During this project work we have attempted to trace the differences that initiating and conducting research can make. We have considered in detail how we approached the task of research and provided an account of how Mackay Country has equipped volunteers and contract staff to be oral history fieldworkers.
Our principal aim is, firstly, to achieve an effective and ethical research process and, secondly, to deliver training and education in ways which make it as possible as possible can be to facilitate skills transfer and peer group learning. This is the motor of meaningful and sustained capacity building, a process and aim which, through some sort of complicated ripple effect, then contributes an uplift in skills and confidence in myriad third sector groups and tiny little vulnerable businesses in the region. It is perhaps obvious, but nevertheless worth stating, that this is also in sum how we ‘produce knowledge’ through a project like Moving Times. The knowledge produced is not just the research ‘outputs’ in the formal sense – things like audio and video material, photographs, transcripts, exhibitions, events and encounters. The legacy is in the doing and rests with the ‘do-ers’. It is through them and at their hand that skills transfer and capacity building occur. This is perhaps a good example of ‘the carrying stream’ in action and motion.
In the Moving Times project, we have principally focused on the period 1872 through to the 1990s. The historic period on which we have focused our Moving Times research begins and ends with crofting agitation over ‘The Land Question’. The 1880s is the classic period of ‘The Crofters Wars’. It was in 1882, on their return from the fishing season in Ireland, that the men and women in Braes and Glendale initiated new forms of rural protest by adjusting the new Irish tactic of the rent strike to their specific needs and demands. They were asking for the return of grazing lands and associated rights which had been removed from them in order to create sheep walks. These were the first steps which led to the creation of the Highland Land League, an organisation with local branches but national reach. Academic commentators have frequently wondered aloud about why organised, collective, region-wide protest came so late in the wake of so much social change dating back into the previous century. It seems to us that they overlook how very difficult it is to organise and communicate across vast geographic distances. Even today, with easy (if not exactly cheap!) access to the internal combustion engine, e-mail, mobile phones and Facebook, it is still a constant and exhausting struggle just to operate across and within the 2,000 square kilometres which constitute Mackay Country. How much harder was that in the nineteenth century? It also must be stated that people on low and insecure incomes are not best placed to organise and act. Hence in every instance where such groups of people come together to act and think in the interests of the greater good, it is a small but important miracle. Every project conducted and completed is one such too – and for the same reasons. But there is another thing that this idea that the Highlander is focused narrowly on land issues causes people to overlook. Mackenzie and Perchard’s recent and timely intervention on the matter of Highland economic history highlights the narrowness of research agendas on the Highlands and propose that it is researchers who have been reductionist in their understandings and representations to the detriment of economic and industrial histories. I am arguing that Highlanders do have concerns and troubles beyond the matter of the ‘Land Question’ itself and historically we can demonstrate that they have acted upon them. To illustrate this, we can usefully turn to Baggott’s recent work on the Melness Farm. The bard, Ewen Robertson, was the crofters’ agent at the time. in 1897, when The Congested Districts Board (CDB) was set up by the government, it had the power to appoint three extra members. One of those three was William Mackenzie, Trantlemore, Strath Halladale, who was Chairman of the Halladale Branch of the Sutherland Association and a very active land reformer. He became an astute and effective Board member on the CDB too. In addition to trying to take control of land to turn into new crofts, the CDB was involved in far broader development activity including trying to help with local development by finding money for piers and roads and related infrastructure.
In this journal article, through careful archive research and almost as an afterthought, Baggott demonstrates the involvement of people in Tongue and Farr in the 1880s in other forms of activism. Baggott’s brief academic article draws attention to the events in Tongue and Farr aimed at achieving universal male suffrage. He describes a march and demonstration in Strathnaver in October 1884 attended by 1,200 people from all over Sutherland. It was organised by The Sutherland Association. The key demands stated on the day were: more land, a right to fair rents, security of tenure and compensation for improvements – the classic quartet of crofting protest which eventually formed the backbone of the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886. However my key point here is to highlight that Baggott notes that the march was led by four pipers from Melness who had their own banner which read ‘the franchise as a right’. This is a very important detail which should serve to remind us that people in Mackay Country, just like millions of others across Britain and Ireland, were actively involved in the key reform issues of the day. The nineteenth century is a time when, right across Europe, we see the emergence of new forms of organising amongst the working people through labour and trade union movements, co-operatives and mutuals, suffragist organisations and inventive approaches in rural areas. It is important to evidence this through different forms of research including community heritage projects and academic work. The Highland woman or man is and was just as likely as the next person, all things being equal, which they never are, to act intelligently and purposefully in order to attempt to secure better rights and possibilities for the household and the locality.
It is interesting to note that the tenant of Melness Farm during the 1860s – 1890s was a Caithness man called Donald Mackay who also had the rent of Skelpick Farm. Donald Mackay was well thought of and supportive of the local working population’s efforts to gain better rights, improved infrastructure for fishing and sea deliveries and access to more land for croft tenants. The Melness Free Church Minister, Reverend Cumming, was also active and committed in this regard. As stated with regard to Skelpick side school, our findings from the Moving Times research on the ways in which the shepherds on Skelpick Farm gradually asserted their rights to education for their children under the Education Act 1872 give a clear indication of forms of activism a decade before the creation of the Sutherland Association Branch and beyond the narrower topic of land itself. It is very likely, and we hope to find sources to elucidate this, that those shepherds had a freer hand in pressing their case because they had an employer who was supportive and sympathetic to their case and active in pressing for local development himself.
In the closing years of the historic period in which we are taking an interest, we see the emergence in Assynt and Melness of a new form of land based protest and development activity in the form of crofting community ownership. The success in 1992 of the new Assynt Crofters Trust in taking 8,500 hectares of land under crofting tenure into a new form of collective ownership set the tone for a whole new era of debate and action about the land issue and related development imperatives in Scotland. In 1995, Melness Crofters Trust was formed when the landowner handed over 4,250 hectares to this organisation to own and manage on behalf of the resident crofters. Twenty years later both organisations continue their work. These events were instrumental in paving the way for a plethora of community land buy-outs since that time and in pushing the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 through the Parliament in Edinburgh. These are just other forms of the effort it takes to ‘make’ or develop places.
The Moving Times research has revealed that the same level of energy and prolonged commitment has gone into the matter of schooling in north west Sutherland. It is for this reason that there are secondary schools within suitable travelling distances from the current communities. Being exposed to very different kinds of personal experiences of hostel schooling through our interview process has introduced everyone involved in this work via research and related events to points of view which are not their own. This has been helpful in dismantling polarised views on the hostels and choices relating to schooling past, present and future. Every type of educational provision in our study period has involved some sort of trade off between aspirations for good educational standards and opportunities and the pressing matters of finance and transport. A key issue is the matter of ensuring that, from an educational point of view, the school experience, be it side school, home based or hostel-based secondary education, is at a scale which delivers the very important social aspects of a school education as well as the academic aspects. Both are an equally important aspect of the responsibility of delivering education for the individual child and the County. The solutions to that conundrum vary in each generation. The reduction in the total journey times between east, west and north Sutherland in the 1970s – 80s on account of improvements in the road network, still mainly single track nonetheless, led to Hostellers getting home at weekends instead of only on school holidays. Another factor which helped to make that change possible was the fact that the relative cost of bus and car transport fell in the same period. It has become common for every household to have a car. However, McCleery’s research on household incomes for HIDB in the wake of the 1991 census stated that many rural households on low incomes subject themselves to significant privation in order to have one or two cars because public transport provision is not of the sort which would make using it to go to work and take care of children and other dependants possible. Nonetheless the increase in bus contractors in the region helped to get the Hostellers home far more regularly which changed the nature of the Hostel experience very fundamentally.
It seems very likely that the original system of lodgings, and later Hostel accommodation, which involved being away from home from twelve years old apart from during school holidays, has had a profound long term impact on language shift. No-one has specifically discussed this matter in interviewing with any remembered details from their own family experience. However, the broader discussion of what it was like leaving for the Hostel at twelve years old leads us to believe that parents must have been quite desperate to ensure that their children were full time English speakers by the time they left for the Hostel. The reports in each generation of a sense of difference or ‘otherness’, on account of being a ‘backcoaster’ or west coaster, the fears that some teachers thought less of the Hostelers than the east coast scholars and interview mentions of Hostel boys always getting the blame for any kind of teenage trouble in the town all imply that efforts were being made by both parents and children to reduce, in so far as possible, that sense of ‘difference’ to minimise the chances of being a target for mockery or bullying and the accompanying misery of that position. This will quite definitely have included avoiding speaking Gaelic since Gaelic usage in Golspie and Dornoch fell away far faster than it did in the rest of Sutherland. The evidence to date of the current system indicates that it is facilitating a re-growth of Gaelic use amongst the younger generations, not least in Tongue and Farr, through access to Gaelic medium primary and to a secondary school which includes Gaelic in the curriculum too. But the turn back towards Gaelic is also being facilitated from two other sources. National policy, since the implementation of the Gaelic Act 2005, has opened up opportunities for schools and local groups. In addition, the mere fact of being at home in the area with everyday access to the older speakers means a greater exposure to the use of Gaelic. In Tongue and Farr, Feis Air An Oir provide language ‘normalisation’ in the medium of music and song. In Eddrachilles, a new Gaelic playgroup and special learning weekends, including song for adult learners, is also increasing use of and exposure to local Gaelic in everyday circumstances. In all five parishes people are taking Ulpan courses now which was not the case five years ago. On this evidence, the ‘at home’ schooling system is more positive for language survival and growth. Will Sadler’s film, ‘A Part of Who We Are’, mentioned under the heading Poulouriscaig Side School, includes footage of a ceilidh in Strathnaver Hall and an interviewee who, in terms of Gaelic use, self-identifies as one of ‘the missing generation’ – those between forty-something and late sixties now – amongst whom Gaelic learning and use was actively discouraged at home and beyond. It will be interesting to see in another twenty years to what extent choices in schooling have helped to stem loss of Gaelic and gaining of Gaelic amongst these new generations.
In the course of a year of Moving Times research, we have discovered, gathered and created a veritable wealth of relevant materials. Indeed they are still pouring in. Research and analyses will continue well beyond the life of this particular project and it is very likely that there are several new sub-themes which could serve as the core of future projects. At this stage, it has not been possible to fully analyse all of this material to the point where we can provide statistical descriptions of changes in schooling or indeed a full account of all the voices in this work. Here we have sought to provide a representative sense of that richness and diversity. In the Research Matters Book and DVD, we have likewise focused on describing the research process and the kind of materials and activities this generates. Oral history interviewing for its own sake does not generate very artistic or bonnie video material. That is not its primary purpose. In addition many of the memories are harsh, traumatic, personal and sensitive. That sort of material is not suitable for a cheery chirpie video. What we have done therefore is to use snippets and samples of all of our activities to try to give a rounded sense of the work without being intrusive and brash. From the point of view of research praxis, it is important to note that, when material is sensitive and emotionally difficult, a key part of the research process involves supporting the fieldworkers who are constantly exposed to that type of material. That takes time but is fundamental to good practice.