• Alasdair Macleod
Location:
Stornoway
Date:
Monday 15th February 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/005

Alasdair:

Alright. Do you want it in Gaelic?

     

Simon:

In Gaelic, yeah.

     

Alasdair:

Uill ’s e baile ùr a th’ ann an Aiginis, emm ... chaidh a chur a-mach às dèidh aimhreit Aiginis ann an ochd ceud deug - och 1888. ’S e baile beag a th’ ann, chan e baile mòr a th’ ann an Aiginis idir. ’S e baile croitearachd a bh’ ann a’ dol air ais gu deireadh na linn mu dheireadh ach tha cùisean air atharrachadh gu mòr. Tha mi smaointinn gun robh dhà dheug air fhichead de chroitean ann an Aiginis ach san latha a th’ ann an-diugh chan eil barrachd na còig no sia far a bheil daoine a’ cleachdadh na talmhainn mar a bha iad uaireigin. Tha beagan stoc ann - dhà no trì chrodh agus tha barrachd chaoraich ann ceart gu leòr ach chan eil leth uiread ’s a b’ àbhaist a bhith ann agus chan fhaic thu duine an-diugh a’ cleachdadh an talamh mar a b’ àbhaist. Bidh duine no dhithis a’ cur glasraichean is rudan mar buntàt’ ach tha a’ mhòr-chuid dhe na lotaichean tha iad bàn. Bidh daoine gan cleachdadh direach airson feur a dhèanamh agus fàgail stoc orra. ’S e baile beag àlainn a th’ ann, fad ’s a bheil e ri taobh an tràigh, agus ’s e baile beag ainmeil ann an eachdraidh croitearachd.

     
 

Well, Aignish is a new township ... it was settled after the Aignish riots in 18... - och 1888. It is a small township, Aignish is not a big township at all. It was a crofting township going back to the end of the last century but matters have changed greatly. I think there were thirty-two crofts in Aignish then but nowadays there is no more than five or six where people are making use of the land as they were at one time. There is some stock - two or three cattle and there are more sheep right enough but there are not as many as there used to be, and you will not see anyone nowadays working the land as used to be. One or two people grow vegetables and things like potatoes but the majority of the crofts are fallow. People use them just to make hay and to graze animals on them. It is a beautiful little township where it is situated beside the sands, and it is a famous little village in the history of crofting.

Simon:

Can you describe the kind of conditions that people were living in?

     

Alasdair:

Aig an àm, uh-huh. Ron aimhreit bha cùisean uabhasach doirbh. Bha trioblaidean ann leis an iasgach, cha robh an t-iasgach gu math, bha teaghlaichan mòra ann agus cha robh talamh aca. Nis, anns an latha a th’ ann sa bheil sinne beò an-diugh ’s e airgead tha daoine, tha a’ cumail daoine dol. Aig an àm ud, an t-airgead a bh’ aca ’s e an talamh. Mura robh talamh aca, cha b’urrain dhaibh bhith beò agus bha goirt agus acras a’s an sgìre gu lèir - a’s an eilean gu lèir. Agus rud a bha daoine faicinn son a bhith beò, ’s e cha robh iad ag iarraidh ach talamh. ’S bha iad a’ faicinn, bha iad a’ faicinn Aiginis, tac Aiginis san robh talamh math dhà-rìribh agus le aon uachdaran agus bha iadsan le acras is rudan. Cha robh ... bha an dòigh beatha cho searbh ’s cho duilich. Agus sin an t-adhbhar a bha an aimhreit ann. Bha daoine direach gu bàsachadh leis an acras. Cha robh càil aca, cha robh iad a’ dèanamh bith-beò às an rud a bh’ aca.

     
 

At the time, uh-huh. Before the riot, matters were terribly difficult. There were problems with regard to fishing, the fishing was not good, there were large families and they had no land. Now, in this day and age in which we live, it is money that concerns people, it is money that keeps people going. At that time, the land was the equivalent of their money. If they had no land, they could not sustain themselves and there was hunger and famine in the whole area - in the whole island. And people saw land as a way to sustain themselves and the land as the only way to do so. And they saw, they could see Aignish, the Aignish tack which contained excellent land with a landlord, and they were going hungry, amongst other things. They were not ... the way of life was so difficult and desperate. And that is the reason the riot took place. People were just almost dying of hunger. They had nothing, they could not make a living out of what they had.

Simon:

This was after the 1886 Crofters Act so in principle the conditions for the crofters should have been better but obviously in reality they weren’t. And around this time there was also some forms of greater organisation to represent the crofters such as the Land League and also the Free Kirk. What aspects of those play in the shaping of what the crofters did and how they responded to these circumstances?

     

Alasdair:

Uill, an tuigse a th’ agam fhìn ’s e gun d’ rinn Achd nan Croitearan, rinn e feum, son bha daoine a’ faireachdainn airson a’ chiad àm gun robh còirean aca - gum bu chòir dhan t-suidheachadh a bhith na b’ fheàrr. Agus bha buidheann eile mar Land League, bha iad a strì air feadh nan eilean agus air feadh a’ Ghàidhealtachd airson dèanamh cinnteach gun robh talamh gu bhith aig na croitearan agus daoine bochd. Tha mi smaointinn gun tug e neart dhaibh nach robh ann mar-thà son bha iad a’ faicinn gun robh an Riaghaltas fhèin a’ feuchainn rin cuideachadh. Ach ’s e rud, eh ... ged a thàinig an Achd ann am bith ann an 1886, cha robh sin a’ ciallachadh gun dh’atharraich cùisean sgiobalta. Bha greiseag às dèidh sin mus do thuig daoine dè an cumhachd a bh’ aca a thaobh fearann agus an lagh fhèin.

     
 

Well, what I understand is that the Crofters Act did some good, because people felt for the first time that they had rights - that the situation ought to get better. And there was another organisation, such as the Land League, they were striving throughout the Islands and throughout the Highlands to ensure that crofters and poor people would have land. I think it gave them strength that was not there before, because they could see that the government itself was trying to help them. But the thing is, eh ... although the Act came into being in 1886, that does not mean that matters changed quickly. It was some time after that that people realised the power they had as regards land and the law itself.

 

What I’m saying is that the ... (inaudible) ... Crofters Act in 1886, people instantaneously weren’t aware of their rights but it gave them strength and gave them a sense of power that they didn’t have but it took a while to filter through, that they’d actually been given this power by the 1886 Act. I mean, there wasn’t an immediate revolution. Psychologically it probably was a catalyst for future change but at the time ... you know, if something had happened in Edinburgh ... it wasn’t in Edinburgh, it was in London, an act was passed. It took a long time for the feeling of: “Yeah, we do have the power now.” So there was a sort of interim period when things ... it was quite slow, the change, that’s my understanding of it anyway.

Simon:

So to come on to the raid itself. There was I guess a few steps, a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing between ...

     

Alasdair:

Mus robh an aimhreit ann bha daoine a’ tòiseachadh a’ coinneachadh. Bha e coltach gun robh coinneamh ainmeil aig eaglais na h-Aoidh oidhche no dha ron rèid fhèin. Agus bha daoine a’ toiseachadh, bha iad a’ faireachdainn cho làidir. Nis, ’s e ceum mhor uabhasach a bh’ ann dha daoine nach robh riamh a’ briseadh an lagha tighinn gun ìre agus gun robh fhios aca gum feumadh iad briseadh an lagha son faighinn na còirichean aca fhèin. Tha tòrr sgeulachdan mu dheidhinn an aimhreit fhèin - an latha thachair an t-sabaid mhòr. Choinnich an t-uabhas de dhaoine chan ann a-mhàin às na bailtean timcheall ach à sgìre an Rubha fhèin. Agus tha aon sgeulachd ann a chuala mi bho m’ athair fhìn gun robh fear a’ tighinn, croitear à ceann eile dhen Rubha, cha chreid mi nach ann à Port nan Giùran no Port Bholair, gun robh a mhàthair air a bhith tinn ’s gun robh e ann an Steòrnabhagh ag iarraidh leighisean air choreigin, medicine air choreigin. Agus gun e esan aon dhe na daoine a chaidh e ghlacadh agus chaidh a chur dhan phrìosan. Ach feumaidh e bhith gun robh e dìreach iongantach an neart a bha sa choimhearsnachd airson siud a dhèanamh. Agus daoine às na coimhearsnachdan às an sgìre às na h-eileanan, cha robh iad - cha b’ e an seòrsa daoine a bh’ annta a bhiodh ag iarraidh briseadh na lagha. Ach bha aca ri dhèanamh an latha ud air sgàth bha suidheachadh cho doirbh, bha suidheachadh cho duilich. Cha robh taobh eile a b’ urrainn dhaibh a dhol ach briseadh an lagh. Ach bha an t-arm deiseil air an son oir bha iad a’ cluinntinn gun robh daoine air a bhith a’ coinneachadh ’s gun robh iad a’ beachdachadh toirt an talamh bho Newhall.

     
 

Before the riot took place, people had started meeting. It seems that a famous meeting took place in the Eye church a night ot two before the raid itself. And people were beginning to feel so strong. Now, it was a tremendous step for people who had never broken the law to have to come to the stage where they knew that they had to break the law to acquire their rights. There are lots of stories about the riot itself, the day the big battle took place. A huge number of people met, not just from the villages round about, but from the whole of Point itself. And there is one story which I heard from my own father, that someone whose mother had been sick, a crofter from the other end of Point, I think from Portnaguran or Portvoller, was returning from Stornoway with medicines, some sort of medicine. And he was one of those who was caught and he was put into prison. But the strength in the community must have been amazing at that time in order to do that. And people from the community, from the area, from the islands, they were not - they were not the kind of people who would wish to break the law. But they had to do it that day because their situation was so desperate, the situation was so difficult. They had no other choice to take but to break the law. But the army was ready for them because they had heard that people had been having meetings and that they were speculating about retrieving the land from Newhall.

 

What I said there basically was it took an awful lot for law-abiding people to break the law, they were at the end of their tether. And there’s one story my father told me that one of the so-called raiders had actually been to Stornoway, cos his mother was from the other end of Point, to pick up medicine and he was grabbed along with the actual raiders. I’m just saying how amazing it must have been, you know, the strength of feeling in these people who by and large were probably church going people to know that they were breaking the law. And the build up to it was that there were meetings held and of course the military heard the feeling of unrest, not just on Lewis but throughout the Highlands.

Simon:

So after the raid itself there was a trial in Edinburgh and to some extent seems to have been a bit of a ... There seems to have been a bit of a motive to make a statement to the crofting community at large through this trial. To what extent were people in Aignish familiar with this trial and what was their response to it or impressions of it?

     

Alasdair:

Uill, bha faireachdainn ann bhon a chaidh daoine a chur an grèim gun robh an Riaghaltas a’ dol a thighinn sìos trom orra agus bha daoine dhen a’ bheachd cha robh diofar dè chanadh iad son an dìon fhèin, nach robh an riaghalteas a’ dol a ghabhail ri seo. Bha e dìreach mar gun robh iad ag iarraidh dèanamh eisimpleir dhe na daoine a bha ceangailte ri strì Aiginis. Gun tigeadh fios a-mach, gun sgaoileadh fios air feadh a’ Ghàidhealtachd gu lèir nam briseadh duine an lagh gun robh e a’ dol a dh’fhaighinn am prìosan. Agus ann an doigh, bha daoine dhen bheachd a-riamh nach robh t-seans aca, cha robh e gu diofar dè chanadh iad. Bha e duilich dhaibh an dìon fhèin, fhuair iad beagan taic bhon a, bhon a ... dè an t-ainm a bh’ air a’ bhuidheann ... ruideigin Defence League ach cha d’ fhuair iad tòrr taic, cha robh airgead aca ... Crofters Relief Fund! Chleachd iad rud beag dhen sin ach cha robh tòrr taic. Agus mar a chaidh an trial fhèin a chumail bha daoine dhen bheachd, cha robh diofar dè chanadh iad, dè dhèanadh iad, bha iad a’ dol dhan phrìosan co-dhiù.

     
 

Well, there was a feeling that because people had been seized that the government was going to come down heavily on them, and people were of the opinion that no matter what they said in order to defend themselves, that the government would not acccept this. It was just as though they wanted to make an example of the people connected with the Aignish struggle. Information would be made known, that information would be distributed throughout all of the Highlands that if anyone were to break the law, they would be imprisoned. And in a way, people were ever of the opinion that they didn’t have a chance, no matter what they said. It was difficult for them to defend themselves, they received a little support from ... from, what do you call that organisation ... something Defence League but they didn’t get much support, they did not have much money ... Crofters’ Relief Fund! They used a little of that but there was not much support. And the way the trial itself was conducted, people were of the opinion that no matter what they said, what they did, they would go to prison anyway.

 

So I was more of less saying that from Lewis people felt it was kind of like a show trial. Whatever they did, whatever they said, the outcome was going to be the same. They just sent the message out to the rest of the crofting community: “If you break the law you’ll be imprisoned.” And I made a reference to the Crofters’ Relief Fund. There was a little bit of help but it was felt it was inevitable. They were going to be punished and they were going to be made an example of, that’s always been the feeling. I’ve heard from my father and other people.

Simon:

So finally in 1905 the land was broken up and returned to crofting which I understand was more because of economic pressure at the time rather than any goodwill towards the community?

     

Alasdair:

Uill, an tuigse a bh’ agamsa ’s e talamh math dha-rìribh a th’ ann an Aiginis. ’S e machair a th’ ann agus tha e furasta fàs stuth, bha iad uaireigin co-dhiù nuair a bhiodh daoine a’ cur stuth. Em, ach bha faireachdainn ann gun deach an tac a bhriseadh an-àird an aghaidh na rudan a bha, uill, an t-uachdaran gu bhith a’ dèanamh co-dhiù, cha b’ ann son math a’ choimhearsnachd ann an doigh bha e, ’s ann a bha e direach son feagal gun tigeadh cùisean nas miosa dhan Riaghaltas, gun robh an Riaghaltas gu bhith air a dhèanamh a-mach gur e daoine borb, nach robh taic sam bith aca dhan a’ choimhearsnachd. Ach gu dearbh fhèin, bha iad uabhasach toilichte an fheadhainn a fhuair na lotaichean son tòrr a thàinig às na bailtean timcheall mar an Cnoc, Suardail agus Pabail. Agus gu dearbh fhein, bha iad toilichte dha-rìribh faighinn an talamh agus an uair sin thòisich iad a’ togail nan taighean. Agus tha aon rud uabhasach mu dhèidhinn nan taighean, an taigh sa bheil mi fhìn mar eisimpleir. Tha e coltach gur e seo a’ chiad taigh - seòrsa de thaighean ‘cavity wall’ a chaidh a thogail san eilean.

     
 

Well, as I understand it the land in Aignish is excellent. It is made up of machair and it is easy to grow things there. It was anyway at one time when people grew things. Em, there was a feeling though that the tack was broken up against the things that, well the landlord would be doing it anyway. It was not for the good of the community in a way. It was just that there was a fear that matters might get worse for the government, that the government would be seen as being without feeling, lacking any support for the community. But indeed they were very happy, those who got the crofts many of whom were from the villages round about, such as Knock, Swordale and Bayble. And indeed, they were happy indeed to get land and then they started building houses. And there is one thing with regard to the houses, the house I am in myself, for example. It seems that this is the first house - of the type of houses with a ‘cavity wall’ which were built in the island.

 

We renovated a house in 1976, we discovered there was a cavity wall and one of the builders said that he’d always heard that was the first village with cavity walls. The blocks were shuttered on site, they were massive big blocks. What I was saying there was that it wasn’t really out of generosity that the land was broken up, people felt that the government more or less had to show their sympathetic side. But the people who got the crofts, they were from neighbouring villages like Swordale, Knock and Bayble. It was just like winning the lottery is in our day and age. It was that kind of ... there’s a safety net that was there because they could grow their own food.

Simon:

And what ... since that period, what do you feel would be the legacy of that land going back to the community?

     

Alasdair:

Uill ’s e faireachdainn a bh’ ann, bha sinn uabhasach toilichte gun deach an càrn a chur an-àird nuair a chaidh a chur an-àird ’son ’s e pios de dh’eachdraidh a bhaile bha cho ainmeil, chan ann a-mhàin a’s an eilean seo fhèin ach air feadh Alba. Chuala daoine ma dheidhinn nuair a bha na croitearan a strì agus gu h-àraid an rud a thachair ann an Aiginis. Bha faireachdainn ann, tha mi creids’ gun robh feum aig daoine air cuimhneachadh an eachdraidh aca - ciamar a thàinig Aiginis gu bith a-mach à tac Aiginis thàinig am baile a tha sinn eòlach air an-diugh. Ach tha mi a’ smaoineachadh an saoghal a th’ againn an-diugh, tha cùisean air atharrachadh cho mòr. Chan e, chan e baile croitearachd a th’ ann. Tha an t-uabhas de thaighean ùra air a dhol àn-àird. Tha am baile cho faisg air Steòrnabhagh agus gu bheil daoine ga chleachdadh dìreach mar a chanadh iad ‘dormitory town’ far am bi daoine a’ fuireach agus cha bhi iad a’ measgacheadh ris a’ choimhearsnachd ann. Tha atharrachadh mòr mòr dha-rìribh air a thighinn air a’ bhaile, fiù ’s bho thàinig mi fhìn dhachaigh a dh’fhuireach ann an ’78 - chan e an aon bhaile a th’ ann. Chan eil daoine a’ cumail ... tha dha-na-trì a’ cumail stoc agus tha an talamh air a chleachdadh airson caoraich fhèin agus dhà-na-trì chrodh. Chan e, chan e an aon bhaile a th’ ann idir. ’S tha daoine a bha sa bhaile, daoine aosta nuair a thàinig mi fhin dhachaigh tha iad air bàsachadh no tha iad air gluasad air falbh. So, ’s e Aiginis eadar-dhealaichte a th’ ann bhon Aiginis aig àm aimhreit Aiginis.

     
 

Well, the feeling was, we were very happy that the cairn was erected at the time it was erected, because it is part of the history of a famous township, not only in this island but throughout Scotland. People heard about the crofters’ struggle and particularly what happened in Aignish. There was a feeling, I suppose people needed to remember their history - how did Aignish come into being - the village came from the Aignish tack that we are familiar with today. But I think that in relation to the world in which we live today, things have changed greatly. It is not, it is not a crofting township. A huge number of new houses have been built. The place is so near Stornoway that people use it just like as they say a ‘dormitory town’, where people live but do not at all mix with the community. A huge change has come over the village, even since I came home to live in ’78 - it is not the same village. People do not keep ... a few keep animals and the land is used for sheep and a few cattle. It is not, no it is not the same village at all. And there are people in the village, people who were old when I came home, who have died or moved away. So it is a different Aignish to the Aignish at the time of the Aignish riot.

Simon:

And that’s partly due to the draw of ...

     

Alasdair:

Town, the dormitory town. You know, there’s that magnet because it’s so close to Stornoway and ... I mean, most crofts today you’ll have at least one feu, maybe two feus, that have been feued off just as building plots. In fact there’s two or three just incredibly big houses. The feus were sold for thirty or forty thousand so it’s all change.

Simon:

We were talking earlier about the conditions before, the way in which land ownership made the infrastructure inflexible. Since, in more recent times, has there been a more conscious development in the infrastructure in the islands in a way that provides the support that allows people to deal with these changing circumstances?

     

Alasdair:

Sorry, how do you mean? In terms of the demise of crofting?

     

Simon:

No, more in the general development of the island, not in terms of demise of crofting. I guess more to what extent there’s continuity of crofting and then the island as a community as a whole, including and also beyond the crofting.

     

Alasdair:

That’s a difficult question, I’m not quite sure.

     

Simon:

Well I was chatting to Kenny about the Lewis Crofters and he ... so that idea of a cooperative which is run by a local community and responds to the need of the community and ...

     

Alasdair:

Well I suppose a manifestation of that is the land buy-outs that are taking place in recent years. In a certain sense in Point we were lucky because we’re part of the Stornoway Trust which was set up after Leverhulme left the island in the mid 20s. So we effectively own the land. Every five years there’s an election to the Trust so we felt probably special, probably different from the rest of the islands. But now with the buy-outs in various places, in Harris, in Lewis itself, I suppose it’s ironic that this idea of buying over the land from private landlords comes at a time when crofting itself is in demise. But it’s just the sort of feeling the people have about the value of land and I think it’s almost like a psychological thing. The value of land, there’s a psychological attachment to land. It’s probably something that’s rooted deep in the psyche of island people because if you go back to the Aignish riot, the Aignish riot came about because of not just poverty but it was literally a matter of life and death. If you had land you had, in effect, currency because you’d be able to grow your own food and that meant that you didn’t starve. So maybe the current trend for buying out land ... there’s always been this feeling that land is so important in terms of survival. It’s not today in reality but the psychological link with the past ... it’s almost this umbilical chord with the past that if you had land you had power, you had potential wealth, and maybe that’s possibly shaped the way the island is today.

Simon:

I think like in Eigg, for example, the people there say some of the key benefits of the buy-out were enabling them to improve the ... like the roads, the construction of the buildings, quite practical stuff like that and setting up the power which, apart from the environmental perspective, purely pragmatically having the community run power system has brought benefits across the board.

     

Alasdair:

I think if we go back in time to the time of the Clearances, there’s always been this feeling that a private landlord isn’t a good thing because of the horrendous kind of stories we’ve heard about the cruelty of evictions and all that went with it, so I think we’re more conscious of that. Whereas where we are in Aignish, we’re part of the Stornoway Trust which was, if you like, the people owned the land. Not maybe technically but the Trust elects every five years so it was a ... we felt we were different because we effectively had control. We elected our own trustees and it’s useful benefit ... the profit from the estates went back to the community. So in a certain sense we were different from other parts of the islands where there were private landlords and some of them weren’t particularly benign. And I think that’s why partly this desire to own the land, for people to own their own land, comes from the historical knowledge that people had of private landlords in the past.

Simon:

Do you think it has any other impact? Does it encourage a greater sense of involvement in the community? Does it make it more democratic in a loose sense?

     

Alasdair:

It certainly does and I think it ... people take responsibility for their own actions. If you’re a group, if you’re part of a group that’s involved in a buy-out, you can’t just abdicate your responsibility. It makes you more conscious what you’ve got and your own power to shape things, to shape your own destiny, which was missing in large areas of the islands for a long long time. People felt that they were, in a certain sense, powerless to shape their own destiny whereas today if you take some of the places that have been involved in buy-outs, they charter their own course. They know where they want to go. They can see where the benefits, for example, of renewable energy could be, it could be gained by utilising their own resources. So it’s a healthier kind of society in a lot of ways and a lot the power of the landlords has been broken I would say.

Simon:

I think it’s in Skye, in one of the areas of the government owned land ... I guess it’s similar to Stornoway Trust in some respects. They were offered the buy-out and rejected it because they felt that they’d lose other elements of support that public ownership of the land, public state ownership of the land .... has that been a concern to people?

     

Alasdair:

Well, you know, even though there have been buy-outs you’ll never get 100% of the population ... There are some people that fear that they could be buying something that at the end of the day won’t be a benefit to them. I suppose people have been naturally conservative but I think this sense of the conservative has been overcome by the desire to do something for themselves and to control their own land. There’s pride involved. Also, people can see the benefits. In the past, if you take some of the shooting estates, they were just used for grouse and deer, you know? There was no benefit really coming to the people, the crofters that worked the land. But there certainly is a move, a sort of growing strength in the ability of people to govern themselves and to utilise the land for community benefit. Not everybody signs up to that. There are probably places where there are people who are naturally conservative, people ... “Oh no, too much of a gamble, too much of a risk, let’s stick with the devil we know rather than going out on a limb.” But it’s amazing what has happened. The number of buy-outs in recent years has been quite dramatic and the likes of South Uist, they seem to be thriving with I think up to twenty people working for them. It’s the benefits that folk plough back into the community.

Simon:

And does it create a more stable community? There’s a kind of ... Back in the 80s there was an argument to encourage owner occupancy and a greater move towards a general inclusion of crofting within the bigger market, both in terms of land and in terms of farming as well. Some people feel that that led to an instability within ... in some cases a complete, like Glendale where it was opened almost entirely to retirement homes ... and introduced elements of instability into the communities. The community buy-outs, have they been able to avoid these kind of pitfalls or do they provide a kind of response to that?

     

Alasdair:

Well I would say, by and large, they have been able to but the buy-outs are a relatively recent thing. Only time will tell. If you take our economy in the islands, it’s a public sector economy. A big percentage of the people who live and work here either work for the council or the health board. The other big problem is depopulation because the population in the last ten years has dropped 10%. We’re now down to I think it’s 26,500. So there are worries about the long-term particularly after the recession. I mean, our authority this week will be announcing a cuts package. Now hopefully nobody will get paid off but as things get ... The next two years are apparently going to be the worst two years. So maybe the buy-outs are a kind of insurance for people, to say: “Well, we will develop things as we want these things to develop.” But we can’t forget the overall economic situation and our reliance on the public sector. I mean there is relative stability but indigenous industries are struggling: fishing, crofting, things like that. One of the biggest growth sectors is tourism. Because it’s very seasonal, it brings a lot of benefits into the economy but only for about six months of the year. So we need to hang on to our public sector. Renewables offer a lot of hope but there’s a lot of debates about whether we go for the big wind farm or if it’s being rejected. But there’s a number of community wind farm projects which are sitting on the drawing board waiting to go if there’s an interconnector to the islands and that will in itself release benefits. If this interconnector is made available, the communities can sell their electricity on and plough the profits back into the local economy.

Simon:

So is it that kind of development of an internal economy quite important?

     

Alasdair:

I think it’s very important. In Point, for example, there’s a company that’s been set up called Point Power and they’ve plans for, I think, five or six turbines on the Point common grazing outwith Stornoway. Now if, the way things are going, it’s successful the profits generated ... if they’re able to build these wind turbines, sell the power, the profits will be ploughed back into the economy which would be hugely beneficial. I think it would generate a lot more community ... energy, if you like. People could say: “Well, we’re going to plough the profits back into our own community and projects that maybe the local authority can’t develop because of current stringency in terms of spending, they are things we can achieve by our own efforts!” It’s a very positive thing, I would say, in the long-term. You know, if we get this interconnector. If we don’t then it won’t happen. But I think there’s seven or eight community wind farm projects on the go. Galson estate, they’ve got one lined up. Tolstadh, Harris ... you know? So it would be very very good.

Simon:

What about the significance of Gaelic and the revival of Gaelic? Where does that sit alongside these other factors of ... Crofting’s a kind of practice and an economy of sorts and Gaelic is a culture that’ll always be part of that. In some sense, Gaelic seems to be growing at a time when crofting is diminishing.

     

Alasdair:

Well, the Gaelic language is a huge issue, a very complex issue. Traditionally, if you go back to the time of the Aignish riot, there was no need to prop up Gaelic. It was just a natural ... I went to school in the 1950s and my first language was Gaelic and in our school, local school, there must have been about ninety children. There was probably one or two who didn’t speak Gaelic. Now the whole thing is completely reversed now. The council has made strenuous efforts to promote and assist Gaelic, the Gaelic revival, and there certainly has been with Gaelic medium schools. There’s also the Gaelic television channel, there’s various Gaelic organisations based on the island. What we tend to forget sometimes is that minority languages right across Europe are struggling because English is so strong and so powerful and the revitalisation is not a simple matter. I mean, we find for example that people who come into the islands, come to live and work here, are more pro-Gaelic than some people who’ve been born and brought up here. But I think there’s much more awareness of how important the language is in terms of the culture, in terms of the heritage. It’s like a second window on the world if you live on the islands. And there are positive signs but it’s always going to be a struggle. There’s no magic wand you wave and Gaelic will somehow or other regain it’s natural position in the community but the Western Isles is still probably the strongest Gaelic community. You can walk down the town, go into the butchers and speak to the butcher in Gaelic, go to the paper shop and somebody there speaks Gaelic, you can go for a pint ... you know? It’s the only place probably left in the world where you hear the language spoken on a daily basis. The council has ... all it’s committees are bilingual. We have a simultaneous translation system so that any councilor can ask a question in Gaelic and get a response in Gaelic. Because I think the council are to be ... supportive for what they’re trying to achieve. There is no easy way to revitalise a language but there’s efforts right across the country that are designed to try and improve the situation. And we have to ... if you’re a minority language speaker you always have to be optimistic.

Simon:

Just coming back to the trial and the accounts of the trial. The language issue and the way it was used as, in some ways, an instrument of exclusion. Those who were not English speakers were not given representation. But also a form of resistance in a way by in some cases refusing to use English it was a way of demarcating a distance. The political climate of Gaelic’s changed very much since then.

     

Alasdair:

Absolutely. Yeah, I suppose if you go back to the time of the trial, some of the defendants wanted to give evidence in Gaelic and they were refused. They were told, more or less: “We don’t want your pagan tongue polluting our courtroom,” as it were. Now it’s totally different. I mean the status of Gaelic with the Language Act and Bord Na Gaidhlig has transformed the status, you know, so that you’re now entitled to give evidence in court of law if you want through Gaelic. It’s in the statute book. Whereas in those days it was like an inferior language, it was a language that you spoke in your own community but you tried to hide the fact almost that you had Gaelic. There’s a psychological ... I don’t know how you’d put it, an inferiority complex arising out of speaking Gaelic if you went to the mainland or if you were in a situation where you were in court in the 1880s. But it’s changed, the whole thing has changed. People feel much more confident I would say, by and large, about speaking Gaelic. It’s a badge of honour if you can speak two languages in the modern European culture. But it’s taken a long time for this sense of inferiority complex to disappear.

Simon:

What do you feel is the bigger significance of it? Partly thinking to respond to critics who say we shouldn’t support Gaelic language ... I think even Gaelic speakers who were brought up with Gaelic, some of them don’t believe so much should be done to support Gaelic and if it’s dying out it’s dying out and that’s it.

     

Alasdair:

Yeah, well I think you’ve always got ... you’ve always had that and you always will have people who don’t see the value of having a second language. I personally feel sorry for them. I think it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you speak two languages it’s a huge asset. And with the rich storehouse ... if you just take Gaelic writing, Gaelic songs, Gaelic music ... it’s a fabulous resource to have at your disposal if you can speak the language. And I think that people do appreciate that more and I think what’s helped is people who speak only English, their vociferous support for Gaelic. It’s an asset to be treasured, not something to be locked up and the key thrown away. And the other thing I think today is when young people say: “If you speak Gaelic you have more job opportunities.” You can work in education, there’s Gaelic organisations, there’s the Gaelic media world crying out for people with Gaelic skills. So I think the time we’re facing at the moment with recession, unemployment, to be able to speak Gaelic, to read and write it, is a huge asset cos when you go into the marketplace there’s more opportunities available. I’m biased of course! (laughs)

Simon:

Do you feel Gaelic’s evolving then? Another criticism would be it’s an ossified language.

     

Alasdair:

Well, some of the team who work with me, they’ve been involved with the Gaelic dictionary that’s being produced by the Scottish Parliament. I mean, every language evolves and Gaelic is evolving too and I think things like the Parliament has helped. I mean, I remember having an argument years ago when somebody said: “Oh, what’s the point of Gaelic? I bet you don’t know the Gaelic for submarine!” and I said that submarine’s a Latin word which is made up of two ... you know, sub and marinus. Every language borrows, every language evolves. If it doesn’t evolve it dies and stagnates. I mean there are new words that maybe some of the old people find difficulty with but in order to survive, in order to grow, you have to adapt. You have to borrow, you have to improvise, as English did over the centuries. For me personally there’s no problem. If a new word or a new technology appears you just make room for it by making up a word but that’s the way every language has evolved.

Simon:

Going back to talking about the Land League and that ... From people I spoke to on Skye, they were talking more about stuff that was happening a little bit earlier but there was an influence of what was happening in Ireland and a conscious connection with people and there was a Skye ‘Parnell’, one of the crofters that was involved. Was that similar here or was it more independent of ...?

     

Alasdair:

Well I’m not really sure. I know that there were speakers that came to the island to encourage people to be more organised about the land, about taking over the land, and latterly there was a growing sense of radicalism throughout the country as a whole and I think the Irish link was possibly a factor in this. I mean, I personally don’t know enough about this but I’m aware that these things were happening. It just wasn’t a spontaneous thing within the islands, there were one or two catalysts nationally which seemed to trigger this and people were probably starting to travel more or work to come back. This is an area I’m not knowledgeable about I must admit but certainly there was a growing sense of radicalism in the country round about this time. And poverty, hunger, they really are catalysts in their own way and, as I was saying, it wasn’t so much people espousing new ideology. It was just the bitter hunger, the bitter poverty that they were in and they could see the only way out was land. Land was the valuable currency.

Simon:

The interesting thing for us is that kind of willingness to do what we call ‘direct action’ today, like the land riots. It continued for quite a long time, longer than in other areas. Do you know what the reasons? Was it just the conditions?

     

Alasdair:

Yeah. I think the population was growing, people were starving basically, and when you think of the community at the time. I mean, the church was very strong and it took an awful lot to break the law. They really must have been at the end of their tether. There wasn’t one or two agitators saying: “Let’s take over the land.” It was just a genuine necessity really. It was just a matter of life and death. As I said, if you had land you had the ability to grow your own food which meant there was a kind of safety net. I think it lasted longer because they were also promised crofts after the war ... well, you know, when they to war and that didn’t materialise and that manifested itself as the way Leverhulme was treated. The people didn’t want to work in factories, they didn’t want to earn their money by working under conditions that they felt were alien. They wanted land, pure and simple. That’s what they saw as true wealth and perennial wealth if you like. And I think that’s part of the reason Leverhulme wasn’t successful because there’s this natural desire for land which people saw as the be all and end all, you know?