2007 - 2022

In Caithnesia: From the Province of the Cat

The recent 100 mph gales and boiling seas, with days of face slashing sleet and snow, which hit the far north of Scotland, termed by the media as Storm Arwen, with its night time temperatures plummeting to well below zero, has reminded all of us who live here on Scotland’s Atlantic coast just how precarious our existence really is. Power cuts. No heating or light. No broadband (oh dear, how can we live?!). Worse still, no TV! The roads like taboggan runs. No ferries. No trains. There are no planes flying anywhere from Wick anymore anyway so, hey, aren’t we lucky? Lots of people suffered genuine pain and grief. Just one Arctic blast and our so-called modern society ground to a halt. Our instinct is to deny it is happening, or to treat the storm as a media event, as if we had never seen one before. Sometimes I think I no longer live in Caithness but in Caithnesia: the land of forgetting.

Why should this be? Well, because of our delicate consumerist bourgeois sensibilities, our general urbanised lack of a connection with nature and our complete ignorance of history due to our education, this set of events came as a shock. But it shouldn’t have. For example, on the 24th of July in 1883, Angus Mackay, an 80 year old crofter from Strathy Point on the north Sutherland coast, told the Napier Commission hearing in Bettyhill,

“Strathy Point is two miles in length on one side and three upon the other. The westerly wind blows upon it, the north-west wind blows upon it, the north wind blows upon it, the north-east wind blows upon it; and when a storm comes it blasts the croft, and the people have no meat for the cattle or for themselves.”

He concluded his “evidence” with the accurate observation, that for crofting, in his opinion, Strathy Point was “the worst place there is in the district.” What Angus Mackay would have made of the Thurso people’s nervous desperation that they couldn’t get to Tesco’s or to Inverness for Black Friday one can only imagine? The 21st century has rendered a once resolute and independent minded society into one where there is an economic vulnerability and a dependency on outside providers of basic services such as foodstuffs and transport, heating and light. It is the unthought through and accepted normality. We have no control over any of it. Our service economy is something that happens to us, something we have no power to generate. We in the north Highlands are at the far end of a corporate consumer cable. As Paul Bassett put it in his brilliant piece in Bella on 26th November,

“Ferries, trains and buses in Scotland happen to, not with, people. It’s their business, not ours. Like it or lump it.”

Here history repeats itself, or like the recent storm, comes at us in waves. “Like it or lump it” was the historic case with crofting, which Angus Mackay did his best to explain to the Napier Commission in 1883.

“It would be a very hard heart but would mourn to see the circumstances of the people that day (of their forced removal from Strathnaver). He would be a very cruel man who would not mourn for the people.”

Crofting is not some rural idyll as many people imagine. It was created to keep the forcibly evicted people, such as Angus Mackay, from emigrating to Canada and available to provide labour for either the kelp manufacture or the herring industry, both of which were intended to make the landlords and property owners money. For Angus Mackay is was a couple of acres on the most miserable ground the estate managers could find. Just enough ground so that the tenant would not starve. You can’t work if you are starving. The better, more fertile ground of the inland straths, was given over to sheep and then later on to deer, both of which, ironically, inevitably, turned these once productive districts into an empty, barren, wet desert. Strathnaver and the Strath of Kildonan are still physically beautiful, but it is a beauty empty of humanity. It is a landscape without people or culture. Something that was unknown in the preceding six thousand years.

One thing that crofting did achieve was to facilitate an increase in the population. The advent of the potato, along with kale, milk and fish, provided a healthy if somewhat dull diet. The result was that more children survived the lottery of their early life. More people, more crofts. More crofts, more rent paid to the estate. This increase of what was once considered a “redundant population” was both a blessing and curse for the landowners. The increased population in the north of Scotland wanted and needed land upon which to live. Landowners were loath to give it to them. This denial of land to live upon was the major social tension in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries and remains the main area of economic conflict now. Land is the root of everything. In the Highlands and Islands an empty landscape is a landscape of poverty. Huge sporting estates restrict humanly sustainable and environmentally compatible development. It encourages emigration. Landownership is human scarcity. It is artificial, damaging and represents a prolonged past that we must shed.

COP26 showed, if it needed showing, that human society cannot continue as we have been doing if we want an inhabitable world. The actual reality of COP26, once the circus left town, was to make all progressives despair. But we achieve nothing if we believe that there is nothing we can do, that the process of climate change is irreversible and that environmental disaster is inevitable. In the 19th century the Highland landowners thought that their imagined future was inevitable and that their treatment of both the land and the people was irreversible. What the Napier Commission led to was the Crofters Holding Act of 1886, which technically put an end to the Highland Clearances by giving the crofters security of tenure so that they could not be evicted. So the arrogance of landowners was checked. Over time their dreams of endless wealth from their people-less estates also took a battering. Now Highland estates are cash sinks for Danish billionaires and hedge funds. Nothing is irreversible and inevitable except time and death. But the business of life is for the living.

The elite class of corporate tycoons, the real ruling class, will never make the changes necessary to keep the planet safe for the simple reason that the changes now needed will be so radical they will, effectively, destroy them as a class. That is why change is necessary. The elite will try to maximise their profits while the world burns and to increase their chances of success they are attempting to steer all democratic governments around the world towards greater authoritarianism. Including our own Scottish government.

In a recent essay Rebecca Solnit (Guardian 18th November) attempts to chart a different, more optimistic future. Her “Ten Ways To Confront The Climate Crisis Without Losing Hope” are:

1, Feed your feelings on facts.

2, Pay attention to what is already happening.

3, Look beyond the individual and find good people.

4, The future is not yet written.

5, Indirect consequences matter.

6, Imagination is a superpower.

7, Check the facts (and watch out for liars).

8, History can guide us.

9, Remember the predecessors.

10, Don’t neglect beauty.

COP26 may have had more oil company lobbyists than any other sector but, whether the big oil cartels like it or not, the era of fossil fuels is over, no matter how long they strive to prolong it. Also it is a false dawn to put any faith in what protocols on anything come out of greenwash events like COP26. As the American journalist David Roberts put it,

“Whether and how fast India phases out coal has nothing at all to do with what its diplomat says in Glasgow and everything to do with domestic Indian politics, which have their own logic and are only faintly affected by international politics.”

In other words, if you believe in the future of your world you have to believe, like Angus Mackay of Strathy in 1883, in the ground beneath your feet and speak out to change your situation. He was a precursor to Rebecca Solnit: he fed his feelings on facts. Angus Mackay wanted the best for himself and his people and as he knew instinctively, and tried as best he could to articulate to the Napier Commission that, as Rebecca Solnit articulated, “The only obstacles are political and imaginative.” On one hand we cannot be fobbed off by the green-washers into thinking that changing our consumer choices and habits is the way to combat global warming, which lets the likes of Exxon-Mobil and Lockheed Martin off the hook. But on the other hand addressing what is happening locally is the first and practical place to start. Successful climate activism can be in campaigning for the abolition of landed estates so that in the Highlands we can turn our attention to a sympathetic husbandry of both the flora and fauna of our empty glens and straths. Nothing in the struggle to protect our beautiful world is insignificant. As Rebecca Solnit so passionately puts it,

“Movements, campaigns, organisations, alliances and networks are how ordinary people become powerful – so powerful that you can see they inspire terror in elites, governments and corporations alike, who devote themselves to trying to stifle and undermine them. But these places are also where you meet dreamers, idealists, altruists – people who believe in living by principle. You meet people who are hopeful, or even more than hopeful: great movements often begin with people fighting for things that seem all but impossible at the outset, whether an end to slavery, votes for women or rights for LGTBQ+ people.”

Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future so it is our duty to believe that a good future is possible. Action and belief are sisters. In the 1880’s the cleared crofters and landless cottars told the Napier Commission of their shared, terrible experience and in so doing they made a better future possible. Without their dreams of a better world there would not be not one single person living in Sutherland and west Caithness today. Theirs was a powerful collective desire that, in the end, nothing could withstand. They were a robust and honest people and we who live here still owe them a great debt.

COP26 highlighted to the world the predicament humanity finds itself in. It also made plain that the environmental ills created by industrial capitalism and colonialism cannot be undone by their 21st century equivalents. Storm Arwen has shown that however sophisticated we think our society is we are, in reality, little better than green beetles on a dockan leaf – as vulnerable, dependent and delicate as that. But we can undo that. In the far north, for example, if the inner straths were opened up and land given to young people to live and work on then we could produce our own food and our own economy. No need for Tesco’s or Black Friday then. We could reduce our vulnerability, our dependency on the corporate cartels. We could empower ourselves and rid ourselves of governments we did not vote for. In short, we could create our own country.

Rebecca Solnit ends her essay with this clarion call to all Earth dwellers,

“I believe we now need to tell stories about how beautiful, how rich, how harmonious the Earth we inherited was, how beautiful its patterns were, and in some times and places still are, and how much we can do to restore this and to protect what survives. To take that beauty as a sacred trust, and celebrate the memory of it. Otherwise we might forget why we are fighting.”

Angus Mackay, in 1883, did not live in Caithnesia. He remembered who he was and what his people had once been. He knew what he was fighting for. He told his story. He made a world.

©George Gunn 2021

Comments (23)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Yes, localism, for what of a better phrase, is going to be fundamental part of the transition through the upcoming bottleneck. As is building resilience.
    What the military call ‘multiple redundancy’ and what neo-liberalism calls ‘wasteful and inefficient’ are also the same as resilience. If a well-fertilised acre can feed a family of four year round, then have two neighbouring families tend 3 acres between them creates resilience, and in good times, a tradeable surplus. Or thinking on such lines at any rate.

    The hard bit is actually prizing the land out of the exhalted classes, even as they are dying out. Even when you do, it’s getting enough people involved to tend the land, round here at least (NW England). The current energy and supply chain crises brought on by declining EROEI haven’t yet impacted sufficiently to mobilise people in sufficient numbers yet. I wait patiently for that tipping point, whilst building small local resilience. I fear Gaia’s tipping points might beat us to it, but that doesn’t slow me down personally.

    The ten point plan mentioned reminds of this one I found recently, in a similar vein:
    10 step grief network
    https://www.goodgriefnetwork.org/10-steps/#10step
    1 Accept the Severity of the Predicament
    2 Practice Being With Uncertainty
    3 Honor My Mortality & The Mortality of All
    4 Do Inner Work
    5 Develop Awareness of Biases & Perception
    6 Practice Gratitude, Witness Beauty, & Create Connections
    7 Take Breaks & Rest
    8 Grieve the Harm I Have Caused
    9 Show Up
    10 Reinvest in Meaningful Efforts

    1. Thanks Mark, that list is really helpful

  2. Colin Kirkwood says:

    This is a magnificent piece of writing as truth-telling, George Gunn. I congratulate you on it. It expresses a set of interrelated truths, including two which are very difficult to believe, difficult to cope with, difficult to say. They are these. (1) Representative democracy isn’t working. It actually isn’t democracy at all. It is elective dictatorship, as I have argued for a long time. I still favour democracy. (2) The SNP, which I joined with great hope back in the early 1980s, around the time of the formation of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, and of which I am still a member, is failing in its task to mobilise the Scottish people for self-government. They are still bleating on about independence, which I have argued is an out of focus chimera. They have over-centralised Scotland, so that all power lies with a tiny centralised elite which is self-admiring. In Scotland , the people have become the periphery. In saying this, believe it or not, I have still not lost faith in Nicola Sturgeon or in her husband Peter. I think they are good people who have got wrong ideas into their heads. When that happens, and it happens to us all from time to time, what you have to do is change your mind. Listen to people like George Gunn. The SNP is becoming daily more and more like the Labour Party was. It thought it had a divine right to rule. It didn’t. Change direction, Nicola and Peter! Self-government isn’t something you vote for: it is something you do.

    1. Susan Macdiarmid says:

      Amen

    2. Mons Meg says:

      Spot on, Colin! I particularly like the distinction you make between ‘independence’ and ‘self-government’.

      The fact remains, however, that most Scots don’t want to govern themselves; they want bureaucracies to take on the tasks of governance and provide them with their health care, education, policing, etc. Hence, the popular complaint that ‘THEY should do something about it.’ rather than the battle-cry ‘WE should (and will) do something about it ourselves.’

      1. Colin Kirkwood says:

        Spot on you too, Mons Meg!. The problem as I argued in my previous piece Not Independence: Self-Government! is that there is not as yet a clear model for the SNP to follow. The Scottish people need to imagine and construct a new way which will combine strong central leadership (which Nicola and Peter have the capacity to give) with radical decentralisation to the people at every level of scale. We will have to marry leadership with direct democracy. In my my long paper to be published shortly by Convergence (Adults Learning, Democratisation and the Good Society) I advance a number of propositions which can take us in that direction. This is not a time for clenched fists, but for hands reaching out across the world. Next week (6/7/8 December) there is a virtual celebration of the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth, organised by the admirable Peter Mayo of the University of Malta. I will be delivering a short paper in that event . I will offer it now to to Bella Caledonia. It identifies the reading required about Athenian democracy which has been misrepresented for two and a half thousand years. It is never too late to change course! Thanks, Colin.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          I’m with you, Colin. My point is only that it’s difficult to impose direct democracy on a constituency that doesn’t want it (for whatever reason).

          I spent a good part of my working life trying to mobilise local communities to greater self-government. It was largely a thankless task. Most folk can’t be *rs*d with the hassle of self-government and the waste of their free time it entails; they much prefer bureaucracy and electing others to do the work of governance for them.

          1. John McLeod says:

            I believe that Colin Kirkwood’s vision of radical decentralisation and self-government is something that a lot of people would support. There is also a lot of it already happening, but not getting enough publicity., and not sufficiently connected up to enable groups to be able to learn from each other. This vision could – and should – be a major strand of the SNP/Green Scottish government policy, in terms of supporting consolidating and nurturing such initiatives.

          2. Meg Macleod says:

            we need to find a way that creates an accessible path ..alot of people interested but dont know how to implement it …..we have lost so many intuitive talents and the isolation of the last two years has not helped build connections for those on the outer edge of society who may well have alot to offer.

          3. John McLeod says:

            The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, is a recent book that shows that over the entire scope of human history, societies all round the world have oscillated back and forward between central control and localised self-government. People have moved in the direction of radical decentralisation many times in the past, even in the face of authoritarian states much more extreme than anything we are experiencing now.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            I’ve no doubt that a lot of people would and do support the anarchist vision of small, self-governing, and more or less self-sufficient communities. Indeed, that’s a utopian vision I share.

            However, while it may be a lifestyle that lots of people might take to the hills to follow, it’s not the sort of régime that society as a whole is going to enact voluntarily. The best we can hope for is that everyone will be compelled by circumstance to enact this kind of régime when the current bureaucratic I’ve no doubt that a lot of people would and do support the anarchist vision of small, self-governing, and more or less self-sufficient communities. Indeed, that’s a utopian vision I share.

            However, while it may be a lifestyle that lots of people might take to the hills to follow, it’s not the sort of régime that society as a whole is going to enact voluntarily. The best we can hope for is that everyone will be compelled by circumstance to enact this kind of régime when the current bureaucratic régime deconstructs under the weight of its own contradictions and the serial crises these contradictions produce.

            But there’s no guarantee that we will. We might equally be compelled by ‘die Angst vor der Freiheit’ to entrust our fate and fortune to leaders rather than to ourselves.

  3. Colin Kirkwood says:

    This is a magnificent piece of writing as truth-telling, George Gunn. I congratulate you on it. It expresses a set of interrelated truths, including two which are very difficult to believe, difficult to cope with, difficult to say. They are these. (1) Representative democracy isn’t working. It actually isn’t democracy at all. It is elective dictatorship, as I have argued for a long time. I still favour democracy. (2) The SNP, which I joined with great hope back in the early 1980s, around the time of the formation of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, and of which I am still a member, is failing in its task to mobilise the Scottish people for self-government. They are still bleating on about independence, which is an out of focus chimera. They have over-centralised Scotland, so that all power lies with a tiny centralised elite. In Scotland , the people have become the periphery. In saying this, believe it or not, I have still not lost faith in Nicola Sturgeon or in her husband Peter. I think they are good people who have got wrong ideas into their heads. When that happens, and it happens to us all from time to time, what you have to do is change your mind. Listen to people like George Gunn. The SNP is becoming daily more and more like the Labour Party was. It thought it had a divine right to rule. It didn’t. Change direction, Nicola and Peter! Self-government isn’t something you vote for: it is something you do. Decentralise.

  4. Hector says:

    The napier commision crofters act should have been applied to all of scotland, not just the crofting counties.
    The clearances continue today in the lowlands and uplands south of the highland line.
    They are now fuelled by misguided scotgov policies and subsidies for tree planting etc and acreage payments for simply owning land. People who own land which they let out annually can now collect all the subsidies without lifting a finger while charging the same rent or leaving it to grow weeds.
    Owning land or simply having security of tenure are a futile dream now for scots, unless you win the lottery.
    Emigration to france etc is the only way to get a viable farm now.
    Just look at the appalling way scotgov has treated the salvesen riddell case tenants, with nothing but broken promises, and downright lies, while the evicting landlords wallow in govt cash.

  5. Roland says:

    The idea that rural parts of Scotland are dependent on services from the centre is so pervasive it colours all development planning and becomes self fulfilling and centralising.

  6. Tom Ultuous says:

    Rebecca Solnit’s end of essay brought to mind the scene from Soylent Green when Edward G. Robinson was “going home”. As he awaited his state assisted suicide he was shown a video of how the Earth once was with classical music playing in the background.

    1. Wul says:

      It is something that continues to baffle me; why super-wealthy men, with several lifetimes worth of cash, will don a suit and tie and attend all-day meetings in artificially lit offices, travel in aeroplanes, talk on the phone and shuffle paper when they could easily spend the rest of their lives looking at and experiencing nature? The world we have right now is so achingly beautiful it seems daft not to be out and about in it if you have the freedom to do so.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        The Dali lama once said “People in the west ruin their health making money then spend it all trying to get their health back.” (something like that).

  7. Wul says:

    Brilliant essay from George Gunn. Thank you.

    Something I’ve never quite understood: When we hear that Crofting was “designed to keep crofters at subsistence level”, was this an explicit, written aim of the Crofting Act? Was it “official” policy? Was it just the best deal that could be wrung from landowners of the time?

    Off topic: Can anyone provide a link to the policy history behind “Small Holdings”? There are many dotted around Glasgow and I’m curious as to their history.

    1. Time, the Deer says:

      Crofting was brought in by the estates from the start of the 19th century – it varies depending on the area. The Crofters Act of the 1880s came after various late-19th-centuty protests and the crofters’ testimony to the Napier Commission, in response to their complaints about fair rents, security of tenure, etc. It was an improvement at the time, but it could be argued it effectively kept them stuck in the situation they found themselves in. Read Jim Hunter’s Making of the Crofting Community Wul – much to critique about it now (it was written in the 70s after all, and cutting edge at that time), but a good place to start.

  8. Meg Macleod says:

    Truth truth nothing but the truth……and one more point
    From the rich harvest of fossil fuel for the elite ..a change of tactic….vaccine production…the ever changing and naturally morphing virus..(its what they do).an endless source of income ..as long as people believe the fearsome narrative…..as George points out..look for the facts at source bypass the elite inspired global philosophy…..and yes power to ordinary people living ordinary lived.

  9. Paula Becker says:

    Excellent article from George Gunn.

    Just spotted this on Twitter:
    The New York Times @nytimes – Israel’s domestic intelligence agency has been granted temporary permission to access the phone data of people in the country with confirmed cases of the Omicron variant for contact tracing.

    Efrat Fenigson @efenigson replied – Let me make it clear: the tyrannical Israeli gov. allowed itself to tap into its citizens phones and privacy – without counter measures to this decision, cuz this is how we operate in a totalitarian regime now in Israel. The gov. can simply decide, and act.

    A perfect example of the biosecurity state expanding under cover of Covid measures.

  10. stuart jackson says:

    This is the story of everywhere in Scotland, and most of the west. disconnection from place.

  11. Sarah Eno says:

    That is such an uplifting article. Thanks. I’m from an anarchist and communitarian background. Had years of collective working and living. Now inspired by the many small but successful community projects from gardens to orchards to farms. Now need to get together on health, care, transport, housing etc.

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