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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXXXIV. - The Cry of "Back to the Land"


THIS cry is a sign of grace, although, as always happens, unprincipled politicians and party agitators make a base use of it for their miserable personal ambitions or levelling down theories. The land is a nation's sole enduring asset, the corner stone of the whole edifice of confidence and credit, and the only property which nothing short of submergence in the sea can deprive of all value. Wealth in other forms can melt away or take wings and fly away to other lands. "Back to the land" signifies realisation of more than one kind of danger. Like the other cry about the preservation of Gaelic, it has been raised after destructive mischief has gone far; but better late than never. There is yet scope for salvage work in both cases. It is of primary importance that the people already on the land should be got to stay there. They know best how to work the land for raising crops, and how to use pasturage to advantage. Their practical knowledge of soils, seasons, herds and flocks, and stable and farm-yard denizens, and the gathering and applying of the most wholesome manure stuffs, is far more useful than anything which the urban agricultural tyro can learn from books. The born farmer and born farm labourer have inherited and accumulated a vast amount of information, habits of precaution, and natural fitness for their vocations, which it takes a long time for novices to acquire, with the help of all the farming literature in the world, and under the most favourable circumstances. It is not, indeed, to be denied that novices can learn in a long time, and after going through trying disappointments become good farmers here, and still better ones in colonies where farming of new soil is more rudimentary and with fewer pitfalls, or at least with less severe consequences should there happen to be one or two mishaps, which in this country would be disastrous, should they precede the victory of persistence and the gathering in of the fruits of victory. But at home and abroad the born farmer and the born farm labourer have always and every- where a natural superiority. Still the others deserve to be encouraged. When mixed with practical farmers, whose advice they take, and whose doings they imitate, those of them who persevere, and are content with rural life, will get on, and strengthen the rural population both numerically and socially; for they will infuse a stay in the land feeling among farmers and rustics with wavering inclinations to leave 'the vocations to which they had been born. Those who seek to change urban for rural life are missionaries of reformation and recuperation, whose message is not rendered of less account by many individual failures. The failures are nearly sure to happen among persons who have been too long accustomed to urban life habits, amenities, and vices, to put up with country humdrum pleasures and hard work. Persons of that kind are bound to fail and drop back to urban degradations like dogs to their vomits. Salvation Army experiments in Essex, although not as pecuniarly self-supporting as should be desired, have proved that town children can be trained up without difficulty to be capable and hearty agriculturists, with a health, strength, and morals that would have been beyond their reach if they had not been rescued from slums and streets.

If "Back to the land" be a good cry, "Keep on the land" is a far better one, but there is no reason why the two should not be conjoined. "Keep on the land," with patience, industrial orderliness, and the operation of economical forces which are already at work will suffice for the re-peopling glens and straths and isles with native Gaelic-speaking and English-speaking inhabitants. Our share of cultivable Highland soil is so scanty that our people will need it all, and would be able to work it more profitably if they could get it. It is in England, and in parts of the Lowlands of Scotland, that agricultural colonists back from the towns can find room and be exceedingly useful. Market-gardening work and the raising of pigs and poultry can be taught to them in drilled companies, and from that stage the taught individuals with capacity and enterprise will launch out into undertakings of their own, and attain the same, or nearly the same, level as the best class of farm servants, who elevate themselves into prosperous farmers whenever success, hard to reach, lies at all in the line of their diligent endeavours and prudent, frugal way of living.

Nature has immutably decreed that a nation's strength and its guarantee of power, and even of its very existence, must be its rural population. That truth is beginning to be slowly realised in this country, where it had too long been set at defiance by sacrificing country to town interests, and trusting all to free imports, labelled free trade. Money and trade are good, but are not the all-good which the Manchester School political economists of sixty years ago supposed them to be. Wealth, which is without sufficient Army and Navy defence, is apt to suddenly be seized upon by war-victors, or undermined and slowly appropriated by other means of conveyance, such as tariff walls to shut out British merchandise from the markets of other nations, who pour and dump their goods, free of duty, into the British markets.

As soldiers, town-bred men cannot be ranked as equal to country-bred men, simply because they have not the same power of physical endurance, however full of courage and love of country. The late African war gave many proofs of the difference between the enduring qualities of soldiers that came out of towns and those who had been born, brought-up, and hardened to bear fatigues and make long marches in rural places here and in the Colonies. The lowering of physical strength in towns is one of the penalties that are not to be avoided, though it is possible to lighten this particular one by sanitation, pure water, clean houses, temperance, and military and athletic exercises. It has been charged against Paris that in three or four generations it kills out the people who constantly reside in it, which charge, put in other words, comes to this, that the population of Paris has in every hundred years to be renewed from the outside.

A tardy recognition of the fundamental truth that the country people are the mainstay of national strength is surely wrapt up in the cry of "Back to the land." So is a recognition of the other fact that it is only in country air and country pursuits town-bred people must seek the fountain for renewing their youth. Inducements of a more substantial character than empty recognition of fundamental truths are required to make those born on the land stay on the land, when the Colonies offer them hearty welcome and free land. Still more are inducements necessary for alluring town people to go back to the land. Hates, which get heavier every year, would in some Highland parishes amount to rack-rents were it not for the sportsmen's contributions.

In bulk the country people of England and Scotland are as honest as any in the world it would not be much of a stretch if I called them the most honest people on earth. They cling to Christian ethics and to the old fashioned, yet perpetually new principle of equity, "Let every one have his own," or if, for public purposes, he has to sell, "Let him have top market value for it, with something over for compulsory sale." The lawless terrorising of Irish conspirators themselves stops short at asking that landlords should be bought out at prairie value. The new peasant landowners of Ireland are as great upholders of their property rights as the sternest or most oppressive of the old landlords had ever been. Levelling Socialism will never take firm root among farming people. It is in urban places, and in temporary alliance with trade unionists, who do not believe in it, that the upas tree of Socialism can rear its head and throw its poisonous shade over political, municipal, and Poor Law affairs. Genuine Socialists believe in their wild theory, that if the State seized upon all kinds of property, and made itself the sole employer of labour, the regimented labourers, although in a manner enslaved, would find themselves in a Golden Age. Socialism could never spring up spontaneously among farming people, who have a more thorough knowledge than their unborn theorists of human nature, and the conditions of the greatest and most permanent of natural industries. Small is the number of convinced Socialists in comparison with the predatory hordes which follow in their wake, looking out for prey and easy loafing life at the expense of the honest and industrious. Were Socialism in a full-fledged form to be adopted, certain it is that all free wealth would spread its wings and fly where it would be safe; then manufacturing mills and workshops, by the passing away of trade and commerce, would become habitations for bats and owls, and house property would lose its value, and grass grow on what are now busy streets. But the land would remain, and its inhabitants would find themselves in the position of hard- working slaves to tyrannical urban paupers. Convinced Socialists appear to labour under the gross delusion that the land is such an inexhaustible mine of wealth as to be equal to any amount of imposts. Country people know the land to be already overburdened with rates and taxes, and ascribe to the overburdening the going away of farmers to British colonies or perchance to Patagonia, and the drifting in past years of country labourers to London and other large cities and towns. They are not thankful for County Councils, Parish Councils, School and other Boards, because of the lavish manner in which they spend the ratepayers' money, and borrow on the future rates.

They growl about the number of paid officials and the salaries paid to them. They hate over-officialism and its interference, as well as its cost. They look back with sighs of regret to the cheap and less interfering local and county governing methods of the past, and they look forward at any rate the more thoughtful to some relief for the ratepayers by reforming and simplifying the new methods. But it is probably in fiscal reform that their wisest men place their trust for relief and some revival of agricultural prosperity.


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