The Lie of the Land
Published in The Hebridean, Stornoway, 14 Aug 2003, p. 7. This article is the first in an occasional series on community dynamics. It comprises a brief update of progress with the community buyout on Eigg, and a rebuttal of some negative publicity thrown at this.
During June I spent a week on the Isle of Eigg where I’d been a founding trustee of the original land reform trust. Since then, more folks than usual have been asking me what’s going on there.
The grit in the oyster of public concern has been an Achiltibui-based German journalist, Reiner Luyken. As it happens, Luyken had just beaten a hasty retreat the day that I arrived on the island.
“Did you see him coming off the ferry?” asked Maggie Fyffe, the Eigg Trust secretary, with a bemused twinkle in her eye. “He’s the first person I’ve ever had to throw out of my house. Utterly objectionable!”
The resulting article, “War in Paradise”, appeared on 13 June 2003 in Die Zeit, Germany’s equivalent of The Times newspaper. Luyken’s host and a key informant was Liz Lyon, a socialite artist who had first visited Eigg as a guest of the Big House back in laird Keith Schellenberg’s era. Her wealthy husband had decamped with Schellenberg’s beautiful then-wife, thus leading to the forced sale of the island in divorce proceedings.
“It is civil war here,” Lyon told Luyken. “The old landlord had a sense of noblesse oblige. Those people who hold power now are lacking any sense of responsibility.”
Similar half-truth hyperbole betrays Luyken’s own political bearings.
“Last January, the land reform became law,” he wrote. “Crofting communities are now able to confiscate local estates; the owners are to be compensated out of taxes and lottery funds. The Scottish Executive and nearly all political parties as well as the churches and most organizations of civil society stand full square behind the reform. Eigg is being held up as a shining example for what can be achieved.”
True enough, Eigg, certainly was being held up. But with good reason. By and large, it has been inspirational. Indeed, just a day or two before Die Zeit went to press, Brian Wilson MP ran a leader in the West Highland Free Press. Speaking of the Community Land Unit that has now facilitated so many buyouts elsewhere, he wrote: “It all began that day on Eigg”.
Luyken’s intent appears to have been to discredit Eigg’s six years’ of achievement. Many islanders angrily feel misrepresented by the article. Some are taking legal advice. Others feel that off-the-cuff remarks they may have made were, to use the current parlance, “sexed up”. And Luyken’s values by which he judged what he saw were clearly alien. For example, he made a great song and dance that, “The old lodge, an architectural jewel, crumbles like the departed aristocracy’s castles in the days of the GDR in East Germany.”
The fact is that restoring a dry-rot-ridden rich man’s folly at an estimated couple of million pounds must be low down the priorities for any community struggling back from the brink of collapse. By focussing, instead, on more practical objectives, Eigg has achieved modest wonders. They’ve built a new tea room, shop and post office, started new businesses, restored several houses, granted secure leases, expanded farming, commenced forestry and mended miles of broken-down fencing.
That’s not bad for an island of 70 people with only a dozen or so free hands available. Decades of neglect and mismanagement have been turned round into full employment with consequent reduced social welfare costs to the state.
The Lodge, far from being a “jewel” in the eyes of most residents, is at best a potential museum; at worst, a symbol of bygone oppression. And yes, everybody knows that £6 million of public money is controversially being spent on the new pier. But the massive scale and unfortunate location of this was forced on unwilling residents. They were told to accept what fitted a wider governmental transport strategy or risk losing the ferry service altogether.
As for the idea much-vaunted by critics that public money was poured into the Eigg buyout, it was actually a mere £17,500 that came from the taxpayer’s purse. That’s a drop in the bucket out of the £1.6 million that we raised in 10,000 donations from the public.
Everything over and above the £17,500 that’s come in since then from statutory sources has been project funding, for which any other landowner or community is eligible to apply. The likes of Luyken fail to make this clear. One might ponder why not.
The reality for small Scottish communities is that it is easy for a journalist to enter probably at the behest of a few malcontents, win unsuspecting folks’ confidence maybe over a beer or two and with some judicious name-dropping, then air everybody’s washing for them in ways that few would either want or recognise.
This is something that we all need to be acutely aware of as the successes of community landownership come under the magnifying glass. As I was told on Gigha the other day, “We’re learning from what’s happened on Eigg, and being more discerning about whom we speak to.” It’s a pity, but it’s the reality of a world where spin says it all.
Driving this process is the fact that Scotland’s land reform is threatening to moneyed power far beyond the Highlands. We need to get wise to the danger of hard-won achievements being targeted for caricature and discredit by the political right.
The vested interests are potentially far reaching. For example, I sent Luyken’s article to an international expert on Germanic aristocracy for a second opinion. This is part of what my Professor friend wrote back:
“Die Zeit is like Le Monde, absolutely top flight and granted much credence in Germany and beyond. I cannot understand how they would publish anything in such a colloquial style - it would have to be sanitised in German. The article is clearly grossly defamatory, indeed scurrilous - whether it is libellous raises questions about what is or is not true. The allusion in the article to castles in the GDR is a real give-away: former West Germans (Wessies) from amongst the elite look on former East Germans (Ossies) as irretrievably corrupted by socialism and all its works. The jewel in the crown for the really ambitious is Scotland where the law places no inhibitions on foreign ownership of land and above all, islands.”
The writer went on to say that he is far from anti-German. Indeed, he pointed out that Germany now has a fast-growing Jewish population precisely because Jews feel relatively safe there. The problem is not one of ethnicity – of being German as such, or English, or Arabic, or whatever. Rather, it is a problem of domination by social class. It is the problem that some folks like to lord it over others.
The Professor continued:
“The old Junkers feudal mentality of the north German (now Polish) plains is excluded (along with Hitlerian fascism) by virtue of the German Constitution wisely imposed upon Federal Germany by the Allies in 1945; but it can live on in Scotland or Spain…. The denigration of Eigg and the destruction of its highly publicised status as an example of an alternative form of land-ownership and post-feudal governance is critically important for the continuation of a life-style possibility now virtually impossible anywhere else.”
So there we are. There are interests afoot that really would like to see community land ownership tripped up. Indeed, Luyken’s work was quickly recycled in The Sunday Times, in the tabloids, and by right-wing commentators in broadcast chat shows. That’s why everyone’s now asking, “What’s happening on Eigg?”
All this said, nobody would claim that everything on Eigg is perfect. You don’t shift overnight from having a laird holding the lid down on things to an ideal democracy. People will still be people, but that doesn’t mean they can’t embark on a learning curve.
In particular, community empowerment can mean learning anew what it means to be a community. It means learning techniques for decision making in a local democracy. It means learning to recognise, process and resolve the conflict that any normal group of human beings inevitably generates.
Since the early 1990’s, community land ownership in Scotland has passed through three major phases. These have been, 1) awareness raising, 2) establishing pioneering patterns and examples such as Eigg and Assynt, and, 3) passing the Land Reform (Scotland) Act and building support infrastructure like the Community Land Unit to facilitate the reform process.
We’re now entering the fourth stage: that of local democracy capacity building. While relatively new to the Highlands, such processes and techniques proven elsewhere in the world. At this stage community empowerment moves towards full fruition, and of that, more later.
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7 August 2003