You can’t forget what you don’t know

Why we need to talk about the links between colonialism and climate change in the context of Highland land reform.

Mairi MacFadyen writing in Bella Caledonia 21.04.19

I visited Timespan in Helmsdale recently. The gallery is exhibiting a display called ‘No Colour Bar: Highland Remix: Clearances to Colonialism’ which aims to reconcile the local history of the Clearances with the colonial framework of Empire. This includes recreating a radical bookshop – an invitation ‘to learn from the histories of resistance to colonialism and to connect to and clarify the present political crises we face.’

Many would argue that the biggest crisis faced by us all is climate breakdown, and with it, the ultimate destruction of the biosphere that supports all life on this planet. Climate change is a direct consequence of global capitalism, a system that was borne out of and continues to thrive on colonialism. Climate change contains within it histories of exploitation of people and natural resources as well as colonial systems of politics and power that continue to perpetuate oppression, inequality and injustice across the world today.Land is the most valuable and contested commodity in this global system; power has always been linked to the ability to ‘own’ land. George Monbiot writes,

“There is a vast and scarcely examined assumption at the very heart of capitalism: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. But why? What just principle equates the numbers in your bank account with a right to own the fabric of the Earth?”

Land grabs
Capitalism was built on land grabs. The ‘enclosures’ of the 16th and 17th centuries privatised common land and local resources into commodities to be bought and sold on the market. Modernity saw the start of resource extraction for a new global market, and with that, the emergence of an economy of plantation (sugar, tobacco, cotton) that fuelled the slave trade and the commodification of wage labour, filling the banks of the colonial masters. Scholars such as Walter Miglo have argued that modernity is inherently colonial; it is inextricable from the oppressive practices used to dominate and exploit indigenous and marginalised people across the globe. By the end of the 18 century, enclosure had catalysed the capitalist relations of dispossession, displacement, the commodification of land and the concentration of land ownership.

Here in the Highlands, this historical process took place comparatively recently. In this new economic system, everything (everyone and everywhere) is seen as a commodity to be bought and sold, ready for exploitation, for profit. Following the destruction of the clan system in the 18th century, a new breed of commercially-minded landowners came in to claim the land. People were not profitable. The Clearances emptied vast swathes of northern Scotland and replaced its settled communities first, with large-scale sheep farming, and later with deer. This violent displacement perpetuated coloniality elsewhere: many who emigrated to the ‘New World’ reproduced this violence that was meted out to them under the protection of the British Empire. This speaks to the psychology of colonialism: the coloniser is internally colonised, and this damage to the fullness of their humanity is what enables the reproduction of oppression on others.

Timespan’s exhibition states that Scotland suffers from ‘colonial amnesia’ that has allowed its popular history to be mythologised in terms of victimhood. This is a bold move on the part of Timespan, particularly in a village that was planned in 1814 to resettle communities that had been removed from the surrounding straths as part of the Clearances. While Scotland as a nation was complicit in and profited hugely from the British Empire, the Highlands suffered the same violence that was later inflicted on the colonies, and this violence is writ large on the landscape. This is not to make false equivalences with other colonised groups; we can speak of the Highlands as being colonised, but this does not mean that the process happened in the same way with the same results.

Highland history has been further complicated by the commercial success of invented traditions that have distorted and obscured Gaelic culture into the present day. Throughout the centuries, Romantic representations of the Highland landscape – empty glens and lone stags – have provided not only psychological escape from contemporary reality – from the march of modernity – but also from the history of the Highlands itself. There are parts of Scotland that may suffer from colonial amnesia, but you can’t forget what you don’t know. As the poet Sorley MacLean reflects on his own experience of navigating what he did and did not know:

“Ever since I was a boy in Raasay, and became aware of the difference between the history I read in books and the oral accounts I heard around me, I have been very sceptical of what might be called received history… Famine, overpopulation, improvement, the industrial revolution, expansion overseas. You see, not many of these people understood such words, they knew only Gaelic. But we know now another set of words; clearance, empire, profit, exploitation. Our way of life is besieged by the forces of international big business, our country’s beggared by bad communication, the iniquities of land ownership, the failures and unconcern of central government. Our culture is vitiated by the sentimentality of those who have gone away. We have, I think, a deep sense of generation and community. But this has in so many ways been broken. We have a history of resistance, but now mainly in the songs we sing” (Sorley Maclean’s Island, 1974).

Landed power
The historical injustices of the Clearances are still felt. According to the academic and land reformer Jim Hunter, the Highlands suffer ‘the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world,’ giving rise to issues of depopulation, a rural housing crisis, ecological degradation, deforestation and cultural loss. Just last month, the Scottish Land Commission published a major report that argues that the governance of Scottish land ownership must be radically reformed to reverse the concentration of wealth and influence, which it describes as ‘socially corrosive.’ This raises questions over ownership and land management. Reform and taxation based on land, such as an annual ground rent (AGR) or land value tax (LVT) would start the process of breaking up this monopoly of landed power.

More than half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people, many of whom are absentee landowners profiting from ‘tax efficient’ monoculture forestry blocks, a death to biodiversity. Almost a fifth of Scotland’s land mass is given over to grouse moors. These heather moorlands – often regarded as an iconic part of the ‘wild’ Scottish landscape – are, in reality, highly modified habitats. Burning the moors damages delicate ecosystems and degrades the carbon-rich peat, releasing carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. Everything is connected in a cascade of causalities.

The movement for land reform is, therefore, a vital part of global efforts to tackle climate change, on several fronts. The natural world is our greatest ally in locking away carbon and protecting our climate. Rewilding can help nature recover on a huge scale. In Scotland, we have peat bogs, temperate rainforests and wetlands, all of which are carbon sinks that can sequester vast amounts of Co2. Rewilding and repeopling are not mutually exclusive, however. Community land ownership, through devolving power to communities, embraces the kinds of relationships between people, resources and power that foster community resilience, ecological stewardship and democratised decision making. While common ownership of land does not necessarily mean it will be managed well, it is a vital step towards breaking up systems of power and re-engaging people with collective local responsibility for land resource and development needs. Each community story is a microcosm of change, transformation and self-determination, opening up channels for others to follow.

Dig where we stand
The climate crisis cannot be addressed until we come to terms with the history that climate change, coloniality and capital share. The campaign for land reform in the Highlands must be seen as part of a global struggle to overthrow the system – the colonial matrix of power and capital – that is destroying our world.

We can’t move forward without understanding our past. Our ability to enact any kind of political change, collectively or as individuals, is intimately tied to our ability to make sense of the world around us. We must dig where we stand. By learning about our own history and the place where we are living, we can regain some control over the understanding of our lives and our interconnectedness. In a Guardian article earlier this week on Scotland’s involvement in slavery in the Caribbean, Yvonne Singh writes, ‘however unpalatable this history is, it is a shared one, and contributes to our understanding of race and how the movements of people from long ago fits with our story now.’

This is the work that needs to be done: unearthing, reclaiming, coming to terms with our role in global oppression, joining the dots, finding our blind spots and bringing this all to bear on the huge questions of our time.

We must reconnect with the history of resistance and radical roots of Highland land activism and we must build bridges of empathy and solidarity with resistance movements across the globe.

Mairi McFadyen is a writer and researcher based in Inverness.