31 July 2012
From tyranny to
the road to freedom
Raasay: Photograph by Islay McLeod
And if the locals should complain,
We can clear them off again.
We'll clear the straths.
We'll clear the paths …
We'll show them we're the ruling class…
These words – sung by the character of Lady Phosphate
in John McGrath's play, 'The Cheviot, the Stag and
the Black, Black Oil' – were part of my secondary
Crammed into a full assembly hall in Stornoway's Nicolson Institute, I remember being both moved and thrilled by the sheer gusto of the piece of theatre that included the song. Complete with a giant pop-up book, Gaelic songs and a succession of surreal and slapstick scenes, the drama told the history of land ownership in much of the Highlands and islands, a tale of desolation that included the people of much of that area being cleared from their tracts of land.
All of this contrasted more than a little with my memories of the landlord I knew growing up. I never listened to anyone complain about the landlord being either harsh or unreasonable. They might have muttered occasionally about him being invisible – though I never even overheard them doing that. Instead, my father went once a year to my local primary school in order to pay a Stornoway solicitor his dues, handing over the relatively small sum of money he owed for his croft. After that, the presence of the landlord in our lives faded from our landscape, obscured, perhaps, by the cigar-smoke of an officers' club in Hampstead Heath, Haymarket in Edinburgh or whatever other location he might have haunted for the other 364 days of the year. Outside a brief exchange of cash, the landlord played no other role in our existence.
I've been thinking about these distant figures since reading James Hunter's rather garrulously titled new book, 'From The Low Tide Of The Sea To The Highest Mountain Tips'. Its pages reminded me of the landlords I became aware of – largely through the pages of the West Highland Free Press – in my later adolescence. They included the improbably titled Sir Hereward Wake who owned Amhuinnsuidhe Castle in the north of Harris. He demanded that the rarely-used road that swirled past the front entrance of his home be shifted to its rear instead, preventing the stream of traffic that apparently regularly appears on that particular section of the nation's highways from obscuring his view.
There was, too, the notorious 'Dr No'. Striding around his domain like some megalomaniac fresh from the pages of a James Bond novel, Raasay's Dr Green had similar reservations about the ferry which residents wanted to introduce to provide a link between that island and nearby Skye. Apparently, he feared this might have a detrimental effect on the tremendous vista he was able to see from the windows of his big house. This anxiety might have been more understandable if he ever once chose to leave his household in Surrey to visit his Highland 'home'.
There were many other eccentrics, some showing similar traits to Baron Brocket, a good friend and comrade of von Ribbentrop and Hitler, who owned Knoydart during the second world war.
Such have the mighty fallen. Nowadays, we no longer hear of men like these or the human misery they inflicted upon the residents of some of Scotland's islands. James Hunter's book reminds us that the owners of many of these estates were not simply comical or harmless oddballs. Their inaction had serious effects and implications for those who lived upon their land. The buildings on Eigg, for instance, that were rented out to elderly islanders were neglected and rat-ridden. There were similar problems on Gigha; the vast majority of the estate-owned houses being either sub-standard or 'in serious disrepair'.
Instead, many of these estates are now in community ownership. They range from Assynt in north-west Sutherland to Gigha, Eigg to my own home community of the Galson Estate in Lewis. In each of these places, the ownership of the straths and glens has passed from Lady Phosphate and her ilk to the ordinary people of these quiet places.
James Hunter's book records the quiet revolution that took place to make this happen. Together with politicians like Brian Wilson and even – surprisingly – Michael Forsyth, he honours island men and women like Gigha's Willie McSporran and Eigg's Maggie Fyffe in its pages for their role in this transformation. He mentions, too, the role of the Scottish Government's Land Reform Act, passed in 2001, in bringing about these changes – ones that were somewhat ironically described by Conservative MSP Bill Aitken as being similar to the 'land-grabs' of Robert Mugabe. The words with which he does this are accompanied by the photographs of Skye man Cailean Maclean, which are, in themselves, a wonderful celebration of the transformation community ownership has brought about in the Highlands and islands. Self-confident individuals grin out at the reader among wind turbines and craft workshops secure in their place among the scenic grandeur of the Highlands and islands.
An important and valuable book, 'From The Low Tide…' might have benefitted from a brief examination of those 'community buy-outs' which have, for various reasons, failed in their attempts to change the mind-set of an island or area's inhabitants. Why do some communities cohere while others splinter when they take on the responsibility and privilege of ownership of their land? Why do islands like Shetland appear to have no interest in this form of development? Is their attitude of mind formed by geography or history? Finally, why does the Scottish party which criticised the Land Reform Act in 2001 for its timidity seem to have such little interest in the topic since it came to power?
However, that would be to wish it were a different type of book – not the celebration of both an idea and the individuals that caused it to 'be' that this work clearly is. Unashamedly partisan, it underlines the effect that this change in the whole concept of ownership has had on many inhabitants in the islands of the west coast. It can be summed up in the words of Gigha man John Martin: 'We have been released from chains and given the opportunity to be free'.
'From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops' by James Hunter is published by the Islands Book Trust (£15)
Donald S Murray is a teacher and the author of 'The Guga Hunters' and 'And On This Rock' (Birlinn), 'Small Expectations' (Two Ravens Press) and his latest book, 'Weaving Songs' (Acair).
Photograph of Donald S Murray by Carol Ann Peacock