A future we want to see

Posted by in June's Magazine

Deidre Brock MP for Edinburgh North and Leith

I’ve got an interest in Scottish history – it has a romance that’s been woven around the tales of royals and battles and loyal clans that is superficially appealing and that’s fine as far as it goes. There’s another strand, though, which is more earthy and engaging and more fitting as a monument to the people who have built Scotland. 

A broch, resembling a cairn at Eishken junction, commemorates the Deer Raid

It’s the part of Scots history that tells of the shipyards and the ships that were built, but tells it from the point of view of the riveters, the welders, the carpenters and their families.  It can tell of the days of empire from the perspective of the people whose names didn’t end up on street signs but who toiled there nonetheless – not least of which are the slave stories that are still widely unknown.  It’s the story of the great estates in the highlands but told by the people who worked them or were tenants.


There’s a history of the people told in museums the length and breadth of this country, including the ones that Edinburgh has to fight to keep open and prevent being overshadowed by the lumbering presence of the National institutions.  I find it more engaging than the tales of aristocracy and the well-heeled in spite of the clear fact that there’s far more written down about the better-off – they had the time to write, for one thing, the money to pay someone else to do it if they could not write, and the sookers-up who would save them the cost.

I’ve been reading recently, for example, about the Park Deer Raid of 1887.  All the information I have here I’ve nicked from the Hebridean Connections website so you can go there for additional information if this interests you.

The Park Estate in Lewis was untenanted and local folk had been petitioning the owner to rent them land to allow them to find a way to feed themselves and their families.  Their pleas fell on deaf ears – Lady Matheson didn’t even reply – and they were in dire straits.  Urged on by the new headmaster of Balallan School, Donald Macrae, a stalwart of the Land League, the crofters and cottars took action.

They warned the national press and the new tenants of the estate that they intended to raid the estate and hunt deer, satisfying the hunger in their bellies.  They set up camp and spent five days slaughtering deer and cooking and eating them, thus preventing starvation.  It may well have been against the law but I think that the old Scots defence of burthensack – a theft of only as much food as can be carried on the thief’s back to stave off starvation – would be proper here.  Please note that I am not a lawyer and you should not rely on this as advice to defend you should you decide to raid your nearest shooting estate!

In any case, the establishment retribution was set in chain, a detachment of the Royal Scots were dispatched from Glasgow to bring order and a ship carrying 400 men, including marines, was also sent to quell this rebellion of hungry poor folk.  The ship broke its rudder and had to be towed home but the soldiers arrived.  Six ringleaders were arrested and transported to Edinburgh for a two-day trial where they were acquitted.  For once landed privilege lost.

Why is this important now, 132 years later?  Everyone involved is dead now and the past is its own prison.  Except, except, except; we sit in a land now where wealth is concentrated again – or perhaps still – in the hands of a very few and those few are grasping more and more to themselves.  They have been clawing in and jealously guarding all the assets they can in some apparent belief that wealth is the greater good.

What they gather to themselves in such vast quantities is denied to the greater good.  A few individuals sit on the spoils of the lives of those less affluent and seem unconcerned by the welfare of the deprived.  It’s not the making of wealth or earning a good living that’s at fault, it’s the avarice and the grasping, the avoidance of tax, the paying of poverty wages, the denial of basic human decency.

The old Scots defence of burthensack, a theft of only as much food as can be carried on the thief’s back to stave off starvation, would be appropriate here

That is the crime that is not against the law and a crime that cannot be defended.  It will not result in a detachment of troops coming to their doors or a trial but it does work towards the breakdown of society, of the agreement that we have between ourselves of what is and is not acceptable.

There is no need to knock down your neighbour to let yourself walk taller, no need to deprive them of what they have if you have enough.  We need a better future for this society and one where we have parity of esteem between those who are rich and those who are not.  It’s time we set a new path to a better future and in this chaos we find ourselves in today we need to be setting our sights on that better future.  A future’s coming anyway; let’s make it the one we want to see.

Info: hebrideanconnections.com

Twitter: @DeidreBrock

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