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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 5 - Scotland


From the lone shieling of the misty island,
Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas -
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is
Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides

Canadian Boat Song,  authorship uncertain
           (published in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1829)

Oh Scotia, my dear, my native soil ! For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent!

Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil, Be blest with health and peace and sweet content !             And O may Heaven their simple lives prevent From Luxury’s contagion, weak and vile!

Robert Burns The Cotter’s Saturday Night

Having given some of my impressions of Ireland, I guess it would be appropriate to say a little about my homeland before talking more about foreign lands.  I am one of those Scots who can view his country both from the inside, and from abroad.  I was brought up in Scotland and have retired there.  But I have also spent most of my working life overseas, and have had to look at it often from that perspective. When I discuss some foreign lands, I may have the odd criticism to make of negative aspects of the culture, or of mis-rule by perverse, greedy, or undemocratic leaders.  Criticism, like charity, should begin at home.  So I will have something to say about our failures as a people, and about the failures of some of our leaders or their administrations.  I should also give credit where it is due, and applaud the work of those who have done our country proud. 

Scots are not a homogenous people as I found when I came to know Highlanders, Orcadians, Glaswegians, and folk from Ayrshire, Dundee, and the capital city of Edinburgh.  Even along the Moray coast where I was brought up, accents and language varied from village to village.  The Celtic Highlanders are a sensitive people, they love music and social activities, but are never keen to push themselves to the front.  The people of Shetland and Orkney are very Norse in their character and outlook.  East coasters are industrious, thrifty, independent thinking, and argumentative. Glaswegians are robust, honest, fearless, and down to earth.  Edinburgh folk are generally more tolerant, and they do have a touch of the cultured attitudes comedians like to poke fun at. However, they take it all in good humour.  Ayrshire residents are friendly and principled.  Borders people are somewhat conservative and less easy to be convinced.  All of these are merely personal views and others may have different descriptions.

If there is one trait that I believe marks Scots society as different from England, it is that Scots generally look down on no-one and look up to no one. This may explain how the Labour Party grew in Scotland, and why the first Labour MP, the first Labour Prime Minister, and so many in subsequent Labour Governments, were Scots. The English are more hierarchal in their attitudes, which may be a Norman or Anglo-Saxon thing.  This is not a criticism.  It is just that English society generally pays more attention to class, rank and wealth, or the lack of these appendages.   This is seen in everything from politics to humour.  Mrs Thatcher for example, failed badly in Scotland which once had a majority of Conservative MPs.  She, more than anyone else, destroyed the Tory party in Scotland.  A basic reason for that is that she thought a ‘Scottish Tory’ was the same as an ‘English Tory’.  Far from it.  Scottish conservatives had very different characteristics.  They retained a strong social conscience for instance, and many of them were embarrassed by the ‘poll tax’ Thatcher introduced.  Scots humour is more earthy and self-deprecating than the English variety.  Gilbert and Sullivan music hall productions are replete with English humour.  I have sat through a performance in Edinburgh that simply left the audience cold.  I daresay the reverse would be the case with Harry Lauder, Stanley Baxter, “Scotland the What”, or Billy Connolly, in an English theatre.


The Saltire, the national flag of Scotland


Map of Scotland

Significant Historical Memories

Two historical memories that I feel mark the Scottish psyche to a significant degree, are the “Highland Clearances”, and the unemployment of the depression years.  Both serve to deepen the national propensity to be suspicious of government, and to view the prospect of poverty and joblessness with some horror.  I daresay those attitudes pre-date both the events referred to since they are prominent in the writings of Robert Burns, who despite his radical views, possessed a bit of the gloomy Calvinistic attitude towards life’s misfortunes.  People of my granny’s generation held a dread of having to end their days in the “poorhouse”.  I recall the local poorhouse in Elgin, - still in use in the immediate post-war period.  It was definitely not an attractive establishment.

The Highland Clearances took place between 1790 and 1850.  It was ethnic cleansing of a region, only the people were replaced with sheep, not with other settlers.  Before the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 – 46, the majority of the Scottish population lived north-west of a line drawn from Aberdeen  to Glasgow.  After 1850 the reverse was the case.  Today the population of the Highlands is less than ten per cent of that of Scotland.  Following the defeat of the Jacobite army, King William took the land from the clan chiefs who supported the rebellion and gave it to those most loyal to him.  Most of the new land-owners were absentee landlords much of the time.  But they wanted more rent from the estates to support their lordly lifestyles in Edinburgh, London or Paris.  Along came the agricultural improvers who claimed that keeping sheep on the land would be much more profitable than having tenant farmers.  This was music to the ears of the landlords, the chief of whom were the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, probably the wealthiest couple in Britain at that time.  Over a period of around sixty years, rents were raised and those unable to pay were evicted.  Some were evicted regardless of whether they were in arrears. The factors who zealously undertook the Sutherland’s clearance work were Patrick Sellars and James Loch. Houses and farm implements were burnt to prevent future use. Some of those evicted died of exposure.  Many emigrated to Canada, some being lost in the Atlantic on that risky voyage.  More died during their first experience of the Canadian winter.  Those that survived prospered.  Defenders of the clearances say that since the survivors did well eventually, the clearances were a good, even a benevolent thing! To this day attempts continue to defend the avarice, injustice, and wickedness of the Clearances. [Those with doubts about the clearances should read John Prebble’s book, The Highland Clearances, and the powerful account by Ian Grimble, The Trial of Patrick Sellars.]


Ruins of one of the many Highland homes emptied during the Clearances
Right :  John Prebble’s book The Highland Clearances

The Highland people who remained were obliged to eke out a living on small patches of land close to the sea.  They began by making kelp from seaweed, a laborious process which made money for the landowners while the kelp market continued which was not for long.  Over the years, the remnant of the once large population developed a sustainable survival system of mixed small-scale farming and fishing that we now know as ‘crofting”.

Crofting was not, and is not, the glamorous, idyllic rural existence it is sometimes made out to be. But it displayed the resilience and ingenuity that often marks populations who have their backs to the wall. The sheep that were introduced by the landlords made money initially, but they were environmentally disastrous and their numbers had soon to be greatly reduced. 

Unemployment, and all that went with it in the 1920’s and 1930’s hit the working class hard, and etched itself into the corporate memories of communities in Clydeside, the central belt, and the mining communities of Fife and Lothian.  It contained echoes of earlier memories of Victorian social conditions so eloquently described by early socialists like Keir Hardie.  The early relief measures were an affront to human dignity and particularly unpleasant to Scots brought up on the Calvinist principles of thrift and industriousness.  There was the poorhouse, means testing of applicants for benefit, and the indignities of existence on a sub-economic income.  Life was also hard on wage earners whose incomes were cut back to the minimum by unscrupulous employers.

My wife’s grandfather, a coal miner in Shotts, in the central belt, used to tell how the experienced miners would contract with the mine company to work a particular seam or shaft as a team of men. They had to know the geology of the coal face, and to be able to estimate the amount of coal that could be extracted, and how long that would take.  If their judgement was good, and the team worked extremely well, then each man could come out of the operation with a reasonable living wage.  After one such venture that produced well, he went to collects the men’s pay, and found the company had reduced the rate.  Asked why, the company clerk responded that they were earning far too much from their high output.  Jimmy said, “I looked that clerk in the eye for a period, then told him, - ‘Young man the time is soon coming when you just won’t get men to do what we have to do to earn a living’.”   

Another elderly Scots friend of mine, told me of skippering a steam trawler fishing off Rockall in the 1930’s.  He happened to check the settling sheet after a voyage when expenses seemed unusually high.  He discovered that they had been charged twice for the coal fuel.  He asked the office to refund the crew the difference.  The office manager was displeased but released the money.  But before the trawler sailed on the next trip, George was informed that his services were no longer required.  Experiences like these increased distrust and poisoned relations between workers and employers.  This was reflected in industrial unrest then and for 20 years after the war.

The Clearances described above have been well documented by notable writers such as John Prebble, Ian Grimble, Eric Richards, and others.  However, it astonishes me that books are still being produced to deny that they ever occurred, or to claim that they comprised a benevolent programme of action by sympathetic landowners.  At least three such books have been produced in the past 6 years (1999 – 2005).  But the first major apologetic work was by the woman who had written eloquently and courageously about the treatment of black slaves in America.  Harriet Beecher Stowe shocked the conscience of America in 1832 with her work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Yet only 4 years later she traveled to Britain where she was lavishly entertained and applauded by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.  She succumbed completely to their seduction and her critical faculties evaporated to the point where she wrote a book Sunny Memories, which completely denied the avarice and inhumanity of the clearances. 

A highland man who had witnessed the cruelty, Donald MacLeod, wrote a powerful response to Stowe’s book in 1857, called Gloomy Memories.  The great modern writer James A. Michener, was so appalled by Beecher Stowe’s defence of the Sutherlands, he resolved to write a work on Scotland, focusing on the Clearances.  He was then studying at St. Andrews and travelling throughout Scotland.  He referred to the Clearances as ‘the repulsive depopulation of the glens’, and said of Stowe’s book, ‘It was a remarkable instance in which a sensitive writer could see clearly the consequences of inhuman behaviour at home, but failed to understand equal inhumanity when encountered abroad’. [Michener’s comments are found in the chapter, ‘Selecting a Subject’, in his publication, My Lost Mexico, Tor, 1992]Unfortunately Michener never got round to producing his book on Scotland and the period of the Clearances.

The long term effects of the social and environmental injustice of the Clearances could have been remedied to a degree if the ideas and work of two visionary men had been fully accepted by the post-war governments.  Those men were Tom Johnston, the Secretary of State for Scotland after the war, (and author of “Our Noble Families”), and Fraser Darling, the gifted naturalist and environmentalist who was hired by Johnston to examine the region and propose measures to reverse the decline in people and resources.  But the new generation of economists and government advisers had no time for such romantic nonsense.  They saw big industry as the only hope for Britain’s future.  So Fraser Darling’s report was shelved and his advice ignored, - just as a later British government dismissed the prophetic warnings of its economic adviser to the National Coal Board, Dr. Ernst Fritz Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful”.  Schumacher believed in economics as if people mattered, and the need to protect living nature and planet earth. 

Scotland’s finest Member of Parliament

He died a hundred years ago without ever achieving high office.  He never had the privilege of attending school, and was a teenager before he could write.  He worked 12 hours a day from the age of 8 to 24, first as a bakers errand boy, and then as a miner.  He was dismissed from the mines for forming a miners union, but later became secretary of the Scottish Miners Federation.  He founded and edited a newspaper, entitled The Miner, later called The Labour Leader.  He stood for election to parliament in 1888 and came bottom of the list.  Then in 1892 he was elected for West Ham south in London, and in 1900 for Mertyr Tydfil in Wales.  In 1896 he was arrested for speaking at a large open air meeting in support of the suffragettes.  His support for self-government for India, and for equal treatment of blacks in South Africa, were also cause for fierce opposition he encountered.


Scotland’s finest Member of Parliament, Keir Hardie

In June 1894, in the Commons, he opposed the unanimous passing of congratulations on the birth of the royal heir (future Edward VIII), insisting that a message of condolence be added to the families of 251 colliers killed in a mine explosion in Wales.  Not a single MP supported him.

A devout Christian, James Keir Hardie stated in 1910, “the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, than from all other sources combined”.   A convinced pacifist, Keir Hardie opposed the Boer War, and the First World War.   He organised a national protest strike, and several anti-war demonstrations, and as a result, was denounced by enemies, and some erstwhile friends, as a traitor.  He died in 1915, some say of a broken heart. More than any other man, Keir Hardie founded the Labour party in Britain.  In integrity, sincerity, and genuine concern for mankind, few of New Labour’s leaders or appartchniks are fit to clean his boots. 

 

Scotland’s greatest Secretary of State

Born in Kirkintilloch in 1882, Thomas Johnston was to become one of the most influential of the thinkers and writers in Scotland in the first part of the 20th century.  He attended Glasgow University, and while a student, founded the socialist weekly Forward, which he edited for 30 years.  Johnston was early on a member of a group known as the Red Clydesiders.  It included noted socialists like James Maxton and Manny Shinwell.   He was also a strong supporter and admirer of Keir Hardie the first Labour (ILP) member of parliament.  He wrote two epic books, A History of the Working Classes in Scotland, and the more controversial, Our Scots Noble Families, which went through over 20 editions till he personally stopped further publication till after his death.  It is now available once again in paperback form.  Both works recount social injustice perpetrated throughout the country’s history, and make salutary reading for defenders of those who ruled the land or wielded power through their titles or ownership of vast estates.

Tom Johnston was elected to Parliament first in 1922, and again in 1935, after which he remained an MP until the end of the war.  Ramsay MacDonald appointed Johnston as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in 1929.  In 1939 Sir John Anderson made him Commissioner for Civil Defence in Scotland, and in 1941 Winston Churchill appointed him as Secretary of State for Scotland.  Tom Johnston probably did more for Scotland in that time, and in the subsequent 5 years, then any other Secretary of State the country has had, (or any other First Minister of the devolved government).

In 1944 Johnston established the North of Scotland Hydro Electric board which was to supply substantial amounts of renewable energy for the remainder of the century.  He was inspired in this action by President Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, and its harnessing of hydro-power.


Scotland’s greatest Secretary of State, Tom Johnston

TJ as he was popularly known, was Chairman of the Hydro Board after stepping down as an MP in 1945.  He also became Chairman of the Forestry Commission and the Scottish Tourist Board, and a Governor of the BBC, but would accept no remuneration for those services.  He was Chancellor of Aberdeen University from 1955 until his death in 1965.   An avid supporter of Home Rule, renewable energy, conservation of natural resources, and policies to promote full employment, he was far ahead of his time in most of his political and developmental ideas for Scotland.  He was one of the few in government that appreciated Fraser Darling’s vision and values, commissioning his ground-breaking West Highland Survey.

The painful experiences of the depression years lie behind much of the seeming obstinacy of Scottish trade unions, and the difficult labour relations of the post-war years in Scotland. I recall a train journey in which a Clydeside worker related with obvious pleasure, how he had found ways to ‘beat the system’ in a naval dockyard, and how he and his son could make good money by feigning work in numerous ways, and by pilfering materials that were not needed.  I heard him out, and then remarked that I had put in long hours the past week for rather little money, and that if what he said was typical of industrial work today, - then I was not surprised that the country was on the decline as appeared to be the case.  He did not flinch or show any embarrassment.  “Well,” he responded, looking me firmly in the face, “I don’t care.  All I saw as a boy growing up in Glasgow, was poverty, unemployment, dole queues, pawn shops and moonlight flittings.  And if the boot is on the other foot now, - good and well!”   That attitude was typical of many in the post-war period, who felt that their families had suffered unjustly under a system that cared mostly for the wealthy and privileged class of society.

All too often, governments ignore and stifle the protests of the poor or disenfranchised till it is too late, and the resentment boils over and explodes in anti-social behaviour that can cost the country dearly. So we have the present troubles in Zimbabwe where the landless Bantu people are now taking cruel revenge on those that have held the land for half a century and failed to introduce any meaningful programme of land reform.  I believe that much, if not all of the hostility of Arab peoples to the West is due to a perception that we never paid any attention to their values or aspirations, and simply used them to obtain their oil.  During the Cold War, communists could rely on the tacit support of peasants in the Philippines, Cambodia, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua because those peasants saw the United States as more interested in propping up their corrupt and brutal dictators, than helping to improve the lot of the poor in their country.


Unemployed march during the 1930’s

But here we are discussing Scotland.  There are still ghettos of long-term unemployed, and under-employed person in our cities.  For 12 years we had a family home close to the large public housing estate of Wester Hailes.  There were 20,000 persons accommodated in dreary apartment blocks that are thankfully being replaced or renovated.  I found that there was a sub-culture prevalent in the urban estate.  It embodied a hostility towards the more prosperous world outside.  That prosperity, they believed, was due to good fortune (not hard work), and should have been shared with them.  The common lifestyle was to stay up all night and sleep during the day.  Minds were drugged by constant television and music (pop, disco or rap).  And bodies were drugged by more dangerous substances.  It was all in an attempt to deaden the pain and ease the dreadful boredom of a sub-human existence.  A most troubling aspect for me was the number of men who had never ever worked or held down a job in their lives.  And they usually sired children that followed in their steps.  Their manhood and provider-spirit was destroyed by the years on welfare hand-outs.  So they would find an alternative source of macho spirit by showing how much they could drink, or by foul language at times, and in worse cases, by abusing their wives.

Yet, even in such depressing circumstances, there were those that struggled to live above the prevailing culture.  There were some lovely homes and stable families in the ghettos.  It was far from easy for those determined to make something better of their lives, and though they abhorred the negative aspects of ghetto life, they sympathized with the bitterness and resentment of those that gave in to the despair.  I knew and know some who did all they could to assist, counsel and encourage, their neighbours who had fallen victim to violence, addiction or depression.   Unemployment is a curse, and it is made worse by a system that kills enterprise and traps families in a net of welfare support measures that undermine dignity and self-worth, and effectively discourage attempts to obtain work and become self-supporting.

Inspired by a Stone

Scots in the dreary immediate post war years were suddenly inspired by the radical (though harmless) action of four young Glasgow students. It was 1950, the year George Orwell and Harry Lauder died. The Attlee Labour Government was nearing its end, some foodstuffs were still rationed, and petrol rationing had just ended. In Ayrshire 116 men were trapped below ground in a major mine disaster at New Cumnock which claimed the lives of 13 of the men. Abroad, the combined forces of North Korea and China had pushed the U.S. / UN offensive back and prompted General MacArthur to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. British people enduring poor housing and low living standards were struggling to rebuild the economy after the war.  It was certainly not an opportune time to inspire Scots with dreams of their nation’s return to independence.  However, these circumstances did not deter the idealistic four who rather naively thought they could lift their country’s spirits by retrieving its ancient symbol of sovereignty.  

The Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, on which each of its monarchs had been crowned, was a revered symbol of the Scottish Kingdom for over 500 years.  But it was looted from Scotland in 1297 by Edward 1st to become the coronation stone of all subsequent English monarchs.  England had agreed to the return of the stone to Scotland under the Treaty of Northampton in 1328 but that promise was not honoured until 1996.  Over the years, a number of patriotic Scots had sought the return of the stone, but as with other treasures, marbles, relics and gems looted from the empire lands, London had no interest in relinquishing its plundered goods.

I recall Christmas day 1950 since it was a bitterly cold early winter with snow in many places, and my father had brought back from Ireland a suitcase full of sweets and chocolate, and some nylon stockings, which were available only on ration in the UK. As we celebrated Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day with a whole chicken (absolute luxury then!), we had no knowledge of four young students who had motored to London to redress an injustice of more than six centuries.    When the news broke shortly after Christmas, all of Scotland was agog at the audacity and success of the daring exploit.          

Iain Hamilton, later to be a famous QC, persuaded fellow students Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart, to join him in what appeared to be an impossible and foolhardy escapade. They were to travel to London in two small cars, break into Westminster Abbey, and remove the 350 lb Stone of Destiny from underneath the coronation chair, carry it out of the Abbey under the noses of its guards and policemen, and bring it back to Scotland.  The very idea seemed preposterous, but neither that nor the probability of long prison sentences, deterred the young patriots. 

You can read the whole exciting story in Stone of Destiny by Iain Hamilton, and watch a film of the event of the same name, available on DVD.  The plotters were dogged from the start by bad weather, lack of money, illness, miscommunications, and car problems.  They were stopped and questioned by police several times, and kicked out of the Abbey by a night watchman just hours before the actual operation.  As the film accurately portrays the escapade, it was carried off more by luck and persistence.  But the four youngsters succeeded, and within days the headlines of every national newspaper announced the daring and scandalous ‘theft’ of the stone, and the hunt to recover it.

Back home our family along with most Scots was delighted and astonished.  There was not a single Scottish voice raised against the action.  As the police searched everywhere, a boulder outside Forres was painted with the inscription – “the Stone – this is it”.  But it was one of many false leads.  Eventually the stone was returned, and surprisingly the students were not prosecuted.  Iain Hamilton told me 59 years later that Lord Wheatley had advised the government against prosecution.  He had two reasons, - 1. It would create a furore in Scotland, and,- 2. He could not guarantee the result of any court case against the four culprits.   

The stone has since been returned to Edinburgh (in 1996) on the understanding it would continue to be used in coronation services of future monarchs. So attitudes have softened a bit over the past half century.  As for Iain Hamilton, now in his eighties, he is as fiercely patriotic as ever, and dismisses his remarkable and audacious feat with wry humour.  “Ach,” he says, “it was so easy !  It was just guarded by the might of the whole British Empire, - and an old watchman, a priest, and a Bobby !”

Social problems

Ugly racism has come to Scotland as to the rest of the UK.  It has festered in the pockets of sectarianism and ignorance, and in the ghettos of the long term unemployed and underemployed, and has been exacerbated by the demonizing of refugees by both Labour and Tory politicians.   It was not always thus.  Possibly because there were so few coloured persons in the country, the Scotland I knew as a young boy was largely free of prejudice towards persons of other races.

Mohammed Gulam was the first Asian I knew.  He came to our town before the war, and went door to door selling cheap ladies and girl’s clothes.  I can still hear his voice, in that strange mixture of Doric and Pakistani English as he spoke to my Granny on his knees before an opened suitcase. (My mother was less impressed with his merchandise). “Fit-a-like Nellie”,  he would say, “wanna buy some sto-kans ? Here’s a nice bloos. Fit aboot a hade-square?”, and so on.  Down at the paper shop he was a welcome character and treated as a fellow townsman by the locals.  He even named one of his boys after a Lossie man, - Ali Gulam, after an Allie McCleod as I recall.

Gulam, as we all called him, persevered till he saved enough money to bring his wife and children over.  As soon as the kids were old enough, they helped out in a little family shop they set up.  The shop soon grew, and became a thriving business.  By the time he died, Gulam was a respected local businessman.  A huge crowd attended his funeral, and his grave is the largest in our cemetery. One of his daughters Perveen, married the wealthy Glasgow MP Mohammad Sanwar.  Another son became a local SNP councilor.  Gulam’s grandson, Anas Sarwar became deputy leader of Labour in Scotland in late 2011.  I thought all that a nice reflection on the humble diligence of the suitcase salesman.

Today there are millions of Mohammed Gulams seeking a new life in the prosperous west. The refugees and asylum seekers total around 34 million at the time of writing, - almost the same number that were displaced after World War II. They come largely from the Moslem states or regions of eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East, (driven from home by conflicts in which the west has had a major role), and hence bring cultural baggage that makes them different from the refugees of the 1940’s who were mostly of Catholic or Greek Orthodox background.  While I advocate a compassionate attitude towards immigrants, I believe that they should be required to learn and respect both our laws and our values if they are to be granted permanent residence.  Multi-culturalism and political correctness should not weaken or undermine our essential character.  Unfortunately, in London and much of the south of England, criminal gangs of Albanian and Chinese origin, have flourished, and are terrorizing whole neighbourhoods.   I also believe that the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers would be considerably reduced if the West began to address the root causes of their dislocation instead of aggravating them by its haste to bomb their countries or ignore their distress.

Like much of Britain, Scotland saw the rise of socialism as heralding a new dawn of social justice and economic prosperity.  Successive Labour Governments did indeed bring much needed changes (as did the Conservatives who gradually accepted the need for those changes).  The most important innovations, which were hailed and lauded by my parents and grandparents generations, were the National Health system, unemployment benefit, the old-age pension, free education, and adequate housing for those who could not purchase a home.  Astonishingly, at the start of the 21st Century, it is a supposedly “Labour” Government that is starting to dismantle or compromise those benefits.  There were however, some unfortunate aspects to the way social benefits were administered.  It is always thus with bureaucracies.  The system could be, and was, abused by those who became expert in making it work to their advantage.  One very negative aspect of the safety nets, to me, was the “welfare trap”.  Once an unemployed person was fully ensconced in the range of benefits, it became extremely difficult for him or her to break out of it and get back to full-time employment.  Many of those I knew who tried, had to give up in frustration because the system penalized them as soon as they attempted to start earning money again.

While maintaining a family home in Edinburgh in the 1980’s, I was working in S.E. Asia where the teeming millions had no social safety net other than their extended families and the kindness of friends or neighbours.  I interviewed many individuals in those poor but happy and industrious societies, and attempted to understand how the poor functioned and survived despite the absence of social protection and support measures.  There is no simple explanation, but one thing became clear; - welfare nets should not curb or discourage, personal initiative and enterprise, - especially at the lowest levels of society.  In that respect, our administration frameworks and social measures, are far too inflexible, and our freedom and enterprising spirit is choked by over-regulation.  President Clinton tried with some success to address similar problems with the American welfare system.

The problems with our present day welfare systems and the health service may relate in part to the growth and power of management that seeks to control to a greater and greater degree.  The drive for management efficiency blinds us to the real questions we ought to be asking; - not ‘how do we execute or control these activities more efficiently?’, - but, ‘are these actions really helping the unemployed or under-employed’. And ‘are these systems and methods really the best way to treat sick people and bring them to good health?’.  The issue is analysed brilliantly by David Ehrenfield, Rutgers University Professor, in his book, The Arrogance of Humanism, and his paper, The Management Explosion.  Rutgers claims that the growth of the management obsession has developed over centuries, and was depicted by Dickens in Little Dorrit, and more humourously by C. Northcote Parkinson, in Parkinson’s Law.  For society to survive with is better features intact (and thus actually have welfare and health systems work for the good of their clients), Ehrenfield believes we must solve the problem of bureaucracy.  But as long as we are a power-worshipping society dominated by the myth of control, we doom ourselves to an excess of administration and all the misery that entails.   But let us return to my homeland.

My Moray home town was favoured as a local base by a number of politicians.  Gordon Campbell, later Secretary of State for Scotland, and made Lord Campbell of Croy after his election defeat, lived round the corner from my parent’s house.  Winnie Ewing the Nationalist MP and Euro MP, had a house in the square that used to belong to one of my uncles.  She gave it the delightful name, “Goodwill”.  Her daughter-in-law, MP and MSP Margaret Ewing lived in a lovely cottage on the west side of town, with her husband Fergus, MSP for Inverness till her untimely death in March 2006. She served the area well and was much loved by the local people.    In the fifties and sixties, the Banffshire MP Sir William Duthie, when visiting his constituency, used to stay at his sister’s house, just behind my parent’s home, and later at the house of a widowed aunt of mine.

Like many of the fishing constituencies, Moray formerly voted Conservative.  The mould was broken by the Nationalist Winnie Ewing when she defeated Gordon Campbell in 1974. It has never elected a Labour or Liberal MP as far as I know.  Yet there were many staunch Socialists in the area, including my father and all of my uncles.  In hindsight I think they were rather naïve socialists as they lived far from the industrial belt where unionism was strong, and where Labour Councils often performed badly. They would interpret the actions of the Soviet and Chinese governments in the best possible light.  Their political heroes were men like Keir Hardie, the Ayrshire miner and first Labour MP, Tom Johnston a visionary Secretary of State for Scotland, and Aneurin Bevin, the Welsh Minister of Health in Attlee’s Government.  Even Ramsay MacDonald, despised or regarded with embarrassment by many in the Labour party, was revered, partly I suppose because he was a local man and went from obscurity and poverty to national leadership. 


Ramsay MacDonald, first Labour Prime Minister of Britain

Lord Campbell of Croy

Gordon T.C. Campbell, later Secretary of State for Scotland, was born in Lossiemouth according to several of his obituary notices.  This fact surprised me as I do not recollect him ever saying it, though he lived in and campaigned from the town, during his period as a Conservative member of parliament, 1959 to 1974.  He was decorated for his war service, and left the army with the rank of Major.  His father had been a Major General, and his mother was Violet Campbell the novelist.  He married Nicola Madan, who was a descendent of the great engineer Brunel.  Much has been made of the wounds he received in the last weeks of the war.  These kept him in hospital for a year, and left him with a visible limp.  He and his wife had three children, two sons and a daughter.

Following his death in April 2005, there were a number of adulatory obituaries, most of them by Tory party grandees, but one which was effusive, was by the veteran Labour MP, Tam Dalyell.  From all of these it appears that Campbell was a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and that he had the skills of a quiet but reliable diplomat.  I guess his attributes lay in diplomacy, or could have served him well as a senior civil servant.  But as a politician, he had distinct limitations.  He could appear distant, and unaware of the real problems and concerns of ordinary people.  His thinking at times was woolly.  And as a speaker, he could put any audience to sleep.  Two incidents stick out in my memory.  The Sunday Post which was then a true blue Tory newspaper, once remarked that Gordon Campbell “could be bested in a debate by a ‘speak your weight’ machine”!  When talking to him outside his house, in 1965 about my work in the Zambesi valley, he expressed great interest it, “because he hoped there would be orders for boats for the Buckie shipyards, from the Kariba fishery”.   This was preposterous.  Buckie boats were powerful, modern, decked vessels made for the North Sea.  They cost then over £ 25,000.  The little open Kariba canoes, however well constructed, and equipped with a modern outboard motor, cost less than £250 at that time.

I took an interest in national politics in the early 1980’s when spending a bit more time each year at our home in Baberton Farmhouse in Edinburgh.  Malcolm Rifkind, later British Foreign Secretary, was our local Member of Parliament.  He was an excellent constituency MP and never failed to respond to any request I made.  But it was Nationalist politics that interested me, and I got to know prominent members of that party, including Jim Sillars, Margo MacDonald, David Stevenson and Neil McCormick (later a Euro MP).  I also became friendly with the Liberal politician Donald Gorrie, later both an MP and MSP.  Donald was and remains, a man of deep sincerity and integrity.

I sometimes accompanied Sillars on his speaking engagements as did a young Alex Salmond, then an economist with the Royal Bank, (now Scotland’s First Minister). When Jim won the Glasgow Govan seat from Labour, overturning a 17,000 majority, though I was in Italy at the time, - I was one of the first he telephoned after the count. Jim had started out in the Labour party for whom he won Ayrshire South in 1974.  He became disillusioned with Harold Wilson and ‘London Labour’, and though being groomed for high office, he attempted to set up a separate Scottish Labour party, and later joined the SNP for whom he won the Govan seat.  Quite unlike his pugnacious public image, Jim was and is an extremely gracious and considerate person, with a wonderful sense of humour, and an almost puritanical lifestyle.  He had a sharp and energetic political mind and would prepare his positions on each issue with considerable thoroughness.  I greatly enjoyed debating these issues with him en route to and returning from his speaking engagements in the early 1980’s.

Four political friends.  My early political heroes were mostly Labour Party pioneers. During the ‘70’s and ‘80’s my political friends came from other parties.  Below are four of them, from Labour / SNP, SNP / Independent, Liberal-Democrat, and Conservative parties :


Jim Sillars, former Labour MP from South Ayrshire, and later SNP MP for Govan, Glasgow


Margo MacDonald, former SNP MP, now independent MSP, Edinburgh


Donald Gorrie, OBE, former Liberal Democrat MP and MSP, Lothian

An odd coincidence occurred in Sumatra in 1985, when I had been posted there by the Asian Development Bank, to advise a bank-financed project that had fallen well behind schedule.  The project, based in Padang on Sumatra’s west coast, was to construct a fishing port, three harbours, 300 fish farms, and fleets of offshore tuna trollers, and inshore canoes.  I arrived late one Saturday night in February of that year, and was allocated a small guest house as a residence.  It was practically bereft of facilities, so I went down-town to a Chinese-owned store to buy a short-wave radio.  I got back to the house as it was getting dark, and plugged the radio to the electric socket.  I fiddled with the tuning knob till I found the BBC overseas service.  The first voice that came booming over the transistor radio was that of my good friend Jim Sillars.  He was speaking up for Scottish miners who had been on strike to protest pit closures, and who were then being victimized by the Thatcher government in ways that went far beyond legal justice.


Sir William S. Duthie, OBE, Conservative MP for Banff, with my mother
at a fishermen’s mission sale in 1965.

What brought about the surge of interest in national politics was the asset stripping of Scotland’s wealth by its big brother England, and later by its rich uncle the European Union.  The Daily Express once printed a list of Scottish industries which it claimed would be lost if Independence came about.  Every one of the industries named (plus some more) were later lost, not under an independent government but under a UK Government and within the European Union.  Scotland lost its shipbuilding and car manufacture industries. The coal mines were all closed down.  The steel industry was sacrificed to maintain steel mills in England.  The Rosyth Naval dockyard was decommissioned contrary to pledges made, and the work it did given to the south of England.  Most of all, - North Sea oil, that immense but limited resource of liquid black gold, was extracted with all of the revenues and taxes going to the UK Government.  The only part of Scotland to obtain significant income from the oil was Shetland where the young, competent and totally incorruptible Chief Executive Ian Clark, negotiated substantial benefits for the region.

I met Ian several times later when he was with BNOC.  His brother used to live close to us at Duffus and is married to a sister of one of my best friends.  Most unfortunately for Scotland, Ian was squeezed out of the national oil company and went south to work for Costains.  He is now retired and residing in Campbeltown, Argyll.

The EU insanity of its Common Fisheries Policy, is matched only by the madness of its Common Agricultural Policy.  Farmers in every corner of the country have expressed to me their utter frustration at the waste and the malevolence of EC interference in our national food production.  Why should a little cheese maker in Islay be forbidden to source its milk from the local dairy, and have to buy it instead from the continent?  And why should both the cheese plant and the dairy farm have to close down in consequence?  Why were our small abattoirs closed down in favour of large abattoirs located far from the farms?  And why had the country to suffer the horrendous outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease as a result, with bureaucratic stupidity preventing less costly vaccination instead of outright slaughter of thousands of healthy beasts?

Manufacturers tell me the same story.  For all the products they sell to Europe, they would far prefer to be free of its mountains of paperwork and ridiculous regulations, and sell instead to Scotland and to the rest of the world.  Most of those I have spoken to have said that if Britain was to remain in the EU, and they had the chance of starting out again, they would definitely not go into business.

The current asset that Scotland is being robbed of is its fish resources.  When every other country was rightfully claiming a 200 mile exclusive economic zone in accord with the UN Law of the Sea, the British Government handed ours over to the European Union and gave European fleets equal access to our fishing grounds.  Under the European Common Fisheries Policy, the Scottish fleet (the largest part of the British fleet) has been systematically reduced to a rump of its former self while the enormous Spanish fleet (equal in size to 50% of the combined European fleet when Spain joined the Union), has been assisted to fish off West Africa, off West Ireland, and now, in the North Sea.

My home town which once possessed the largest fleet of seine net boats in Britain, is now a marina for yachts, and from our family that financed and operated ten boats since the war, there is not a single vessel in operation, and not a single member of the extended family working in the fishing industry.  The local harbour that was once packed with fishing vessels each weekend, is now empty but for a few yachts.  The fish market that once was filled twice a day with a range of fresh quality fish, lies totally empty now.

One of my best friends who built a modern stern trawler to fish on grounds over 500 fathoms deep for non-quota species, saw that resource given almost entirely to continental fleets, mainly French and Spanish.  To maintain his vessel, and keep his crew in work, he has had to fish on license from other countries outside of the EU, - first for pink shrimp off Greenland, and later for hake off Namibia.  All this while European fleets are permitted to harvest fish in Scottish waters.  And up to the time of writing, beautiful seaworthy Scottish fishing craft which could have another ten to twenty years of productive life, are being scrapped to satisfy a European ideology.  Meanwhile subsidized new boats are being constructed in Spain to prosecute the Scottish fishing grounds.

For over 20 years I badgered politicians and civil servants about the madness and wickedness of the Common Fisheries Policy, and took every opportunity to provide witness statements to consultations undertaken by Westminster and Holyrood, - but all to no avail. The authorities were blind and deaf to facts and reason.  Interestingly, not a single government or EU supporter ever challenged my statements in the press.  When a fishermen’s association brought an Icelandic scientist and Faeroese Fishery Minister to Scotland to speak on the issue, not a single Scottish or British Minister was prepared to debate with them, nor would any of our fishery scientists allow the Icelandic scientist to challenge them in an open forum.

Even more than the East coast, the Hebrides and west coast of Scotland have been hit hard by the European Union Common Fisheries Policy, and the equally insane Common Agricultural Policy.  The area has also suffered from successive government attempts, Labour and Conservative, to impose monetarist policies and measures that benefit mainly big industry and big landowners, - and even these interventions are beneficial to them only in the short term.  I attempted to describe some of the negative results of these policies in a book, The Sea Clearances, which I had discussed before publication with former HIE Chairman, and prolific author, Jim Hunter, and with the great John Prebble before he died in January 2001.  I also wrote a paper on the subject for Scottish Affairs, the parliamentary journal published by Edinburgh University, but though several MSPs said they had read it with interest, not a single one challenged its statements or conclusions.

I broadcast these concerns on radio, in the press, and at conferences in academic, environmental and political gatherings.  Those who supported the EU policies maintained a complete silence. I understood from their failure to respond, that they had no credible arguments to justify the common fisheries or common agriculture policies, or to defend their regulations and measures.   The few government fishery scientists, administrators and economists that did discuss the issues with me, eventually admitted (in private), that there was neither rationality nor sustainability to the EU management programme.

Yet the Hebrides and west coast region, that has suffered from government mistreatment and neglect for so long, still retains a magic of its own that continues to fire the imagination and stir the affections.  Is it due to the scenery, the climate, the people, the culture, the music, or the history?  Probably a combination of all of these factors plus an additional romantic element that is captured or touched upon in writings as varied as RLS’s Kidnapped, Neil Gunn’s many excellent novels, Fraser Darling’s Highlands and Islands, and Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room.  (Adam is typical of the best of the descendants of landowners, who truly loves and appreciates the region and its people, and sympathises with their suffering.  His book was highly praised in reviews, and nominated for awards.  I wrote to him after reading it with pleasure, and told him that he was ‘a poet with prose’).

One of the things I admire most about the west coast people, is their stoic diligence, and humble determination to carve out a sustainable livelihood in that sometimes harsh environment, despite the efforts of Brussels, London and Edinburgh, to make that all but impossible.  I recall the prawn creel fishers of Achiltibuie, lacking harbour, pier or landing facilities, still producing and marketing high quality nephrops, keeping them alive in tubes over the ‘Sabbath’, and flying them from Inverness to Spain to supply the lucrative continental market.  I think of Sandy MacDonald, expert boat builder and farmer, who I worked with in Africa over 40 years ago.  He and his dear wife Liz, have developed a farm, sawmill, boatyard, whiskey blending business and occasional lobster fishery, on the most westerly point of Scotland and the British mainland, at Ardslignish, north-west of Tobermory.

The establishment of a devolved Parliament with limited powers in Scotland, was something about which I had mixed feelings, mainly because I felt it was not the real thing.  It had no power over the issues that really matter, like economic policy, defense, and acceptance or rejection of European Union measures. The performance of most (but not all) of the MSP’s since make the place resemble a parochial town council rather than a national parliament.  There is a dearth of strategic thinking and vision, and an abundance of shallow mediocrity and petty party dogma.

The unbelievable mismanagement of the new parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh (an architectural monstrosity), the cost of which increased from £40 million to over £450 million [Kirsty Wark, the talented and experienced television interviewer who was involved in design selection with a New Labour selected team, justified the cost of the ugly carbuncle by stating that “if you picked the cheapest tender, you would end up with a shed!”.   Well, we ended up with “a shed”, as it turned out, - the most expensive shed ever!] is just the worst example of the Executive’s cronyistic way of making decisions and its incompetence and irresponsibility in managing taxpayer’s money. Some private finance initiative projects display similar short-sightedness and poor financial management.

As far as its limited powers go, I am reminded of a priceless quote in a film about the Mexican leader Benito Juares.  When asked why he was not prepared to accept the generous measure of responsibility that the Emperor Maximilian was prepared to yield, his reply was to ask what it was precisely that was being with-held. The answer in the film was, “I suppose, it is the right to govern ourselves”.  “Exactly”, responded Juares, “and that is what we are struggling for”.

The treatment of Scotland by successive UK Labour and Conservative Governments, and in the past 30 years by the European Union in its various forms, which together have connived actively or passively in the demise of the steel, automobile, and coal industries, and the crippling reduction of shipbuilding, fishing and textile industries, remind me of the words that the Roman historian Tacitus attributed to the Caledonian Chief Calcagus (Gaelcagus) following the battle of Mons Graupius :  “We, the most distant dwellers upon the face of the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded intil now by our remoteness.  But the Romans, pillagers of the world have now exhausted our land by their indiscriminate plunder.  To robbery, butchery and rapine, they give the lying name of ‘government’.  They created a desert and called it peace.”

Due to the difficulties of UK management of Scotland’s economy, there was considerable emigration of Scots to Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand during the 20th century.  In the colonial era scots also emigrated to South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and other lands where their skills and attitudes were welcome.  A recent book by Rev Angus MacKinnon, Atlantic Voyage, gives a definition of the attributes of the emigrant Celt.  “He is at home in every part of the globe, wherever he is, as much as Jew or Arab. His mind carries with him all the riches of his past. He travels light through the ages, because his nature is not defined by geography, not his wealth by possessions. Volatile, prone to fall, yet capable of rising to noble heights, he has a spiritual ancestry that is somehow transmitted through generations. Thus in countries like Canada, and in U.S. states like Montana and Carolina, where Scottish highlanders settled during the 19th century, there is more than a grain of truth to the refrain : “but yet the blood is strong, the heart is Highland”.    

In May 2007, an election for the devolved administration in Holyrood, resulted in a narrow victory for the Scottish National Party who gained a one seat majority over Labour.  This was the first time Labour had been beaten in an election in Scotland since 1959.  However, the Liberal Democrats who were happy to join Labour in a coalition government, would not do so with the SNP since they objected strongly to the nationalists’ policy to put the Independence question to the Scottish people in a Referendum.  But by deft handling of the situation, First Minister Alex Salmond and his minority Government, surprised friends and foes alike, and took a number of initiatives in Scotland’s favour that the previous Labour / Liberal-Democrat executive would not consider due to their deference to Westminster.  All the warnings of economic chaos and political confusion, made repeatedly before by the unionist parties, were shown to be quite false.  Some began to change their tack, and started to admit that Scotland could be self-sufficient and prosperous as an independent state.  Rather illogically they also began to fault the SNP for not fully implementing nationalist policies which they (the unionist parties) strongly opposed.   

Then in May 2011, against all predictions, the SNP won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliement. This had been thought impossible, even for the Unionist parties. Following that result, the leaders of the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties in Scotland all resigned.  A major outcome of the election victory is that the SNP will hold a referendum on Independence in 2015.  The result of that vote may well witness further steps towards real self-government in Scotland.


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