Saturday 19 October 2013

The Lowland Clearances

I have just finished reading this very interesting book: The Lowland Clearances: Scotland's Silent Revolution 1760-1830, by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell. It is the book version of a series broadcast on Radio Scotland ten years ago. The cover design is based on an illustration to Burns' poem The Cottar's Saturday Night by the well-known engraver James Faed. He has a local connection: some of the Faed descendants live in Berwick and last year one of them arranged an exhibition of the artist's work at the Granary art gallery, which is on the top floor of the building whose ground floor cafe I habitually frequent.

The argument of the book is that the Lowland areas of Scotland suffered just as much social disruption, hardship and consequent emigration during the period of agricultural 'improvement' as the Highlands, but that whereas the Highland Clearances is an established term, there is no corresponding acceptance of the term Lowland Clearances.

I've used this picture before in a previous post about emigration (here) but it seems worth recycling in this context. This memorial to mass emigration is in Liverpool, and most Scottish emigrants sailed from Glasgow, but they were the same kind of people: poor, desperate, seeing absolutely no future in the land of their birth and willing to risk a long voyage in horrible conditions for the mere possibility of a better life. Aitchison and Cassell make it clear that the prime attraction, the main driver of nearly all emigrants, was the possibility of owning their own piece of land. To escape forever from the payment of rent and the whims of the large landowners and their factors, to be the masters of their own destiny, that was the dream. For a large number of migrants the dream came true. One of the contributors to this book was a Canadian man whose ancestors were driven off their rented land in Lowland Scotland and subsequently became wealthy and propertied in Toronto.

The authors consider that the extent of population loss in the Lowlands, which includes the Borders, has been hidden by the fact that displaced tenant farmers in those areas usually migrated to the cities, notably Glasgow, in the first instance and only left the country altogether when they had failed to make a living there, whereas the image of Highlanders being marched straight from their ancestral glen to an emigrant ship is etched in the folk memory of both Scots and their descendants in the lands to which they travelled. It is also probably true that the Gaelic culture of the Highlands has a romantic appeal which the English speaking communities further south cannot match.

The take-home message of all this is that it is not inevitable that either the Highlands or the Borders are so empty of people. They used to be full of people making a living from the land. They could be full of people again, making a living in the new ways that modern technology has made possible. For the purposes of this blog I maintain strict neutrality on the subject of Scottish independence, but I am not neutral about the arrogant attitude of some English people that assumes large areas of Scotland have always been deserted and poverty stricken and always will be. That is just downright offensive. 

Wednesday 9 October 2013

The Berwick Swans

It seems to be a while since I posted any pretty pictures of wildlife, so here is a photo of some of the swans of Berwick enjoying a leisurely evening feed beside the old bridge. Despite the foggy look of the scene it was taken only a few weeks ago during the summer. A heavy mist known locally as a 'sea fret' is a feature of life here on the coast.

This is only a small fraction of the herd of swans that assembles on the estuary of the Tweed over the summer. It is common to see more than fifty together, and not that unusual to see a hundred or so, although when the numbers get that large it's hard to keep count of a constantly swimming target. They gather on the estuary during the moulting season in July and August because, apparently, they can't fly while their old flight feathers are being shed, so they need a safe place to hang out while the new feathers grow. They don't all go away in the winter though, there are always a fair few swans around on the river and on the sea just offshore.

As you can see here, they don't even stay on the water all the time, they are sometimes quite happy to camp out on the slipway. A few weeks ago I saw a pair of swans with a group of 'teenage' cygnets comfortably settled here on the slipway, but by rotten luck I did not have my camera on me at the time. (I hear all serious photographers sucking their teeth in disapproval at this point - I know, I know, you should take your camera with you at all times.) Though it might in any case have been difficult to get a decent shot, as the parents stood up and spread their wings in a warning manner when I moved closer to get a good look.

And trust me, you don't want to get on the bad side of a swan. They come up to chest height on a human adult and that beak looks pretty worrying when it gets that close to your face. The closest encounter I ever had with one was during the heavy snow a couple of winters back. White swan sitting in white snow equals total camouflage. The first I knew about it was when a large angrily flapping creature rose up in front of me just before I stood on it. I was definitely more scared than it was. I didn't slow down until I got to the far side of the bridge.