I got the chance to meet Annie Tindlay, briefly, before her talk this afternoon. She joked about how she is an ambassador for the BBC television show, Landward (“like Countryfile, but Scottish and better”), a programme that she is going to be making an appearance on at some point in the near future. One thing that was clear from this very brief encounter, coupled with her talk, was that Annie is very passionate about her research area. She opened today with a warm welcome and a comment that it was a privilege to be able to speak to us today about Scottish land ownership. A comment made later in her discussion (she welcomed, encouraged even, questions and comments from the audience), about how she asked the students of her third year module on the Scottish Highlands and Islands at the University of Dundee how many of them had been to the highlands of Scotland, sadly reflected the level of attention the highlands generally receive from the general public – she was disappointed to learn that very few had been farther north than Stirling.
The relevance of Annie’s discussion today is extremely high considering the topical nature of land ownership in light of the Scottish government’s current discussions about land reform. Annie gave a brief history of Scottish land ownership leading back to (and beyond) 1886 and the “Sutherland land war”. She commented how the highlands are “trapped by the history of the clearances” which have left a “legacy of unfairness” in relation to how the landscape, and the ownership of it, are thought about. She suggested that the population boom of the 1780s has almost reversed in that the problem is now a case of depopulation, something akin to abandonment. This is what she described as “The Highland Problem” – noting the “capital ‘h’ and capital ‘p’”. The problem with land reform is that, as I mentioned earlier, Annie noted we are trapped in the past. She feels that what should be considered in relation to the land is not what has gone before, but she urges that we should look forward and ask what it is Scotland could and should be? She suggests this could be agreed upon through democratic debate and then action – “only then will we recover from the clearances” as “land reform [until now] has left untouched the relationship between power and land”.
Annie made a sweet and jovial comment on how, as a historian, the future is not her area of expertise. However, her talk today highlighted many problem areas in our, the people’s, relationship with, and attitude towards, the land we live on and ‘own’. She recognises that we have an aesthetic and romantic view, a “collective imagination” in relation to the land, and noted that this conflicts with the historical and actual relationship we have with it. Her comment to forget the past and concentrate on the future of Scotland is very interesting, and is possibly something the government should consider in their current debates.