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

Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (go to the top of Scotland, and turn left). My father-in-law comes from there, and his family still run a croft – a smallholding with a few sheep and cattle in one of Britain’s few remaining peasant communities. So how does it compare to the far more populous peasant worlds in developing countries? The overall story is one of depopulation – the island is dotted with abandoned villages and ‘lazy beds’, where farmers previously struggled to raise potatoes and cereals in the harsh Hebridean climate. Now they buy them at Tescos. The population of the island is 18,000 and both ageing and falling, as the youngsters, especially the best and brightest, head off via university on the mainland, just as my father-in-law did some 60 years ago. Many end up emigrating further, to New Zealand, Australia, Canada etc. But within this overall story of decline, there are countervailing tides. First new people are arriving – ‘incomers’ make up about a quarter of the 40 or so families in my father-in-law’s village, bringing in capital and entrepreneurial skills. Most are from England or elsewhere in Europe, but the island’s capital Stornoway also boasts a small Bangladeshi community.

FultonAs technology and society changes, the island’s ‘comparative advantage’ is shifting – it has a LOT of wind and sea, so renewables are developing, (albeit with big struggles over planning permission) and the very emptiness is bringing in tourism, while the Hebridean light is a magnet for artists – there are galleries everywhere (see here for an outstanding example).
As for farming, most remaining crofters are largely ‘hobby crofters’, relying on non farm income. Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are the only reason why many crofts with just 50 sheep can get through the year – I met one accountant-turned farmer who complements his income by helping his neighbours fill in their subsidy applications. But he is also training a new generation of crofters, some of whom commute to the North Sea oil rigs but no longer have to emigrate due to improved air links to the mainland. They farm during their weeks off. Some of the more entrepreneurial crofters are developing niche markets. My wife’s cousin is building a herd of highlander cattle (the highlandershaggy ones with the big horns – see pic) and cannot meet the demand for their premium organic beef, not least via the website and webcam (yes, you can watch his cows on the internet, if that’s your thing, and he gets regular emails from their fanclub).   One of the main existential battlegrounds is culture. This is a Gaelic-speaking community (my father in law only learned English when he went to school, where he was beaten for speaking Gaelic) and while young people prefer English, a boom in Gaelic schooling and media is trying to reverse the trend, with mixed results (one of Stornoway’s second generation Bangladeshis reportedly became president of Glasgow University’s Gaelic society). Religion, particularly the evangelical ‘Free Church of Scotland’, plays a vital role in holding communities together in a harsh environment, but that cohesion is being undermined by the very incomers who are boosting the economy. Migration, culture, non farm income, the role of faiths – you could be talking about peasant communities anywhere. So what does spending a week in Lewis add to my understanding? Firstly, leaving home and heading for the cities is always a wrench, but provided it is a positive choice, not ‘distress migration’, it brings opportunities and new horizons. Those returning for the wedding treasure their cultural roots, but showed little urge to come back home to the rain and cold. Secondly, migration is becoming less traumatic. People can return home for holidays (or weddings), talk on the phone, skype or email, or watch the cows on the webcam. They no longer have to leave their old world behind them as Lewis disappears over the horizon. Thirdly, peasant communities are never static. Technology, culture, ideas and people flow in and out at an ever-accelerating rate. Any city-dwelling ‘peasant romantic’ seeking a timeless, unchanging, pre-modern ‘other’ in smallholder communities is likely to be disappointed. Good thing too.]]>

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8 Responses to “What future for peasant communities in the North? A holiday report”
  1. 1). Interesting to note the ‘impressions’ a week’s visit to part of the Western Isles make on a far travelled reporter of serious world affairs. I’m sure wondering in disbelief (Oxfam Aid): while walking amongst sheep and cattle grazing on the rugged hillsides of North Harris and the coastal and machair lands between Shader, Ballantrushal and Brue, why the supermarkets of Lewis & Harris (like those in London and Edinburgh) are still buying in New Zealand lamb from 11,000 miles away – tanker loads of food steaming past the countries of the world’s hungry millions – to food rich Scotland and the Western Isles? Where is Oxfam’s voice on this?
    2). Interesting to note too for the 2nd and 3rd generations of crofting folk emigrants in New Zealand, Vancouver and Perth, what the Brue ‘peasant’ houses are on the market for this week: No1 House £105k; No12 House £115k; No’30’ House and Oiseaval Gallery £195k; No3 (House Plot of land) £30k – Yep! £30k to the first young crofter – for Iodhlainn ‘an Peatsan!
    3)… and talking of real need and aid, from the well off of north-west Europe to the desperately poor of south-east Europe and beyond ……
    Duncan: Thanks Kenneth Alec, house prices sound like a downside of incomers that I missed. The point on trade is a massive one, but I reckon (based on previous discussions on the common agricultural policy) that we disagree on this – should poor people on Lewis be forced to grow their own veg, when they can buy much cheaper ones at Tescos and do something else instead? A million and a half Africans are involved in growing and exporting flowers and veg to Europe – and the research shows that they usually fare better than those who stuck to growing food crops like maize.

  2. Ken Smith

    Why can they buy cheaper ones at Tesco ? Because Tesco’s foreign suppliers employ people in conditions that would be illegal on Lewis and because the true environmental costs of shipping them to Lewis are not paid for by Tesco. I think Oxfam does speak out on both of those issues but maybe not loudly enough.
    Duncan: not so fast Ken, are you suggesting a global minimum wage, irrespective of local prices? Wouldn’t that price workers in poorer countries out of the chance of working in export sectors? Of course suppliers should abide by local legislation, and pay a living wage, but that’s very different from saying they should abide by the Lewis’ labour laws and wage levels.

  3. Ken Smith

    National minimum wages could be linked to purchasing power in each country and do I think every man and woman on the planet deserves the same rights I and the Lewisians enjoy ? Put me down as a Yes.
    Duncan: rights, yes, but wages? Basically, is it OK for women working in maquiladoras in Mexico to earn a sixth of what they would earn if in the US? I think it is, provided their rights are respected, and the wages is a living wage – then people get into work and as productivity rises, they bargain for higher wages. That’s the position adopted by the Ethical Trading Initiative, and I think it makes absolute sense. After all, the last thing you or I want is high productivity, high wage economies taking the jobs from low productivity, low wages ones, no?

  4. Nicholas Colloff

    I am reminded of the grandparents in Tuva who buy a tv set and dvd player (often solar powered) for their yurt to tempt the grandchildren into spending the summer with them, out with the cattle and sheep. They report after a day or two the dvd player stands unused as the pleasures and challenges of nomadic life kick in: like saving your sheep from wolves!
    As Hugh Brody noted (of the Inuit) the point is not ‘traditional culture’ vs ‘modernity’ but whether the culture and people within it exercise real freedoms in deciding their way of life moving forward.
    Many of the empty crofts of Scotland are not evidence of such choice but of the distressed migration that were the clearances. Here it seems to me ownership of assets (and their legal protection) is critical in securing communities that can exercise such choice.

  5. Calum Mitchell

    The term peasant mainly refers to a rural community where there is interdependence between individual farmers/crofters. Peasant has become very much is a word of loose application and this article uses it to describe a traditional rural population chiefly held by smallholders and those who come from a lower income background.
    The problem with crofting today is that it now exists in a society that is no longer dependant on what hard work the croft can produce since living standards, quality of life, income, education opportunities are on a par with the rest of Europe.
    The original croft setting was a piece of land where the occupants lives were so much more dependent on their land and what stockpiles of provisions they could produce to feed their families.
    So in a society where crofting no longer meets its 1st purpose how does it fit in to modern life on Lewis which today shares the same living standards as any UK city dweller.
    The main product of crofting today is lamb/mutton and beef with enough of a supply of store, finished and breeding stock to attract buyers from all over the country. This is what this what this generation of crofters do best and it is all about finding the best way to do it while working ‘9 to 5 plus’ as a builder, accountant, nurse, teacher, student etc.
    The term ‘hobby farmer’ doesn’t really fit in here because local crofters are being held responsible for utilising croft land. If croft land begins to be left derelict then we will really see the true meaning of depopulation and abandoned villages, croft land becomes a weedy wilderness and we loose our local business ‘multiplier effect’
    Farmers and crofters are the stewards of our beautiful countryside and are at the forefront of food security and sustainability.
    Thinking long term we can’t always expect to depend on our local Tesco to keep our nation fed as meat prices are set to increase as farmers pass on the burden of surging costs. There is always readily available and cheap food on supermarket shelves but there is an ever growing sense of unease at the potential for disruption to domestic food supply because of climate change, energy concerns, and international terrorism.
    UK meat supply has been affected by a combination of a weak pound, harsh winter and falling profits for farmers has meant that far fewer sheep are being reared in this country compared with a decade ago. This has had the effect of pushing supply down and prices up.
    Croft land should now be uses to meet our ever growing local and national food demands. How do we do this? Through education get the school kids out on the crofts teaching them how to produce meat and veg and not see it as “the poor people on Lewis being forced to grow their own veg.”
    You say Duncan “especially the best and brightest head off via university on the mainland” well I can tell you the best, brightest and innovative have actually decided to stay in Lewis and despite a harsh economic climate started their own businesses many of whom are not just bright but shinning!” Come back soon and see the positives.
    Duncan: thanks for this thoughtful contribution Calum, and don’t worry, I found plenty of positives this time as well. Lewis is always a wonderful place to visit. Sorry if my post didn’t reflect that, but I was trying to capture the overlap between the discussions we have on peasant agriculture at Oxfam (and in my world, peasant is not a derogatory term at all), and then experiencing very similar processes and debates much closer to home.

  6. Ken Smith

    For the Mexican maquiladoras I think “they bargain for higher wages” is the key. I’d guess that the labour rights people have in these areas don’t match those in the US. If people had the rights the wages would follow

  7. Duncan, ref your point: ‘should poor people on Lewis be forced to grow their own veg, when they can buy much cheaper ones at Tescos and do something else instead?
    The days of the, ‘poor people on Lewis [being] forced to grow their own veg’ disappeared over half a century ago – being at its height (as in much of rural UK & Ireland) during the century following the 1840s’ potato crop failure with ensuing catastrophic famine, widespread disease, death and emigration – all of which also followed the collapse of the kelp (seaweed) industry – which is well documented elsewhere – see: http://www.highlandclearances.info/clearances/clearances_kelp.htm
    The reasons why Lewis (Leòdhasaich) and Harris (Hearaich) people do ‘grow their own’ today is ten-fold:
    1) because they have the choice and the land – so much better off than the urban mass of the common people if I may extend the Duncan Green/Oxfam terminology;
    2) being in control of what they eat;
    3) avoiding the treatments ‘supermarket foods’ are subjected to before people buy it;
    4) the sheer taste, flavour and enjoyment of fresh, wholesome produce from their own land;
    5) it is sustainable (flying jumbos of mange tout from Kenya to Gartwick and Stornoway is not!);
    6) considerably less global pollution, fuel burn, emissions and noise from the hand barrow and small tractor – while the flagship Airbus A380 has fuel consumption of around 3 litres per passenger per 100 kilometres and generates 75 g of CO2 per passenger kilometre;
    7) they know the truth about Tesco et al TV adverts and myths – supermarkets just cannot compete on price and quality!
    8) complements the other local produce from their land, island lochs, moors, rivers and sea lochs
    9) they care about and appreciate their land and environment – and they know the world’s increasing population desperately needs more food!
    10) it adds to the rich quality of island life in the Scottish Hebrides.

  8. Hi, grumpy old man! eeeech ……….. no mention of the island wedding ……..eeech
    Duncan: Thanks Jessie, I’m now finding out how many of my relatives read blogs. For the benefit of baffled readers, we were in Lewis for a great family wedding (and my sons looked very fine in kilts – must put a photo up some time and embarrass them). Oh and both Kenneth Alec and Calum Angus in the previous comments are family – not sure what kind of reception I’ll get when I go back……….