2007 - 2020

Back to the Land

Huts: A Place Beyond – How to end our exile from nature by Lesley Riddoch, Luath
Buy here.
Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being, Alastair McIntosh, Birlinn
Buy it here.

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.

 

 

Comments (22)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Now you’ve asked the question my bugout bag would be my gardening tools and box of seeds.

  2. Dougie Harrison says:

    It is true that, with wee exceptions like Carbeth and a few scattered smaller collections of rural escapes, Scotland’s working class has not enjoyed the rural escape-valve which has been such a feature of the lives of our Scandinavian cousins. I haven’t yet read Riddoch’s book, though I will now; her perspectives on the human possibilities offered by independence are always positive.

    But it is simply not true to imply that the working class in Scotland has remained obdurately, urbanly, unhealthy. Scotland did not just give the world the game of golf, an inherently participatory rather than spectator sport; it also gave the world municipal golf courses, where for a few bob a significant proportion of working folk could participate in something which is the preserve of only the rich in much of rest of the world. They still exist, though government-imposed cuts in public expenditure have reduced their number.

    Youth hostels are not uniquely Scots, but they flourished for decades, still do in rather different ways as they struggle to adapt to a different world, and their use was dominated from my experience of using them, by working folk. And when I part-owned an ancient leaky caravan in mid-Argyll, which cost me an affordable few quid a year in self-maintenance and rent to the croft on which it sat, there were thousands of others like it scattered across our country.

    From at least the depression of the 1920s and 1930s, mountaineering has been a mass Scots working class movement, as it was also in the English cities closest to high wild places, Manchester and Sheffield. Another participatory sport most see as being largely the preserve of the well-off, as it may be elsewhere. In the 1980s my Glasgow mountaineering club had been founded by, and remained dominated by, bus workers. At one point in the late1980s, tackling an obscure Munro which few could have found prior to the SMC 1985 publication of the Munros guide, I noted fifty people on it on a dreich February Sunday. Tens of thousands of Scots must have been on the hill that day, and they weren’t all aristocrats. Mountaineering must be one of Scotland’s biggest participatory sports, along with fishing and keeping and racing doos which, whatever one thinks about their animal morality today, have always involved a large proportion of working class folk. The black corrugated iron doocot is a now vanishing monument to Scots working class culture. And many who read this will be too young to have marvelled at the riots of flowers which characterised the wee gardens of miners’ rows for over a century.

    So, Edwin Muir may have been right in ways he wasn’t fully aware of. The Scots working class may not all enjoy rural huts. But there are other ways to inexpensively get air in your lungs, and freedom in your spirit. And Scots workers have aye found them, and made them their own.

    1. Good points Dougie – the picture is much more complex than just hutting.

      However to your point “it is simply not true to imply that the working class in Scotland has remained obdurately, urbanly, unhealthy” – the figures are quite grim around us leading the way in childhood obesity, diabetes and other health-related and diet-related disease and this is distinctly class related.

      1. Alistair Taylor says:

        It surely behoves adults (of all sorts) to get kids out and about.
        There was scarcely a fat kid to be seen 40 or 50 years ago.
        You don’t need a lot of money to get to the hills in Scotland. Just a wee bit of willpower.

          1. Alistair Taylor says:

            And yet, it would really help with obesity and mental health issues.
            Sometimes the simple solutions are the best, are they not?

            I’m not denying it’s a multi-layered, multi-dimensional issue, but taking a few simple steps is the start.
            How did Dougal Haston, a working class lad from Currie, do it?

      2. Dougie Harrison says:

        Mike, of course I know that working-class folk, in Scotland and most other nations, often live in less healthy and pleasant conditions than their rulers. And are prime targets for the unhealthy habits which make profits for some of those rulers. So working class folk almost everywhere suffer the consequences, and their health statistics show this. That’s just one aspect of how capitalism works.

        But working folk have a disturbingly human tendency to try and live better, more wholesome lives than their ‘betters’ try and force upon them. I was simply pointing out a few ways Scots working folk have been able to fight back by seeking physical exercise, despite the lack of the ‘hutting’ tradition of our Scandinavian cousins.

        1. Yeah I get it – there’s a danger of victimhood – and its much more complex, good point.

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      And don’t forget the bothies, Mr Harrison, nor camping (not in the Susan Sontag sense)

      1. Dougie Harrison says:

        I wouldnie dream of forgetting bothies Alasdair. I used them for decades before their locations, always kept quiet by the Mountain Bothies Association which maintained many, were publicised by the advent of the ‘Bible’ a few years ago. I seldom met anyone with whom as an old socialist I coundnie relate, either on the hill or in the bothy afterwards.

  3. Graeme McCormick says:

    I’ve come across many folk from ordinary backgrounds who had small flats in Rothesay, etc. Some were shared among the families.

    I suspect that there are many families whose parents had council houses in rural Scotland who either bought them under Right to Buy or were bequeathed them.

    Some councils actually inserted a title burden ( condition) that these house couldn’t be used as holiday homes or lets, but to my knowledge no council enforced the condition.

  4. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Thank you so much, Bella and Christopher Silver, for this wonderful review of Riders on the Storm. At a time when book events are diminished this kind of help’s a huge help.

    About Lesley’s work on land reform, I believe that without her help with the Eigg Trust in the 1990s, we would probably not have succeeded. She became an elected trustee when the resident community took full control of the original trust in 1994. She helped put turbo boosters on it, helping to strengthen local capacity so that the vision was consolidated and the money raised, with transfer to the current Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust at the buyout in 1997. Her work on Hutting continues in that tradition.

    The Carbeth Hutters recently asked me to make a short video reminiscence of their struggle against eviction, and the importance of easy access to nature for urban folks on low incomes. That piece has been added to a wonderful video archive they’ve created. Mine is currently the 2nd down at http://carbethhutters.co.uk/code/film2.html

    Can I add one last point. While there’s always carping and backbiting, Scotland has a culture of upholding its visionary thinkers and doers. Folks from elsewhere sometimes presume that I must struggle on a lonely path with my own work, especially as I incorporate spirituality. I tell them, quite the contrary. Down the years I’ve felt incredibly well supported from within Scotland in all my work. I don’t think I know Christopher Silver, but his review here is yet another example of that. I think that’s worth noting by way of sustaining Scottish culture as a whole. It is crucial that we must be “critical friends” – not sycophants, learning from each other, but a strength to recognise and cultivate is holding one another in our diverse areas of work in the basket of the community. That’s what I see the “democratic intellect” tradition as being about: grounding in community.

    1. Susan Smith says:

      The Carbeth community seems to have changed for the worst. Huts for sale at offers over £52,950 https://www.s1homes.com/Houses-for-sale/2019040403431191.shtml

      How many people of “modest income” can afford that?

      1. Wul says:

        Susan, I don’t think that “holiday hut” you linked to is part of the Carbeth community.

        There is a landlord owned site of traditional style holiday chalets on the opposite of the Drymen Road. I think this is one of those.

        The Carbeth Community tries to discourage selling of huts at full market rates, but is ultimately limited in how much control it has over this. If more people had land and huts, the values would fall. We all pay the price of an overheated property speculation economy in the UK.

  5. Justin Kenrick says:

    “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.”

    Great.

    And, Yes, and that means starting from the vision/ the positive, and then being willing to actively resist the closing down of such spaces

    Transition meets Extinction Rebellion
    Fourishing meets Survival

  6. Wul says:

    Took my son for a wee spot of canoe paddling this morning. A much needed escape for the two of us after months of incarceration at home.

    Passing through a small Trossachs village en-route to the loch, canoe on the roof rack, we received a long, hard stare, withering grimace and head shaking from one local worthy (he, resplendent in green wellies, Tattersall shirt, wax cotton bunnet and black Labrador at heel). The message was clear; you are not welcome, you don’t belong here, you are a disgrace.

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Aye, keep on paddling, Wul!

  7. Mike Fergus says:

    As a Scot who has lived in Norway for over 40 years I found Christopher Silver´s review of “Huts a place beyond” very perceptive. As he rightly points out Scots
    have always had plenty to do at the weekends already. Here in Norway decades ago “huts” were wee bothies with neither electricity nor running water. Now new built “huts” are not “huts” at all but second homes equipped with high-speed internet for working at home. Three or four bedrooms, central heating, double or triple glazing and custom built designer kitchens are often standard. The average sales price for “huts” (old and new) in Norway in 2018 was 200,000 quid, but for a new one these days you would be hard pushed to find one under 350,000 pounds. Many “hut” owners need 4×4 vehicles as the last kilometre or so to the “hut” may not be asphalted. There are over 400,000 “huts” in Norway and building them has become big business as local authorities compete to attract “huts” for the tax and retail revenues they bring in. But this, of course, has also brought all sorts of environmental problems. A Norwegian style “hut” culture might get the Scots out of the pubs and the bookies, but it also has its downsides.

  8. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    Two wee points.

    ‘Working class’ isn’t a peculiarly urban phenomenon. We have our Lumpenproletariat here in the countryside too, and having an ‘immersive and intimate relationship with landscape and ecology’ is hardly the rural idyll that bourgeois ‘strength through joy’ idealists of the 1920s and ‘30s imagined it would be for the Volk. Poverty in bucolic surroundings is still poverty.

    Secondly, the main obstacle that the urban Lumpenproletariat has in accessing the countryside is affordable transport. This is the obverse side of the same coin that the rural Lumpenprolertariat has in accessing urban amenities; if you don’t have a car, you’re largely buggered when it comes to commuting to and from the countryside.

  9. Wul says:

    I have bought Lesley Riddoch’s Huts book and shall purchase Alastair MacIntosh’s book on pay day.

    I for one am extremely grateful that writers and thinkers like McIntosh and Riddoch exist in Scotland. They exemplify that which is best in our culture; educated, learned and wise but still strongly connected by the heart to the people around them and willing to take action for their benefit.

    Lesley Riddoch has sacrificed what I am sure would have been a very lucrative, lifelong career in British Broadcasting had she been a lesser woman. Alastair McIntosh chose to live and raise a family amongst the people he cares about. Respect.

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        Just seen this, that’s kind of you, Wul. The richness of that choice is that I feel so well supported in my communit(ies). And what you say about Lesley is so very true. She is an anchor to the soul of Scotland.

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