Echoes down the Glen of Landed Power
by Alastair McIntosh
Published in Reforesting Scotland, No. 13, Edinburgh, 1995, pp. 26-28.
It was 1977 back home on the Isle of Lewis and I still remember the look
of hurt surprise on the admiral’s wife’s face.
The admiral was stalking on the mountain above us. I was at the oars,
skilled now, young, but a ghillie of seven summer’s experience.
We’d been talking about war. She looked to me for rhetorical
reassurance: “There isn’t very much violence in our society these days, is
I lifted my finger and pointed to the mountain. Any moment now the
stillness would drop to the rifle’s crack.
The admiral’s wife turned back to her fishing, silenced. Slightly
ashamed, it was clear the cut needed softened. I was complicit too, thorough
employment, I said, and of course, we do need to cull stags.
But culling was not what drew men away from the affairs of state or
commerce. Culling does not account for the urge to own such allegedly
A single gunshot from under the crag signalled precision kill. The blast
ricocheted down the glen. A century or so earlier this place had been totally
cleared of its time-honoured inhabitants. Where children once played amongst the
rocks and rushes, a mere handful of us now killed for fun.
If you want an insight into the psychology of wealth and landed power,
get a job as a ghillie.
The boat becomes an analyst's couch. The life of the guest unfolds to the
rhythmic lapping of metaphoric waters on larch keel. The rod's every cast is a
So what makes a person want to be rich, powerful, and above all, landed?
The question is one of profound importance, not least in the Scottish Highlands
where a 1976 study showed that one-third of private land is owned by just 35
individuals or companies.
In my experience many of the gentry are individuals who would appear to
fit the description given by Alice Miller and other therapists of the wounded
child. This is the child whose "primal integrity" has been violated
through not being loved FOR ITSELF.
Instead, love was dependent upon conformity to authority, on giftedness
and performance. This produces an adult with deep‑seated unconscious
anxiety as to self‑worth.
John Lennon spelt it out in his WORKING CLASS HERO: "As soon as
you're born, they make you feel small; by giving you no time instead of it all;
'till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all...."
But whereas working class people lack power to express the violence of
frustration much beyond their own self or the home region, its reach for the
rich can be global.
Thus Lennon concludes: "There's room at the top, they are telling
you still; but first you must learn how to smile as you kill; if you want to be
like the folks on the hill."
Typical gentry with whom I spent day after day on salmon lochs had often
been surrogate parented by nannies. In late infancy they got sent away to
austere public schools.
One lord of the realm said he and his peers actually liked the
old-fashioned iron-railing beds back at the sporting lodge. They were a reminder
Such schooling was education for regimentation. It was strong on
punishment "for your own good," emotionally disengaged ("stiff
upper lip;" "uptight"), and largely lacking in gentle male and
female role models.
Back home, acceptance of the child was contingent upon conformity to
Father's authority. This typically included the expectation of early potty
training, "being seen but not heard," displaying the
"toughness" of "big boys don't cry," scholastic achievement
through exam success and co-operation in the context of disciplined playing
In later life such a psychological launchpad translates into military
achievement, success in the professions or old‑monied industry, property
accumulation and an etiquette towards others which, as the former minister Alan
Clark candidly told Desert Island Disks, means "you can get away behaving
badly in a lot of ways if you are courteous on the exterior."
In his book, TO HAVE OR TO BE, psychologist Erich Fromm casts light upon
the deep poverty of the rich. Such people need to "have" in order to
"be." The sense of soul is undeveloped.
Lack of a centred-self results in behaviour that is self-centred. The
ghillie's day is filled with snippets of discourse which reveal the substitution
of money for relationship. "Who IS he ...?" "IS he ANYBODY?"
one might ask the other as they head off to the loch.
"Oh, he's QUITE SOMEBODY," comes the reply. "He's
..." such and such a company, title, connection or landed property.
Like the worst sort of priest claiming to be paramount mediator between
humankind and God, many lairds bolster their sense of BEING SOMEBODY through the
control of land upon which communities depend.
This is a theft of that sense of responsibility, stewardship,
entrepreneurial potential and even virility which comes from direct relationship
It compromises the human need to belong somewhere. As such communities
are restricted in developing that harmony of people and nature upon which
sustainable livelihood depends.
The trouble is that the laird rarely sees this. And the more he puts
himself up in community, the more others feel put down.
Acting like the "King of the castle" creates its corollary of
"the dirty wee rascal." As land rights campaigner John Murdoch wrote
in 1873, "We have to record a terrible fact that ... a craven, cowed,
snivelling population has taken the place of the men of former days."
Any sudden deprivation of materialistic props around the self of a person
dependent upon power leaves behind a lost child exposed to frightening
emptiness. This is why the "sin of property" potentially damages
onself, and not just others.
It is why the laird deserves a certain compassion when made to face up to
the reality of the social distortion he creates. It is why the rich young man
went away, sadly, when Jesus told him to give it all away.
Even charity is suspect if it falls short of power-sharing. From time to
time letters appear in the Highland press suggesting that a particular laird
cannot be that bad because he gives to local good causes. Such gifts propriate
demands for justice. They smack more of guilt-offerings than love.
The consequences of the rich "buying a stairway to heaven"
extend far beyond such "collector's items" as small Scottish islands
and mountain fiefdoms. It may be that estate life is a cultural icon of huge
Probably the most psychologically perceptive work on the Scottish land
question is the bilingual community arts produced book, AS AN FHEARANN: FROM THE
LAND (Mainstream, 1986).
In amongst essays on Highland colonisation and freedom struggles, page 84
has a photomontage of President Reagan peering out of a TV screen at the
It brings to mind Alice Walker's line: "Regardless. He has filled
our every face with his window. Our every window with his face."
Page 93 shows NATO exercises at Stornoway airport. And on page 38,
General Curtis le May is pictured shooting deer in the Scottish Highlands. The
caption reads: "General le May was Commander in Chief of the USAF when the
atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima."
My mind returns to the memory of the admiral’s wife’s pained silence.
She knew what I was thinking. It had little to do with culled deer.
And my mind amplifies her husband’s rifle crack. Over and over. It
rolls down and far out beyond this secluded glen.
“There isn’t very much violence in our society these days, is
Alastair McIntosh teaches human ecology at the University of Edinburgh and is an elected Trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust. An edited version of this article first appeared in The Scotsman.
Internet Users Please Note: The material on this page is original text as submitted to the publication stated beneath the title. As the editing process means that some parts may have been cut, altered or corrected after it left my hands, or I might have made minor subsequent amendments, or scanned material may contain scanning errors, please specify in citation “internet version from www.AlastairMcIntosh.com” as well as citing the place of first publication. Note that author particulars, including contact address(es) and organisational affiliations may have changed since first publication.
This material is © Alastair McIntosh and any co-authors and/or first publishers. However (and without prejudice to any legal rights of co-authors or the original or subsequent publishers), I give my permission for it to be freely copied for non-commercial educational purposes provided that due acknowledgement is given. Please advise of any uses that might particularly interest me. For commercial enquires, please contact original publishers and/or email me, mail@AlastairMcIntosh.com. Thanks, folks, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!
To RETURN to any sub-index from which you approached this page, click BACK on your web browser. To return to my homepage, click “Home” above.