The Winds of Change at Gartymore

George Gunn argues climate activists should take inspiration from the Highland Land League’s slogan “Is treasa tuath na tighearna” (The people are mightier than a lord.)

In 1881, a time of landowner tyranny in Sutherland and across the Highlands, Joseph Macleod of Helmsdale was stirred to action. Along with Donald Bannerman of Bual, Donald Watson of Gartymore Shore and John Fraser of A’ Choire, he formed what was termed “a small but resolute brotherhood”, who met almost nightly to lay plans for the restoration of the land to the people. They asked Angus Sutherland, a leading light of the Crofters Party and a future MP, to come to Gartymore and address a public meeting. He agreed and the result was that the first branch of the Sutherland Association was formed. This became the parent of the Highland Land League (Dionnasg an Fhearainn), which soon attracted 15,000 members.

By 1885 the Crofters Party had five MP’s and the following year they had six and so it was in 1886 that Gladstone’s Liberal government passed the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act, which applied to crofting tenure, which it described as “an area which is now recognisable as a definition of the Highlands and Islands.” The Act granted real security of tenure to existing crofts and established the first Crofters Commission, which had rent-fixing powers. Rents were generally reduced and 50% or more of outstanding arrears were cancelled. Issues such as limited access to land would have to wait for a future Scottish government to address.

The significance of the Gartymore meeting in 1881 was that it was the first time the crofters had organised themselves and said, “No, we are not going to be subjected to this oppression. It stops here. Now.” They demanded change and took direct action to achieve it. Considering the dire consequences of eviction, starvation and emigration which could rain down on their families courtesy of the Sutherland Estate their courage was remarkable. The Highland Land League’s best known slogan was “Is treasa tuath na tighearna.” This is usually translated as “The people are mightier than a lord.” Gartymore proved that when the people organise there is nothing they cannot achieve. From insurrection comes resurrection.

That lords, sundry aristocrats and various other moneyed individuals, continue to own vast swathes of the Highlands and Islands is evidence that there is still much work to be done on landownership. Despite the fact that the majority of the population of Scotland now live in an urban environment does not change the principle that the land is everything. From how we value land and use it is determined how we as a people value ourselves and how we can create a society where equity and well-being can actually come into being. Vast Highland sporting estates, devoid of people and indirectly subsidised by the majority, prolong poverty. A landscape with no people in it is not a living landscape. It is what Frank Fraser Darling, in his “West Highland Survey: An Essay in Human Ecology” of 1955, called “a wet desert”.

It is capitalism which makes land ownership and sporting use immoral. It does so in two specific ways – through its ability to undermine our motivation to work and to undermine our agency as citizens in a democracy. In Scotland, as it stands, if you have the cash you can buy what you like. Whether it is the borough of Leith or vast swatches of Caithness and Sutherland, everything has its price, everything is property, everything is for sale. When our natural resources, which land is the primary one, are treated as property and can be owned, bought and sold, by an individual or a hedge fund, then our basic democracy falls away because we are in effect powerless and cannot influence or change that paradigm.

In his acceptance speech on being elected First Minister Humza Yousaf told the Scottish Parliament that the “best argument for independence is to make the best possible use of the parliament’s existing powers”. If the Scottish government were to introduce an Annual Ground Rent (AGR) or a Land Value Tax, call it what you like, then we would be a good way down the road to eradicating poverty. Will Humza Yousaf make this a central policy of his new government? The Scottish government could have done it years ago. But they have not. Yet in 2016 AGR was approved at the SNP conference which committed the party to explore the use of land as the principal source of public funding. Even such well known radicals as the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank have published research which shows that land as the source of public funding can be sufficient to fund the government and have also drawn attention to the correlation of landownership to poverty. The Scotland Act of 2016 devolved to the Scottish Parliament the power to tax land and to do so without the interference or consent of Westminster or His Majesties Revenues and Customs. The writer Graeme McCormick has written in The National (12.3.23),

“By taxing land and setting a zero rate for income tax on earned income there would be an explosion of economic activity as vacant and dilapidated land and property were brought back into use. Without a substantial and sustainable increase in our public funds, our public services will never meet our people’s expectation. Our poor don’t have the luxury of waiting till we are independent.”

The ancient Greek historian Polybius wrote in his epic about the Punic Wars, “Those who know how to win are much more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of their victories.”

I wish Humza Yousaf well and that he does make a proper use of his victory. One way to this is to realise that you cannot pick and choose your favourite issues, that everything is connected – land leads on to food production, energy generation and distribution and that without independence we will struggle in Scotland to bring these rising issues to any kind of convergence. Because to the outside eye it appears the Scottish government is not serious about any of this – for example there is not a national data agency to bring all the statistics together in order to formulate policy and run the economy – the UK government will continue to treat our continued and increasingly futile demands for a second referendum with contempt. Let us have our Central Bank and our Scottish currency, for, as the writer Roger Mullin has noted, we cannot “dream our way into independence.” The crofters of Gartymore did not sit and wait for anybody to give them anything. What they achieved they achieved through their own initiative, by direct action and through sheer bravery.

The winds of change for land ownership and use may blow from Gartymore but wind of a different kind blows from Caithness. It is difficult to determine exactly how many wind farms are sited on land in Caithness but according to the Highland Council’s map there are 39. The number of actual turbines is probably ten times that. There is a proposed off-shore wind farm to be constructed north of Forss but the biggest single off-shore array is the Beatrice, off the east Caithness coast, which has 84 turbines and is capable of generating enough electricity to power 450,00 homes. This sea-beat turbine forest is owned by Scottish and Southern Energy Renewable (40%), Red Rock Power Limited (25%), The Renewable Infrastructure Group (17.5%) and Equitix (17.5%). The point here is that the Scottish people own 0% of this mighty enterprise. The Beatrice windfarm pays rent to the Crown Estate which is represented in Scotland through the Crown Estate Scotland, which in turn is managed by the Scottish government and is responsible for the management of land and property in Scotland owned by the monarch ‘in right of the Crown’. In other words the rental accrued from the Beatrice wind farm is a royal “asset”, not a people’s asset. The people of Caithness can only watch all this renewable electricity being generated – and the landlords who own the ground coining in eye watering sums in rent – and then have to buy the energy back at a hugely inflated rate due to transmission charges creamed off by the National Grid.

Earlier in March “Sir” Keir Starmer visited the Beatrice offshore wind farm, along with shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband and Anas Sarwar. “Sir” Keir Starmer told the press that he has “pledged to use Scotland’s resource to turn the UK into a clean energy superpower.” There was also the usual waffle about 50,000 new jobs in the renewable energy sector over a decade. He conveniently forgot to mention and the British press didn’t ask him about the Labour Westminster government that introduced the transmission charges which contributes to the spiralling energy bills the people of Caithness – and all over Scotland – have to pay.

There is no Scottish National Energy Company so we have no infrastructural purchase and gain no direct benefit from the massive amount of renewable electricity Caithness generates. All the county has become is a flagstone platform which creates wealth for landed individuals and corporations. The people are treated with contempt. We are cows to be milked, encouraged to be politically passive and socially bovine, grazing in the fields we do not own.

Currently the agricultural cash crop in Caithness is barley, for the distilling industry. We grow very little of our own food. In this we are not alone. In 2020 the UK imported 46% of the food consumed. At the recent Scotonomics festival in Dundee Steve Keen, an honorary professor of economics at University College London, said that an independent Scotland must pursue,

“a policy of autarky in food and energy production. If you don’t have food self-sufficiency you’re going to be stuffed and as far as I am aware, Scotland hasn’t got food self-sufficiency, so that’d be my very first policy, you have to build it.”

Autarky is the characteristic of self-sufficiency, usually applied to societies, communities, states, and their economic systems. Which raises the question, just what is sovereignty? National sovereignty is one thing, but what about land sovereignty, food sovereignty, monetary sovereignty and energy sovereignty? My hope is that Humza Yousaf embraces the necessary autarky and puts the Scottish government to work and use the powers they already have in such areas as planning permission and the ability to collect an Annual Ground Rent.

Time is running out. If the Tories, in the coming days, confirm the licensing of the giant Rosemount and Campbell oil fields west of Shetland – as the Guardian has indicated – then all the green policies driven by the Scottish government will come to nothing. There is simply not enough land on the planet to soak up all corporate carbon produced. This is the reality hidden in the slugadh which comes out of the mouth of Douglass Ross. His constant ill-informed and often fictional attacks on the SNP’s record on health and education disguise the deep cynicism of a defender of rentier capitalism and corporate greed and his party’s role in their promotion. When he rises at First Minister’s questions, half linesman-half haggis, the question we have to ask is: what do the unionists offer the people of Scotland? The answer is: they offer them nothing.

In the nineteenth century the Sutherland Estate and their apologists called the crofters of Caithness and Sutherland “savages”. Little did they know that they were the “savages” of civilisation. In 1881 the winds of change blew across Gartymore. These same radical winds can blow across the whole of Scotland. Now.

©George Gunn 2023.

Comments (26)

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  1. Heather Lewis says:

    Thank you for this informative and deeply concerning information. Everyone in Scotland needs to take 5 minutes to read this and hopefully many will be inspired to lobby for AGR. Is there a lobby group for this?

  2. Hugh McShane says:

    Informative,important piece

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    A fine piece, as always, Mr Gunn.

    Land reform and a property tax are essential steps in the redistribution of wealth and power.

    Let us hope that Mr Yousaf seizes the opportunity to make the changes to better the lives of the majority of people living in Scotland.

    The Tories and Imperial Labour will oppose it. Starmer has made clear that he will pillage the Scottish renewables to enrich the English economy. It is colonialism.

  4. Matthew says:

    I’m all for LVT until I read that we could scrap tax on earned income. I’m retired now but I used to earn £200-£250k pa and pay income tax of £75-100k. But the only land I own is a semi detached with garden.

    Now I’m retired I still own the same patch of land but draw down £60k pension.

    Either pre-retirement me would be a massive winner, or retired me would be paying substantially more.

    Not all wealthy people (or organisations) own lots of land. LVT has a role, but as part of a tax regime, not to fully replace tax on earned income.

    1. Graeme McCormick says:

      thanks to Mr Gunn for his reference to my letter in the National.

      As regards your specific issues with my proposal you must have some size of semi and garden to be worse off as my modelling suggests that only one per cent of residents would be worse off financially. Bear in mind that the model also provides for a Universal Citizens Income of £200 per week for every occupant.

      if my model was adopted there would be a gradual change of culture about property ownership whereby owners would probably look to downsize once they get older and need less space.

      From a national point-of-view by abolishing all other taxes this will act as the dynamo for enterprise and kick startsour economy at the most crucial time. It’s always open to government to impose other taxes once our independent state is established.

    2. Wul says:

      “I’m all for it, unless it costs me personally” is not going to change society for the better Matthew. Wouldn’t you like to see today’s youngsters get a better start in life, own some land, start a business, thrive, own a home?

      Anyway, you’d only be paying a few quid a month in ground rent. Surely you could find it out of your £60k/yr pension?

      That’s more annual income than I ever earned during my whole working life. I managed to buy a home, raise two kids and get them through university on less than half that income and I consider myself well-off.

      1. Matthew says:

        You’ve missed my point. I was pointing out that wealthy working me would be a massive winner.

        1. Graeme McCormick says:

          you would bug that would give you the opportunity to invest in Scotland in a whole host of ways.

        2. Wul says:

          Fair enough. Sorry I misunderstood you.

          Yes, it would be great to pay less income tax. As a land-owning, soon-to-be-pensioner I’d be worse off but feel the benefits for society are worth it.

          It was the toffs who originally campaigned to move taxation away from land and property, which can’t be hidden, and onto income, which can. Especially if one is wealthy and employs clever accountants. Let the working man pay tax.

  5. Ann Rayner says:

    Great article and iam so glad that this idea is being promoted agin, it is a huge improvement on Council tax, fairer and would bring in more money,
    if, as the writer suggests. it can be a way for locals to profit from the shameless plundering of our resources, that would be a big bonus.
    Just think of local authorities being able to fund schools and other council sevices proerly without needing subsiries from central government, which in turn would thus have more money to spen on that scotland needs.
    Lets hope Yousaf and the new Scottish government read this and pay attention,
    it could be game changer.

  6. John Learmonth says:

    Who are ‘the people’?

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      Darts players – wee arra people.

    2. Wul says:

      Say something positive for once John.

      Go on…give it a try. You might like how it feels.

  7. Hector says:

    At the moment, we have the opposite of a land tax, scotgov hands vast sums to landlords which facilitates further clearances of tenant farmers, farmworkers and shepherds.
    Scotgov made this conscious decision in 2014 to fund the wealthy and beggar the rest.
    Empty farmsteads, houses and local schools have spread everywhere since.

    1. Graeme mcCormick says:

      there’s a very good website in North America called Strong Towns which shows what local communities have managed to do to reverse the effects of de industrialisation and suburbanisation. It’s been achieved by using land as both the source of public funding and regeneration of their towns

    2. Micheal MacGilleRuadh says:

      Tha sin ceart Hector. Not only that but these obscenely subsidised landowners are using the funds to wage war on biodiversity. Everywhere you go nowadays you see hedges getting ripped up, knowes excavated and buried, entire fields stripped, re-soiled and re-seeded. The wee damp corners are yielding to the JCB. What kind of madness are we living in?

  8. Hector says:

    Published last week
    CAP payments
    Buccleuch estate £3.6m
    Roseberry estate £1.3m
    Moray Estates £1.7m
    Floors estate £1.4m
    Stop this land dividend first please before embarking on a land tax

  9. Robbie says:

    Time for the snp to put the money where their mouth is, we have known most of this for years now and that Scotland is there only to serve Englands needs, the new 1st minister and his government can now Prove to US they have Scotlands interests at heart.

  10. Thatcher's midwife says:

    Still waiting for the SNP to reform land ownership in Scotland.
    Never forgive them for voting out labour in 79.

  11. John Wood says:

    Well done George: spot on.

  12. Paul Packham says:

    I hope, George that you sent a copy of this to our new First Minister, his new cabinet and ministers.
    I also hope that it is read by the wider yes movement. Add in abolishing the monarchy and it could become their manifesto for an independent Scotland.

  13. SleepingDog says:

    “Data not dreams”? Like it. Yes, autarky is the appropriate goal, probably won’t matter too much if we come a little short, along with disaster/emergency planning at all levels (including regional and local).

    1. John Learmonth says:

      I seem to recall the last significant politcian calling for autarky was a short arsed little Austrian with a moustache.
      Didn’t do him much good did it?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @John Learmonth, I think you have managed to confuse autarky with Lebensraum, not sure how, but I think the saner amongst us will agree that we should feed Scotland without invading other countries.
        Of course, if your Empire does manage to conquer the world, and you’re not depending on off-world imports, and you have achieved resource-sustainability, then by definition you have achieved autarky. The British got nearest to such world domination. I’m sure you’ve got one of those pink maps pinned up in pride of place somewhere.

  14. Jack Minnock says:

    We can always learn from the past, and it’s another way of invoking change.
    However I take exception to the analogy with Climate Change. “Climate Change” is an invented term as is “Global Warming”, note, how the WWF “nom de guerre, logo (of the polar bear) changed” when polar bears numbers were increasing.
    Society has benefited from the use of what is now termed “fossil fuels”. In India the wheat yields have trebled since the 1960’s, CO2 is the oxygen of life, we are benefiting greatly from it, hence the greening of the planet. 0.4 CO2 is a trace gas and is a mere bagatelle when it comes to atmospheric humidity.
    Indoctrination has become the norm in the media, schools, books and evangelical activist’s, however it’s “Betteridge’s law” that is used when you read the headline. Every politician/political faction worldwide is guilty of it, shame on them.
    Energy is what a country’s wealth depends on, our industry, social construct, depend on it, and yet we seem hell bent on destroying the very foundations that our civilisation is built on, all because of a IPPC computer program. This program has been called out and showed to be a lie, yet it persists. A wee Scandinavian girl is a living Grimm’s fairytale of fable. Please view “Micheal Crichton, author of “State of fear”, shame he died so young.
    Quėbec’s $0.073 kWH, or $73 per 1,000 kWH hours, compare that to the UK’S everyday price change. This falsehood is impoverishing the people, destroying peoples sanity and making the wealthy even more wealthy.
    The “Earth” is dynamic by nature or we wouldn’t be here, enjoy our time. Stop false prophecies debasing the wonderful fleeting moment of life, seeing and feeling nature’s gift to us all.
    Well written George, I just don’t like indoctrination of children, it’s a chilling thought.
    Slainte Mhath.

    1. Nick says:

      It is ridiculous to say that “climate change is an invented term”. So, ultimately, is every name given to anything. You are not adding anything at all to the debate by trying to discredit the study of what is happening to the world’s world at an extreme and unnatural speed by describing the name that has been given to it as “invented”.

      This attempted discrediting in this way totally destroys your credibility, quite apart from any of the uneducated rubbish you spout about what is undoubtedly happening to the earth and at a truly scary speed.

      There are many examples of why we need to take this seriously rather than bury our head in the sand. As just one example, what do you know about the progressive loss of sea ice at the poles, which is changing the degree to which the sun’s energy is reflected rather than being absorbed by the oceans?

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