While the topic of land reform has seen an increase in profile lately it’s still not a subject that your average working class Scot gets too worked up about.

In this extract from her forthcoming book Lesley Riddoch suggests that land reform may not be a marginal matter but core to Scotland’s unenviable record as sick man of Europe with one of the world’s most unequal societies.  And central to Scotland’s future independent or otherwise…


Scotland’s Natural Assets – Look But don’t touch

When Lord Vestey carved the North Lochinver Estate out of his massive northern domain and put it up for sale in 1989 – provocatively advertising the populated land as ‘an unspoilt wilderness’ – he drew boundaries already used by the local Crofters Union branch.  The estate was bought by Scandinavian Property Services Ltd but when that company went bust in 1992, the Assynt Crofters Trust didn’t hesitate to acquire it from the liquidator.

Crofters living on this ‘new’ parcel of land already knew and trusted one another and had a shared history of practical deeds, land management, complaint mediation and action.  If Vestey had doubled the acreage, he might easily have weakened the crofters’ resolve by requiring them to bond with relatively unknown, distant neighbours.  As it was, the only real obstacle the Assynt crofters faced was themselves, and that negative inner voice constantly muttering – dinnae get above yourselves.

Sociology has something useful to say about that. Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu devised the concept of ‘cultural capital’ – the knowledge, skills, education, and outlooks which combine to determine what people like to do, see, wear, listen to, eat and drink.  ‘Taste’ or ‘habitus’ may seem individual, but according to Bourdieu, cultural preferences are chosen, even preset by the social or class group we belong to – it’s not a commodity that can be bought or traded like a gift.  People are socialised to share the preferences and beliefs of their class.  That may sound unduly determinist.  But in 2013, the ‘Great British Class Survey’ created seven distinct social classes beyond the ‘old’ three – working, middle and upper – by adding three dimensions of economic, social and cultural capital.  Bourdieu’s theory in action.  In practice though, how does his theory work?

Habitus means working-class Scots will not adopt double-barrelled names after marriage in case they sound pretentious and middle-class, young folk will not listen to classical music lest they seem prematurely aged and serious-minded people will not even accidentally know the names of X Factor finalists lest they lose credibility with friends.  ‘Each to their own’, you might say – but if poor Scots feel somehow ‘honour bound’ to reject the mind-set and cultural preferences of middle-class managers, then self-improving behaviour like eating well, quitting cigarettes or running at lunchtime will feel like forbidden fruit or acts of betrayal.

If Bourdieu is right, this is potent and dangerous stuff.  Cultural preferences feel natural and instinctive, so individuals feel they are betraying roots and letting their ‘side’ down by adopting the habits of other classes.  Poor Scots may even feel compelled to avoid healthy living altogether if that’s seen as the preserve the wealthy and privileged.  Preserving group identity matters more – so actions that appear self-defeating to ‘right-thinking people’, can still serve to maintain a place in the group.  So ‘choice’ is often not choice at all.  Loyalty and fear of siding with the opposition are powerful dynamics in Scottish society.  Perhaps Bourdieu’s theory helps explain why.

In my own case, like the descendant of many other cleared Highland families, I cannot fish, ski, sail or hunt.  That always seemed perfectly normal in my world until I went to Norway, where only the disabled or seriously overweight don’t regularly do some of these activities.  Over there the habitus is different.  ‘Country sports’ are not the preserve of an elite.  Hunting over there has nothing to do with wearing plus fours and a deerstalker, skiing doesn’t mean you have au pairs to mind the kids, fishing doesn’t mark you out as a friend of the landed gentry and sailing doesn’t automatically connect you with the well-heeled, summer visitors of the county set.

Now I’ll grant you these are all clichéd views of sports (particularly fishing) which are actually enjoyed by a wide range of humanity – even in Scotland.  But habitus doesn’t depend on reality – just on the way activities are perceived.  If your group thinks sailing is elitist, it wouldn’t matter if you were skelping along on a boat made by the great-great-grandson of Robert Burns with Nelson Mandela at the helm fundraising for Oxfam.  It would still feel wrong.

Of course all of this is my subjective interpretation of a sociological theory whose academic masters rarely depart from their own high-falutin habitus of complex language to provide comprehensible examples.  Habitus is also nigh on impossible to measure or prove.  That doesn’t make Bourdieu’s theory any less powerful.

So how does it apply to the fraught world of land ownership?  Well, if the dispossessed don’t want to share any characteristics with the landowning class, they won’t want to own land, manage the countryside, hunt, fish, own any kind of second home, exhibit knowledge of nature or mix with heavily accented people who do.  More than that, if land and the countryside appear to belong exclusively to the wealthy, then Bourdieu’s theory suggests the urban dispossessed must shun all knowledge of that domain and all experience of the great outdoors to maintain group cohesion and their own distinct identity.

Imagine Marvin from The Scheme sailing on the Clyde, joining a mass clean-up of Kilmarnock, going to see a play (even with a 100 per cent discount for the unemployed), watching a ‘how to quit smoking’ video by a well-spoken member of the Scottish Rugby squad, eating lettuce, reading a book or even wearing glasses – it’s not going to happen.  Such a self-styled wild man would rather be seen dead than consciously taking care of himself (his girlfriend or the planet).

Of course, Red Clydeside produced a host of exceptions.  But hardy ‘Men of the Mountains’ like Jock Nimlin, Tom Weir and Hamish MacInnes walked miles, rowed even further and slept in caves, bothies and even under bridges in the rain – to distinguish themselves from the soft, feather-bedded, deer-shooting elite whose louche enjoyment of the land had to look completely different in character.  According to Bourdieu, the essential desire for social solidarity creates taste and demands conformity – so for tens of thousands of working-class Scots who weren’t as hardy as Jock Nimlin, it’s been simpler to regard the land and countryside as ‘out of bounds.’

Perhaps I’m laying it on a bit thick.  Perhaps I have misinterpreted Bourdieu (though I wouldn’t be the first).  Or perhaps this matters hugely.  Perhaps excluded Scots have no confidence problem at all but a habitus that effectively stops them joining in ‘healthy’ and ‘outdoorsy’ activities associated with natural resources because they have traditionally been the preserve of the upper classes.

To stretch the point further, perhaps such a profoundly unequal nation isn’t really a nation at all – just a clutch of wary groups for whom maintaining group identity and class cohesion is more important than any new, larger loyalty.  Put absolutely bluntly, such a divided, unequal nation is unlikely to push wholeheartedly for a cause like Scottish independence.  Why bother when folk have got far smaller fish to fry?

The book’s official launch is Sept 4th, Jam House, Queen St, Edinburgh – tickets are free via http://riddochblossom.eventbrite.co.uk/ and there is a bar and (modest) swally.

Blossom is £11.99 & can be bought in bookshops, online at www.luath.co.uk/blossom.html, or Amazon or send a cheque for £11.99 to Lesley Riddoch at address below for a signed copy (post and packing free & include the words you’d like written, Pls allow 10 days for delivery) or on kindle http://t.co/0A0J52IP1R

Jamesfield Farmhouse, Newburgh, Fife, Scotland KY14 6EW


2013-08-29 01:23

So glad we have this intelligent, articulate, good looking woman on our side.

When you can attract people of her calibre to your cause you know you must be doing something right.

Good luck with the book Lesley

VOTE YES in 385 Days
2013-08-30 09:57

If it was a man writing, would you have included ‘good looking’ in your glowing attribute.

Still a bit to go for male enlightenment (myself included).

2013-08-29 05:32

Never heard of Bourdieu and habitas being discussed before, but that description of the Scottish mentality is the most incisive and thought provoking explanation I have read for some time.
We Scots have so much more to learn about ourselves, and thereby be enriched.

I would also suggest there is a very real opportunity for a second Scottish Enlightenment, and from that extract alone, it has already begun.
2013-08-30 10:23

‘Scottish mentality’ – there you go again. I assume Mr Bourdieu constructed his theory purely for the benefit of Scots.

Nobody else around the world has this ‘mentality’ – they’re all super confident, open minded and unconstrained by social circumstance.

G. P. Walrus
2013-08-29 06:46

I profoundly hope that in a new Scotland people will stop using the language of class to pigeonhole people. It is every bit as bad as using race for the same purpose: division and discrimination.
2013-08-29 07:14

Thought provoking. Exactly the sort of article that makes it worth reading Newsnet every day.
I hadn’t heard of Bordieu either. I am glad Lesley Riddoch has given me the opportunity to discover him.
2013-08-29 08:08

I’m 2/3rds through Lesley’s book bought at last weeks launch at Riddle’s Court.
Good incisive read, I’ll polish it off this weekend.
Good news is I firmly believe in the Land Value Tax and in conjunction with a flat tax. Re-distribution producing a fairer and balanced society. Funny that coming from someone from the right of Scottish politics. It’s not just the left, radical or otherwise that can envision a more egalitarian society for our nation.
2013-08-29 09:11

Dire warnings preceded the Right to Roam legislation, the sky never fell and predicted grave conseqences never happened, we have progressed and we now take, long denied, free access for granted.
On a recent trip to Yorkshire we follower a “Right of Way” along a river, the path forked and we chose the road less travelled, only to be told, after a short distance, by some farmer that this was private land and the path was where he gestured with his stick.
The survivors of the Great War were told they would return to a “Land fit for Heroes”, yet in “England’s Green and Pleasant Land”, class and the propertied interest still rule all and a Sunday walk can be terminated at the whim of some rustic.
2013-08-29 10:13

Thanks Lesley, I’ve often thought a radical shift in attitudes would develop self-esteem and offer up personal challenge and force all of our ‘lost generation’s’ need to feel what
is much better about their lives and other’s by doing so.

By the by, are you confirming this, but much more eloquently than I ever could do, which begs the thought, does this very statement make me also an under-achiever, but at least a trier?
2013-08-29 10:47

Thank you always like your articles.
This is a bit O/T but it just shows how Scotland has fared under Westminster and what BT would like to keep us and where all the oil revenue has gone.

Motorway map of England, Scotland and Wales

2013-08-29 10:55

When we are Independent, I would rather Scotland could vote on a president than have inheritted royalty.

My vote would go to Lesley Riddoch, rather than Prince Charles!
2013-08-29 13:02

When I think of Scotland, I don’t think of a “divided, unequal nation”, certainly not as divided and unequal as England. Jock Tamson’s bairns, and a’ that. And when you’re out walking in the hills on a weekend, you meet all types, so not sure where the shunning of the outdoors comes in. Maybe the outdoors is just more accessible in Scotland.

But the extract does resonate on a lot of levels, and I look forward to reading the book.
2013-08-29 13:11

As a nation we do need to take a long look in the mirror. We need to make comparisons with other nations. There is much to learn and a hell of a lot to unlearn. We have been too sheltered within the BritState wendy-house. Independence offers us the chance for the biggest make-over in our history; and worth every penny.
2013-08-29 16:57

I wish Lesley that you could squeeze a quart into a pint pot of your talent, so important are you to analysing the Scottish psyche. As someone engaged in community buy-out in the Highlands I have seen the revolution which has taken place in Assynt, Harris and Gigha. That answers the question of whether we are intrinsically of the mindset of Marvin or not. Given the opportunity, we can do anything we want. I just look at what a relatively poor rural community has done in Austria to divorce themselves from fossil fuels to make themselves 80% self sufficient in heat and electricity, thereby keeping their money circulating within the community rather than it bleeding out to external commercial interest.
Marga B
2013-08-29 23:22

OT, but can anybody tell me how to get hold of the MacWhirter article on London in the Herald?

Any general hints on this kind of problem would be welcome.
2013-08-30 10:31

I think you will able to read the article in full if you clear your cookies Marga.

Is this the one you want?
2013-08-30 10:47

The article is here as well


2013-08-30 10:52

Good one Lesley and well resourced, I feel much of, if not all, the references from Bourdieu regarding societal groups would and should resonate in Scotland.
Mostly if not all, would stem from the archaic class system that seems to be instilled in the British psyche, mostly from southern England although has spread over the decades and for me has this rather sickening kowtowing and sycophancy that often prevails when in the company of royalty or a Lord or a Sir etc.
There is nothing wrong with having less money or striving for more in life and improving your lifestyle and health without categorising it as climbing the class ladder, but more as an improvement in one’s own thought processes to live a longer and hopefully more prosperous life without feeling you are superior to anyone else.
2013-08-30 17:53

This lack of confidence in our own destiny and in the presence of an English upper crust voice results from the clearances when highland Scots were ousted from their land and homes. and dispersed to the Central belt or emigrated. It is all the result of being crushed by the worst colonializing power in the world.
The other alternatives were to take the King’s shilling where they were lorded over by officers with public school accents, and told what to do, or act as ghillies and beaters for the landowning gentry.
Eventually, every public school Englishman adopted the same attitude with any Scot lacking the right accent. Thus, Scots have ended up with a now fading inferiority complex where nowadays rightly or wrongly, any expert or official giving us advice with an English accent is treated with disdain – and it happens a lot on BBC Radio Scotland.
This will end with the ownership of our country.
2013-08-30 20:03

“This lack of confidence in our own destiny and in the presence of an English upper crust voice results from the clearances when highland Scots were ousted from their land and homes. and dispersed to the Central belt or emigrated. It is all the result of being crushed by the worst colonializing power in the world.”

It happened long before the clearances.
See Statues of Iona, 1609.

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