LAND OF OUR FATHERS; Radical Reformers Demand a Return to the Pre-Clearances Idyll of Mass Ownership of the Country. the Only Trouble Is, It Never Existed

By Luckhurst, Tim | Daily Mail (London), June 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

LAND OF OUR FATHERS; Radical Reformers Demand a Return to the Pre-Clearances Idyll of Mass Ownership of the Country. the Only Trouble Is, It Never Existed


Luckhurst, Tim, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: TIM LUCKHURST

SATURDAY ESSAY

IF Scots claim an instinctive love of one national asset, a profound affection which has survived centuries of invasion and cultural change, then that asset is land.

In literature, painting and song, landscape - usually that of the Highlands - represents Scotland more powerfully than any other image. Grand and majestic, with mountains and castles, our natural environment has come to represent more clearly than anything a Scot's sense of who he is.

It has become the core of a symbolic structure so allencompassing that paintings such as Landseer's Monarch of the Glen do much more than simply represent natural beauty. They are images which, to many around the world and, crucially, to Scots themselves, conjure up powerful emotions about the character of the country and its people.

Land's central place in our national psyche was in evidence again yesterday when the official opening of the Cairngorm funicular railway led, not to universal celebration, but to a bitter row over ownership of the surrounding terrain.

The Ramblers' Association is determined that control by the new national park board can serve the public interest better than continuing tenure by the existing landlord, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The rights and wrongs of this specific case are a side issue. It is part of a theme which has reemerged since the creation of the Scottish parliament. It was no spasm of eccentricity that persuaded Donald Dewar to declare land reform the principal legislative ambition of the first homerule government in three centuries. Nor should it be a surprise that his successors have maintained that commitment.

HERE in Scotland, land is not considered a purely economic asset to be traded and exchanged, such as coal or gold. It is imbued with a life force of its own, a capacity to forge identity and create justice. This awareness of its importance has survived despite epochal changes, most notably the migration of the majority of the population from rural to urban communities.

When fewer than 100 great families stood at the apex of an essentially feudal Scotland, land was linked directly to political power. Men like the Marquess of Huntly, who in 1690 held 20,000 acres of fertile soil in the North-East known as 'the eight and 40 davochs of Huntly', had powers and privileges the lairds and commoners beneath them could never dream of acquiring.

But now? Among supporters of the broadly Leftwing consensus that dominates Scottish life, the view is that little has really changed. Their argument starts with the Clearances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries which saw communities swept from the land, to be replaced by vast sheep farms.

It was certainly a brutal and inhumane process. By 1830, the majority of non-noble Scots living north of the Great Glen had been reduced to penury, utterly dependent on the potato crop. Its total failure in the 1840s provoked an exodus of huge proportions.

The Clearances did not just create misery, death and exile.

They shattered social stability too. Scots lost the faith in their clan chiefs which, until that point, had functioned as a social glue.

Replacing people with sheep ended that and created an enduring political legacy that survives to this day. It manifests itself in the widely-held belief that land should not be reserved for the private use of a privileged few, but thrown open to the majority to enjoy.

This credo is considerably more attractive than many political arguments based on association between humans and land. At its most extreme, this powerful emotional connection was horribly exploited by Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer raved about a bucolic ideal in which obedient blonde maidens and sturdy yeoman farmers would reinforce an umbilical connection between blood and territory. …

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