A recent visit to the Scottish Highlands prompted some thoughts on several favoured themes of mine: the resilience or otherwise of local economies grounded in small-scale agricultural production, problems of migration as featured in a recent post, and questions concerning ‘modernization’ and economic development. So let’s take a brief tour around the Highlands and their history to help muse on the topic of a small farm future.
Perhaps the first thing a southerner notices on the long drive north is the narrowing of the roads and the thinning of the population. In many of the Highland glens there’s little but shooting estates and a few, very extensively raised sheep. But you don’t need to be much of an expert on Scottish history to know that these places were once more heavily peopled by poor, small-scale, subsistence-oriented tenant farmers, who left the land in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – sometimes willingly, sometimes not, in the process known as the Highland clearances.
It wasn’t as if the life of the poor Highland tenant was a bundle of laughs. As in the better known case of Ireland, when the potato harvest failed the small tenantry suffered, or starved. With population rising in the 18th century and relatively little in the way of industry the region fell into what clearance historian Eric Richards calls a ‘Malthusian trap’1. High wool prices and low land prices in the Highlands relative to the rest of Britain enticed commercial sheep farmers from the south willing to pay higher rents for exclusive, enclosed land than the small tenantry could possibly afford from their mostly subsistence farming. Thus was their fate sealed.
The idea of ‘clearing’ an inefficient peasantry to make way for more efficient large-scale farming has a long pedigree and lot of modern resonance. But a 21st century perspective on farming in the Highlands surely complicates that line of reasoning. After the (usually) self-supporting small tenants came the capitalist sheep farmers, but after wool prices collapsed in the mid-19th century came…not much. For all that we hear about the huge technological strides made by modern agriculture, it seems likely that upland agriculture in the Highlands is producing less now than in the days of the pre-clearance tenantry. Developments in agriculture since the clearances are certainly impressive, but it’s easy to forget how little they’ve overcome the basic dictates of soil and climate which still make the Highlands marginal for arable agriculture.
The small Highland tenantry made arable agriculture work there because they had few other options, which underscores another easily forgotten point – human labour is a farm input like few others for increasing productivity. Doubtless not many of us today would wish for the life of an 18th century Highland tenant, but it’s hard to gainsay what labour can achieve – worth bearing in mind when people say things like “organic farming can’t feed the world”, while invariably assuming existing levels of per hectare labour input.
Another aspect of this is something that I suspect is quite widespread in the larger historical contest of capital and peasantry. Whenever land farmed by primarily subsistence cultivators becomes attractive to primarily commercial farmers, the latter will generally gain control of it sooner or later because of the rents they can afford. So in mixed subsistence-commercial economies (that is, in virtually every peasant economy in the modern world), chances are the peasants have worse land – another point worth bearing in mind when farm productivities are compared.
In view of all of this it’s necessary, I think, to specify ‘efficiency’ very carefully when we compare peasant with commercial agriculture. Richards writes
“The old peasant agriculture was not only palpably less competitive, it was equally a waste of the region’s resources and could not even provide the people themselves with a decent secure livelihood” (p.409)
Yet a few pages later he says,
“more remarkable than the persistence of famine was the sheer survival of so many people in such difficult circumstances: it was tribute to the food value (per pound, per acre, and per man-hour) of the potato, and also to the observable fortitude and communal resilience of the people themselves” (p.416)
On the face of it, these two comments seem rather contradictory. But perhaps they’re not – the peasant agriculture was certainly less fiscally competitive than capitalist sheep farming. In terms of generating income to pay their landlords’ rent, a contemporary noted that the peasant system of farming
“cannot furnish them with the means of paying him one fourth, and in some situations not more than a tenth of the value of his land….and all must be scraped up among the poor, meagre tenants, in twos and threes of silly lambs, hens and pounds of butter” (Richards, p.144)
So it’s easy to understand why the landlords preferred the tenancy of a single large-scale commercial sheep farmer than multiple peasant tenancies. But were the peasants really ‘wasting’ the region’s resources? Only if you consider regional resources not in terms of what food and other produce the land can provide but in terms of what money it can generate, and this indeed was precisely the change in attitude that the clearances were signalling. If you think in terms of the productivity of the land, then I suspect the silly lambs and hens would have it.
In order to consider land resources in purely fiscal terms, it was necessary for the Highlands to be more closely linked to a wider economy, and again this was the larger economic story of the clearances. On the landlord side, the English broke the independence of Highland lords from the wider sweep of the British economy after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (I say ‘the English’ rather than ‘we English’ because most of my ancestors were still on their way to the metropole from Scotland and Eastern Europe at the time – another migrant story). Economic integration brought money into the Highlands from English industrialists, Scottish colonial adventurers in India, the commercial sheep farmers of northern England and, later on, the world’s super-rich like Andrew Carnegie, seeking picturesque sporting estates.
On the tenant side, a mixed agriculture of cattle and subsistence cropping produced cattle exports in return for supplementary grain, at a much lower level of capitalisation than the sheep farmers furnished. And when the inevitable happened and the mixed cattle/arable lost out to sheep, British integration with its colonies provided destinations for the exiting small tenantry in places as far flung as Nova Scotia and Australia. It also provided destinations as near flung as the Highland coastline, where many landlords attempted to resettle their upland tenants in the guise of commercial fishermen or proletarian labourers in other industrial ventures. But these attempts to industrialise the Highlands very rarely worked. As Richards notes, “In the long run there were secular trends in the British economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions” (p.193).
The apparently contradictory notion that the Highland peasantry was both resilient and insecure reflects different ways of scaling resilience. I’d venture to say that, as individuals, the people of a Highland peasant hamlet were probably more resilient than most of us today could dream of, partly because of their practical skills and partly because of their expectations of life. But, as a society, their way of life wasn’t very resilient – they were too close to the margins of subsistence, too under-capitalised, too poorly connected to other, less local resources that might have enabled them to ride out the consequences of a poor harvest.
The result of greater economic integration, however, wasn’t an improvement in their resilience but their elimination – in other words, the familiar course of ‘agricultural improvement’ in which peasantries are replaced by more fiscally productive, but probably less nutritionally productive, methods of farming. According to agricultural improver ideology, because the new farming system and the erstwhile peasants it’s replaced are better linked to a wider and more capitalised economy everyone benefits, including the erstwhile peasants, who are able to find better paid jobs elsewhere in the economy. That was certainly one part of the story of the clearances – especially for those who left the Highlands for the south, or for Canada or Australia.
But Richards states that it took five generations before the reduced population remaining in the Highlands enjoyed better living standards, and not usually through any particular benevolence on the part of the ‘improvers’. How do we scale that at the level of the individual life? Further, he documents the fierce struggles against clearance put up by many among the Highland peasantry. Projecting such struggles forward into the present day when exactly the same arguments for agricultural ‘improvement’ are made, I’d say that it takes a certain level of city-dwelling privilege forgetful of the tribulations of dispossession to be able to romanticise the hard road to economic improvement, or to assume that the uncertain path of proletarianization is one that peasants always willingly embrace2. And in a present day context, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the opportunities for ‘improvement’ available to the dispossessed peasants essentially involved emigrating to relatively unpopulated areas in distant parts of the world where the indigenous inhabitants themselves were in the process of being ‘cleared’.
In 1886, the Crofters’ Holdings Act finally gave security of tenure to many of the remaining small farmers, partly as a result of an emerging public sphere of national communications of the kind Benedict Anderson identified as crucial to the development of nationalism in his influential book Imagined Communities. The public, it turned out, was more sympathetic to the small farmers than it was to the engrossing landowners, to the extent that a mythology of Highland ‘genocide’ has built up around the whole episode down to the present. Richards and other modern historians are properly circumspect about feeding this mythology, but sometimes veer into the contestable territory of improver ideology, as when Richards criticises the Crofters’ Act as a “vindication of the peasant mentality” which fossilised a small farm landscape, entrenched the power of a conservative minority over a progressive majority, and “failed to establish the conditions for economic progress for the crofters” (pp.386-7). While sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry, Richards concludes,
“The critics of Highlands landlords still generally fail to give substance to their denunciations by specifying plausible alternatives for the region in the age of the clearances” (p.418)
Goldilocks in the Highlands
Far be it from me, with no expertise in Highlands history, to propose I can meet that challenge. But I’d like to have a go, not so much as a specific claim about what could have happened in the Highlands in the 19th century, but as a more general claim about alternatives to the standard narrative of ‘agricultural improvement’.
Let me broach the issues by reiterating the point I made above: the problem for the peasantry prior to the clearances was that they weren’t well enough connected to a wider economy to avoid privation, whereas their problem during the clearances was that they’d become too well connected to a wider economy to avoid dispossession. So might there have been a ‘Goldilocks’ level of economic integration – not too little, and not too much, but just the right amount that could have permitted the persistence of a more prosperous peasantry? That may now be an academic question in the case of the Highland clearances, but I don’t think it is in the context of agrarian questions in the contemporary world. For people like me who are sceptical of claims that large commercial farms are necessarily better than small peasant farms on the grounds of either agricultural productivity or social equality, these issues are very much alive. Especially when there are no longer ‘blanks’ on the map to migrate to, and where economic marginalization is now a global experience. Or, to paraphrase Richards, in the long run there were secular trends in the global economy which operated against industrial development in peripheral regions (which is just about everywhere).
My initial response to the question of a Goldilocks economy is ‘no’. It’s not about the relative geography of economic integration, it’s about class and inequality. Discussing the even more dramatically polarised situation in 19th century Ireland, Richards writes “short of making the land over to the people (which may have been an answer), it is difficult to imagine exactly what a landlord should have done” (p.76).
So in Ireland, making the land over to the people may have been an answer, which reveals the landlord perspective written into the way that Richards construes the Scottish situation. I’m not sure how much of the available cultivable land the peasantry had, but talk of a Malthusian trap seems moot until you know the balance of landlord/tenant holdings. Of course, the landlords were never going to voluntarily extinguish themselves as a class in this way (though eventually they were pretty much extinguished anyway). So in this sense after 1746 they formed a class alliance with wider British landed and capitalist interests against the local small tenantry, who had virtually no legal redress against landlord power. But supposing instead they’d formed an alliance with the tenantry, reformed the structure of landownership, kept most of the non-local capital out and redeployed the existing capital across the farm sector on the basis of a kind of progressive Highland agrarian nationalism. I’m thinking of the sort that would go easy on the tartan and Walter Scott kitsch, and focus more on defending a path of local economic development.
As in the example of the Crofters’ Act, such a development would undoubtedly have reduced the net fiscal returns to landownership, invoked the fury of outside capitalist investors with their eye on the region and prompted the kind of difficult local conflicts between small farm conservatism and the ‘improver’ urge to engross that Richards alludes to. For all these reasons, it’s easy to see why such autonomist economic programmes so rarely succeed. And I acknowledge that in a place like the Highlands even that may not have been enough to solve the problem of the peasantry and capitalise it adequately. But I think it may have been, provided people were prepared to share in solidarity a way of life that was more frugal, but better grounded in the enduring potentialities of the region than the rackety booms and busts prompted by outside money. In less geographically challenging regions, the opportunities are greater.
In that sense, I think the Crofting Act in its broad essentials was probably spot on. And I think we could do with some parallel legislation the world over today, instead of sending capital – and to a lesser extent, people – on all sorts of crazy adventures around the world in the search to maximise returns, at considerable net cost to human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. To do so, I think we probably do need some Goldilocks thinking, because it’s not the way that big, continent-wide states conduct themselves. Scotland’s independence referendum was perhaps an early salvo in the Goldilocks war to come.
We also need class alliances. The landlord-peasant conjunction of 19th century Scotland has long passed into history, but perhaps there’s scope for the contemporary middle and working classes to unite regionally around their declining fortunes in opposition to the rising and internationalising fortunes of the super-rich, as in the Occupy movement’s “we are the 99%” slogan – another tussle that may only be getting started. I can see that kind of alliance going in two broad directions – a defensive and deluded populism seeking riches out of techno-fantasies, boom-time nostalgia and scapegoatism, or a regionalist but non-chauvinist agrarian populism grounded soberly in the capacities of the land and the people living on it to create an enduring sustenance. I aim to back the latter.
- Most of the historical information here is derived from Richards, E. (2013) The Highland Clearances, Birlinn. I’ve also consulted Wightman, A. (2010) The Poor Had No Lawyers, Birlinn; and, Davidson, N. (2004) “The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 2: The Capitalist Offensive (1747–1815)” Journal of Agrarian Change, 4, 4: 411–460.
- OK, so this is a playful reverse paraphrase of Leigh Phillips Austerity Ecology, Zero Books, p.252. I think the often fierce historic resistance to enclosure and proletarianization by peasantries rebukes the lazy generalization so often found within agricultural improver ideologies (such as ecomodernism) that peasant farmers always want to quit.