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On my holiday: the heroes of the Highlands (including the other David Cameron)

The side of this story which you hear less often is that the communities across the Highlands did what people do when they are oppressed. They organised.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
12 September 2013

Adam and friends on the beach overlooking Taransay. Flickr/Ruth Cape. All rights reserved.

“I used to work for them”, the man said, sipping at a pint of Irn Bru. “I don't work for them any more. Now I work with them. That's how it should be.”

The man who spoke these words did so in a pair of overalls and a thick Gaelic accent. He was sat in a cafe in Tarbert – the biggest town on the Isle of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides - Na h-Eileanan Siar - off the west coast of Scotland.

I don't know what it was exactly that he was talking about. But the words supplied me with the best summary I can imagine of the revolution which has taken place on these islands in recent years.

For centuries the Outer Hebrides, like the rest of Scotland's Highlands and Islands, were owned by private landlords. These communities were treated either solely as businesses to maximise profits, or as the ultimate toys for the men who had everything.

The results were disastrous. In the nineteenth century, thousands of people were cleared, sometimes forcefully, from the only land they knew. A human family didn't turn as much profit as a herd of sheep. You can't travel far in the Highlands without finding crumbled villages: the former homes of women and men sent to the new world or the dark satanic mills.

The side of this story which you hear less often is that the people didn't just accept this fate. Communities across the Highlands did what people do when they are oppressed. They organised. In the late nineteenth century, they formed the Highland Land League. They were civilly disobedient, held occupations on their land and, in 1885, their 'Crofters' Party' elected five MPs. A year later, the Crofting Act was passed by the Liberal government, giving renting Highland farmers (known as 'crofters') security of tenure over the land they had cultivated for generations (and giving the Liberals/Lib Dems the Highland vote for a century).

This slowed the forced clearances, but the exodus from the Highlands and Islands continued. The 1831 census showed there were 200,955 Highlanders. By 1931 that figure was 127,081. Throughout the twentieth century thousands more left because there were no prospects of jobs. In the West Highlands, for every 100 people in 1831 there were only 59 in 1951.

The Outer Hebrides, the part of this region I was visiting, consist of three clusters of islands. In the South, there is Barra and its smaller neighbours. Above it, the Uists – whose biggest components - South Uist and North Uist - are separated by Benbecula and Grimsay, and joined to each other and various other smaller islands, by a series of causeways. At the top of the chain there is the third largest landmass in our archipelago – after Britain and Ireland: known in its north as the Isle of Lewis, and its south as the Isle of Harris.

In all, from the southern tip – Barra Head – to the northern tip – the Butt of Lewis – is further than from London to Bristol. Na h-Eileanan Siar are 130 miles long. Yet there are only 27,000 people in this beautiful archipeligo.

More than half of the inhabitants are speakers of Scots Gaelic. It used to be more - in living memory, school teachers beat any child who spoke their native language in the classroom. But these days Gaelic is encouraged. I was driven up South Uist, Benbecula, and North Uist on a series of four minibuses, whose equivalents I've only seen used as public transport in Palestine. At each change, the drivers would have a wee chat in Gaelic, and then head off with another Gael on the BBC radio channel broadcast in the language.

There was something else exciting about that journey too. South Uist and Benbecula – between them, home to around 2,500 people – are home to the UK's biggest community owned estate. Until recently, the two islands – and their various smaller neighbours – were owned by a collection of rich families in the Scottish borders. The families liked to fish, and South Uist, apparently, is a good place for it.

Unfortunately for the people of the island, this meant that the owners didn't invest much in anything to develop the local economy which didn't relate to fishing. And that just didn't provide enough jobs. And so, when the other major employer on the island – a British army shooting range – announced they were leaving, this started some conversations among people in the local community – people who no longer wanted to pack their young off to the mainland knowing that they would only ever return for brief holidays – people who, like everyone else, wanted prospects for their children and a future for their community.

Eventually, in November 2006, the Stòras Uibhist trust, run by a committee elected by the islanders, managed to raise the £4.5 million needed to buy the 38,000 hectares which make up South Uist, Benbecula, Eriskay and the surrounding smaller islands. After centuries of having their lives and futures governed by the whims of distant landlords, the people are finally responsible, together, as a community, for their collective fate.

And its not just South Uist. The cafe I was sat in, with the man and his Irn Bru, was in Tarbert, North Harris. Arrive in this part of the island, wiggling past the sheep who have a habit of sitting in the middle of the single track road, and you pass a sign, informing you that it too is an estate – 22,500 hectares in fact – owned and managed by the community who live there.

The people of North Harris – like their neighbours – know their history. They understand that their ancestors were starved, beaten, and forced from their homes. They understood more deeply than I can imagine what a victory it finally was when David (no relation) Cameron, the owner of the local garage and, as chair of the North Harris Trust, the elected representative of the community, was handed a piece of rock and some soil from the ground beneath him and told that conferred upon the people of North Harris was ownership of the land “from the low tide of the sea to the highest mountain top”.

The full transcript of the ceremony – in English and in Gaelic – is typed out in a beautiful history of community land buy-outs in the Highlands and Islands, named after the line of ceremony I quote above, by prof.Jim Hunter. I have read this page a few times, and still struggle to do so without crying.

And it's not just North Harris. West Harris too – home to what are widely recognised as some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (including the one overlooking the reality TV island of Taransay) – is, as of 2010, owned by the people who live there. In his book, Jim Hunter explains how the Galson estate, on Lewis, was home to brutal clearances – and to resistance against them. More than a century later, the remaining community finally took ownership of the land in 2007.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the town of Stornoway on Lewis and its surrounding area is similarly owned by the people who live there. With around 12,000 inhabitants, Stornoway is the third largest settlement in the Highlands and Islands. Unlike almost all other community owned estates, it is not a product of recent years. The people there have owned it since they were gifted it by Lord Leverhulme (of Unilever fame) in 1923. It has been run, successfully, democratically ever since.

In all, 75% of people in the Outer Hebrides now live on land owned by the local community and managed democratically. But whilst it is in this part of Scotland that community land ownership has become most prevalent, it was to the North and East, on the Mainland, that this movement began. In an area called Assynt, in 1993, a collection of crofters who had, for a number of years, been renting their land from various different property speculators and distant landlords gathered for a celebration. One of them got up and uttered the words “it seems we have won the land”.

Again, Jim Hunter's book, “from the low tide of the sea to the highest mountain top” tells the full story – and prints the speech given that night by one of the renting farmers who led his neighbours in a battle against their multinational landowners, and, upon winning, reflected on those from the community's blighted history who were not there to see this moment.

He tells too the story of the Isle of Eigg and how they have gone from a privately owned mountain in the sea, with dilapidated housing, a bullying landlord, and declining population, to a booming community with a strong economy and the world's first entirely renewable energy grid (a history I wrote about briefly last year too).

He tells the story of the Isle of Gigha, whose owner had said that he bought the community because he wanted it like a small child wants a train set, and who, in a brutal reminder of the nineteenth century, had landed the people who lived there in a position where they were all served eviction notices.

Today, the eviction notices fought off, the island owned by the islanders, the community is booming. Their three community-owned wind turbines - Creideas, Dòchas, and Carthannas (Faith, Hope and Charity) are one of many developments bringing much needed cash into the island community, to invest in their housing stock and other basic needs.

In each case, the Scottish press, the landlords, those who have an interest in how things are, have said that these plans are crazy, that they have no chance of success, that these communities would have no hope of surviving without their lords and masters. In each case, the communities have shown that the exact opposite is true.

For me, there is a lesson in all of this. It's important, I think, not to exceptionalise the places on the edges - in this case, the physical edges - of our society. Often, in such nooks, because they dull some of the background noise, we can hear more clearly what is true everywhere.

Jim Hunter says at the start of his book that, among other things, he wants to record a history of some of the remarkable people who have led the community land movement in Scotland over the last two decades – a movement in which the people who live and depend upon more than 500,000 acres of Scotland have secured community ownership of it.

In a sense, he is right. The people involved in these movements are astonishing. It's a cliché to quote George Orwell. But when he writes, in an essay I read whilst sat on the sea soaked back of the boat to South Uist, that the ultimate story of the British psyche is Jack the Giant Killer, he is right. We love the underdog.

When Highland crofters organise their community – other crofters - against the millionaires of the world, and then go on to show that they can run their affairs better than these great heroes of capital, they epitomise this narrative. That's why their stories are so moving. These people demonstrate incredible skill – they succeed in getting their heads around complex businesses and legal deals they have never had the need of before, they run fundraising campaigns which succeed in capturing the attention of people far away and which besuited London charity professionals would envy. They show leadership rarely seen on the green benches of the House of Commons.

They are, in a sense, true folk heroes of our age. Or they should be.

But this is not because Highlanders are intrinsically better people. And the reason I think all of this matters is because of what it teaches us about humanity. As with many people, my lessons of life have often come from my family. In a comment below a blog post I once wrote, my brother, Gilbert, said this:

“The... myth is that the world contains only a handful of ultra brilliant people and that if one exhausts one’s stock of them, then one has lost one’s most important resource. Fifth century Athens, for example, produced in one generation some of the most important thinkers and writers of all time, geniuses like Plato and Euripides and Aristophanes. At the time, the population of the whole of Attica (most of whom were illiterate, of course), was about the same as present day Lowestoft. Humanity is swarming with geniuses. What matters is creating the circumstances to nurture them.”

Every single community land buy out in Scotland has been an incredible success. Released from alienation via absentee landlords, given the chance to figure out solutions to their problems together, as equals, people have taken on the most outrageously ambitious projects to inject life into their communities, provide economic opportunities for young people and encourage the long term decline to reverse.

And they have succeeded: new shops have opened, new pubs have launched, whole renewable energy grids, even a new deer stalking club. North Harris is, I am told, considering opening a distillery. After more than a century of decline, these communities are thriving.

This summer, the Scottish results of the 2011 census were released. It showed that there are now more people in the Outer Hebrides than there were in 2001 – with 5.5% more on the island that includes Harris and Lewis. For a community blighted by de-population, this is the ultimate in good news. There are many reasons for this. But looking at the number of new jobs and opportunities created by community land buy outs, it is hard to conclude anything but that this is a factor.


Sunset on South Uist beach. Flickr/Captain Oates. All rights reserved.

The communities of the Highlands and Islands have shown how we can create the context to nurture genius. They have shown us that, if you hand power to ordinary communities, full of ordinary people and if you trust them to run their own affairs, together, they will work out how to do it better than anyone outside can.

After my visit, I travelled from Harris to Skye, to the mainland, to Glasgow and, ultimately, to London, to start a new job. I'll be working at openDemocracy, co-editing the UK section, OurKingdom where, I hope, I can help create a space that fosters the genius found when humans talk as equals, when we figure out solutions to our problems, together. I'm excited.


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