A case of arrested develpment
Many a worthy tome has been penned on the usually tragic events and desperate people who shaped and defined the modern Highlands. Abiding themes of endemic grief and grinding hardship in a land of peerless beauty have been gleefully embraced by artists and writers for centuries. The political classes and urban chatterati in general just love this side of the Caledonian Moat - many even have charming little cottages here.
I’m often astounded at how readily some who have been here but a few short summers seem to know everything about the place and people, despite their contact with these being largely confined to brand new community groups that sustain only with statutory funding and political blessing. How did our communities exist before? Were we just imagining it all?
Many seem to mistake mere proximity for something it can never be, as if post code alone is sufficient to confer a sense of belonging. They buy property and assume that a ready to use lifestyle came with the quarter acre. Economically home and dry, but with no naturally occurring connection through work or family to the place they find, many seem to strive to make it resemble the one they just left, a shadow play of what they alone imagine Highland community once was, based on holiday memories and third-hand experience. They may have worked hard and struggled to get here, but they have never struggled here. Struggling is a tradition in these parts; it gives insight.
Their Community is a homogenised one, measured in precise units, its actions and limits dictated by grant aid, any awkward natural social dynamic completely choked off. It’s easier and probably necessary to have some pity here, but when “community life” is being commoditized, packaged and sold along with the postcards, it’s impossible not to detect a profound conceit. When the views of superannuated holiday makers trump the views of those already here and collar all discretionary public spending without being asked to, they at least deserve some scrutiny. If they have the community backing they would have us believe, I’m sure they can cope, too.
But leaving aside the conveniently ignored impact of a socially delinquent property mania on rural communities everywhere, there is an abundance of comforting benignity to be gleaned from these now officially wild lands. No stone is left unturned by an unquenchable thirst for information about the place we live, even if it’s stuff we already know. If there isn’t something perched on it, growing on it or crawling underneath it, geologists will take a chisel to it.
To temporarily calm fragile nerves, I’ll say now, long may this pursuit of knowledge for its own sake continue. It’s up to us if we think manpower and resource might be usefully re-directed.
Thanks in no small part to, in any order, Beatrix Potter, Blue Peter and David Attenborough, more and more people are taking an interest in our flora and fauna, too, some of which is unique and therefore automatically designated as endangered, though, most isn’t really. Nonetheless, there is a wealth of material and career opportunity here for the dedicated conservationist. Hopefully their exhaustive studies will one day acknowledge that while they may have been amongst the few ever to have drawn a salary from pointing at black-throated divers, they weren’t actually the first to observe them. Until very recently, nobody was really counting and folks just used to leave them alone.
And clinging on tenaciously betwixt deep blue sea and windswept hill lurks that other hardy perennial, us. As we’ve been told by archaeologists and historians, we’ve been kicking around against apparently insurmountable odds for a while now. We have an abundance of accumulated wisdom to help us on our way today, but while we can learn any amount about our distant past and are as good as told what to think and how to feel about it, there is surprisingly little in the way of critical overview of the period after WW2, particularly the 60s to the present.
There are contemporary accounts of events, of course, and there is an avalanche of opinion on anything you can shake a fist at. The decline of crofting and Gaelic and the arrival of electricity have been noted, appraised and generally defeatist conclusions drawn. The effect of the HIDB and the long-overdue hand up the Highlands desperately needed and richly deserved – the names on the war memorials should provide argument enough – has been noted, even if the original idea is posted missing, last seen heading south around 1985. (Of course, the continued existence of development agencies as de facto departments of state could conceivably be interpreted as an admission of political failure, given that in 60 years they have clearly failed to address a long identified demographic tail-spin.)
Compared to the tireless and agonised dissertations on the effects of 1980s de-industrialisation in Central Scotland, there is very little in the way of a parallel functioning synopsis for the Highlands beyond the subjectively inferred and usually pretty ropey narratives politicians appear to glean from the “on this day 25 years ago” columns in the local blats.
Myriad analyses of the Clearances focus on those who left for the New World, leaving those who didn’t as a footnote. A popular view amongst urban dwellers, indeed, a primary draw to these parts, is that it is somehow always behind the times by a decade or so. This can cause both mirth and irritation for us, but by most crude measures, the ones we’ve become all too accustomed to, it is also largely true. Ask your broadband or mobile provider. It’s the same with much else. It isn’t hard to look at the remnants of our fishing and crofting industries and see the tail end of 1980s industrial re-alignment finishing its job. We’re several recessions behind the rest of the country.
Many bemoan the standard of history teaching in schools. Some, quite wrongly, even question its value, but when I realise that our politicians probably understand more about the Highland Clearances than they do about present day strife, it strikes me that we may be missing something, perhaps the very device a knowledge of history might equip us with; a handle on the present. Legend has it that we strive to learn from history, but it seems today that many simply learn history, as if this were a self-defining virtue.
It would be nice if some enterprising academic might one fine day turn an eye to more recent history without seeing it only through the prisms of land reform, point-missing re-runs of Local Hero, unworkable pseudo-collectivism, environmental fundamentalism and sheet music heritage. I’m sure there could be a research grant and Ph.D. in it for someone.
The same extra gravitational forces persist today as a hundred or a thousand years ago. For a while after the wars that denied entire generations of Highlanders their birth, these were held in abeyance, sometimes even appearing overcome, but they never went away.
Unceasing incantation of that wearisome cliché, “promoting sustainable development”, has written its own dismal epitaph. We have seen eminently sustainable communities wither on the vine for want of political imagination and have allowed expensive gimmicks to take up the dismal slack. The few remaining crofters struggle while hobby farmers get their mugs in the paper for having pet cows. Well paid jobs vanish and are replaced with “volunteering opportunities” whereby we can help people on salaries do jobs which might just have been tenable in the days before the crash but cannot be justified while our schools lose teaching hours. Care for the elderly struggles to keep parity with concern for sphagnum moss and sea eagles when public spending budgets are being set.
Through unquestioning deference to labyrinthal check-box development structures propped up by endless in depth and fascinating studies and observations about very little while the obvious shrivels in the corner, we have allowed the inertia of dead-hand environmentalist diktat and cut’n’paste pop politics to claim the day.
Nowhere else on these islands is so much natural resource and human ability not only neglected but actively suppressed, a trend seized on by environmental charities that now have the ear of government and know exactly how to stymie planning applications. Campaigning methods and zeal once reserved for anti-war demonstrations are brought to bear on fragile communities seeking to erect single wind turbines and our politicians pay heed for fear of being deemed anti-environment. Of course, there’s nothing new here in essence; it used to be ministers and priests dishing out the morality lectures, though less earnestly and the dogma wasn’t as cloying.
Struggling communities would do well to be a little less credulous and less prepared to lick the hand of whatever conjuring trickster is in vogue when grants are being dished out. They should instead perhaps take a long hard look and ask why it is that after decades of hideously expensive, one-size fits all “development”, much of which seems designed to prevent just that, the age bulge is still heading north and the shops are getting quieter. The steady flow of young working incomers that once topped up the gap left by departing locals has dried up. The opportunities are not here now.
If something doesn’t give soon, future histories of remote communities in early 21st century Sutherland will make for just as grim reading as those of the early 18th, but without even contrived nostalgia for solace – the craic is not something born of a committee; it does not recognise the chair. The outcome will be much the same. As if to underline the timeless irony, owning the land will mean nothing.
Those who are truly of the place, have lived and breathed it, grown with it, loved it and shared its joys and sorrows will disperse, just as those two centuries ago did. The communities we are presently being invited to buy our own membership of will exist only in the dimming imaginations of the dinner parties in leafiest suburb in the British Isles.