Eigg: Decolonising Land & Mind
Eigg, as jointly portrayed by 1997 selling agents, Knight Frank and the "island brokerage" company of Farhad Vladi which said it all, Vladi Private Islands
Land; Colonised Mind
summary of the Isle of Eigg community buyout campaign, first
published in Resurgence, No. 184, 1997, pp. 28-30.
June 1997 residents of the Isle of Eigg in the Hebrides made land reform news
that flashed across the world from the Scottish press to Australian television
and even the front page of the Zimbabwe Daily Telegraph. Through a tremendous
community effort they had reversed 169 years of landlordism by becoming owners
of their own place, jointly with Highland Council - their local authority - and
the Scottish Wildlife Trust. No more would their home, beloved by thousands of
warmly welcomed visitors each year and rare wildlife species, be a mere
playground for the rich under a feudal system that the island’s retired doctor
had described as being, “like living under enemy occupation, except you’re
not allowed to shoot the buggers”. For me as a land rights campaigner, it was
all summed up at the celebration party that weekend by an indigenous woman who
said, “Yesterday I had a house; today I’ve got a home.”
in Brazil, which has probably the most inequitable land ownership pattern in
Latin America, fully 1% of the population possess only 45% of the land. But in
Scotland, a recent survey by Andy Wightman reveals that nearly two-thirds of the
privately owned land is held by just 1,000 people. These would represent
one-fiftieth of one percent of the population, were it not that many are
absentee landlords and therefore non-resident. They include English aristocrats,
Arabian oil sheikhs, Swiss bankers, South African industrialists, racing car
drivers, pop stars, arms dealers and others not noted for their
socio‑ecological awareness. Their sole qualification to own Scotland is
that they are rich.
are no controls on who can buy what quantity of land, no requirements of
residency as in many other countries, few controls over how a landowner can use
or abuse land except where buildings are concerned, and Scotland is thought to
be the only country in the world still retaining a formally feudal
system in which tenants are “vassals” in law to their “feudal
superiors”. “Lairds”, as landowners are known, can and do abuse
communities by evicting tenants, monopolising or taxing commercial activity and
damaging the environment for bloodsport management.
of our indigenous crofting communities effectively comprise of native
reservations on the poorest land. Crofting is a way of life is based on a
mixture of agriculture, fishing, weaving, tourism, etc.. Many communities
display a deep-seated disempowerment and even social dysfunctionality. I believe
this reflects in the North and West of Scotland’s disproportionately high
levels of unemployment, smoking,
alcohol abuse, suicide and possibly even in the high incidence of heart disease.
A relatively recent history of land usurpation and collapse of cultural
confidence has literally left communities in a state of heartbrokenness. Only
recently has a sea-change of re-empowerment set in, and the recent restitution
of community land rights on Eigg is a prime example of this.
Scottish feudal system dates back to the twelfth century when it was designed to
reward military and fiscal loyalty to David I’s Normanised court. It is a
colonising system that is closely tied in with the whole process leading up to
the industrial revolution, whereby land in Britain was “enclosed” - which is
to say, privatised. Thereafter land became a market commodity, the worth of
which was no longer how many people it could support, but what profit it could
yield. To this day the people of Britain - England as much as Scotland - remain
largely alienated from their decreasingly “green and pleasant land”. The
psychology of this is worrying. Over the generations its pathology has been
magnified worldwide by the global imprint of British colonialism.
the Union of the Crowns in 1603 under King James VI of Scotland and I of
England, strenuous efforts were made to “civilise” the tribal parts of
Britain and Ireland, as well as to commence overseas colonisation. James
established a colony in North America (tellingly featured in Disney’s
surprisingly anti-colonial film,
Pocohontas). He divided the Irish and Scots Gaels by the “plantation” of
poor, mainly Scots Protestants, on indigenous Catholic land in Ulster. This set
in train 400 years of sectarian bitterness by wronging the indigenous Irish and
wrongfooting the settlers. And in Scotland, to force subjugation of the
Highlanders, he sent a ship to kidnap twelve of our most powerful chiefs. These
were thrown into prison over winter and not released until they agreed to sign
the Statutes of Iona in 1609.
statutes undermined the Gaelic language, thus the culture, by requiring the
first son of any leading family to be educated in English. This meant going away
to boarding school instead of learning clan tradition. Hospitality was also
restricted, which curtailed patronage of the bardic poetic schools. The final
cultural blow came with the laws that proscribed traditional culture following
defeat of the Highlanders at the last battle on mainland British soil - Culloden
in 1746. These measures included forbidding freedom of assembly and wearing of
the tartan kilt. They had a cultural neutron bomb effect, destroying the soul
whilst leaving outward authority structures intact. Gaelic peoples endowed of
the Celtic heart were forced into a Romanised, Normaised, Anglicised world view.
In so colonising people’s minds, the way was cleared to colonise their lands.
the Gaelic language and bardic traditions had been central to maintaining the
mythopoetic reality of the peoples. The bards were in touch with the equivalent
of our songlines and dreamtime. As political advisors to the military chiefs,
they represented a Scots-Irish Gaelic intelligentsia who were free to move
between territories, even during conflict. They upheld a welfare state ethic of
service from chief towards the and their nature poetry suggests that they also
codified ecologically sustainable relationship by defining totem and taboo and
enshrining reverence for the nature. Indeed, each letter in the Gaelic alphabet
is represented by a tree, making the very language structure totemic. Some bards
and their training methods were undoubtedly shamanic.
the cultural psyche had been broken down, the stage was set for the diaspora
known as the “Highland Clearances”. Throughout the nineteenth century whole
villages of people were pushed off their land - some burnt out by fire or
hounded with dogs. Directly, or indirectly by economic pressure, some half a
million people were forced to become factory fodder for the industrial
revolution or dispatched on emigrant ships to populate the colonies. Oppressed
became oppressor as they took over other native peoples’ lands. Many died.
One of the countless harrowing accounts of the
Clearances is from Catherine MacPhee of North Uist. She speaks with the bardic
power of an Old Testament prophet:
a thing have I seen in my own day and generation.
Many a thing, O Mary Mother of the black sorrow! I have seen the
townships swept, and the big holdings being made of them, the people being
driven out of the countryside to the streets of Glasgow and to the wilds of
Canada, such of them as did not die of hunger and plague and smallpox while
going across the ocean. I have seen the women putting the children in the carts
which were being sent from Benbecula and the Iochdar to Loch Boisdale, while
their husbands lay bound in the pen and were weeping beside them, without power
to give them a helping hand, though the women themselves were crying aloud and
their little children wailing like to break their hearts.
I have seen the big strong men, the champions of the countryside, the
stalwarts of the world, being bound on Loch Boisdale quay and cast into the ship
as would be done to a batch of horses or cattle in the boat, the bailiffs and
the ground‑officers and the constables and the policemen gathered behind
them in pursuit of them. The God of
life and He only knows all the loathsome work of men on that day
cruelty was actually inflicted across much of Europe in the past. What
distinguishes the Scottish Highlands and Ireland is its recency. Closeness to
the folk memory is why these places are now taking the lead in effecting land
is this necessary? After all, should bygones not be left undisturbed? And is it
not the case that some landlords are “improving landlords” who, for
generations, have conserved trees, mansions and other features of the cultural
landscape? Would the common people not rape the land for short term gain in
contrast to, say, the eco-friendly Dukes of Westminster or Buccleuch?
we need experiments like Eigg to find out. But inasmuch as the wider problem is
tied in with our industrialised mindset, restoration of links to the land is one
of the antidotes obviously needed to make a people fitting for the the land, and
not just “land for the people”. Also, I believe that an empowered community
is a better safeguard for nature than an old-guard family where, if the next
heir proves irresponsible, it could all be grubbed up. Worse still, patronage
disempowers. And in any case, why should communities have to pay a tax, known as
rent, to be unearned income for the heirs of those who usually stole the land in
the first place?
groups like the Eigg Trust, the Assynt crofters and the Stornoway Trust which
was established in 1924 are community land trusts where rents go to support
democratic community self-management. Usually residents remain tenants, but as
they are also the landlords, their tenancy is unto their collective selves. Such
a system is neither capitalist nor communist, but communitarian. In crofting,
the tenancies can be inherited. This allows individual entrepreneurial freedom
within a framework of communal oversight.
can one help to open up such an agenda in a disempowered community? How can
people be motivated to decolonise their lands? I think it starts with reclaiming
the collective psyche. Personally, I use a three-stage approach that I call
re-membering, re-visioning and re-claiming. It uses what the Brazilian educator,
Paulo Freire, calls “conscientisation” - a word that embraces conscience and
consciousness. It has its roots deep in the liberation theology of Latin
America, of the Highland and Irish land league reformers of the nineteenth
century, and the English Diggers, Levellers, Ranters and Quakers of the
must start by re-membering what has been lost, both in material and
psychospiritual terms, by reclaiming social history. Then we can re-vision ways
of restoring the three-way human ecological relationship between community,
nature and the inner self of each person. Only then are we ready to re-claim a
due share of what is ours by taking responsibility not just for life as mere
survival, but as John 10:10 puts it, for “life abundant”.
first step in this is the recovery of history. Just as a family suffering
abusive cycles of sexual, physical or substance abuse need to try and recover
personal history in psychotherapy, so we need a cultural psychotherapy which
helps us understand how traumatic events of the past have cauterised our ability
to feel and relate. Social history and local history crystalise this process. As
the half-Cockney Assynt crofter leader, Alan MacRae, said of their reclaiming
their land previously held by the Vesty meat barons:
did it happen? It was waiting to happen. History had stood still too long in
Assynt. All people living close to the land draw strength from the land. For any
indigenous people their nature is all wrapped up in the land. Heritage is not a
commodity. It’s what makes people what they are. Man (sic) is just as much a
part of nature as any other animal, and is perfectly entitled to protect what is
his own. It’s his land. The landlords have failed the land.
a community must re-vision how it could reorganise itself if it had control over
local resources. This is what much bioregional green thinking provides the tools
to achieve. The use of the arts are as central to inspiring this as are
financial, economic, social development and agricultural skills. You cannot, in
my view, achieve community vision and unity unless the bards, in their many
forms, are at work invoking and communicating the Spirit through profound
finally, the hard work of reclaiming takes place. At present in Scotland this
has been through fundraising and market structures, albeit by putting off
conventional bidders by market spoiling tactics which signal that “the natives
are restless”. We had to raise £1.5 million to buy back Eigg, but at 7,400
acres that represents fully 1% of private land in the Scottish Highlands. At
that rate, the whole Highlands could be reclaimed for £150 million. This seems
huge, but is actually only of the same order as the Highland people’s
contribution to Trident nuclear submarines over their thirty year lifespan in
defending a land that we don’t even possess.
however, we must look to legislative approaches to land reform. It is ridiculous
that the people should have to buy back at market rates what was once stolen
advancing this agenda we must broaden our understanding of what it means to be
native to a place. Not least, this is so that those incomers who care and are
genuinely committed are not threatened by any spectre of ethnic cleansing. As
Hitler showed, land and fascism are too closely connected to ignore this danger.
In the globally mixed village we need a new understanding of belonging. I would
suggest that all are indigenous to a place
who are willing to cherish and be cherished by that place and its peoples.
as the poor have long known, the Earth can no longer afford the rich. The land
matters to us because it is land, not money, that represents the primary means
of production. It is nothing other than that natural nature in which human
nature comes to know itself. As history reveals, colonisation of land and
colonisation of the mind go hand in hand.
seeking to reverse this and to cry freedom, it is not necessary to live directly
from the land, but it is necessary to live with it or have ready unimpeded
access to it - even if actually exercised only in the wild places and magical
regions of the mind. A people denied the option
of connection with their land are a people dispossessed of both place and self;
a people for whom a “land of hope and glory” has no more reality than an
annual dusting down in the front row of the Proms, while the rich watch smugly
from their boxes.
question of community land rights in Scotland or the rest of Britain and
worldwide is therefore much more than just the right to plant trees, catch a
fish or be free from the egotistical dominion of ownership by old families in
gloomy mansions or faceless corporate executives. It is the question of who we
are, what we are, were we are and how we are as a people struggling to
articulate the fullness of our humanity.
the Scots folksinger Dougie MacLean puts it, “You can’t own the land; the
land owns you.”
Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of the Centre for
Human Ecology, which has re-established as an independent academic. This article
is based on Alastair’s forthcoming book, “Soil and Soul”.
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