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 4 Stages of Land Reform - Scotland


The Precious Burden


Contribution No. 3 for The Hebridean


(Contribution 4 follows on below)  

Published in The Hebridean, Stornoway, 2 October 2003, pp. 8-9.


Alastair McIntosh continues his occasional series on the nature of community, this week exploring the first three stages of empowerment towards land reform.



In the first of these occasional articles on the nature of community – the one published on 14th August - I suggested that the movement for community land ownership in Scotland has so far passed through three stages, and that it is now ripe for a fourth.


I suggested that these stages were awareness-raising, establishing pioneering patterns and examples, and the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Today I’d like to explore these and particularly the first in some detail, and next time look at the fourth, which is about capacity building for sustained community empowerment.


Stage one in land reform, then, is concerned with awareness-raising. And by the way, much of what I’m suggesting here will apply equally to other forms of community development. With land, the starting point is to recognise that for generations, Highland folks’ relationship with their place had been disrupted by landlordism. In many areas it was literally a matter, as the saying goes, of  “It all goes back to Culloden.” Landlords slipped in to the psychological mould previously created by clan chiefs. Communities were left confused in their loyalties, like with the wicked stepmother in the fairytale. True, there have been many “good landlords”. But the very fact they have to be described as “good” speaks volumes for the system as a whole. And really, in this day and age is such feudal paternalism really healthy for our communities?


It took the historical research of people like John Prebble, James Hunter, Charles Withers, Mairi MacArthur and Ewen Cameron to awaken academic awareness of a neglected field of study. At a more popular level of communication, I personally owe a great debt of gratitude to Francis Thompson’s little book, Crofting Years, which I bought on Iona in 1987, and to Malcolm MacLean’s and Christopher Carrell’s magisterial work, As an Fhearann: From the Land, published in 1986 with an Lanntair in Stornoway.


The power of MacLean’s and Carrell’s book was that it spoke not just in a blend of historical and contemporary words, but also in a plethora of pictures. It explored the colonisation of land and the cultural soul alike all the way from the Clearances through to the Stornoway NATO base. No other book except, more recently, James Hunter’s The Other Side of Sorrow, unpacks with such brilliance of psychological insight the “psychohistory” of our part of the world – that is to say, the manner in which the history of place has interacted with the psychology of its people. And by the way, I recall a conversation with “Malky”, my onetime near-neighbour in Lochs, in which he generously pointed out that his co-editor, Christopher, was an English incomer, who had chosen to become sensitive to the history of the ground on which he now lived. Such is how sense of belonging can develop.


But awareness-raising was not just a function of a new wave of scholarship that emerged in the 1980’s. The academics were in part encouraged, I think, by the music of bands like Runrig, and other powerful artistic stirrings such the Feis movement and a revived wave of Gaelic poetry made widely accessible with English translations. I think, for example of Christopher Whyte’s landmark edited collection of 1990, An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd – In the Face of Eternity. Raghnall MacilleDhuibh’s breathtaking An Tuil is a more recent example. We also had a new generation of Gaels in the broadcast media, who were both culturally grounded and worldly-wise. These made the remarkable discovery that if you turn a camera or microphone towards the more objectionable type of laird, they themselves will do the job of demolishing their own foundations. Give us more Vestys and Schellenbergs, I say!


This process of public awareness-raising can itself be seen as having three steps nested within it. These are of great importance, so let me give them some space. In the first step, it is necessary for communities to re-member (and the hyphen is deliberate, implying putting back together) their own story. It is necessary for folks to validate, or legitimise, their social history, and not just the official version as told, or more often, not told, in the school curriculum.


Only having grasped and owned the power of their story can a people move to step two in awareness-raising, which is re-visioning. This is about asking what it could be like if a community was to come more into control of its own destiny. Re-visioning is exciting but, inevitably, emotionally painful work. In entails a community, or at least, those willing to take social responsibility within it, facing up to both their shortcomings and their possibilities. It is about applying to one’s own community the management school strategic planning formula known as SWOT: enquiring what are the Strengths and Weaknesses of the community, and what Opportunities and Threats face it.


Step 3 of the awareness-raising process after re-membering and re-visioning is re-claiming. This is the stage at which a community decides to no longer tolerate attrition and decline. It’s like the alcoholic having hit rock bottom and now determined, by some amazing grace, to get a life again. It’s the point at which people come forward, support one another, and work with politicians, statutory authorities, the media, and whatever else it takes to bring their place back to life. Where landlordism has been the main problem, it may mean community buyouts. Where an opportunity/threat like windfarming is the issue, it means understanding the implications and collectively discerning what the community really wants.


These three steps, all of which contribute to the wider cultural awareness-raising process, were each very clear during the Eigg, Assynt, North Harris as well as in smaller campaigns such as the Uig buyout. They’re about building a necessary groundswell of local support to carry the “burden of awareness” … but it is a “precious burden”. It gives life. It involves reclaiming history, building solidarity, and developing the leadership to assume in new and democratically accountable ways what was once the landlord’s usurped power. At the deepest levels it involves nothing less than spiritual discernment; even, dare one say, a kind of actively applied prayer for the community’s renewal. This is why the involvement of the churches has been so such subtle but crucial importance in the land reform movement. Deep down land reform is about being a peoples: about who we are and what we become.


So much for awareness-raising. Stage two of land reform is re-visioning - the establishment of pioneering and often experimental patterns and examples. Every community is different, and there can be no set formula, yet there is much to be learned from one another. Land reform will typically start in those communities where the relationship with the landowner has been so bad that people will try anything. However, if what they do works, others in less-precarious positions will take note and consider their own options. This is what’s happening on Barra at the moment.


Providing patterns and examples is why Assynt and Eigg have been such icons. For those of us who started the Eigg Trust back in 1991, it was also why the Stornoway Trust was inspirational. Indeed, we featured it prominently in the Eigg Trust’s debut manifesto. The weird thing was that community land ownership around Stornoway had worked so well, relatively speaking, and for so long, that hardly anybody was at that time noticing it as a shining beacon of civic achievement!


Having the trail already blazed can be decisive in shaping futures elsewhere. The people of Gigha, for example, decided to take the plunge only after their leadership made a visit to Eigg and were astonished to see the difference that had been made - not just “on the ground” in terms of full employment and new businesses, but more especially, in the community’s confidence. And that’s a terribly important point. In this day and age, land reform is not only about the organisation of agriculture. It goes much further than that. It is about developing the psychological confidence to become a more functional community. It is about the wider benefits of being able to live “with” the land and not necessarily just “from” the land.


On now to re-claiming. If stage one of land reform is about awareness-raising, and stage two sets patterns and examples, this third stage is consolidation in legislation. Specifically, it has meant the passing of the recent Land Reform (Scotland) Act – a momentous process for which much credit is due to the current Western Isles’ MP and MSP.


However, it was only able to become a political flagship for the new Parliament due to lots of ordinary folks in small Highland and Island communities digging the advance channels into which the subsequent political waters could flow. The heartening lesson from this is never to underestimate what it means to “do politics”. Politics is about working with people. Every one of us who engages with others in a meaningful way is politically active. We don’t have to be in a party or standing for election. We simply need to be active in the community, helping one another to re-member, re-vision and re-claim.


It would be foolish to think that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act will likely have a large measurable impact. Its effect will be far more subtle than can be measured merely in the number of buy-out acres. It will be one of those acts that works cleverly, doing its job mainly by virtue of being there as a Sword of Damocles, to be lowered if necessary.


Already, we have seen Macneil of Barra I think generously, in spite of his modest protestations otherwise in this newspaper, giving away the land; and it has been my impression, generally, that reports of bad landlordism have declined dramatically since the 1990’s. That’s because the boot is now on the other foot. Crofting communities can now evict their lairds outright, and in non-crofting areas, they can lay down a community claim-of-right by legally establishing a trust-in-waiting. Even if the legal powers are never used, they give once-powerless communities an effective say.


In conclusion, in just a little over a decade now, we have seen three stages mapped out on the route to land reform and community empowerment. We’ve seen conscious awareness being raised of the possibility of change, we’ve seen patterns and examples established, and we’ve now got legislation consolidating the rearguard.


The last and final stage needs to be the strengthening of local democratic processes for processes like decision-making and conflict resolution. This, I believe, will be the most challenging but most life-giving. Of that, more next time.






The value of what is already there



Published in The Hebridean, 23 Oct 2003, p. 11 (Feature No. 4).


This week Alastair McIntosh explores community capacity building as the 4th stage of land reform.



Last time we looked at the first three stages of land reform. I called them, 1) re-membering, so that we understand the psychohistory of what has happened to our communities, 2) re-visioning, so that we weigh up the options that land reform could open out to us; and 3) re-claiming, where we take the necessary life-giving steps towards bringing about change.


But of course, in many a good organic apple, there’s a worm – and if we bite unwittingly on that worm, so much the worse for us. At the same time, if we never bite at all – if we stay paralysed by our fears - we hunger.


The commonsense conclusion is that we need to learn how to bite carefully. That means being realistic about what there is to fear from change, and going about change (or consciously choosing to leave things unchanged) in ways that face up to these very legitimate fears.


What kind of fears are we talking about? There are many, but here I’d like to look at two – polarisation of the community, and the setting loose of long-repressed conflicts within it.


Let me give a modest example of the first. When the North Harris buyout was first aired, John Murdo Morrison, one of the five directors of the Harris Hotel in Tarbet and a “weighty” figure in the community, voiced unease as to whether the idea was sound or not.


It dismayed me to see him pilloried for this in some quarters of the press. Not least, I myself harboured many of the same fears as he’d articulated.


North Harris was not like Eigg. It was not, at that time, suffering from bad landlordism. Somebody therefore needed to ask challenging questions about where the energy and economic wherewithal would come from to power up a community bid. If I have understood things correctly, John Murdo took on that uncomfortable role. Subsequently, a feasibility study was carried out, and based on the new evidence thereby produced, he ended up throwing his considerable influence behind the buyout.


In this simple story we see a very important principle of community dynamics at work. What John Murdo was doing was voicing a concern that many harboured, but which he had the courage and position to articulate.


Equally, those pushing the idea forward in the early stages were also courageously voicing something on behalf of the wider community. It needed both these positions to be taken to establish a balance that could then be weighed up, just like you need a positive and a negative in a battery before current will flow.


The fact is that all proposed new developments – whether land buyouts, windfarms, fishfarms, superquarries, or whatever - are rarely black-and-white good-or-bad things for the community. They’re always shades of grey. That is why the starting point in effective community capacity building is to establish procedures for openly looking at the pros and cons. This kind of community education will be done by real people – ordinary people like you and me – and this means that they will rightly take up different positions on what may be a long front or spectrum of opinion.


The crucial thing is to recognise is that, except where corruption or vested interests contaminate motives in undeclared ways, folks are not necessarily doing this just for themselves. They’re doing it for the community as a whole. The community of many functions like one organism. It is comprised, after all, of “members one of another”.


We therefore have to be very careful always to try and “go heavy on the issues, but gentle on the people”.  Those with whom we disagree are, in truth, providing as much of a service to the community’s discernment process as those we agree with. If we treasure the community’s social cohesion, we need to care for each other more deeply than we care about any issue that might be dividing us.


In this it might be well to remember that a great teacher of long ago never told us not to have “enemies”. Having enemies can be inevitable. He had many Himself. Our duty is only to try and love them … or at least, “respect” them. That way, we can hold on to our common humanity come what may and avoid the splitting of the community.


A major new development in any community and particularly one caused by outside forces such as a corporation is like dropping a magnet into a tray of iron filings. An invisible force field polarises folks into North-South allignments, and if we’re not careful, that magnetism can rub-off and continue affecting other totally unrelated issues for a long time.


That’s why we need to try and operate always with profound respect for the other side. If in conflict, we need to try and treat one another less as “enemies”, than as “worthy adversaries” as they’d say in the martial arts. In other words, we do combat but not in ways that violate basic respect.


Here’s an example of what I mean. I remember during the superquarry debate taking a group of students from the Free University of Brussels on a study tour of Lewis and Harris. One of our events was to have a pro- and anti- superquarry member of the Harris community each present their views on a shared platform in the Tarbet Hotel.


Understandably, being students of human ecology, our group was biased from the outset. They were nearly all against the idea of a superquarry in a pristine National Scenic Area. But what really impressed them and taught them something special was the marked respect that the two speakers showed for each other’s positions.


The students’ overwhelming conclusion was that both speakers were at odds over whether or not the superquarry would be a good thing, but they shared the same concern for the wellbeing of the community.


The students were struck by the profound dignity of this in an otherwise cruelly adversarial world. They spoke of it restoring their faith in humanity, and the possibility of sustaining community. It was something very Hebridean.


My only regret was that I’d been unable to attend the debate myself due to the funeral that afternoon of my good friend, John MacGregor of Gearrannan. John was somebody who’d taught me much about community dynamics. He was deeply perceptive of human relations. Indeed, I could arrive with a busload of students, and he would accurately psychoanalyse each one of them in the moment it took to climb down the bus stairs! He did it just by observing their mannerisms because he was of a culture that knew how to “read” human beings. These are the kind of skills that we need to treasure and pass on. They make for strong communities of people who aren’t fools.


Indeed, I was showing pictures of people like John in upper New York State during a lecture tour in August. What I found striking was the number of people who came up to me afterwards and said, “You know, our problem in America is that we don’t have elders and a tradition of learning from them like you have. That’s what makes our communities so vulnerable.”


Such observations all deepen my sense that the starting point in community empowerment is to recognise the value of what is already there, and especially, the inclusion, as much as is reasonably possible, of those with whom we might not be in agreement. This doesn’t come naturally in a world of increasing competition where the winner triumphantly takes all. However, that world, as Robert Burns wrote in Strathallan’s Lament, ends up becoming “a world without a friend.” If we genuinely want to build capacity for achieving things in community, we need to develop a sensitivity and empathy that ensures that the voices of all are heard. Equally, it needs to be understood that being heard is not necessarily the same as being agreed with!


That brings us on to the worry about setting loose conflicts within the community. “If the people of Eigg get their own land, they’ll all fight like cats in a bag,” I can remember one laird warning.


Well, the people of Eigg did get their own land, and from time to time they do fight like cats in a bag. At the same time, the people of Eigg like most other communities are not stupid. They see when they’re on a learning curve that means acquiring new skills and sensitivities. They recognise they can choose between letting their manure stink, or composting it into something from which new life can grow.


The first thing about dealing with conflict in the community is to recognise that it is normal. If there was no conflict before when the laird was in charge, it was only because he held the lid down, and that’s not healthy.


So, yes, conflict is normal in a healthy community. But we have to learn how to recognise it. We need to learn how to spot, name and nail not only open aggression, but also concealed forms such as passive aggression. And we need forums and procedures where the causes of conflict can be brought out and worked on in just and accountable ways, so as to move towards fairness and resolution.


There are skills around for doing this. Indeed, only last night I spent time in Edinburgh with a member of a Hebridean community who had just been on a conflict resolution course. Interestingly, her conclusion was that what her island most needs is a strengthening of local democratic structures, so that nobody can claim that they lacked the chance to stand for election and participate in the making of local decisions.


Also what is needed in many situations is for the community as a whole to recognise the need to rally round and support those who have been chosen to lead it. Leadership can be a thankless and lonely task. You can feel misunderstood and persecuted from all sides. It’s easy to become drained of energy and to burn out.


That can only be avoided if leaders, once democratically chosen and appointed, are given support and respect. We may not agree with them and we may intend voting them out the next time round, but while they’re there they can only serve the community if it is receptive to being served.


Addressing leadership structures and training for community empowerment is a huge and exciting relatively new agenda for the Highlands and Islands. It is something that, we might hope, public bodies like HIE’s Community Land Unit might pick up on as we now enter into the capacity building stage of land reform.


Land reform has given us the long-awaited “revolution”. Let’s ensure we’re not rebels without a clue!




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20 October 2003