Back to the Land
In 1935 Edwin Muir warned that the collapse of the labour movement in Scotland would represent an all-out catastrophe: ‘If capitalism manages finally to smash these unions it will be a loss to civilisation greater than the loss that would be brought about by another world war,’ he noted.
But as both these spritely texts from two veteran campaigners remind us, the drama of collapse is often experienced as a long-drawn out process of alienation and systemic failure, rather than sudden absence.
Muir’s remark – premised as it was on the immense role that the labour movement played in the social and cultural life of interwar Scotland – is relevant to Lesley Riddoch’s Huts: A Place Beyond, a tribute to hutting culture in Norway, and something of an extended lamentation of its failure to take root in our own soil.
The presence of ‘wee wooden huts,’ the author tells us, are like ‘canaries down a coalmine’ that chirp away in the clean air of an egalitarian society, by telling us ‘if ordinary folk can get hold of land.’ A compelling historic account argues that hutting culture is also rooted in the century-old success of Norway’s labour movement to win unparalleled legislation on workers’ rights to leisure time.
In Scotland, the unions were once the wellspring of a rich and diverse ecology of Socialist Sunday Schools and cultural and leisure clubs: many of which aimed to take working people out of the cities and back to the land. However, Huts tells us that we have lost out drastically when compared with the ease of access that Norway’s peculiar social settlement, and democratically distributed land ownership, provides to so many of its citizens: in bucolic, scattered, humble, wooden form.
While the labour movement in Scotland would produce ‘rough diamonds’ such as William Ferris, with his dogged campaign to establish huts for Glaswegians at Carbeth – our regressive patterns of land ownership, and a fair bit of aesthetic and moral distaste from the nation’s unco guid – stymied the chance for autonomous hutting to take root.
Throughout Huts the Nordic neighbour is presented as our mirror image: always ready with a welcome return for another dose of ‘snow, huts and optimism.’ At one point, the author ponders how different things might have been if she had been ‘carried forward by a healthier herd,’ and had ‘never known a deep-fried Mars Bar.’
With such a clear binary underpinning this book, at points the ‘place beyond’ of the title feels less like shorthand for the immersive and intimate relationship with landscape and ecology that so many Scots miss out on, and more like a reference to the author’s own slightly escapist fondness for Norway itself.
The radically different trajectories of the two nations – familiar others across a desolate sea – can only tell us so much. The success of Norway’s labour movement, as in neighbouring Sweden, was the product of a grand class compromise between workers, peasants, and capital. Thus, Scotland’s swollen and divided urban proletariat is an awkward presence in this assessment: an inconvenient obstacle that prevents us emulating the ways of our healthier, and wealthier, eastern cousins. Indeed, at one point Huts references a claim that there is in fact no urban Norwegian culture at all.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to wonder if all those weekends in the mountains cooped up with extended family include a fair slice of obligation and drabness. While the Nordic communitarian consensus makes mass outdoor leisure possible, Huts does not explore the consequences that weekend migrations to the woods might have for our own urban cultures, in all their messy variety. The staples of Scottish leisure: pubs, football grounds, five-a-side pitches, race tracks, bowling clubs, bookies – whatever their flaws, are still an alternative to car-centric suburban mall consumerism – among the greatest threats our societies pose to the climate and ecosystem. Aside from that, the potential for a hutting revival may simply stumble on the unremarkable fact that Scots have plenty to do at the weekend already: too much, perhaps.
On the other hand, as residents of Basildon attest in the documentary New Town Utopia: mass working class leisure, sports, social and cultural outlets once brought the green spaces of post-war planning alive. It was only after such programmes were slashed from the 1980s onwards that the new towns became associated with bleak alienation and diseases of overdevelopment such as obesity. In many communities – problems around health, mobility and leisure stem not so much from being insufficiently Norwegian – as from being too working class: ending up in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Still, the promotion of hutting culture across several human and accessible narratives speaks to a Scottish readership still carrying alienation and displacement from the land as an intergenerational trauma. Indeed, the simple prospect of widely accessible, cheap and tenured country bolt holes, assembled with individualistic flair, offers an appealing alternative to our current commercial tourist monocultures: not least the campervanners currently discharging excrement and emissions all the way along the North Coast 500 and out to the Isles. But as with so many other areas of reform, Scotland sits so firmly within the anglosphere mindset, that even the arrival of humble huts in our forests and glens would be branded a revolution. If it was precisely the spectre of revolution that solidified the Norwegian egalitarian consensus there is little evidence to suggest that capital in Scotland is in any mood to make popular concessions on this front.
Would that things had moved on from when the Scots proletariat first organised with the aim of roaming free. Huts celebrates the remarkably broad franchise of Norway’s 19th century ‘peasant parliament’. In contrast, Scotland is currently ruled by a parliament of landlords: a body that, shamefully bearing out Muir’s pessimism, contains more people living off unearned income than trade unionists. Riddoch’s tireless work over decades has pushed against this consensus in often fruitful and tangible ways. But where once socialists of William Ferris’s generation railed against the rentier class – landlordism has become embedded in the Scottish psyche: breathlessly extoled, incentivised, and considered a mark of success and moral rectitude.
Far from desiring a wee wooden hut to reconnect with the grandchildren, much of Middle Scotland prefers to sink their wealth into a buy-to-let or an AirBnb – how else can you maintain their trust fund and cover all those fortnights in Thailand (where, of course, Nordic hard currency is also freely spent)? In contrast, for the working class Scot today – struggling with spiralling rents, the constant possibility of eviction if the landlord wishes to sell, and a council tax untethered to their means – a half decent tent for the weekend will probably suffice.
But, as the socialist pioneers of the last century argued, these calculations should not be an either or, there should be bread and roses, homes and huts. The text concludes with the claim that in order to achieve a great shift back to the land, ‘first, we have to want it’ and flags the work of the 1,000 Huts Campaign seeking to blaze a trail. However, there is a more difficult point that doesn’t quite emerge here. Whatever our desires as a people, in order to get back to nature in this way we would first have to untangle leisure and landscape from the domain of finance capital and the deadweight of a property owning democracy. For many, our MSPs included, exploitation all too easily becomes a leisure activity in its own right.
Another stalwart of Scotland’s land reform movement, Alastair McIntosh, offers a view of climate change that is grounded in the soil of his own native parish but roams far beyond it.
Riders on the Storm (yes, as in the Doors song) is bookended by a powerful narrative about a visit by Papuan community leaders to the Isle of Lewis. The intervening pages contain a remarkably accessible precis of the science behind climate change and the pitfalls of denialism and alarmism, followed by an exploration of the ethical and spiritual reckoning these great changes present.
Although this is not referenced directly, McIntosh is picking up a theme identified by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement. Both authors understand that there is a need to go beyond the standard enlightenment moral-political frame to comprehend the scale of the challenge.
In place of casual assumptions about materialism and progress, both call for a kind of renunciatory politics, as practiced by Gandhi, and point to the spiritual as a kind of social technology that can move beyond the now inadequate domains that modern politics and movements tend to be constrained by. This thesis is based on the difficult but unavoidable reality that the key pillars of modernity: the nation state, the market and the public sphere, seem incapable of facilitating coherent responses to global climate chaos.
What is remarkable about Riders on the Storm is its synthesis of personal narrative, theology, and engagement with the peer reviewed scientific publications that seek to underpin how the life support systems on this planet are changing. In this sense, the book’s form enacts its own plea – that the various possibilities, unknowns, and likelihoods that science has presented us with are not enough on their own to send a strong signal out to a disrupted humanity. In the context of a fragmented pubic sphere and an attention economy, the challenge is not so much about the intensity with which information is presented, as the quality of how it might register. While McIntosh grounds his argument in the transcendent possibilities of community, the point is also unavoidably political: do we create a climate of despair, or a climate of human agency?
As a well-versed contributor to the emergent movement, McIntosh astutely questions the kind of revolutionary accelerationism that underpins aspects of Extinction Rebellion’s platform. Barring some sudden and immediate shock to say, global food security, it is unlikely that the social conditions for the kind of toppling of the political system that the group’s manifesto calls for will emerge, at least in the overdeveloped world. In response to the waning attention XR has received since its arrival last year, certain characters associated with group such as Roger Halam and Rupert Read have resorted to a kind of post-situationist alarmism: including calculated equivocation about the holocaust, and telling a group of school kids that they may have no future in which to grow old. Within this book we find a welcome, comradely, analysis of how such tactics are more likely to provoke paralysis through anxiety, than revolutionary fervour through outrage. McIntosh also delves that bit deeper into the kind of nonviolent and non-instrumental methods championed by Gandhi – where the relationship to the law and other systems of oppression is entirely different to that of, say, terrorist insurgencies.
This is a comforting book, and a wise one: all the more welcome for its calm insistence on asserting the validity of such qualities in a world where apocalyptic scenes seem pervasive and ‘tipping points’ are often presented as resting on a hair trigger. Charting a distinctive course around the perils of denialism, complacency and alarmism, between accelerationist revolution and deadly status quo, there is always a return to the human here. This is captured in an anecdote about the author’s in-laws, who narrowly escape a wildfire in France, and whom we find ‘with only minutes to get out,’ wondering ‘what things to take in that one suitcase they were told to pack.’
In confronting such immense changes: its befits us all to think of that one suitcase and ask ‘what values and valuables are worth picking up and taking forward?’ This may be a question that can be posed to individuals, but its implications can also be scaled up to the level of communities and societies. What is worth clinging on to in that panicked moment of dispossession? Whether or not you or I end up as one of the increasing number visited by fire or flood, it’s hard to think of a more fitting starting point for the necessary process of building a sustainable future.
The scaling up remains the most complex challenge here: particularly when it comes to the fragmented communities of urban and suburban Scotland. As Naomi Klein has pointed out: ‘we collectively lack many of the tools that built and sustained the transformative movements of the past. Our public institutions are disintegrating, while the institutions of the traditional left—progressive political parties, strong unions, membership-based community service organizations—are fighting for their lives.’
Muir’s notion of the end of the labour movement as a true cataclysm, as a loss to civilisation, seems ever more prophetic. But perhaps the memory of the Socialist Sunday School and that tradition of autonomous self-organising found some kind of descendent in the rise of mutual aid work that sprung up in the wake of the pandemic.
In closing, Riders on the Storm takes us back to the land in Lewis, using it as a starting point to explore a cycle of human behaviour that has brought us to the brink of capitalist ecocide: Clearance, Collapse, Consumption, followed by the regenerative power of Community. Here the abject tragedy of the Iolaire disaster is drawn on as a metaphor by a Papuan visitor: the community of those who have suffered can be intimate and immediate, but perhaps also global too.
These books, despite their different aims and concerns, represent a continuation of the rich legacy of the land reform movement in Scotland – a legacy achieved in no small part thanks to the relentless efforts of both authors in defiant campaign mode. But there is perhaps a note of caution here: these matters are still too often presented as a primarily rural concern, while operating within a mainstream Scottish political consensus that promotes exploitation over cooperation.
Then again – if we’re going to succeed in the great task of keeping our planet habitable – we will have to get a whole lot better at taking lessons from places we don’t often hear about: from the marginal, from the dispossessed, from the land itself.
Community may be a matter of survival, but it is also about the horizon of what people working together might achieve when they no longer have to fight. Perhaps a truly revolutionary response to our alienation from and destruction of the non-human would be to bring ecotopia to the cities and suburbs: rewilding, rebuilding, planting, rediscovering place for the joy of it, and for survival. Maybe the old royal hunting ground adjacent to our Parliament of Landlords would be a good place to start.