I vote SNP but am disappointed in their timidity in confronting issues like this. I want an independent Scotland, not to supplant Westminster with another smaller establishment with the same aims and practices but to make a real difference to the way things are done. I understand that the SNP have set their face against any radical changes to land ownership or the management of ownership through taxation. This is something we could push forward now; we have the power to implement it.

    Insist that landowners register their claim on any land they own or think they own and any unclaimed should become the property of the Scottish government. Tax every square yard, dependent on usage or use, to pay for the services we need here in Scotland and get rid of the book of loopholes that is our present tax rules. Get away from the pocket money economy as directed by Westminster. If this was done the amount of land available would increase exponentially as owners that sit on large tracts and pay nothing in taxation on it do the sums and sell unproductive bits off. We do not have enough houses as we cannot afford the land to build them on; problem solved.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      The Scottish Land Commission was established by the Scottish Government. It is currently looking at the role land value capture might play in delivering more houses.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Consider the lineage of birds, I wonder if Scotland was the inspiration for Jurassic Park? Or considering the pattern of scorched earth and wealth distribution, maybe the Desolation of Smaug. Either way, perhaps all these heraldic beasts are trying to tell us something.

  6. Jack collatin says:

    well said, Mike.
    These Lairds behave as though they make the laws in their own little Territories.
    We pile people 13 storeys high on top of each other, yet a fifth of our land is given over to land for rich psychopaths to slaughter animals for fun.
    Come the day, we bring all of Scotland into our Government and the people.

  7. B says:

    Do you have a source for that “fifth of Scotland” figure?

    An incredible statistic that i’d like to reference.

    1. Hi B – I’ll get that to you

      1. Robin D says:

        Hi – I’m interested in the source of that statement as well. Please could you let me know that, or, better, give it here. Thanks

  8. Ian Reynolds says:

    Well done. Great piece. Perhaps a small typo as I had to look up dictionary for “atet” – “aren’t” ?

  9. Glen Garry says:

    Having walked through many of Scotland’s estates (not always welcomed) and over many of her hills I am invariably left with a sense of ‘what a waste’ of potential. Where once there might have been a natural wilderness, rich in resource, there remains a shooting range withinan industrial watse ground. What visit Scotland now sell the tourist is a featureless and lifeless desert; treeless, shrubless and starved of fauna and flora – mismanagement on an epic scale; and continuing to do so. I cannot help but think of the potential income and wealth that could be created by harnessing natures assets for the many not the few. Scotland’s wilderness, the Highland and islands is a global brand known for its beauty; what isnt being dessimated is being packaged for the privelage of the few; not the many (urban weans). An independent Scotland should in my view reclaim Scotland’s land in its entirety. Rather than being owned, estated could then be leased and managed by the goverment ensuring viable and sustainable economies and communities investing in developing and enhancing the gift we have. NB: I live in Inverness where in spring hill walkers on Craig Dunain and other surrounding estates might come across breeding/feeding encampments of hundreds, if not thousands of industrially reared young pheasants awaiting their fate in August; and they call it sport.

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