Many of you who read my (long) piece on Scotland ‘Another Country’ will have noted my mention of traveling during downturns in the Scottish building trade in the late 70′s, and having b&w contact sheets with pictures of Highland Games in Scotland on one half of the sheet and images of Texas on the other half. I thought it might be interesting to show some of these other images (and some colour ones as well). Often the contrast between disparate places can reveal more about each. This is another long piece, but there’s lots of images, and if I’m honest there’s another reason for this post, but more of that at the end……
I spent several months in Texas, how, why and what transpired as a consequence is a story all of its own. And it’s a story that in itself is revealing: of the American dream, of aspiration and racial tension, and of how the pasts we often think we’ve left behind continue to haunt us. I suppose in many ways it’s an ordinary story, one of immigrant American people and their dreams. But in that ‘everyman’ aspect lies a window into what it is to be uprooted and to seek refuge in ‘another country’, to try to build a new life and prosper, but despite those freedoms, to remain in exile.
It was December when I went to Texas, from my small country where space is at a premium, houses rarely have expansive gardens, and in my own home town the ‘limited space’ for development is generally confined to thin coastal strips backed by mountains that rise steeply from the sea, literally dragging in every cloud that passes and sucking the rain from them, to throw down on us in epic quantities. Some parts of my home district never see direct sunlight in the winter months so steep are the hills around them. Water is plentiful though, and distances relatively short but often on tortuous roads that wind around the numerous fjord-like sea lochs, the probing fingers of the Atlantic that clutch the west of Scotland in their briny grip.
Texas in the winter was a revelation. There was sunshine! And straight roads, many of them four and six lanes wide. I was struck immediately by the space. Lots of space. Horizon curving, sky dominating space. And it was a sky I could see without having to actually put my head back and look upwards as I’d to do in my (wet) home town, in the shadow of the UK’s highest mountain. I entered my first proper shopping mall in Texas, and was astonished at the water feature INDOORS – having spent most of my time as a carpenter in Scotland gamely fighting to keep water OUT of buildings!
I spent several months in Texas, cycling about, meeting people living in rural areas and small Hill Country towns, before I eventually headed out into West Texas and the Permian Basin as I rode west to the Pacific. And this post is, simply, a celebration of those people I was fortunate to encounter.
It was an interesting time, late 1979. It was the start of the Iran hostage crisis, catapulting events in the Middle East into sharp focus for many Americans. Jimmy Carter was at the helm, two years into his Presidency, and dealing amongst other things with a nation shocked by the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island only a few months earlier.
This was also the start of the second oil crisis in the USA, caused by decreased supply due to the Iranian Revolution. Under Carter’s watch the Soviet war in Afghanistan commenced, and in Europe the Cold War continued. Britain meanwhile was in the grip of Thatcherism, and the IRA were relentlessly bombing their way forwards, killing Lord Mountbatten with a bomb on his boat only a few months earlier, and in a separate incident a short time afterwards at Warrenpoint, killing eighteen British soldiers in an ambush.
I mention all of this because it had an impact on things I was witnessing, and influenced the way I was treated. I’d met a couple of families and through them was introduced to several more. But simply wandering about in rural Texas on a bicycle was a great way to meet a great many more people. There’s something liberating about cycling that strangers relate to.
Cyclists are vulnerable, and they are also ‘open’ – not sealed into some speeding metal box that ‘protects’ them from the gaze of those they pass by. Many of the people I encountered and spent time talking with had simply smiled and flagged me down as our orbits collided in that sort-of cycling slow motion that perversely allows more to happen than if one was moving faster. They invariably offered me hospitality, conversation and insight, and on occasion a bed for the night if not space for my modest tent.
I had a few fraught moments, one in an VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hall where I’d gone with some folks I’d met to play bingo. With my road-worn mahogany skin, dark hair and fulsome beard, not to mention the funny accent, I attracted attention. On a visit to the toilet I was cornered by two large and powerfully built elderly men. “Are you an Iraynian?” said one, a half smile on his face, the kind of smile that lulls you into trust but means the opposite. “No, I’m from Scotland” I hastily replied, also smiling. My very very best smile in fact.
“Scotland?” he said incredulous. “Scotland with the bagpipes?”
“Yep, that’s the one” I said.
He smiled and put an arm on my shoulder “Damn, boy I got relatives in the old country way back, they were McGregors or something! Heard your accent – kind a threw me, come and have a drink!” And I did. Several in fact, in a long friendly evening of banter. But despite the friendly outcome, it was a revealing encounter, a brief glimpse of some of the racial tensions that simmered just beneath the surface.
The VFW folks I spoke with were more aware of global conflicts than most, and had a good grasp of geography. Other people I spoke with were less aware, and shocked at Scotland’s apparently close proximity to Moscow and the Cold-War-risks they perceived that closeness represented (the same distance as from New York to Denver). And when I revealed how much closer Belfast was (less than half the width of Texas), they expressed wonder that I could live so ‘casually’ with terrorist activity and bombings apparently so close to my home.
The repercussions from America’s foreign policies and global interventions had had little direct effect within the USA at that point, yes the energy crisis was nagging at them, but there had been no direct impact from American involvement in the Middle East. However 9/11 would change that forever. With hindsight it may be fair to say I was witness to what was in many respects the last years of an age of innocence in America.
Some of the folks I’d met in West Texas were connected with oil, directly or indirectly, and with the ongoing crisis in the (‘Persian’) Gulf business was booming for them, the price of oil was rocketing (and eventually reaching almost $40 a barrel from it’s previous average price of $16 a barrel). Old wells that had become uneconomic to operate were now being re-opened and water-flooded to recover residual oil reserves (so-called ‘secondary production’).
Meanwhile back home in Scotland business was also booming in the North Sea as oil production was ramped up to meet demand. Strangely (given the current furore over Scotland’s use of Sterling if the Yes vote succeeds) when I arrived in Houston I tried to change some UK pounds for dollars, “Are they Scottish notes or English ones?” asked the cashier. When I asked why she explained that she had differing exchange rates, that a Scottish pound note was worth 3 cents more than an English one! Her only explanation was that “It must have something to do with the oil men going to Aberdeen. But I’m not sure really.”
I was very fortunate in the people I met, solid rural folks, hard-working, deeply religious, and all immensely kind. I attended a small town rodeo in West Texas one day, it started late afternoon and ran on into the evening. I was the only tourist, and was invited into the ring by the MC and introduced over the tannoy to all the spectators and performers, who gave me a round of applause.
It was a great evening of camaraderie, excitement and some truly astonishing riding skills. The passion for such events was palpable, whole families turning up with coolers of food and beer and cheering on their favourites late into the night. Like the Agricultural Shows and Highland Games I’d recently attended at home, these events were the focal point for the community and the atmosphere was splendid, and familiar.
One of the more sobering events I experienced at this time was in a small south Texas rural school with a group of African-American children. It’s also a seemingly insignificant incident but one that underlined for me how powerful photography can be, and it has been strongly influential in shaping my feelings about photography’s power to communicate. It’s too long to add, so if you are interested you can read it here.
But there are many many fascinating people I met, such as John Montgomery an elderly African-American man, in Dryden Texas. There’s not very much in Dryden, and he was pottering about in a junk yard beside a garage when I stopped, and we sat and talked for a while whilst I poured water down my throat to try to rehydrate.
His stern look belied a gentle and engaging humour, and his stories of small town life and trying to wrestle a living from the passing trade in a rural area were ones I’d heard in many places, but like all such tales, made all the more poignant and meaningful for hearing them first-hand and passionately told.
And there was the Elrod family in Uvalde Texas, who graciously allowed me a glimpse of what goes on at the end of those rural dirt roads that lead off the tarmac into the brush . I had often cycled past a post with a higglepiggle stack of signs on it, many different family names, hinting at the life that goes on somewhere ‘out there’ but which a casual passerby might have no need to follow. But ‘out there’ as I discovered, were being created many stories, the lives of ranchers, oil workers, mechanics, road menders, drivers, doctors, nurses, chemists, shopkeepers, barmen and women, and of course cowboys. Just ‘ordinary’ people getting on with their ‘ordinary’ lives.
And that brings me to the “other reason for this post” that I mentioned at the outset: a comment made by Richard Brown, a stern critic of my Scottish piece ‘Another Country’ and the people and their ‘places’ I’d portrayed within it. Mr Brown described it thus (and I quote):
“…these are only ordinary quality photos of only ordinary people and scenery, and the world is full of much better and more interesting stuff !!”
And you know, I fundamentally disagree with most of what he says; and I feel somewhat sad for him: his own ‘place’ must be a lonely and dispiriting one.
It’s tempting to think the rest of the world is more interesting, that the grass is greener elsewhere, and to overlook all that surrounds you. Truth is, no matter where you are in the world whether in the parts that are wet, or the areas that are dry, or in the high mountains, or the flat and featureless plains below, when you get right down to it, it’s the ‘ordinary’ people who make it special. Yes these pictures may be ‘ordinary’ but the people they portray are far from ‘ordinary’. They wrestle their livings from the land, and they leave their mark upon it. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, they’ll leave their mark on you too.
Texas may be ‘in’ America, but it is in many respects ‘another country’. It’s all you might expect, but it’s also a great deal more than you could ever imagine.
I’ve read a couple of articles on Ferguson that made me stop and think, they were published only a day apart. The first is ‘A Cops take on Ferguson’, and although rather long, it’s a well balanced and insightful piece:
“As I watch the events in Ferguson Missouri I can’t help but think about my own time in law enforcement and just how much I’ve changed since I wore the badge.
It’s only been a few years but seems like a lifetime ago. I would come in to work and feel like I could make a difference in this world. Back then when I lined up for roll call, I would look around me and see a squad room full of diverse personalities and experiences that I knew made us all more effective. I trusted these men and women because I believed in the good we could do and the bond of brotherhood we shared. But a little over a year ago something happened that forced me to take a hard look at the realities of the system that I had been a part of. When I did I learned a lot about myself and finally had to accept some hard facts.
I learned that justice is not blind and there is a very thin blue line that unifies cops. I learned that Americans are not just divided by red and blue, when it comes to the law we are divided by black and white. I accepted that sometimes we have a justice system with two sets of rules. I had to accept that no matter how well I raise my son he will grow up in a world where I still have to be afraid for him. Not just from criminals, but from my brothers and sisters in blue. For most of his young life all my son has ever seen is me in a uniform with a gun and a badge. He doesn’t know to fear the police because I have always told him he didn’t have to. The police are the good guys and he is a good kid, so no worries. I guess I was naive. I never thought that I would have to explain to him that despite my years in law enforcement, I’m still a second class citizen in the eyes of the law.
For his sake I have to tell him no matter how professional he looks, no matter how well he carries himself, no matter how much education he obtains, as a black male he has to meet a higher standard of submission to authority or his life is at risk (link). Even if he chooses to raise his right hand and swear to protect and serve this country with his life it doesn’t change that fact. It hurts to know that I’m going to have to give my son that talk. I tell myself that things are still like this because of ignorance and fear. I blame it on politicians who turn fear in to resentment and the wealthy elites who exploit those resentments to satisfy their own agenda. The hopeful part of me thinks that our differences are not really as bad as they seem. My head tells me that time will change things. Time. But my heart tells me that right now I just need to protect my son. “
Having read this I was rather perplexed to read an Al Jazeera Opinion piece by Malcolm Harris: ‘Unethical journalism can make Ferguson more dangerous’.
“Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” reads the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.
As police in Ferguson, Missouri, prepared to enforce the first night of curfew on Saturday, I was transfixed on Twitter, refreshing the feeds of deployed journalists and waiting for them to drop the next tidbit of information. From these feeds, thousands of other people and I watched the countdown to curfew as though it were a high-stakes sports game — hungry for details and visuals. We learned that the police were firing tear gas, that the police said it was just smoke and that photos of the tear gas canisters eventually emerged, putting the cops’ credibility into question.
We also saw journalists display a shocking disregard for the well-being of their subjects, repeatedly putting them at further risk of harm. As the police prepared to clear the streets, reporters were tweeting the locations and actions of demonstrators, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in effect gathering intelligence for the authorities.
The role of photography is changing, and no longer is ‘journalism’ the preserve of the few, but in many respects ‘the right of the many’. And as Harris points out this has created a “hypercompetitive’ environment:
It’s not just the fault of journalists, though. Now that Twitter and Instagram have brought the barriers to publication to just about zero in terms of time and resources and journalists can publish information as quickly as they can experience it, the public feels entitled to real-time information about any newsworthy event anywhere in the world. We earnestly believe we are meant to see and hear everything as it happens and that the world is always better off for our attention. Transparency becomes not a means to justice but an end in itself, and a slavish devotion to immediacy and openness undermines one of the most important journalistic virtues: discretion.
But the part that really struck me, having watched the same unfolding events as Harris, is how incredibly narrow, and potentially dangerous his view is, and I’d even go so far as to say that his piece falls into the very trap he warns against in his own headline.
This paragraph of his sums it up perfectly:
“……….but downplayed in these discussions are the more abstract standards that ask journalists to consider the consequences of their actions. Along with “Seek truth and report it” and “Act independently,” the “Minimize harm” section makes up a quarter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Just because journalists can legally get away with something doesn’t mean they should. “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”
Simply substitute ‘Police’ for ‘journalists’ and ‘law’ for ‘news’ and (with a bit of journalistic license) and …well…you’ll get the point:
“….but downplayed in these discussions are the more abstract standards that ask Police to consider the consequences of their actions. Along with “Seek truth and report it” and “Act independently,” the “Minimize harm” (as a loose interpretation of that which makes up a substantial portion of the Police code of ethics. ) Just because Police can legally get away with something doesn’t mean they should. “Recognize that (impeding those lawfully) gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the Law is not a license for arrogance.”
And illustrates the inescapable fact that some of the images taken at Ferguson will certainly identify individuals who may be breaking the law. But the unavoidable reality is that some of those offenders being identified may be Police officers interfering with the lawful rights of (black) citizens, or the rights of journalists (link) seeking to be witness (safely) and to report (impartially) what they see.
Many of the heavily armed and armoured paramilitary Police in Ferguson wore no identification badges. And in the absence of any (recognizable) images of them, there is no evidence to corroborate their actions whether to celebrate them for doing good and upholding citizen’s rights and the law, or to hold them to account for ethical lapses. And that matters, as reported here:
One, Officer Dan Page of the St. Louis County Police Department, is the same officer seen on video attempting to move CNN’s Don Lemon during the recent protests in Ferguson.
Officer Page, an Army Sgt. Major with several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, is seen on video making harsh comments about affirmative action, gays, Muslims, and President Obama. He is also seen warning women that constantly “jamming their husbands up” on domestic charges is a bad idea.
When CNN’s Don Lemon alerted St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar about the pushing incident during the protests, the chief said he felt that the officer’s conduct was not outside the department’s code of conduct. But when this video surfaced, the chief found he had to apologize for the officer’s conduct and immediately placed the officer on suspension, pending a full internal investigation.
There is a fine balance to be struck in the pursuit of a fair and just society and the rights and freedoms of citizens, the rights and freedoms of journalists, and the powers vested in and exercised by the Police, must of necessity be interwoven, each underpinning the others. It is a dangerous path to tread in suggesting that the right to accountability for all be subsumed by the greater right of anonymity for some and the consequent freedom from censure that may follow. As Harris himself says:
“In the age of facial recognition, publishing images with identifiable faces while they break the law is as good as printing those people’s names — another violation of accepted practice. As a society with strong legal protections for journalists, we depend a lot on their tact, foresight and self-discipline.”
Sometimes “accepted practice” and ‘journalistic integrity’ are uneasy bedfellows, but that does not mean abrogating responsibility for reporting the situation as it unfolds, and recording it with professional objectivity.
I certainly don’t disagree with all Harris has to say in his article, but I think he undermines his own argument somewhat in that last paragraph – by suggesting that it is for a journalist to determine whether an individual is actually “…..breaking the law…..”
It is not for a journalist to decide innocence or guilt, that is something which will be determined AFTER the fact, by a different profession, and after due process and weighing up the available evidence. I am distinctly uneasy with the notion that journalists should make such de facto judgments and that these judgments, crucially, should determine whether or not they actually record and report what they see before them.
Objectivity is key, and ‘journalistic transparency’ when tempered with integrity affords equal ‘protection’ and ‘justice’ for all and is surely what proper journalism is all about?
(Thanks to @Lucas_Jackson_ for the link to the original Malcolm Harris article)
This is a long piece. It’s got a lot of images. Most are being published for the first time, but I hope it doesn’t come over as too self-indulgent, and is perhaps more ‘reflective’. I’ve offered critiques of other’s work on duckrabbit often enough and decided it was probably time to show some of my own photographic efforts. I’ve linked to the images at a larger size so if you want a closer view just click them (I’m aware some still need a bit more dust spotting!).
I wrote a piece a year or so ago about Gus Wylie and his documentary photography in Scotland in the 70′s and early 80′s and the significance of his work for me (and for Scotland). I’ve been mulling it over since and several recent (and some current) events have made me go and have a poke about in my own box of negatives taken around the same time. I suppose the main prompt has been the looming vote for independence, but I’ve also been doing some personal work on the issues of land ownership (in the formal sense) but also the notion of individuals being ‘owned’ by the land, in other less obvious ways (but more of that another time).
My own slide into photography was gradual. The images I’ve come across reflect this growing interest, illustrated in the negatives I’ve recently been scrutinizing and scanning. Although I’ve worked professionally as a photographer for thirty years, I made a decision early on to combine it with other work, on a part-time basis. There’s a saying in the West Highlands that “If you only have one job, you’ll often have no job”, and it’s something I’ve heeded. So after a spell as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, I undertook a carpentry apprenticeship in my home town and worked as a carpenter/joiner, ending up in a small rural joiner’s shop just out of town. Across the road a stone’s throw away from our workshop, lived Sandy the shepherd for the nearby Estate. And just up the hill a few hundred feet distant was the blacksmith, Bill, who was the stepfather of my boss John. And John’s stepbrother Ian worked with Sandy on the same Estate. There were many such connections, circles of acquaintance that looped and whirled through the community, and I photographed them on occasion as the mood and opportunity took me.
My joinery work was often in remote areas, miles out of town, on old estate houses, and usually when the (often) absentee owners were away. But I also worked on permanently lived-in rural farms and estate properties, and became good friends with the tenants and owners. Consequently I was acquainted with broad cross-section of the community, and this, combined with the many descendents of several generations of my own family scattered about the district, meant I knew a lot of people. I played shinty for the local team (very successfully I would humbly add – we cleaned up all the major trophies for several years in a row), and was in the local tug-of-war team which meant a bunch of us lads (and lassies) wandered around the county at weekends competing in events at Agricultural Shows and Highland Games, getting in about everything from the hill race to the caber toss, and generally having a ball, with more than a few drams along the way.
These rural events may appear to the casual eye to be aimed at the gawping tourist, eager to encounter and immerse themselves in a scene that is all tartan-clad and quaint, and certainly at some of the more popular events visitors may outnumber locals.
But for the hill farmers and other rural workers such events were (and still are) highlights in the year. These are social opportunities to meet old friends, share stories and news, and as well as show off prized sheep and cattle, have drams and perhaps spend the night jigging and reeling in a marquee tent, the grass floor of which would quickly resemble a ploughed field such was the depth of footchurned soil. Astute ceilidh dancers at these events would wear wellington boots, and the novices or the carefree were (and still are) easily spotted by the daintiness of their footwear.
This might all seem rather splendid, and in many ways it was, but it was not all as idyllic as it might appear.
I came across some images I’d taken of Ewan my joiner colleague with whom I worked for many many years, a gentle and humorous soul, and a skilled carpenter, but a man who struggled with the effects of being made unemployed and who one night walked out the door of his beautifully located loch-side cottage into the familiar dark water opposite, and drowned himself, leaving behind a wife and two girls. Rural suicides, and particularly amongst young people as well as adults (and in particular males) is a problem. It was ‘back then’ and still is increasingly so today, with an increasing incidence amongst the farming community, but this trend also tending to mask its effect in the wider community too. I have lost several friends in such tragic circumstances. (More information here on suicide prevention from NHS Scotland if you are interested in this topic).
And in the series of images of christian fundamentalists conducting an open air baptism (which was very popular for a few years in the early 80′s, its popularity causing some consternation in the ‘established’ churches) are familiar faces that I subsequently encountered when I became a Social Worker in Disability Services. One lad had suffered brain damage in a car accident caused by a drunken driver, another developed Multiple Sclerosis and ended up in a wheelchair (MS is more common in the north than the south and affected many people I know). And in other images are several people who succumbed to the Highland curses of depressive illness (often exacerbated by too much alcohol) or alcoholism, or the numerous drugs which were easily available, a consequence of their discrete arrival by boat on our remote and heavily indented coastline (for some perspective, California’s coastline is 800 miles long, Scotland’s is 7,500 miles long.)
But, as if to balance the equation, one of the younger people in one of the images I came across now works as a member of the residential care team looking after my own mother in the local Care Home, another cared for my dad in the last difficult years of his life. Small communities make all these connections possible, and I’d like to think these images reflect that.
But this post is really about photography, about how it shapes us as it documents, but also how important it is for it to look forward as well as back, informing the future as much as reminding us of the past. Unlike Wylie who was ‘an outsider looking in’ (and his images are all the more intimate and magical for that) my offering here is far more personal, portraying people I’ve known from childhood and close proximity, and in places I am familiar with and can move about in easily and relatively unobtrusively, and still do today.
However my work as a carpenter in the building trade was spasmodic, and downturns impacted us hard, but it meant I was able to take the opportunity to travel. The contact sheets are interesting – they not only show my growing interest in photography (and people) but the contrast between different cultures. The first half of one sheet shows a series of images from a winter trip to repair a cottage 50 miles out of town and just barely getting over a snow-blasted pass only to be stranded as the road was blocked by a log truck that had just slid off. The second half of the sheet shows a series of shots of destitute black people in Johannesburg where I ended up two days later shortly after my 18th birthday. Another sheet has images of tartan-clad frolics at an agricultural show, but a few frames after it are shots of the inhabitants of rural West Texas enjoying a small town rodeo (whom I’d met whilst traveling on my bicycle.) As a young man these glimpses into other cultures provided me with useful perspective, and helped shape my feelings about my own ‘place’.
What I like most about small communities are the characters, those hearty souls whose lifestyle moves to the beat of a different drum. Jimmy MacDonald was one such chap. Affectionately known as ‘Jimmy the Tramp’, he lived a few miles out of town at the end of small sea loch, in a patched and tatty old caravan. He meandered into town to the nearest pub on his ancient bicycle. We used to joke that it (or Jimmy) was possessed of ‘anti-gravity’ powers because he never ever pedaled it fast enough for centrifugal force to have any effect! Yet he rarely fell off. And if he did, depending on how many drams he’d consumed, he’d stay off it and simply walk home pushing the bike and using it for support, or if some farmer or crofter he knew was passing he might be be offered a lift, the bike tossed in the back of the pickup.
The old bike was as well-known as Jimmy, and was often spotted lying forlornly where it had been abandoned (which he did do occasionally), and in such situations the correct procedure was followed – check the drains and hedges to see if Jimmy was nearby ‘resting’- and if not, the bike was taken back down the road and dropped off at his caravan. Sometimes little gifts were left too, food, an old but still serviceable waterproof jacket, maybe a pair of boots, or whatever might be useful. Jimmy would layer these items upon his sturdy frame, several pullovers covered by at least two waterproofs to top it all off, and the whole ensemble bound up with string. When he became infirm and no longer able to fend for himself Jimmy was taken into the old folks home in Fort William where he enjoyed a few years in splendid luxury, with three meals a day, hot baths, a dram in the evening, and he remained sparkly eyed and mischievous until he died.
And what of independence for Scotland? Well I’ll be voting yes.
I heard Alastair Darling chairman of the ‘Better Together’ campaign (and several others of the political elite pushing for a No vote) promising that (I paraphrase) “….we’ll give Scotland more powers and freedoms if the vote is to maintain the Union….”. Implicit in this rhetoric (and I’ve heard it numerous times from many commentators and it’s gone unchallenged) is the notion of this political elite ‘allowing’ us these ‘freedoms’. It’s this type of nonsense that we want rid of. If I have to vote ‘NO’ to be given ‘freedom’, I’d have to ask what such freedom is actually worth?
I’ll digress for a moment into the historically ‘obscure’ and forgive me for doing so, but it may illuminate this debate somewhat. Dr. James Hunter CBE, academic, historian and writer, wrote (amongst many other titles) ‘The Making of the Crofting Community’, first published in 1976, which is probably THE account of the making of Highland Scotland and the history of land ownership (book review here). Crucially, in so doing he had to challenge the prevailing revisionist history purveyed as fact by many of the political and academic elite of Scotland. Hunter felt the wrath of numerous members of Scotland’s ruling class as a consequence, but produced a literary classic that revealed the shameful treatment of Highland Scots:
“At Aberdeen, I was taught by two historians of Africa, John Hargreaves and Roy Bridges. During the years following the Second World War, Hargreaves and Bridges were among a number of Europeans who – on becoming staff members of the universities then being established in black Africa – became convinced that, if African history was to be rendered meaningful to to people engaged in anti-colonial struggle, it would have to be conceived in novel ways. No longer could the history of Africa consist – as it had consisted in every textbook produced under the British Empire’s aegis – of the doings of white explorers, white missionaries, white administrators. Henceforth, or so African-based historians like Bridges and Hargreaves began to argue, Africa’s history would have to be approached from the perspective of the continent’s black inhabitants – a perspective, it goes almost without saying, the historians of empire had ignored……and…Bridges and Hargreaves made it their business to introduce students to the frequently heated debate surrounding a historiographical revolution in which they had themselves participated.
Among the more reactionary contributors to this debate was Hugh Trevor-Roper (afterwards Lord Dacre), then regius professor of history at the University of Oxford and a man who, in 1965, dismissed African history as nothing more than ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’. By way of substantiating that remark, Trevor-Roper commented:
“Perhaps in future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.”
Hunter goes on to remark:
“This was, and is, claptrap – highly offensive claptrap at that. But Trevor-Roper’s outburst (in ‘The Rise of Christian Europe’) was nevertheless of great assistance in clarifying my thinking about the Highlands.
…The academic historians of the Highlands, to be sure, were a little less explicitly dismissive of the generality of Highlanders than Trevor-Roper was of black Africa’s population. But their outlook and methodologies were such, I felt, as to produce a strictly analogous outcome…..
….And it seemed imperative to me when I commenced work on The Making of The Crofting Community, that this anti-Highland travesty of Highland history be overthrown in the same spirit – and with the same liberating purpose – as imperialist and Eurocentric interpretations of Africa’s past had already been overthrown. With the overweening self-confidence – not to say arrogance – of youth, I wanted The Making of The Crofting Community, then, to have as innovative an impact in a Highland context as Afrocentric analyses of that continent’s past had had in an African one. My aim, to make the point another way, was to write ordinary Highlanders – my own forebears among them – into nineteenth century Highland history with much the same effect as Africans, during the 1950′s and 1960′s, had begun to be written into the history of Africa.”
And it would be correct to say Hunter’s book did have that impact. And its echo is still heard today, informing the changes in land ownership and management that I see around me, in the renewed pride and confidence in being Scottish that I alluded to in the Gus Wylie post I mentioned earlier.
But as the government’s recently published Land Reform Review Group’s report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good (2012) details: 97% of Scotland’s 80,000k² land area is classified as rural. Of this, 11-12% was publicly owned in 2012, with the rest in private ownership. But 60% of that privately owned rural land held by only 963 landowners. And a recent survey of 228 estates found that on average they had been held by the same owners for 122 years, and 11 estates held by the same families for more than 500 years. Land reform in Scotland has had a significant impact. The old feudal system has been challenged, and in many instances turned on its head fostering a new sense of national pride and identity, with community ownership increasing. I must stress that not all landowners are bad landowners, many I know personally are committed to their soil and vigorous in their support of the communities that live alongside them. But many are not so enlightened, and I’ve experienced their resentment personally.
Working as a photography guide and tutor for nearly two decades I’ve been accosted by landowners or their representatives and, not asked, but told to “GET OFF MY LAND!” on numerous occasions, and rarely politely. This is usually witnessed by my (mostly English) guests whose jaws drop in astonishment. Bizarrely this has happened more often since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act enshrined in legislation my legal right of access and recreation on Scottish land. Three times I’ve actually had to threaten land owners that if they did not back off and leave us alone I would call the Police and have them arrested, pointing out that my right to be there was protected by law, and their verbal assault and threats constituted an arrestable offence. Sadly this behaviour still continues today, and a high profile example exists close to my home, on Ledgowan Estate which is a notorious example of the owner attempting to maintain a feudal stranglehold on the land and those who wish to exercise their right to simply walk upon it.
To understand the Scots ‘connection’ with their land, and the passion that fuels the YES/NO debate, you must first understand at least some of this complex history of Highland Scotland, and the broken promises and willful disregard that was once shown for its inhabitants. My fear of a successful NO vote is not that we will fail to be independent, but that we may have demonstrated by our reluctance to embrace self-determination, a need for dependence. And what history (as accurately told by James Hunter) tells us, is that a country that finds itself at the mercy of its more powerful neighbour, will receive very little.
Do we have enough oil and gas reserves to bolster our economy? I have no idea. Could we survive on tourism? It’s a big earner, but not enough by itself. Is our hi-tech engineering, biomedical and world-leading gaming industry sufficient to make a difference? Time will tell. Is hydro power and other renewable energy, such as wind and wave, really that reliable? Some would say so, some would say not. Or education, what about our old and venerated Universities, do they contribute to our net worth? Or our business and financial sector: is it to be trusted or not? And what of salmon fishing and deer stalking, and raising cattle and sheep, and pelagic fishing, and fish-farming, and our skills at producing food, and of course whisky? Well depending on who you listen to it’s enough, or it’s far from enough. But what is crucial is that we actually HAVE all these things. If you take a southern British perspective on Scotland (depending on the political alignment of who offers it) it’s regarded as too far north and distant from the main markets, it’s bleak and inhospitable. But a Scandinavian perspective – as I was offered by a Norwegian Rural Development expert I spoke with in Assynt – is that Scotland is quite far south, relatively balmy and with lots of fertile soil, and has great potential. It’s really all about perspective.
Community land-ownership in Scotland will increase but the skills to wrestle incomes from it sufficient to support small communities may not be so easily available. But more young people are choosing careers in rural development in Scotland, looking to Norway for guidance, and this can only be of benefit to us in the longer term.
But this was not intended to be a political diatribe. This is a post about Scotland’s biggest asset, and hitherto, it’s main export: people. Modern Scotland is as much ‘Trainspotting’ as it is ‘Braveheart’, it can offer you misty-eyed ‘Brigadoon’ moments of tartan frenzy, or shock you awake with a sudden jolt of global terrorism. But at the heart of all of that are people. Despite, or perhaps even because of its contested past, and uncertain future, Scotland still remains a land of brim-full of poets and patriots. We are a small country with a big heart, and that heart is firmly in the land.
But don’t just take my word for that, come and see for yourself. If you’ve not been before you may be surprised to find there already exists considerable differences from England, that we already have Scottish bank notes, we have our own legal system, there are fundamental differences in our education and health systems, we even speak different languages up here.
Much has changed since I took these pictures almost 35 years ago, but a great deal more has stayed the same, and at the forefront of the latter is a desire to control and shape our own destiny. But, whatever the outcome of the vote on the 18th September we will remain ‘another country’.
Every now and again you see work that makes you go WOW!
I did that today when I saw the work of 67 year old Welsh farmer Peter Jones on the blog of Bartosz Nowicki. Beautifully composed, perfectly timed and quite simply wonderful images.
There’s a great interview there too – go and look, read, and you can go WOW! too. (Seriously, this is beautiful work.)
“My difficulties start with trying to load film onto spiral with hands that tremor and fingers that don’t respond to instructions. Also when confronted with an exciting subject I shake all over. I have overcome this problem somewhat by doubling film speed to 800 so I can use faster shutter speeds. I don’t shoot a lot of pics and am disappointed if I don’t get a meaningful image per film.
Thanks to Markham Nolan @markham for the link to this.
This is Inverness, Scotland. An eerily prescient slice of community artwork on a building site fence, painted by local children weeks ago. Photographed yesterday.
Life imitates art. And art echoes. That’s why it has power.