Continuing the guest writer scene so ably started by Graeme McCormick last week, today’s contribution comes from veteran land reform campaigner Ron Greer, who tells the story of how land reform became such an important issue to a lad from the schemes of Glasgow and how it remains a huge, untapped resource that could be a much greater contributor to the well being of Scotland, both economically and socially, if Government got serious about reform. Here is his article. Enjoy it, I did.
Land reform: a personal journey.
When I lived in the industrial slums of 1950s Govanhill and visited my granny in nearby Polmadie, I had not the slightest inkling, let alone concern, that the shocking conditions we lived in were indeed shocking and had anything to do with the way land was owned in Scotland. My blissful ignorance was unaffected by the move to the ‘people dump’ peripheral housing estate of Toryglen( to a house that actually had a bath in the bathroom) and scarcely touched by my visits to my miner relatives in what appeared to a plumber’s son Govanhill slum boy, as the ‘Yukon territories’ of Netherthird near Cumnock in Ayrshire.
It was here where I encountered the pleasures of catching beardies, bullheids and baggies in the Holm Burn, which along with the Mallsmire pond near Polmadie, the Cityford Burn in Rutherglen, the Campsie Glen Burn and ‘doon the watter’ holiday fishing experiences, engendered a lifelong interest in fishing and freshwater ecology. This in turn made me choose biology, rather than physics at Secondary school. This simple choice had the most profound on the direction of my life, when, in 1966 Roy Weston our biology teacher took us to Kindrogan Field Centre where my unrequited love for a lovely blond girl, fellow pupil, was assuaged by a love of Highland Perthshire which lasts to this day. It was during this visit that I was introduced to an Orcadian, Gordon Sutherland, a polymath nordophile farmer, who ran a small family farm near Kirkmichael.
During school holidays I worked on Gordon’s farm, where I got the first inklings of the realities of rural Highland life, working with and listening in to Gordon and his fellow farmers, most of whom were tenants rather than owner-occupiers like him. Trouble with the ‘laird’ featured prominently in their various grumblings. It stuck in my mind, because it reminded me of the troubles my granny had with the factor who managed the slum we had lived in. However the really profound effect my times with Gordon and his family had on me were, his slide shows of his journeys in Fennoscsandia, the trips he took us on to look for rare Alpine plants, which we always left in situ, and geological specimens that he occasionally added to his profuse collection; an introduction to the geobotanical wonders of the Highlands if ever there was one.
This working friendship with a nordophile Highland Perthshire farmer-geologist-naturalist imbued me with an interest in boreal ecology and a desire to leave Glasgow and live and work in Perthshire. This was a dream facilitated by Adam Watson, whom I oft times wrote to about possible jobs at the moorland ecology unit at Banchory: there weren’t any at the time, but he did point out a possibility of a vacancy at the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory, Pitlochry, which I promptly applied for and was successful in obtaining. Such was the separation of the urban and the rural in the working class mindset of the time, that my mother and grandmother seemed to regard my rail journey in 1969 to Pitlochry as a journey to Vladivostok on the Siberian railway. Not quite that of course, though the change in lifestyle was a difficult one at times, but it opened up quite a few new avenues including the pathway to the deep interest, indeed passion I now have in land use and land tenure reform, the two being inextricably linked.
OK, I was definitely ‘prior prepped’, compared to most urban émigrés, to receive the lessons from a series of life events that would shatter the urban myths of the Highlands being the rural idyll of the last great unspoiled wilderness in Europe, but the transformation of my mindset was all the more radical for that. Taking up the job at Pitlochry was the catalyst to understanding the reality of life in a land monopoly in itself, as much as anything I learned about the ecology of freshwater ecosystems and the terrestrial landscape they were set in. The job was poorly paid, but it provided resources enough to facilitate my first trip to another country( including England), namely Iceland in 1970 and following trips to Norway 1971-1984 and a return trip to Iceland in 1981.
These Fennoscandian study trips and the associated literature reviews, often in relation to my research interests in a fish called Arctic Charr and the management of hydro-electric reservoirs completely changed my attitude to the biogeographical setting of Scotland in terms of both the true environmental and the dependent socio-economic potential of the Highlands. This was an issue looked into more profoundly by colleague Derek Pretswell and myself not only in relation to our work with the Loch Garry Tree Group (www.andywightman.com/archives/3291) but also with a much bigger environment and socio-economic regeneration concept called New Caledonia, which, had it come to fruition, would have obviated the déjà vu, groundhog day arguments still going on about the Nordic analogue, rewilding and re-settlement today.
There were two very clear points identified from the above experiences and studies: the main bioclimatic and geobotanical parameters operating in the Highlands, that are often used by the current land tenure oligarchy to validate their opinion that no other form of land use is viable, are, despite this spurious claim, not inimical to, or preventative of, a different, more benign environmental social and economic outcome; and secondly, that within the topographic, climatic and political potential, there are other forms of land ownership that are not based on a de facto land monopoly cabal running what I have called a Victorian-Edwardian Dystopia ( VED) for their own indulgence nor based on the quasi-kibbutzist, neo-tribal collective dignified by the term ‘community buy-out’
Authors such as Robin Callander and Andy Wightman have long pointed out that Scotland has one of the most concentrated forms of private land ownership in the world. There has been no significant change since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. No political initiative has affected the validity of the searing, scathing satire of landownership in the performances of the 7:84 Company’s play ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil that was part of the background to my departure from Glasgow 50 years ago.
The prevarication and procrastination of the SNP government over land reform has to end and the beginning of that end has to be with them engaging fully with the concept of AGR as espoused by Graeme McCormick ( this blog) and/or by the SLRG ( www.slrg.scot )
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