There is a common view of what goes on in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and it is perhaps epitomised in this photograph, as a bunch of sporting gents enjoy a busy day in North Uist. Of course, not only does it go on, but the lavish spending by outsiders from all over the world on grouse shooting, salmon fishing, and deer stalking is a major contributor to the economy of an area that now has little natural economic activity. But the photograph below paints another picture of life, especially on the islands (this one was taken on an island off North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, now uninhabited): retreat, abandonment, poverty.
For readers not so familiar with the north-western reaches of Scotland, we should perhaps explain a little more. Off the wild and jagged coast of the western mainland of Scotland lie three archipelagos of islands: the Inner Hebrides, of which the largest islands are Skye and Mull, but also including many smaller isles, such as Rhum and Canna. Out in the Atlantic beyond is another chain, stretching from Barra through the Uists, to Harris and Lewis, forming the low-lying, bleak but incredibly beautiful Outer Hebrides. And south another group, centred on Islay, Jura, Colonsay, and Tiree.
The Hebrides, and the adjacent mainland coast, in many parts almost uninhabited, may look peaceful and beautiful; but they have for hundreds of years being battlegrounds. Always conflict: natives against the Vikings; clan against clan*, C19th lairds* versus their tenants. And there is still conflict: between those with roots here and incomers, often English, looking for retreats or holiday homes; between the hill-sporting interests, and large scale outside investors in timber, and the ever growing and influential conservation charities.
As readers might imagine, a book could be written on any single aspect of all these conflicts; many have. This year sees the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Ian Mitchell’s “Isles of the West” an examination of the effect of modernity on this beautiful and remote world. Mitchell was of Scottish descent but brought up in South Africa. He married an Islay girl, and in 1996 made a long, single-handed voyage up the west coast, calling on many of the islands. He then wrote a book recording his many conversations with those living on the islands – Mitchell was a great man for a pint of Guinness, a dram of whisky, and a very long chat.
His conclusions were very different to the usual travelogue-cum-plea for conservation that Highlands and Islands journeys usually produce. It has to be said Mitchell was (and is; he is still alive although it's not clear where he lives - Moscow? Campbeltown on the peninsula of Kintyre, with a Russian wife) eccentric and grumpy, and his book caused a storm of protest when it came out. He attacked with blunderbuss and scalpel the role of the many conservation charities which were already great landowners in the area (they have become even more so in the last twenty five years), and who exercise great control over the lives of those who live on the islands and the mainland. His particular target was the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which he accused of favouring birds over people, of wasting vast amounts of donations to preserve at great cost unthreatened birds not especially native to these parts, such as corncrakes which tend to move their summer habitations round northern Europe; or, alternatively, of protecting birds such as greylag geese which cause damage to the habitats of other birds, and to the crops of crofters and local farmers. Indeed, Mitchell argued that the RSPB did not know much about the birds it was supposedly trying to conserve, but was mainly interested in their appeal to the money-donating mass membership of the RSPB.
Mitchell was alarmed that the changes that were going on were irreparably damaging the delicate lifestyles of the islands. He was concerned by houses being sold to outsiders who had no understanding of how the economics of the islands worked, who were not committed to their new residences, who often did not live there full time and did not educate their children locally, and let their properties to summer-only holiday makers. He worried about reforestation and the then version of rewilding taking the land that was needed for sustainable agriculture, and that this unbalancing of communities undermined the local infrastructure such as the ferries. He even grudgingly gets close to suggesting that major private landlords, at least those of a benevolent stripe, link up with crofters*, as they were the people most likely to protect the islands’ way of life.
But maybe not surprisingly, land control and ownership has continued to pass from private lairds, benevolent or otherwise, to the government in various forms, or to very rich conservation charities, who pursue almost entirely their own interests. And that tends not to include the interests of permanent residents. Mitchell has been proved largely right (maybe that is why he went to live in Moscow) although he perhaps underestimated the extent that tourism can make an economic contribution through the employment it brings (those living alongside the fashionable mainland motorhome route, the NC500, may beg to differ).
What awakened these random musings is a recent TV programme under the unlikely name of “Prince of Muck”, by Cindy Janson, a Swedish film maker, wonderfully directed and filmed, available on BBC iPlayer and on Amazon Prime.
Its “star” is Laurence MacEwen, the owner of the tiny island of Muck in the Inner Hebrides. If you are intending to go there, the Small Isles Ferry from Mallaig will take you, via the beauties of Rum, Eigg and Canna, each a scenic joy. Rum (or Rhum), is owned by government agency, NatureScot (another Mitchell target), Eigg by a government-funded residents collective who bought it in 1997 from its last laird, the English incomer Keith Schellenburg (Mitchell spent some time talking to and drinking with Schellenburg, and came to the conclusion that he had been much better for Eigg than the heavily-subsidised commune which replaced him), and Canna by another well-funded charity, the National Trust for Scotland, who inherited it from its last laird.
Prince of Muck makes a wonderful and moving advertisement for the private ownership of Scottish islands. But that does not take account of the very unusual personality of Laurence MacEwen. The MacEwens had bought Muck in 1896; Laurence was the fourth generation, not intended to own this windy paradise. He had an elder brother who wanted to sell it. Laurence fought that, and eventually his brother transferred it to him and went to live elsewhere.
Muck for the last seventy years has been noted as being different to most islands (except perhaps Canna). Lawrence MacEwen ran the place in a hands-on way, farming most of the land, building a small hotel, installing wind turbines to make the island more or less self-sufficient in electricity, not pursuing any sporting potential, and doing all he could to encourage younger families to come and live on Muck and start businesses to make use of the island’s natural advantages. There are not many; wool products (clothes and blankets) and tourism being basically it. But it is surprising what can be generated from that, especially as the tourism is aimed at those who will stay in the hotel and in bed-and-breakfast places – no camping. It has worked. Though the population is still small, it has grown from around eleven living there in the 1940’s to about thirty-five now, and by Highlands and Islands’ standards it is young; the school has stayed open and the workers are energetic.
But Laurence brought something else to the island. He loved hard, hands-on work. He had a spirit of stubbornness, which made the whole thing possible; a humility which made people, who, after all, were his tenants, feel he was one of them, that they were all in it together. Wind turbines apart he cared not for technology, living and farming in an old-fashioned way, stroking his cows, milking by hand, working in the fields with old equipment bought third-hand and in traditional ways that respected the soil and did not damage it.
Jansen’s film does not show a falsely idyllic community. The MacEwens argue and grumble quite a lot, and curse a bit, but they are happy; their aspirations are low but their life satisfaction is high, and if they fight occasionally it is over differing views as to how to keep things much the same. Laurence MacEwen died aged 81 just after the film was first shown, but his son and grandchildren live on Muck and farm it, intending to continue as part of a living, supportive, sustainable community.
Maybe this is the way forward: less things material, more a life about happiness than objects, where we can sit and read and make music and talk (and drink) and dream. Less electronics, more listening to the rain on the roof; less shopping, more gardening. More island happiness. Ian Mitchell must surely agree.
Clans – Large family groups headed by a Chief with a hierarchy of control but owning assets in common; often of the same name, such as McLeod
Laird – a Scottish landowner, usually but not always of several generations standing
Croft – smallholding A version of part of this article appeared in the Shaw Sheet earlier this year.