On Saturday 4th June Yes Caithness and Yes Ross/Sutherland will be inviting hundreds of people to climb the hill behind Golspie. It is the Queen’s platinum jubilee and it was felt necessary to counter this sorry landmark and relic of the past with a show of defiance for Scottish independence and to raise a flag for the future republic.
As we contemplate the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh on the east coast of Sutherland and the100-foot-tall (30-metre) statue perched on top which is that of George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, Marquess of Stafford and first Duke of Sutherland (1758 –1833), the notorious sponsor of the Sutherland clearances, it is important to remember that this sandstone edifice, raised in 1837, means nothing.
We understand reality because of light. Without light there is no life and no meaning. Meaning is not eternal. Only songs and poems protect humanity from meaninglessness because they are manifestations of love, which is eternal. Without love there is no life, no light. Songs and poems shed light. They are love. They are the human memory. Not sandstone blocks raised in honour of a tyrant. The people of Sutherland are celebrated in the poems of the 18th century bard of Strathnaver, Rob Donn Mackay. Not in this stone arrogance.
The 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine wrote,
“Freedom, which has hitherto only become man here and there, must pass into the mass itself, into the strata of society, and become people.”
In a 1968 essay, in response to this, the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson declared,
“What Heine says of freedom applies also to poetry. Poetry becomes everyone, and should be everyone. But in fact, at any rate in the Western World, it is only a few individuals here and there. Our most urgent task, as I see it, is to make poetry ‘become people’”
Freedom, people and poetry. These are the grand linking sisters of human experience. They are the three graces of possibility. But there is one sister missing, and it is the land. Our freedom, people and poetry depend upon it but, currently, it is denied to us.
This is a cultural dilemma and culture is what people living together in both settled and transient communities produce. Art is the result of that. Art is also people in a landscape. If there are no people in a landscape then there is no culture and therefor no art. It is empty.
But the Highlands of Scotland is not an empty landscape. It is an emptied landscape. The story of the emptying of the Highlands of Scotland, and of Sutherland in particular, is one of illegal land enclosure and of the wholesale forced removal of the native population to the sea coast where the worst ground was to be found. This was followed up by violent destruction of the peoples built culture, the suppression of their language and lived culture. After that it was the transportation in mainly un-seaworthy ships of almost three quarters of the dispossessed population thousands of miles across the Atlantic to North America. Then followed the re-writing and re-framing of these crimes as progress. This was the genocide which was planned, executed and celebrated by the Gordon’s of Dunrobin from 1800 onwards. It continues, under other headings, to this day. If the statue has any meaning at all, then it is this: it represents the continuity of tyranny.
The proto-environmentalist Frank Fraser Darling in his 1955 “West Highland Survey: An Essay in Human Ecology”, for the Department of Agriculture, wrote that:
“The bald unpalatable fact is that the Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.”
The devastation, he pointed out, was the inevitable outcome of bad land use. The Highlands had first been stripped of their natural forest cover, then had been subjected to repeated burning, intensive grazing, overstocking and to other forms of maltreatment which had drained their soils of fertility and made them steadily less productive. He concluded that, although it was a much lauded landscape, it was in fact man-made – “a wet desert”.
The reality of UK politics, another desert, and of the British constitutional settlement, is that we are ruled by a dictator masquerading as a Prime Minister. We should be mindful that the dictator never thinks about you, the dictator only ever thinks about himself. If you make an unspoken agreement with him and keep silent for decades, whatever happens, one day he’ll dupe you. If the choice is between his country’s freedom and his own personal power, he will choose the latter. He understands that there is no place for him in the future. The dictator knows an independent Scotland is coming soon. Let us never doubt that.
As we climb to the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh, both the hill and the metaphor, to reclaim our landscape for people as opposed to wealth, we have to bear in mind an alternative, possible future, not so distant, where we could see Brexit voters rioting in the streets of northern English towns because of the cost of gas and electricity, the rise in food prices and everything else spiralling upwards whilst incomes fall and few can afford a decent home. This is the new Tory deal for the working poor, the unemployed, the old, the weak and the disadvantaged in general. Boris and Rishi say – suck it up, losers.
Meanwhile, in Downing Street, they fight amongst themselves like the thieves they are, trying to smear every other politician and institution with the heavy gravitational shit they use to mark their territory. However there is only so much hair poor people can pull out before the anger and wounded pride boils over into violence and rage.
By October this year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers inflation could well be at 8.4%. Martin Lewis, the financial journalist, thinks it could go as high 12%. With the subsequent fall of 2% in household incomes this represents the biggest drop in living standards and wages since records began. Under this Tory regime we are not going back to the 1970’s but to the 1870’s. The only difference in the epochs is that in 2022 the Tories plan to make protest and demonstrating about injustice illegal. They also plan to make the extraction of wealth by the elite easier. In the UK the government does not tax the corporations and companies earning billions, such as Shell and BP, but instead make the workers pay for their own oppression and poverty. This is unsustainable.
At the beginning of the 20th century the great Russian political thinker and historian Peter Kropotkin wrote,
“In periods of frenzied haste toward wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamours loudly for a complete remodelling of the system of property ownership, of production, of exchange and all economic relations which spring from it. Action, the continuous action, ceaselessly renewed, of minorities brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.”
It remains to be seen where the courage, devotion and spirit of sacrifice are going to come from in a society obsessed by smart phones, personal wealth, individual gratification and the Eurovision Song Contest.
It is often a fault of the independence movement to wish to be understood to the world before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves. So let us be clear. We need hope. We cannot do anything without optimism. Hope is a discipline. Our job, as people on this Earth, is to cultivate hope, and that is what we are trying to do as we climb Beinn a’ Bhragaidh – both the hill and the metaphor. We are climbing to the idea of the Scottish Republic where the people are sovereign and not the Crown in Parliament, where an individual can be a citizen and not a subject. Where the land belongs to the people of Scotland and not just a few wealthy and absent individuals. In the Republic the land will be taxed to create wealth and the people will be liberated to create their new country, for their children and for the future. From the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh we can see that future: freedom, people, poetry, land and love.