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 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



Colonised Land; Colonised Mind


Alastair McIntosh


A summary of the Isle of Eigg community buyout campaign, first published in Resurgence, No. 184, 1997, pp. 28-30.  


Also see:


  1. 1991 Isle of Eigg Trust launch address and original Trust manifesto, outlining the original vision,

  2. The Scottish Highlands in Colonial and Psychodynamic Perspective for historical context and detail about the early stages of the Eigg campaign.

  3. The above in French translation, Les Highlands écossais dans une perspective coloniale et psychodynamique, (228KB). 

  4. 1992 open letter to Keith Schellenberg, "Laird" of Eigg

  5. Address to the Council of the Scottish Landowners' Federation (now the SRPBA)

  6. The Eigg Freedom Shlide celebratory (sheet) music.

  7. The official Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust website.



In 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.”


Today 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.


There 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.


Most 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.


The 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.


After 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.


The 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.


Previously 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.


Once 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. Many killed.


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:


Many 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


Such 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 restitution.


Why 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?


Well, 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?


Instead, 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.


How 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 seventeenth century.


We 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”.


The 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:


Why 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.


Next, 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 creativity.


And 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.


Increasingly, 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 from them.


In 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. 


Environmentally, 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.


In 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.


The 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.


As 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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