Characterised as ‘peripheral’ even within Scotland and caught in a historical matrix of coloniality and ‘under-development’ – the Highlands and Islands holds an emerging network of possibility. By Ainslie Roddick, Cáit O’ Neil McCullagh, Charlotte Mountford, Jo Rodgers, Kirsten Body, Lauren Pyott, Lisa MacDonald, Mairi McFadyen, Philomena de Lima and Raghnaid Sandilands. Artwork by Fadzai Mwakutuya.
This collaborative essay reflects multiple voices on degrowth from a Highlands and Islands, or Gàidhealtachd, perspective. From Loch Ness to Caithness, Ullapool to the Isle of Skye, we are a ‘rurally syndicated’ gathering of women – artists, researchers, educators, producers, programmers, practitioners – each living and working in communities across this vast, dispersed and diverse region. Some of us have grown up here, some of us have lived and worked here for many years and others are finding our belonging in this place, having made our home here much more recently.
In the context of Scotland’s centralised, urbanised and growth-oriented society, the Highlands and Islands are viewed by many as ‘on the edge.’ With today’s unprecedented post-Covid economic decline and the loss of widespread EU funding through Brexit, there are many socio-economic challenges facing the marginalised communities of this region. The entangled legacies of coloniality and the effects of growth capitalism are strongly implicated in these challenges: inequitable patterns of land ownership, lack of access to housing, fragile local economies, the impacts of over-tourism, the decline of Gaelic in its heartlands and the commodification of history, culture and creativity. Primary industries have rescinded, while service industries have grown.
In this essay we suggest that the Highlands and Islands have a vital role to play in Scotland’s degrowth future. Degrowth is a way of naming a vision and practice that describes the kinds of relationships between people, resources and power that foster community resilience, ecological stewardship, democratised decision making, creativity and conviviality. We reflect here on where we each see the roots and shoots of degrowth emerging in our own places, lives, work and practice as a plurality of possibilities.
Firstly, Cáit O’Neill McCullagh reflects from her home in Easter Ross on how this collaboration, the gathering, began. Currently researching with communities connecting heritage and learning towards sustainability in Orkney and Shetland, Cáit practices co-curating as a public ethnology, co-producing exhibitions, films and new writing with people across the Highlands and Islands (see New Connections Across the Northern Isles) (1). She has curated in museums in Lismore, Ross and Inverness.
Meeting to share news, inspirations, concerns, and ideas for ways of working together – via video calls and inevitable ‘DMs’ – the gathering appears like so many of the cyber-ventures that have emerged due to the conditions of Covid-19. In a newly-focused world of blended learning and Zoom seminars, ‘community transmission’ – once mediated from mouths to ears, and in the tacit sharing of everyday living, but now a source of viral fear – is increasingly virtual. Yet, we see now that the gathering was also another adaptive step into the ongoing of a ‘carrying stream’ (after Hamish Henderson). (2) This carrying is the continuum of Highlands and Islands traditions and practices nurtured, through times, as particular responses in specific environments. These practices express the critical and creative adaptivity of those who have been able and/or have chosen to stay here.
We live in northern latitudes susceptible to the extremes of the anthropogenic climate crisis. We also inhabit the legacies of inequitable and unjust land ownership patterns. Our open and fragile ecologies are vulnerable to successive iterations of extractive enterprise – including single species afforestation, fossil fuel entanglements and mass tourism. These anthropocene traces challenge relational living between people, and between people and place, abstracting our relationships to nature. Additionally, our geography appears to predispose living in dispersed, atomised communities. Yet, this seeming wildness – or candidate ‘re-wilding’ of often once-peopled land – owes more to long, localised genealogies of Imperialism. These ‘uncanny hauntings’ (3) of multiple colonialisms – internal and worldly complicit – and historicities of peripheral positioning by agents outwith our locale, influence life here, yet. Over time, these influences have contributed both to diminishing local populations and to undermining opportunities to sustain ecologically, culturally, politically and materially.
There are other ways of seeing that these lenses of environments, historicities and social actions afford. These include considering the historic needs of people making home in our places – living in collaborative, seasonally attuned conviviality – as gifts of becoming. Cooperating for growing, harvesting, weaving, for the empirical development of knowledges about where fish will shoal, which plants will heal, and for discerning how and where to stay and make dwelling, the community transmissions of knowledge-in-language cultures – expressed in story, music, visual arts and performance – have often knit people in our places into highly socially connective communities.
The gathering represents what Ivan Illich (1981) has identified as ‘critical technology.’ (4) Like the cèilidh, hairst and hamefaerin, it is another iteration of such knowledge sharing. Practicing ‘potential history’ (5), we gather to share useful pasts, consider how these contribute to and renovate present knowledges, and imagine assembling possible futures. The gathering emerged from friendships founded on these shared interests, and our various ways of nurturing and deliberating them through creative, critical work in an ‘undercommons’ – with and for people (6). Alongside and in communities, we work in arts, heritages, and learning and research. By deliberating collaboratively our communal actions and the meanings we make of them in these ‘spaces of appearance’ (7), we open up the traditions that shape our people-places to ask together with historian-activist, Ariella Azoulay (2019), how are we making ‘traditions of what can be’? (8)
Gaelic – language of and in our places – inspires us in this future-assembling of knowing how to know what sustains people and homes; our oikos. It connects our reflecting with these ‘Own’ ecologies to our deepening empathy with others seeking sustainability and justice throughout the world. This integrative empathy is held in the word dùthchas – a ‘unity existing between land, people, all living creatures, nature and culture’ (9). It expresses, as Alan Riach proposes, traditional prefiguring of our contemporary concerns for ecological balance. In this oikos balancing with and for all being – in local and world-facing lives – we place our gathering into the ‘carrying stream’, transmitting our hopes and intentions to ‘leave no-one behind’ (10).
The ‘uncanny hauntings’ of colonial legacies, in all their guises, should inform how we understand the various traditions and heritages within the Highlands and Islands, both historically and today. As researcher Lauren Pyott reminds us, the pioneering work of David Alston (2006, 2018) has uncovered the breadth and depth of Highland involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, something which touched upon the lives of many in the region, whether directly or indirectly. (11)
Contemporary land ownership patterns are still rooted in historical injustices, tied both to the legacy of the Highland Clearances and, as recent research has confirmed, slavery-derived wealth was used 200 hundred years ago to enclose land into large estates (12). The landscape was then used to distract from the reality of this transformation through romantic narratives and a visual culture of sublime, people-less wilderness – an elite way of seeing that served the interests of landed power. Symbolic of this era is the iconic image of Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851). Exploitative forms of tourism, Lauren argues, can serve a similar process, with the perpetuation of this way of seeing alongside the inexorable spread of holiday lets transforming the land and communities of the Highlands into a place where young people are unable to find or afford homes.
Many would argue that communities in the Highlands and Islands are reliant on tourism and the revenue it brings. The promotion of this region as a tourist destination does generate jobs and profits for some; at the same time, mass tourism – as an engine of economic growth – is complicit with global capitalism’s depthless markets and precarious labour, it commodifies cultures and is implicated in global climate breakdown through mass international travel. The impacts of over-tourism in fragile communities are stark. Writing from Achiltibuie in the Coigach peninsula, Lisa MacDonald asks,
“Are we really so dependent on tourism that our own young families can’t find homes? The current rate of through-put feels industrial, even abusive. It creates hostility, not hospitality. The same is true in Skye, and I can see it happening all along the NC500: where folk used to be delighted that visitors wanted to come here, now it is simply too much, and we become irritable and unwelcoming. What are the ways in which we could reclaim the word ‘hospitality’? Can we find ways to use local resources more sustainably?”
This is an increasing reality and one actively promoted by national and regional government agencies. The NC500 is an example of a marketised and marketising response to the Scottish Government’s espousal of tourism as the single most important strand for Highlands and Islands local enterprise. It was dreamt up in our fossil-fuelled growth paradigm as a way of exploiting the opportunity (and culture and natures) in much the same way as colonial, extractive industries have been in the past: maximise profit, exploit the resource, minimise input to sustain the resource (people and environment). It has subsumed primary industry in terms of infrastructural support, with money being given for visitor attractions and car parks. Moreover, there is a clear lack of investment in infrastructure that allows tourism to feed back into the local economy, as opposed to just profiting certain businesses.
Ethnologist and writer Mairi McFadyen (13), writing from Abriachan on the north side of Loch Ness, is a member of the Enough! Collective. In November 2020 she was a contributor to the online short course ‘Degrowing the Economy, Regrowing our Lives’ run by Enough! and the Centre for Human Ecology. The pursuit of growth, she writes, has suppressed and damaged many things that support the flourishing of life and its vital sustaining (see Macleod and also Hickel in LESS issue 1). Degrowth, in part, is about regrowing those lost capacities, within ourselves and in our communities.
As long as the fundamentals of our society rely on growth, the introduction of degrowth is very difficult – possible only in a ‘society of degrowth’ which we must create ourselves (14). Degrowth is not a monolithic alternative to the existing capitalist status-quo; rather, it encompasses ‘a matrix of alternatives’ which ‘opens up space for human creativity.’ Imagining and assembling a degrowth future, then, is an invitation to adventure into a plurality of possibilities. At the roots of a degrowth society, this matrix of alternatives might be made up of community land trusts, community gardens, woodlands and farms, community energy initiatives, cooperatives of all kinds, artists’ collectives, fair trade, food justice or food sovereignty groups, alternative currencies, not-for-profit community and social enterprises, systems of local exchange, tool libraries, seed libraries, repair cafés, voluntary arts groups, community heritage groups and climate or environmental action groups, among many other examples. The question is how to cultivate this degrowth potential, opening up opportunities and non-commodified spaces for individuals, groups and communities to connect, organise and create lasting change.
There are countless such initiatives seeking alternative ways of living and working in the Highlands and Islands today. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many mutual aid groups emerged in local communities, and the Black Lives Matter movement globally has opened up some spaces for dialogue about addressing racism and decolonisation across different spheres in the region. Philomena de Lima, professor of Applied Sociology and Rural Studies – also involved in organic cheese making at one time – reminds us that the Highlands and Islands has provided a home to households and groups – from the region and those who have arrived here by accident or design – who have practised degrowth principles for decades. Little is known or written about these threads that form the fabric of the region. A few notable examples, she suggests, include: the off-grid Scoraig community on the West coast; organic farming and crofting households connected through Working Worldwide on Organic Farms (WWOOF); food buying groups across the Highlands from Tain, Skye to the Islands which were set up in the early 1980s and who sourced their food from Green City, a workers’ cooperative based in Glasgow; from these groups emerged a demand for accessing food in the Highlands which led to Highland Wholefoods, a workers’ cooperative set up in 1989; Clown Jewels, an arts project in the 1980s and 1990s which emerged from various individuals moving to the Highlands from communes in Perthshire and elsewhere and those living in the Highlands; and Reforesting Scotland, established in 1991, now a membership organisation concerned with the ecological and social regeneration of Scotland.
There is also a rich and radical heritage of activism and resistance. The story of community land ownership is vital here, a story in which the rural Highlands and Islands – Assynt, Eigg, Gigha, Harris – led the way for the urban movement. We can also find inspiration from those communities who have long demonstrated ways of living sustainably, not in a nostalgic or romantic sense, but in the radical sense of recovering lost knowledge and experience.
Far from being peripheral, the Highlands and Islands have a vital role to play in imagining and assembling Scotland’s degrowth futures. In practice, degrowth is about seeking out the principles of reconnection, decolonisation and decentralisation to renew and strengthen local communities of place and interests. In the sections that follow, we highlight some diverse but confluent tributaries into this ‘carrying stream.’
PEOPLE AND PLACES
PhD researcher Jo Rodgers, based in Glengarry, is a co-organiser of ‘The Edge’ research theme at the University of the Highlands and Islands. (15) Through monthly seminars, blog articles and photography, this forum offers a rich, interdisciplinary space for exploring and creatively expressing the histories, contemporary experiences and potential futures of people living, working and researching in so-called ‘peripheries.’ Her own doctoral research explores the interplay between roots-seeking travel and heritage in the island of Tiree from the perspectives of both islanders and visitors. Jo is also a (voluntary) director of Glengarry Community Woodlands and the Development Officer at the Community Woodlands Association, which supports Scotland’s growing network of community woodland groups, many of whom are exploring communal and ecological practices rooted in degrowth principles.
Mairi is also a voluntary director at The Shieling Project / Pròiseact na h-Àirigh in Glenstrathfarrar. (16) The tradition of ‘the shieling’ – the summer pastures where people used to graze cattle, living in huts or shelters on common land – is a motif and context here for place-based learning about crofting, horticulture, green building, food growing and cooking, renewable technologies, traditional skills, crafts and culture. The project is in part inspired by the GalGael trust in Glasgow, a community organisation re-kindling community through learning by doing. (17) The Shieling too embodies degrowth principles; it’s about living in right relationship with the land, exploring the landscape’s past to help shape a more resilient future.
Lisa MacDonald is a teacher, writer, singer and crofter in Achiltibuie. She is particularly interested in connections – between people and place, between past, present and future, between Gaelic language and heritage, between rights and responsibilities, and all across the integrated ecosystem that is this world. She writes,
“For me, degrowth is about reclaiming self-sufficiency. There is so much land that we could grow things on, live on, raise children and hens and cows, but we can’t because it belongs to some landowner far away. The Green Bowl in Elphin have done a brilliant job of creating a crofters’ co-operative who grow things locally and then organise the picking up of supplies and the delivery of orders from meat and eggs to vegetables and baking. We shouldn’t need to rely on vast supermarkets shipping food from goodness-knows-where, at a huge environmental and social cost. Until we get to organising real land reform, we could all grow wee bits in our gardens and organise sharing. It gives us back confidence in ourselves and in the land – and in our place on it. It also connects us to each other within communities: I have hens, you bake – beautiful!”
Food sovereignty is a vital part of degrowth. Earlier this year, the Highland Good Food Conversation took place online, bringing together farmers, crofters, growers, bakers, cooks and community groups. (18) The conference provided an opportunity for people to work together and come up with tangible actions that will contribute to achieving a more just, sustainable food system in the region. Accompanying the conference was a blog and series of podcasts, which explored themes such as regenerative farming, crofting, micro dairies, grain and bread production, aquaculture and the rise in community fridges.
Raghnaid Sandilands – writer, independent publisher and Gaelic translator (19)– is involved with several creative community projects in Strathnairn on the south side of Loch Ness. Lios na Feàrnaig / Fearnag Growers is a community garden in Farr Estate, host to events, projects and art workshops. The garden’s most recent venture will see Col Gordon, a director of ‘Scotland the Bread’, (20) run a small heritage grain project, supporting the growing, harvesting and processing of old grain varieties – from seed to slice! Raghnaid is also involved with the local Fèis and with ‘Farr Conversations’ – a talk series set up in 2014 to ‘oil the wheels of engagement with issues affecting Scotland by hosting lively nights in one Highland hall.’ Farr Conversations has explored issues such as land reform and housing alongside music, songs and stories. For Raghnaid, this local activism is about inviting people to take agency in their own place, to ‘occupy the local hall’ and to be part of a story that is slowly accruing and unfolding. She describes this work as ‘cultural darning and mending’ – the act of finding disconnected threads from the past and weaving them back together with purpose. She writes,
“Whatever diminishment of culture and landscape might have taken place, we can make imaginative connections that cut across time, to seek out knowledge and be part of a process that allows us, perhaps, to begin to create the circumstances necessary for transformation and change.”
Lauren Pyott is a researcher, cultural organiser and renters’ rights activist based in Inverness. Her previous research explored decoloniality and the politics of solidarity in the arts, and she is now involved in forming a Highland branch of the tenancy union Living Rent. (21) is also setting up a social enterprise in Inverness called Clachworks, which is working towards creating an open space for making and remaking, with a vision for a tool library, open-access workshop, and community garden. (22)
“Degrowth and decoloniality are the two foundational elements that drove Clachworks from its inception and can only be properly understood in tandem. While the recent flourishing of ‘upcycling’ projects and growing interest in the circular economy are long overdue, Clachworks realises that this is nothing new. The crofting culture that once sustained human populations across the Highlands was necessarily circular, based on a synergetic relationship between the land, the lives inhabiting it and what they could produce.”
The circular economy’s tenets of ‘make, remake, reuse’ were encoded in the very lifestyle and economic reality of subsistence farming in the region. The linear model of ‘take, make, use, discard’, which so successfully replaced it, should not only be seen as an environmental disaster, but also as a colonial act of what Mignolo (2007) terms ‘epistemicide’: the erasure of ways of thinking and being in the world. (23) Clachworks seeks to make critical connections between past and present, local and global, providing tools for making and remaking the world we live in.
Kirsten Body is a visual arts producer also based in Inverness. She works for the Scottish Artists’ Union and is a founding member of the artist-led collective Circus Artspace, established in 2019. (24) Circus is committed to supporting graduate artists in the Highlands and to building a public programme around contemporary visual arts. In 2021, this will include new billboard commissions, an off-grid residency with Black Isle Permaculture and Arts and Inverness’ first Zine Festival. She writes,
“Circus want our 2021 programme to track the shifting demographic of the Highlands and Islands and focus on the hidden, forgotten and unheard voices within our community. We want to diverge from Highland cliches and traditional notions of romanticism to reveal unexplored narratives and illustrate the interweaving, international cultures of our place. We want to amplify a wider diversity of voices, places and experiences and promote equality, with a particular focus on non-dominant narratives and communities.”
Earlier this year, Circus collaborated with artist Fadzai Mwakutuya to host an informal online conversation called Ubuntu // Daondachd // Humanity about intersectional topics, including the experience of and reception to migrations – people leaving, returning and coming to the Highlands and Islands. Fadzai, from Zimbabwe and based in the off-grid community of Scoraig near Ullapool, is an artist who makes thought provoking socially engaged artwork under the name Afro Art Lab. (25) She is also a member of the Repository of the Undercommons (RotU), a curator/artist residency borne out of Enough! as a way to ‘(re)imagine alternatives, (re)create cultural codes, messages and values for our future(s).’ She writes,
“In my art practice I use the concepts of degrowth and decolonisation abstractly in the choice of subject matter and materials whilst creating artwork. Degrowth has always been a way of life in developed countries in Africa; we do need to decolonise though, as Africans, and unlearn the ways of the west as we imagine them. I often remark on how this cycle of change is irrevocably enshrined in humanity, the constant conflict between perpetual efforts to campaign against narratives of power structures and encourage reform processes.”
Charlotte Mountford is also involved in socially engaged art practice. She is a cultural producer and programmer, a Mancunian who moved to the Highlands to become co-director of Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness (LAC). (26) She writes, “I love my role here, as it allows me to practice radical localism and challenge conceptions about what it means to be ‘rural’.” She reflects,
“The conditions of COVID-19 provided an opportunity to really rethink how we work as an organisation. In a normal year, LAC would present hundreds of events from artists and creatives from all over the world. Reflecting, it is possible to see how extractive this is as a practice, particularly the world of international touring; how unsustainable it is for poorly paid artists and our environment. The pandemic has provided us with a blue-print for future working, notably in the development of new projects like CAIR: Caithness Artists in Residence. ‘Cair / Cayr‘ is a Scots word which means to return to a place where you have been before. I initially thought this meant Déjà vu, but then realised ‘cair’ doesn’t feel accidental – it is a deliberate return. Many of us thought we wanted to return to the normal we had before coronavirus, but I don’t. Where I actually want to return to is a place we have all been before; a place of home and of community.”
CAIR embeds artists with distinct Caithness communities, exploring how LAC can work with artists and facilitate creative responses to local problems, encouraging creative cultural activism and prioritising an artist and community-centric approach to recovery after coronavirus. The artists are all based in Caithness, mostly in the communities they are working with. Instead of a one-off workshop by a visiting artist, the artists are working with their matched communities over the next 6 months, co-designing a bespoke programme of work that will explore local themes and issues:
“We can use artistic skills to capture perceptions and share them. As social practitioners, everything we do is inscribed in a place and time. What we are trying to do is not marketising placemaking but place-being and commonplacing; a creative assemblage representing the multi-faceted responses and encounters of a place .” (27)
Ainslie Roddick moved from Glasgow to become director of ATLAS Arts in Portree (28) at the end of 2019. ATLAS organises collective art projects across Skye, Raasay and Lochalsh, and has a growing library of zines, seeds, equipment, and a studio for making and binding books. Building on a legacy of projects invested in local ecologies, their new team is beginning to imagine how the organisation will work and feel in the years ahead. Exploring ‘Plural Futures’ through conversation, meals and artist projects, the programme is taking shape through gatherings and bodies of work which centre complexity in belonging. The School of Plural Futures began in 2021, an alternative school led by folk aged 17-25 on Skye, exploring global climate justice as it relates to the lived reality and history of the locale, and the various outcomes and desires of the school will begin to inform ATLAS’ future work. As this evolves, reflecting on the the gathering, Ainslie writes,
“I am grateful to this gathering of critical friends in supporting a slowness that is not too slow, and for the succinct reminders of the mistakes, bad intentions, historical repetitions, and the power of stories.”
Cáit shares some final thoughts concerning how the gathering is a becoming of tradition; not just the traditions of what has been, but for what can be. The recognition that ‘community transmission’ enables the virus to grow has restricted our convivial opportunities for tacit carrying, including adapting those traditions, knowledges, and practices that are vital for resourcing people-places through the constant certainty of change – what Raghnaid has called our ‘cultural darning and mending’. The pandemic has restricted our spaces for sharing these ‘critical technologies’, including the affordance to collaborate in examining the narratives that shape us and, as Fadzai reminds us, to practice the reflexivity that ‘shifts’ our mindsets towards the futures we are making. While the gathering emerged as a particular environmental response, in a fragile environment being pushed to further precarity, it is also a creative, critical social action of transmitting the expressions of our ecological connectivity, an enacting of our intention to be a reflexive resource. In collectively considering and responding – as Ainslie says, being ‘slow but not too slow’ – we examine and embody practices of ‘carrying’, balancing unity between all being; making home – oikos – in collaboration with our local and world ecologies together.
We know, and we share, that this particular and connective ‘worlding’ requires inhabiting discomfort zones. Deepening reflexivity, undertaking Mignolo’s ‘epistemic disobedience’ (29) – degrowing and decolonising thinking and acting to enable new ways of knowledge – requires a commitment to engage in these discomforts, to need learning. This dynamic, relational anticipating, assembling and embodying is an inhabiting of specific lived experiences, and a reaching out in necessary connectivity. Gathering to share actions, examine contexts, and imagine more sustaining and just futures, is emerging to us as we experience it – stepping into the flow, finding our feet, being disturbed into shifting position, and, together, finding how to balance. This reflects the need-and-gift balancing of dùthchas, responding to the new particular needs of Highlands and Islands dwellers – including ourselves – in this time of pandemic, from the perspective of the ‘carrying stream.’
 See New Connections Across the Northern Isles: https://vimeo.com/showcase/5946154
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