Rights on the Margin of Existence
Cultural imperialism has become so sedimented into public and private life in Scotland; it goes largely unquestioned. @IainMacKinnon75 investigates.
“It is very encouraging to hear the concept of human rights and the realisation of human rights embedded at the heart of a ministerial speech on land reform.”
This was the response from Community Land Scotland’s (CLS) policy officer, Peter Peacock, to the speech made by Aileen McLeod, Scottish Government Minister for Land Reform, to the CLS annual conference in Inverness held on Thursday and Friday (21st and 22nd May).
On Friday morning Dr McLeod had placed the land issue at the centre of political debate in Scotland when she told the conference of a real sense in which “countries are defined by their land”. Because land reform “sits within a programme of democratic renewal and empowering communities”, she added that the Government’s upcoming bill would need to reflect human rights and the public interest. In particular she emphasised the importance of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
International law, she said, “places a duty on Ministers to use a maximum of its available resources” in order to meet peoples’ “rights to housing, food and employment”.
On the previous morning Peter Peacock had outlined the wide-range of political activities in which CLS are involved, affirming that CLS were putting human rights and the public interest at the centre of their advocacy efforts.
He outlined CLS’ selective interventions in the Community Empowerment Bill and the Land Reform Review process – emphasising, for instance, the need to focus on ensuring the right remit and structure for a proposed new Scottish Land Commission. His presentation, and the use of the language of human rights by the Minister in her speech the following day, illustrated the organisation’s clear and effective strategy for political advocacy.
Interestingly, Dr McLeod focussed on the “social and economic” aspects of the UN covenant, eliding the fact that it also centrally includes the right “to take part in cultural life”. This cultural aspect of the covenant was brought to life near the end of Jim Hunter’s talk to the conference on recent developments in the public policy environment around land reform. He concluded with a warning against the use of maps to designate the ‘wild land’ of Scotland – emphasising that land that is unpeopled today, and therefore considered by some to be ‘wild’, was not always so.
The emeritus professor of history at UHI backed up his argument on ‘wild land’ with the powerful story of a young woman, Jessie Ross, from the now deserted village of Ascoilemore in Strathbrora, Sutherland. In 1821 she and her young family were evicted from their home there by a dozen or so men, led by a sheriff officer called Donald Bannerman, and supported by a man called William Stevenson. Between them the eviction party had consumed 13 bottles of whisky during the 24 hours or so before they descended on Jessie Ross’ house.
His telling of the story vividly evoked the brutality of the eviction, the intimidation of the children, and the trauma that must have been felt by members of the family being put out of their home and left to the winds.
It seemed to me that the Ross family’s trauma was probably heightened, perhaps immeasurably so, by an aspect of that dreadful encounter that Jim Hunter did not discuss: its unequal cultural dynamics.
Given the names of those involved, and the period and place that this clearance took place, it is highly likely that Bannerman and Stevenson were English language monoglots. Jessie Ross, meanwhile, was almost certainly a native Gaelic speaker who knew no English. If so, the orders – and probably the curses – their evictors barked would have been unintelligible to the Ross family; Jessie’s pleas in return would not just have been ignored by her persecutors – they would have had no meaning to them. For me, the idea that the Ross family would have been unable even to raise a voice in sensible complaint against the brutality they endured in Strathbrora that day, only deepens the dehumanisation they suffered.
Who were Bannerman and Stevenson? They were the henchmen of the ideology of ‘improvement’ which, building on the political economy of Adam Smith, inspired the dominant agricultural development strategy of the 19th century. According to James Loch, the architect of the tenurial changes on the Sutherland Estates, ‘Improvement’ was also “the improvement of a people”: the drunken eviction party were bringing ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ to the cultural darkness of the Gaels – or ‘Highlanders’ as some English monoglots prefer to describe us these days.
Scholars like the historian Jürgen Osterhammel, and Edward Said in his book ‘Cultural Imperialism’, have demonstrated that such attitudes and deep structural inequalities are typical of power relations under colonial and post-colonial regimes.
In her presentation on ‘language and power relations in the 19th century Highlands and Islands’ at last year’s Rannsachadh na Gaidhlig conference at Edinburgh University, Sheila Kidd of Glasgow University disclosed some of the built-in structural inequalities that faced Gaels as internal colonisation tightened its suffocating grip upon their world. These included the dramatic verbal obstacle they faced in trying to express themselves, and defend themselves, in English ordered law courts and educational institutions – and the misconceptions, misrepresentations, and possible miscarriages of justice that these structural inequalities carried with them.
What have been the long-term effects of these structural inequalities? A couple of decades ago that fine contemporary Gaelic poet, Catriona Montgomery, examined the condition of her language and her people and asked if today we are holding on to the rocks of time “by our very fingertips”? Is it not an intriguing fact that land reform today is flourishing best in those very areas – the Outer Hebrides – where Gaelic still hangs on by its fingertips?
By the end of the conference the contributions, stories and ideas that had been shared had brought me deeply into what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘the space of questions’.
Through its approach to land reform legislation, the new Scotland seems prepared to lead the way in establishing a human rights based approach to political decision-making. Jim Hunter’s well-received speech made it clear that the claim for land reform in Scotland today is significantly based on the restitution of land from which people have been lost.
Yet that loss was not the loss of land alone; it accompanied, and was part of, a deeper cultural trauma and the loss of many of the basic human rights to participate in ordinary cultural life – in education, in the public realm, and even in the home.
Cultural imperialism is inextricable from many of Scotland’s violent clearances of its people from their lands, like the one so eloquently described by Jim Hunter in his talk. And it seems to me, as it seemed to Catriona Montgomery, that cultural imperialism has not gone away. Rather, it seems to me that it has become sedimented into public and private life in Scotland; it goes largely unquestioned.
The establishment of the present state of physical and metaphysical inequality in the country of Scotland has forced a people and the language by which they express themselves to the very margins of their existence.
Material and cultural inequality are two parts of the one stream. In the new Scotland, how should we consider the relationship between land reform and the right to a cultural life, and how should that relationship help to direct political action and advocacy?
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