Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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For anyone interested in Scotland, Lesley Riddoch’s latest book, Blossom: What Scotland needs to flourish, is not just essential reading it is stimulating, informative, passionate and ultimately life enhancing.
The book is essentially about power in Scotland – who has got it and who has not and the impact powerlessness has on the dispossessed. So there are chapters on economic and social inequality, housing, land, local democracy, language, gender and Scotland’s relationship with England.
Lesley’s basic message is that Scotland is not thriving and that the essential problem is that the ‘stultifying burden of disempowerment has finally caught up with us all.’ She writes:
Chronic disempowerment. The kind that arises from centuries living on land we could not own, piers we could not use, rivers we could not fish and forests we could not enter. Centuries inhabiting homes we could not (till recently) own, improve or inherit and cities, towns and villages whose shape we (still) cannot really determine. Centuries speaking in dialects and languages we could not use in official situations and thinking about realities, histories and people we would never hear on the radio or TV channels of our own public broadcasting services.
The Scots’ much discussed ‘lack of confidence’ cannot be remedied by simply ‘pulling ourselves together, developing ‘positive self-talk’ or ‘thinking big’. Our disempowerment arises from several centuries of ‘get out’ and ‘keep off’ signs – many erected by fellow Scots. A sense of engagement can’t just be switched on – especially when involvement in Scottish democracy has historically been so limited.’
In my own book The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence I look at the lasting legacy of Scotland’s religious inheritance, amongs other things, on how the Scots see themselves and interact with one another but, of course, other factors contributed and, may ultimately, be more important. I think that Lesley is right to devote considerable attention in her book to land ownership. One of her central arguments is that feelings of powerlessness have flown inexorably from Scotland’s concentrated land ownership. Indeed some argue that it is the most concentrated in the developed world.
I also admire the book’s gritty, down-to-earth quality. As Lesley herself puts it ‘… we are physical creatures who experience the world first and foremost via the patch of earth that supports and surrounds us.’ Her ideal world is one where we emulate our Nordic neighbours and make the most of our patch of earth – skiing, hunting, fishing, sailing, cycling, hutting, growing, gathering, farming … generally doing stuff outdoors and feeling that we belong there.
Lesley argues that ‘landlessness is (deeply) embedded in the Scotish psyche’ and speculates at one point that ‘excluded’ Scots have ‘no confidence problem’ at all and suffer from the fact that their culture ‘effectively stops them joining in “healthy” and “outdoorsy” activities … because they have traditionally been the preserve of the upper classes.’ Elsewhere she argues that ‘the Scots are out of touch with nature’.
I agree with Lesley’s arguments that Scotland’s laws on inheritance (primogeniture) have encouraged the concentration of land in very few hands and this alongside other factors have ultimately disempowered the vast majority of Scots, sterilized much of the countryside and turned much of it into desolate wildernesss. I think it’s true that most of us are alienated from land use and countryside issues. But I think she exaggerates the alienation from nature and how this links to confidence and feelings of disempowerment. Yes I would argue that lack of contact with the green world is a big issue for the young generation who spend far too much time indoors but I don’t think this was always the case in Scotland.
To illustrate my point I want to take the case of my father. I read Blossom while he, aged 90, lay dying in hospital. Understandably he was on my mind as I read Lesley’s words. However, I think he would have been there anyway as I couldn’t square her account of those raised in Scotland – particularly those from industrial Scotland – with my own father’s experience or indeed my own or my children’s.
My father grew up in a Maryhill tenement but his father, a tram driver, tended an allotment and kept hens. My father loved nothing better when he was young than cycling out to the countryside. As a married man he loved gardening and was a keen fisherman. When he retired from the railways (he had been an engine driver) he enjoyed roaming the countryside collecting logs, gathering elderflowers and brambles and even tapping birch trees for sap to make wine. He also collected earth from moudie-hills. So when I was in my thirties and living in a tenement in Glasgow’s west end getting a hut at Carbeth seemed like an obvious thing to do and, of course, became a favourite haunt of my dad’s.
Despite all of this my father exhibited many of the traits I describe in The Scots Crisis of Confidence – for example, a terror of making mistakes and being wrong or standing out from the crowd.
I’m not arguing that my father was completely typical of his generation: I think he had more of a love of nature and the countryside than was true of other folk he knew. But for ordinary Scots in the past, being outdoors played a much bigger part than Lesley acknowledges. In the 20s and 30s there were lots of cycling and walking clubs. My mother who grew up in Milngavie used to recount how at weekends hundreds of Glaswegians would arrive to go to the river Allander for picnics and sing songs. Two miles north of Milngavie, at Craigallion there was an ‘everlasting fire’ which was a beacon of hope for people in the 1930s and an important site for lots of people who went on to set up various clubs and ‘open up Scotland’s wild places to all people’, according to the internet site launched in its memory.
But all in all my difference in opinion on this doesn’t matter that much as I still agree with much of Lesley’s argument on how Scotland’s concentration of land has disempowered people and affected the culture. Indeed she is in great form when she writes:
A ‘normal country’ would have a welter of ideas about how people could use land – mono-cultural Scotland, by contrast, has just a few: the sporting estate, the fenced-off forest and the fenced-off farm. IF nature abhors a vacuum and detests straight lines, I’d guess she’d also feel twitchy about the dull conformity of that. And yet, Scots apparently do not. Empty is normal. Forlorn is natural. Hierarchy is traditional. Privacy is paramount. Development is problematic. And better use of natural resources is none of our business.
I also particularly liked Lesley’s chapter on local democracy or rather lack of it. Indeed she presents evidence to show that according to every possible indicator Scotland ‘performs worse than any comparable northern nation’ and even earns itself the title of ‘least democratic country in the European Union’. As she rightly argues: ‘In Scotland, places are dying because of remote, wrong-sized governance despite being full of human talent, capacity, problem-solving, energy, history and natural resources.’
I also agree wholeheartedly with her belief, which runs throughout the book, that ‘People generally ‘fix’ and maintain themselves if they control local resources and have genuinely equal chances in a country that understands the importance of hope and social solidarity.’
Finally, I like the fact that Blossom makes a real contribution to our understanding of flourishing. Much of the flourishing or well-being literature concerns subjective well-being – people’s psychology. What Lesley does well is link that psychology to power relations something that too many people interested in psychology ignore. A notable advantage of this approach is that it easily lends itself to some radical suggestions for change and Lesley being Lesley has lots of ideas for us on what Scotland and the Scots need to blossom. It really is worth reading what she has to say.