The Precious Burden
Contribution No. 3 for The Hebridean
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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