What future for peasant communities in the North? A holiday report

July 19, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Back from a week’s holiday and a ‘South in the North’ experience attending a wedding in Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (go to the top of Scotland, and turn left). My father-in-law comes from there, and his family still run a croft – a smallholding with a few sheep and cattle in one of Britain’s few remaining peasant communities. So how does it compare to the far more populous peasant worlds in developing countries?

The overall story is one of depopulation – the island is dotted with abandoned villages and ‘lazy beds’, where farmers previously struggled to raise potatoes and cereals in the harsh Hebridean climate. Now they buy them at Tescos. The population of the island is 18,000 and both ageing and falling, as the youngsters, especially the best and brightest, head off via university on the mainland, just as my father-in-law did some 60 years ago. Many end up emigrating further, to New Zealand, Australia, Canada etc.

But within this overall story of decline, there are countervailing tides. First new people are arriving – ‘incomers’ make up about a quarter of the 40 or so families in my father-in-law’s village, bringing in capital and entrepreneurial skills. Most are from England or elsewhere in Europe, but the island’s capital Stornoway also boasts a small Bangladeshi community.

FultonAs technology and society changes, the island’s ‘comparative advantage’ is shifting – it has a LOT of wind and sea, so renewables are developing, (albeit with big struggles over planning permission) and the very emptiness is bringing in tourism, while the Hebridean light is a magnet for artists – there are galleries everywhere (see here for an outstanding example).

As for farming, most remaining crofters are largely ‘hobby crofters’, relying on non farm income. Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are the only reason why many crofts with just 50 sheep can get through the year – I met one accountant-turned farmer who complements his income by helping his neighbours fill in their subsidy applications. But he is also training a new generation of crofters, some of whom commute to the North Sea oil rigs but no longer have to emigrate due to improved air links to the mainland. They farm during their weeks off.

Some of the more entrepreneurial crofters are developing niche markets. My wife’s cousin is building a herd of highlander cattle (the highlandershaggy ones with the big horns – see pic) and cannot meet the demand for their premium organic beef, not least via the website and webcam (yes, you can watch his cows on the internet, if that’s your thing, and he gets regular emails from their fanclub).
One of the main existential battlegrounds is culture. This is a Gaelic-speaking community (my father in law only learned English when he went to school, where he was beaten for speaking Gaelic) and while young people prefer English, a boom in Gaelic schooling and media is trying to reverse the trend, with mixed results (one of Stornoway’s second generation Bangladeshis reportedly became president of Glasgow University’s Gaelic society). Religion, particularly the evangelical ‘Free Church of Scotland’, plays a vital role in holding communities together in a harsh environment, but that cohesion is being undermined by the very incomers who are boosting the economy.

Migration, culture, non farm income, the role of faiths – you could be talking about peasant communities anywhere. So what does spending a week in Lewis add to my understanding? Firstly, leaving home and heading for the cities is always a wrench, but provided it is a positive choice, not ‘distress migration’, it brings opportunities and new horizons. Those returning for the wedding treasure their cultural roots, but showed little urge to come back home to the rain and cold.

Secondly, migration is becoming less traumatic. People can return home for holidays (or weddings), talk on the phone, skype or email, or watch the cows on the webcam. They no longer have to leave their old world behind them as Lewis disappears over the horizon.

Thirdly, peasant communities are never static. Technology, culture, ideas and people flow in and out at an ever-accelerating rate. Any city-dwelling ‘peasant romantic’ seeking a timeless, unchanging, pre-modern ‘other’ in smallholder communities is likely to be disappointed. Good thing too.