This Land is our Land
Right over the holidays Bella will be publishing a series of review of 2012 and previews of the year ahead. Collectively, these are Bella’s Big Review #bellasbigreview. To kick start things, here’s poet, hutter and general ne’er-do-well Gerry Loose on the quiet approach to independence …
Most of this year, as part of a small band of dedicated volunteers, I’ve been taken up with the land buy-out at Carbeth. Some years ago, maybe four or five, the lawyer who was helping Carbeth folk prepare the ground for this eventuality told me that to go the buy-out route meant forgoing a personal life. I didn’t believe him then; I thought he was prone to exaggeration.
It was in 1997 that relations between Carbeth Hutters and their landlord deteriorated to the point of a rent strike. In those early days, there were only really two demands – a fair rent and security of tenure, neither of which was on offer in a new Estate lease offered to Hutters.
The rent strike and subsequent court battles, bankruptcies and arson attacks leaving leading strikers with charred hut remains is well documented elsewhere. What doesn’t get talked about much – in any buy-out – is the extreme length and delicacy of negotiations to pull away from bitterness and work towards a just solution.
Landlords, Estate owners, have a strong legal bargaining point: ownership. Tenants have theirs: occupancy. When negotiations reach stalemate – in Carbeth’s case after 13 years of stilted semi-deals from advisors to Estate, of creating solid Hutters legal and community credentials – then it’s time for a face down. With options ranging from another 13 years of rent strike to a gift of Carbeth to the Hutters, a historic deal was struck with the Estate whereby hutting lands – 98 acres – would be sold to Hutters.
Deal done, you might think; time for a celebration. Wrong; the lawyer was right. This is when the hard work begins. All the details of management, all the details of speaking and writing to funders, setting our own rents to pay potential bank loans, dealing with lawyers and their tiny but essential legal points is what remains. Endless meetings with Council Planners, Community Councils, Trustees, politicians and civil servants, each set of whom has long, complicated, para-legalistic (& for me stultifyingly boring) forms to be filled, with documented proofs and deadlines.
Why do I mention this? Because for Carbeth Hutters Community Company the end justifies the means. We will not only have ownership of our land, but we’re addressing larger issues of landownership here. And yes: justice. Control of the land is control of the destiny of those who occupy it. To have that control is to be independent; that grassroots confidence that breeds assurance that feeds back into addressing not just domestic issues, but district, even national issues. I can’t see a radically independent-minded community ever being likely to vote for less independence.
This might or might not have been the intention of the Scottish Parliament with its Land Reform Act, but folk up and down the country are beginning to realise their extraordinary strength and power when they join together and question basic elements of our lives. We started with simple demands and ended up bargaining for an Estate. Others have travelled this way before us.
Assynt, Eigg, Gigha, Lewis and Harris Estates showed the way forward with forbearance, determination and eventual success. (But none of them ever expressed to me the hard work needed to get there!). It’s never an easy struggle.
So, all year, I’ve had my head down for our final financial and legal details to be put in place. Now and then towards the close of the year, I’ve looked about me and been cheered to see other communities blinking and stepping into the light: taking control of their own lands.
On 6th November. Scalpay residents voted to take over their island which their enlightened landowner Fred Taylor had offered for free if they wanted control. What a bargain!
The Mull of Galloway, the most southerly part of Scotland, is being offered for sale by the Northern Lighthouse Board, the owners, of 30 acres of land. The asking price is £340,000. The villagers of Drumore will vote in the New Year whether they want to keep this area free from commercial development and under community control.
On the 18th December, Vatersay and Barra islanders voted to accept ownership of their islands (currently in the control of the Scottish Government Agricultural Dept.), which had been offered by the late Iain MacNeill, whose Barra ancestry goes back 1000 years, again for free, should they ever vote for ownership. MacNeill donated 9000 acres, islanders will also take over the remainder of the land: some 400 crofts.
Perhaps sweetest of all, when I looked up on the 19th December, was the verdict of three judges who threw out the claim of Barry Lomas (a Pairc Estate landowner) that the right-to-buy legislation infringed his human rights.
All over Scotland, behind scenes, communities are making democratic decisions about who controls and owns land. It would seem from this perspective that a battle for local independence is being fought and won in Scotland. What that might mean in a national Independence referendum in two years’ time is open to speculation: but there is a mood of confidence, of new found optimism in the land. It can be done.
Carbeth Hutters should sign the final ownership documents on 31st January next year. Twenty years to the day that Assynt folk came into possession of their own land.
For different purposes by different communities in very different places for differing sums of money, or none at all, Scotland is passing into the hands of its determined, hard-working people. An object lesson: the quiet approach to independence is literally taking ground.
It can be done? It is being done!