2007 - 2021

Land, Lords and Tenants

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Last of the Clan, (c) Glasgow Museums

By Billy Noland

It’s the start of February, I’ve got loads of hazels left, beech nuts and venison. The deer had a good summer, they’re a good weight with great quality skins. The mix of sunny days and sharp frosts lets the skins dry for rawhide at the perfect rate. The biggest storm for decades has brought down loads of trees and there’s enough wood to last for years. The standing dead birch to burn now and poplar to dry for next year, while we wait for the bounty of big old beech trees to slowly season. The growing season was great too, with plenty of beetroot and carrots left and the kale still putting out small tender leaves. At any other point in European history, and still in some far flung corners of the world, this is the time to relax, be confident about the year ahead and celebrate the bounty nature has provided from the past year to get us through. But my family look less than amused, and not just because I’ve soaked a deer skin in the bath. The car is making a funny noise, the rent’s just emptied the bank account and the gas bill hasn’t been paid. Work is slow this time of year and no amount of bountiful, tangible, glorious reality can overcome our servitude to abstract debts, consumerist social norms and tenant responsibilities.

There is no longer any local shop or pub here because the car provides the option of traveling to the nearest town, with greater choice and lower prices no doubt. The only choice that has been removed is the choice not to have a car; that option is off the table for any rural family that cannot manage their affairs around a skeletal bus service. It takes up a massive proportion of our income to ferry us to the supermarket where the same number of people work in providing food as they do in ‘developing countries’, except instead of working in the fields or subsistence farming outside the monetary economy, they get paid the minimum wage to deliver crates, pack shelves and scan bar codes. For all this supply chain efficiency, half the food gets wasted. That scraping noise on the back axle is sounding increasingly expensive. In my more positive moments I Imagine it’s just the brake pads, but if it doesn’t get sorted it’ll be down to the calipers and that really will be expensive. Screw the gas, car it is then.

I don’t want the gas bill anyway, or the gas, or indeed the gas tank that takes up the most potentially productive, best drained, south facing side of the garden. For less than the cost of my annual gas bill I could fit a second hand log burning stove into every room in the house. But this isn’t my house, it was built for people who liked cars, rhododendrons and leylandii from what I can gather. They owned it, lived in it and were probably very happy slowly modifying it to fit in with their way of life. After they died it became an asset, not a home. Assets have neutral colour palettes, fitted kitchens and middle of the range double glazing. You cannot personalise an asset you do not own, no matter how awful the fireplace is.

This unholy connivance of planning regulation, landlord’s rights and the private housing market are forcing an entire generation to live out their lives in spaces that do not fit, that fall short of being homes. No matter how well insulated or desirable a property is, to be denied the creative freedom to adapt it to your own way of being is an infringement of one of humanity’s most basic needs. This is an entirely modern situation and although renting has existed in some form since feudal times, its current, post-industrial form is unique. Its negative consequences are also magnified because other ways of being that made it tolerable have been degraded. Historically, in comparison to slum-dwelling Victorians, we can see how far we’ve come, how much better our working conditions, wages and diet are. But to put it into context we need to look at how far they, the Victorians, fell to end up in that situation.

Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thornes and thistles it shall bring forth for you. And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thy taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
Genesis 3, 17-19

This used to sound like the ultimate punishment, yet implicit in the statement are a set of rights, expressed in the Bible as assumptions because they used to be so obvious they need not be stated. Those words could be as old as the dawn of agriculture where the new technology threatened an ancient way of life. But we learned how to live well from the land, physically and culturally, for thousands of years. It is that way of life that is now being destroyed by a system so despised that it took hundreds of years to force people to accept it. That bread mentioned in Genesis is now a luxury item, artisan, organic and in no way resembling mass produced supermarket loaves, and as for the eco burial, I can’t afford that.

Our loss of rights over the land and our homes, even as tenants, would shock our feudal ancestors. We have become desensitised to enclosure, wage labour and the stifling restrictions on our freedom to make homes. I’m a wage labourer, and not even a minimum wage labourer, yet what is taken for granted as a way of life in the contemporary developed world was only a few hundred years ago considered so degrading, that only the most destitute and incapable were subjected to such conditions. Now people with PhDs compete to be bar staff.

Tackling this issue head on is not an option until subsistence is an option, and that can only happen with rights over land. Rent and wage labour in the absence of rights over land are mutually re-enforcing conditions, and the clouding of our vision by ‘market values’ even tempts us to demand more of the problem as the solution, more jobs, higher wages. True freedom is the right to choose how much of your income comes from and how much of your time is devoted to wage labour. Wage labour has become a monopoly that has stifled for the majority all other forms of economic activity and independence.

Why do the values of the past jar so much with the contemporary world view? How come the evidence of the problem is so overwhelming yet it is tolerated, and most citizens are willing and complicit actors in this way of being? It is because we have been trained to believe a story, that if we work hard enough, go to school and get good grades we will earn a place in society, everyone has a fair chance in this meritocracy, and if we fail It’s our own fault. That story is now unravelling.

The weather’s getting warmer, the plants will all shoot up in order, birch sap will be rising and lesser celandine flowering, then wild garlic and hogweed shoots. It looks idyllic but it may as well be a mirage. No-one’s being burned out of their cottages, no starving children and mass emigration, but ultimately the relaxed dress codes and excessive nutrition mask an insidious power imbalance that controls the lives of many and entrenches the position of the landed class. There are friendly land owners and relaxed landlords, but that’s not the point. In the 21st century in Scotland, one section of society has to carry favour with another in order to gain housing at extortionately high rates and employment at shamefully low rates. There is no amount of hours I could work to cross the divide. In a city this relationship may be abstract, through agencies and corporations, but in the countryside it’s still personal and my views if expressed openly could prevent me from access to housing and work. This is an issue of freedom of speech that will not be resolved until I cannot be removed from the ground I inhabit.

Comments (21)

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  1. manandboy says:

    Confirmation that slavery wasn’t completely abolished, merely upgraded and refined so as to make the chains invisible and remove the need for whips.

    1. maxi kerr says:

      They have made us make our own chains and bars of shame and installed a sense of selfloathing on a huge working class population. People who will never be rid of the feelings of inadquecy ,..and whatever attempt they make at bettering themselves will be met with the intellectual wavering of big sticks and reminders of where they think we came from.I know i sound a bit dire ,but it pertains to a lot of people abused over a very long period of time. Maybe its time to really start to help OUR own people and face up to the real enemy of the working classes.

  2. barakabe says:

    Is there no way we can transfer ‘ownership’ of the land to the People? If individuals, private or otherwise want to use the land for whatever reason, they have to then temporarily rent the land from the People- if the uses are significant enough they can only then be sanctioned by the will of the People. All revenues accruing from the renting of land in use can then be used to build houses or any other activity that promotes the social good. It really doesn’t seem that difficult to do & would be a better system for the good of society. Right now we have two systems running parallel: one is an anachronistic medieval remnant of feudalism that props up a small elite group of rich landowners that runs in sharp contrast to a modern democratic system that we see in other advanced economies- we need to get this sorted if we want to become an efficient economy with minimal social inequality competing in the modern world.

  3. SNP have all ready started land reform, you should follow it its very interesting. You should also read “The Poor had no Lawyers”. The poor have been driven down, and its about time we all stood up. The 99% have a huge voice, we need to use it.

  4. Darien says:

    Land reform is heading in right direction, albeit slowly – though wealthy Tories are obviously freaked by it already. In either system, however, corruption is the main enemy. And corruption exists in both public and private sectors. Indeed, corruption is more prevalent in the public sector than many people appear to acknowledge. Overspending abounds – NHS and education PFI infras, trams, parly building, road/rail, ferries…… Wherever there is taxpayer cash to spend, there is no shortage of hands oot tae intercept it before it ever reaches the masses. Preventing this interception is what really matters.

  5. junius45 says:

    Excellent article, I wonder if Cameron’s father in law, Lord Astor has managed to survive the Winter on Jura, a great worry these elderly toffs roughing it on the Atlantic seaboard.

    1. Frank M says:

      This is one of the reasons why Cameron wanted to hold on to Scotland.

  6. 2014

    I watched the death of dreams.
    Saw promise break
    from weight of expectation.
    No pledge unkept –
    but surely undernournished.
    As once proud men
    were blithe to check their purse.

    I heard the dream’s demise.
    The cries, the pain,
    the death of all their futures.
    With all our yesterdays the same.
    Oh prick us and we bleed.
    But pay us our full pensions
    and we shout God Save the Queen.

    I felt the death of hope.
    It tore apart the heart of me,
    that precious though it’s meant to be,
    our freedom has it’s price.
    Near half my country chose to pay
    and still bereft they weep.
    The greater number clap the loss
    and cheer their own defeat.

    1. Frank M says:

      Excellent Jim. Many thanks for this.

  7. Terence callachan says:

    One of the major problems in Scotland is that you cannot find out who owns much of the land in Scotland ,there is no means by which you can get this information no records available
    ,this has to be changed so we can see who owns our country and just how many large landowners do not actually live in Scotland

    1. leavergirl says:

      Are you serious? How do realtors find out who holds the title? There must be title records somewhere?

      1. dougiestrang says:

        Hi Terence and ‘leavergirl’, you might find the work being done here useful: http://www.whoownsscotland.org.uk/

  8. Fran says:

    Scottish Land Reform Group are meeting in May and you can go along.

    1. Crabbit says:

      That’s the Scottish Land Revenue Group (tax reform) not the Scottish Land Reform Group, which was wound up last year after they published their final report.

  9. Crabbit says:

    “Tackling this issue head on is not an option until subsistence is an option, and that can only happen with rights over land.”

    I’m with you on the economic precariousness, but the reason people left subsistence living was it itself was so precarious. Famine was a regular occurence, with the most recent in Scotland in only the 1850s


    Parliaments have also created a thicket of laws, on quality of housing, sanitation, water quality, education, working conditions, insurance etc. that raise costs, and limit self-provision, but which are intended to protect people.

    It would take a move to a more libertarian, developing world system to allow for self-provision in that way, and I don’t see any party pushing for that, not even the Greens (who actually seem quite statist in some of their prescriptions):


  10. Kenny says:

    Wonderful wee article. I’ve been studying permaculture recently and, combined with work I’ve been doing on poverty in Scotland, it really shows you how much the relationship between land and people matters. The poverty industry spends all its time focussing on the indignity of foodbanks without ever commenting on the arguably greater indignity of working for minimum wage in a supermarket (the only major employer in your area, since it wiped out everything else) and then having to buy all your cheap, non-nutritious, anti-ecological food from that same supermarket which promptly pump that money out of the local economy and into a tax haven. Meanwhile, the supermarkets impoverish farmers by paying below-cost prices for the food (this is an enormous problem in dairy, but it’s growing in other sectors.) We should stop focussing on “do people have enough money to pay monopolistic, monopsonistic providers for food and fuel?” Instead, we should ask “to what extent to be enable (or disable) people to provide for their own needs in the way that suits them?” Asking the right questions gets you much more interesting and useful answers.

  11. Alastair McIntosh says:

    This is a beautiful piece of writing that speaks truth in a manner that should shame the rentier classes. Everybody needs to have a home, but when a landlord controls that home, what you get is a house, not a home. A real home needs to be a container that can reflect the character of those living there, not the person whose prime interest is the value they can extract out of somebody who is less fortunate than themselves – often, because they’ve lived their lives with greater self-reliance and integrity.

    The rentier classes claim, “we provide the capital.” Well, they only gained the capital from the base that is, in the first instance, the commonweal of the community. And they’re not in it to be “providers” of capital. They’re in it to extract profit, pushing up property prices so that the humble, the meek in the sense of the grassroots decent, have no option but to rent from them and renounce the pleasure, pride and dignified sufficiency of having their own wee but and ben.

    In many parts of Scotland you’ll be looking at £50k just for a housing plot. To service that land cost alone on a mortgage requires one person working on minimum wage. That means the children get neglected so that the rentier classes can cruise around the world in their floating gin palaces. And by the way, this is not “envy” as they like to think. Can you imagine anything more boring than being cooped up with those who spend their days scrutinising the stocks and shares pages in the Daily Mail, and spitting it out about immigrants, and the “feckless” working classes?

    This article by Mr Noland is the epitome of why we need a revolution not just in land politics in Scotland, but in human consciousness. These are issues of our capacity to express our humanity in the face of forces that dehumanise. It is about the kind of people that we want to be, which is why all of us must be fearless in standing up and standing out for what will give us standing as a nation.

    Ohhhh …. I do enjoy a good rant – but it’s true, and heartfelt.

    1. dougiestrang says:

      Agreed. Part of the strength of this piece is that it challenges us to think outside the paradigm of homes as ‘property’ and ‘commodity’. Modern capitalism has so narrowed our options that it’s hard to even imagine another way. This is why, as you say, we need a revolution in consciousness. Bring it on!

    2. poorbutfree says:

      Alisdair, as far as im aware you will not get a morgage for the cheap plot you mention, morgage is for buildings and not land, also if by some miracle you did get a morgage the min wage would never service the debt, even if you stopped eating.
      The issue is not one of increasing prices, turn that on its head, but one of devaluing our pound. House price inflation has been running at approx. 15% for almost 25 years, fueled by public assets going private . This is not counted in overall inflation figures. Therefore unless you had some form of assets the pound in peoples pockets became worth less in terms of home buying or renting, thus the gap.
      There is plenty of land, I have always been puzzled how non agri land at £400 an acre becomes £50-80k as a plot, someone is making a good skin from this. On its head again, plots at these prices £400 would reduce the value of asset by £50+k ,who would accept this perceived loss in the name of social equity ?
      I know its not as simple as this, but this is the short version.

  12. ELAINE FRASER says:

    ‘Im……a wage labourer ,not even a minimum wage labourer’

    I hope you realise you are also a great writer . Thank you for a beautiful,thought provoking and moving piece.

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