Author Archives: cow

The Ballad and The Plough by David Kerr Cameron

That there are algorithms out there on the internet that know so much about us all is shit scary. Some days it can be annoyingly useful though, like the day when it suggested that I might want to buy a 2nd hand copy of this book and I did… and was grateful for the recommendation. Grrrrrrrr….

The book is very geographically focussed on the north east lowlands of Scotland and explores advances in technology and the repercussions for workers through the medium of bothy ballads. Sounds ace, doesn’t it?

It covers the 1800s in detail and really helped me to understand the transition from women working the fields with a sickle, to men working the fields with scythes, and oxen pulling rudimentary ploughs, to a paid of horses pulling a far more modern device. It also explores the beginnings of automation, steam power and machines. All evidenced by songs. Brilliant.

(1885) other ‘Three Acres And A Cow’ themed ballads

Dr John Baxter has a project exploring intersection of folk and music hall, the songs and social history at

On the below blog he details a number of other songs about the Three Acres And A Cow election campaign of 1885/6 other than the one that we share in the show. It seems that the others were mocking the labourers for hoping for such a thing, or even for being fooled into thinking it would ever be possible!

Last Acre (12 mins)

Lovely short film about a plotlands settlement on the salt marshes of Lowsy Point near Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England. Watch via or embedded below. Read Colin Ward’s Arcadia for All to learn more about the Plotlands.

Last Acre from Nick Jordan on Vimeo.

Stop demonising riots

I think about the below quotes all the time.

Stop demonising riots.

The main contradiction of liberal democracy is that it has largely been shaped through a history of various forms of illegal civil disobedience against entrenched power structures. Such civil disobedience is (retrospectively) seen as justified, and the people committing it are (retrospectively) seen as heroes… but each successive generation is asked to believe that any furth civil disobedience would be unreasonable.

Deserted Villages by John Wood and Trevor Rowley

This is a really short and enjoyable read; for us, worth the print price alone for p19’s:

Emparking reached its zenith in the eighteen century , when the removal of villages to create or enlarge parks was a widespread phenomenon.

It then goes on to list a number of examples and features the story of Milton Abbas in Dorset which was dismantled over a period of fifteen years to make way for Baron Milton’s new park.

Trevor Rowley is an Emeritius Fellow at the University of Oxford, so this book can’t easily be dismissed by revisionist ‘historians’ who often seek to play down such occurances when defending the reputation of the British ruling class.

Originally published in 1982, this new third edition is an invaluable aid to recording and identifying the remains of past settlements and placing them in their total landscape context. As well as tracing the processes that led to desertion, this book provides a guide to the type of remains to be expected and describes some good examples

Land reform and the Roman Empire (15 mins)

Mike Duncan’s two podcasts, The History of Rome and Revolutions have been a huge influence on the show.

I was relistening to the The History of Rome again recently, and I wanted to flag up this one about Tiberius Gracchus the first Roman leader to seriously attempt land reform:

mp3apple podcast

The audio quality isn’t great but it is short and really on point. Unsettling how many similarities there are with our present day, historic themes do seem to play out on repeat. In fact this episode is also not too different to some of the land reform themes that are on display when Mike covers the Mexican Revolution too. If you also listen to the previous episode 28, that might help with additional context.–tiberius-gr.html

How Profits From Slavery Changed the Landscape of the Scottish Highlands

Money earned through enslavement played a key role in the eviction of Highlanders in the 18th and 19th centuries, study finds

Between roughly 1750 and 1860, wealthy landowners forcibly evicted thousands of Scottish Highlanders in order to create large-scale sheep farms. Known today as the Highland Clearances, this era of drastic depopulation sparked the collapse of the traditional clan system and the mass migration of Scotland’s northernmost residents to other parts of the world.

As Alison Campsie reports for the Scotsman, new research argues that this pivotal period in Scottish history had close ties to the enslavement of people in British colonies, with a cadre of individuals enriched by slavery evicting at least 5,000 people from their property and buying up more than one million acres of land relinquished during the clearances.

Read full article via

Community land ownership in Scotland

Some useful words about large land owners vs community land ownership by Prof Jim Hunter from his talk ‘What can Scotland learn from community land ownership?’ at the Community Land Conference, Stirling, May 2018


When, three years ago, I was asked to join the board of Community Land Scotland, I wasn’t all that keen. I’ve been around the land reform issue for too long, I said to Lorne MacLeod, our then chair. And I’m supposed to be retired.

Well, that’s just it, said Lorne. We need to keep a lid on our expenses. And because you’ve got a bus pass, you won’t cost us very much. And anyway, said Lorne, all our meetings are in Inverness. Less than half an hour from where you live. The thing’s not going to take up any time at all. Aye, right.

The last three meetings of our board have been in … Galashiels … Paisley … Dumfries. My bus pass, and my senior rail card, have never been in such demand. Which is, mind you, a good sign. An indication that community land ownership, which got going in the north, and for a while seemed limited to that area, is beginning now to take off in the southern half of Scotland. That’s very, very welcome.

But to the title I’ve been given … What can Scotland learn from community land ownership? Well, it’s not for me, as I bow out and get a wee bit valedictory, to be definitive on that. But I’ll offer one or two thoughts. Which, by the way, are my thoughts, not those necessarily of CLS.

As I said, I’ve been a backer of the cause of land reform for a long, long time. My first pronouncements on the topic, I reckon, date from more than half a century ago. When I was still in school in North Argyll. The occasion … one September when the Oban Times devoted columns to the guest list for the Argyllshire Gathering Ball … a highlight of the landed gentry’s social scene.

Perhaps, I said, we common folk should cut out and retain that guest list page … on the basis that, when revolution came, it might be handy. Well, for better or for worse, there was no revolution. But I’ve maintained a lifelong interest in the way our land is owned … and in the inequalities that stem from that.

First, writing a PhD thesis, then a book … it’s still in print … about the crofting battle for security of tenure … a battle that, when crofters won, brought clearance to an end.
Then being encouraged, during the 1970s and 80s, by signs that land reform, after a lengthy absence, might yet get back on to political agendas.

Signs like John McEwen’s work on who owns Scotland. Or the appearance of the West Highland Free Press, with a mission to right wrongs that flow from limiting land ownership to very, very few. Or the emergence of the Scottish Crofters Union for which I went to Skye to work.

Another indication of the way the tide was running in those years was the reception accorded to that great piece of theatre, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.3
At its close its cast declaim repeatedly, ‘The people do not own the land. The people do not control the land.’

The implication … one applauded up and down our country … was very much that this had got to alter. And by the 1980s, it was possible to think that it just might … with talk of new departures in community land ownership. But this was theoretical.

Until, in 1992, crofters in Assynt did what no occupants of land in Scotland had ever done before. Bid, in the open market, for ownership of the estate on which they lived.
‘Well, ladies and gentlemen,’ said the late Allan MacRae at a public meeting held the night the crofting bid succeeded … ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, it seems we have won the land … And in winning the land,’ Allan went on, ‘Assynt crofters have struck a historic blow.’

And so they had. From that victory there followed a whole series of community land buy-outs. Eigg, Knoydart, Gigha, North Harris, South Uist, Galson … and so on. In total some hundreds of thousands of acres. But then … and disappointingly … this progress seemed to stall. Which is why, I think, a set of people from estates and islands in community control got together, in September 2009, in Harris.

As opening speaker at that gathering, I began with what had been accomplished.
I next said this: ‘What I want to focus on is the public policy environment in which community ownership has taken off and prospered.’ ‘For while community ownership,’ I said, ‘could not have succeeded in the absence of the efforts made by people on the ground, neither could it have succeeded without support from government and its agencies.’ ‘It’s my belief,’ I said, ‘that, since the present Scottish government took office, this support, which grew steadily under previous administrations, has lessened very markedly.’

The government I spoke of was the SNP administration that took office two years earlier. And since, let me be clear, I am myself a member of the SNP, I wasn’t motivated by hostility to that party. I was, I think, expressing what was then a common feeling in community land circles. A feeling that, while in the early years of Scotland’s restored parliament, land reform, community land ownership, had been way up there in bright lights … those things, politically at any rate, had ceased to matter. No further legislation was being mooted. The Scottish Land Fund, set up in 2001, had gone into abeyance. At Holyrood, it seemed, there was a lack of interest.

Well, that was then. Today things look quite different. We’ve had a Community Empowerment Act. A Land Reform Act. A Land Commission’s been established and is now hard at work. The Scottish Land Fund’s been restored. New community land purchases are being pushed in Wanlockhead, in Ulva and elsewhere. Our show is back on the road. Why this transformation?

There’s no single explanation. But one thing, I believe, is key. A decision taken at that 2009 Harris conference. The decision to set up what’s now Community Land Scotland … this organisation.

Back to our headline question … What can Scotland learn from community land ownership? Well, one thing to be learned is this. That change … radical change … change for the better … can be made to happen. Too often in Scotland, when confronted with injustice, inequality … with poverty, with deprivation, disadvantage …. We’ve taken refuge in that dreary piece of wisdom, It’s aye bin. Well, if it’s aye bin, then that’s because we’ve let it be.

And as regards our obsolescent, grossly over-concentrated, pattern of landownership … as regards that … more and more of us are of a mind that it’s aye bin has had its day.
Change, to repeat, is feasible. But no way does it happen by itself. Votes for women, as we’ve been recalling in this centenary year of female suffrage, didn’t just fall from the sky. They were fought for. Security of tenure for crofters wasn’t a kind gesture made by landlords. It took the Highland Land League, and lots of direct action, to obtain it.

And so it’s still with land reform … With ensuring a supportive climate for existing and prospective community land owners … It takes lobbying … Engagement with parliamentary committees … With the Scottish government … With civil servants … With the Land Commission … With other public bodies … And with the private sector. It takes, in short, the work done by Community Land Scotland.

My role in Community Land Scotland, a role that ends today, hasn’t, to be honest, been of very great significance. Though, as Lorne forecast, my bus pass has proved helpful.
But my time on our board has given me an opportunity to get a glimpse of what Community Land Scotland’s all about. Not just putting on this annual conference … though that’s vital. But the day-to-day stuff that goes on and on year round. The work of our headquarters staff … our policy directors … the effort put in, voluntarily, by our chairs.

This, I believe, has helped sort out a lot of what concerned those of us who met in Harris nine years back. Community Land Scotland’s had a hand in re-establishing the Land Fund. In pushing for new rounds of legislation. In influencing that legislation’s shape. And all this on a shoe string.

I said in Harris that, in my opinion, the long-run funding for a powerful voice for the community land sector could only come … should only come … from inside the sector itself. That’s still my view. Though it’s one, I know, not everybody shares. I also know … at least I think I know … why this is so.

No community land trust is rolling in spare cash. And trusts are focused … rightly focused … on their own localities where, all the time, there’s much, and often too much, to be done. But the wider scene … the one where CLS has made, and makes, a difference … is one that matters locally as well. To take just one example.

CLS devotes much effort and resource to backing groups that are still trying to buy land.
This might appear of no great relevance to trusts that are already up and running.
But that’s wrong. Growing the community land area boosts community land owners as a whole. By adding to the sector’s overall significance … by giving it a greater clout … with politicians and with others. Hence my stress on the lesson that what’s basic in the business of getting change to happen is a need at all times to be organised … especially at a national level. That’s what’s shown by the record of Community Land Scotland.

And what else might be learned from the community land ownership experience?
Well, it shows, I think, that there’s great merit in putting trust in people. Ours is a terribly centralised country. Scotland has 32 councils. Norway, with a similar population, has 400 communes. France has 36,000. Nothing anywhere is perfect.

But it’s hard not to suspect that here in Scotland, if we were to extend continental-style devolution to people living in small towns, in villages, in rural areas, we’d give to these same people an opportunity to do all sorts of good things for themselves. That’s certainly suggested by community land ownership. In advance of a community land purchase, folk wonder, naturally enough, if they can or will do better than what was there before. Invariably they do.

The story of community land ownership’s a story of magnificent achievement. The members, the supporters, of our land trusts have changed fundamentally a pattern of land ownership that once seemed fixed for all time coming. In the process, trusts have fostered and unleashed all manner of entrepreneurial and other energies. They’ve shown that depopulation can be reversed, businesses created and homes built in places where these things were long believed to be impossible.

They’ve demonstrated that wind power and other resources can be harnessed for local purposes. They’ve proved that previously loss-making estates can be run at a profit. They’ve done much else besides. Which is not to say community land owners are infallible. They most certainly are not. They’ve made mistakes … and, for sure, they will make more. Sooner or later, one, or more than one, of them will get into real difficulty.

At which point opponents of reform will say this shows community land ownership does not, and cannot, work. But that won’t in any way be true. A busted land trust won’t invalidate the concept of community land ownership. Just as one company going bankrupt does not imply that companies more generally are headed for the knacker’s yard. What matters is what’s being accomplished by community land trusts in their totality. And that is a great deal. Which is why we need more, much more, community empowerment.

Give people power, control, responsibility … at a truly local level … and they’ll rise to the challenge. Gaining, as they do so, in self-confidence and self-esteem. That’s shown by what’s resulted from community land ownership. And so to one last lesson … Which is that, though the story so far’s pretty good, there’s still a great deal to be done.

This summer in Assynt crofters celebrate the 25th anniversary of the formal transfer to them of the North Lochinver Estate. In that quarter century community land ownership’s come to being seen as something we need more of. Recognised … indeed facilitated and promoted … by various Acts of Scotland’s Parliament … backed financially by a Land Fund … aided by the work of agencies like HIE and now the Land Commission.
And yet … as between a prospective community purchaser of land on one side … a prospective private buyer on the other … there’s nothing like a level playing field.

Communities are required … in a whole variety of energy-sapping, timeconsuming ways … to demonstrate their credentials … to prove they have support … to make public in great detail what it is they plan to do … to show that these plans are affordable.
The private buyer, in contrast, does no more than sign a cheque. But that, it’s argued, is OK … The community, it’s said, get public money… The private buyer doesn’t. Two points.

First, the amount of public money going into community land purchases is routinely … and, I think, deliberately … exaggerated. In a book about community landownership, published in 2012, I worked out … with help from HIE and others … the cost to the public purse … of getting into community control … the then total of near 500,000 acres.
The cash involved … more than half of it from the Lottery … the rest from the taxpayer … was in the order of £30 million. Sure, that’s a lot of money. But it’s maybe put in context by the fact that it’s equivalent to the cost of each 600-yard length of the Edinburgh tramway.

My second point. The notion that, in contrast to community land purchasers, private buyers are no drain on taxpayers is … to put the matter kindly … a little bit in error. Agricultural subsidies, forestry grants, tax concessions … Landlords get all of these. To further minimise taxation that might otherwise be due, they’re free to construct allegedly charitable trusts, vest ownership of land in overseas tax havens … Etcetera.
So let’s have no pretence that community land ownership soaks up public money while private landlords come at zero cost to taxpayers.

Which is not to say that getting land into community control should be made easier.
I’m by no means certain that it should. Big responsibilities come with community land ownership. It’s therefore right that folk going into it should have their motives, aims, objectives made liable to stringent public scrutiny. But so, I think, should private buyers.

This then’s another lesson to be learned from community land ownership. The upfront tests applied to a community aspiring to buy land have more than proved their worth.
Time now to think about equivalent tests for large-scale private purchasers.

Lessons on land rights whilst learning Mandarin

Tim Ralphs has been learning Mandarin, and writes:

The Mandarin character for “Equal”, as in “Equality”, is made up of the character for “soil” and the character for “uniform”, as in “the same”, not what school students have to wear.

So the idea of equality is rooted in a sense of having uniform access to fertile land, it’s in the written word itself.

The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill

You can’t really understand English history without a thorough grounding in the English Revolution in the mid 1600s. That this is called the English Civil War in England, and the English Revolution elsewhere, is indicative of numerous attempts to rewrite this period of history to suit the winners and the powers that be.

Christopher Hill is a masterful guide to this period in history and this is a really good place to start understanding the revolution from a far broader perspective than ones you may have picked up from popular culture or school.

Featuring the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levellers, the Quakers and any number of other sects and radicals who survived to become religions or nineties festival bands, it is a portrait not of the bourgeois revolution that won out but of the far more fundamental overturning of society which many were driving for.

A History of the Welsh Land Settlement Society by Roland Ward

The land settlement societies and land settlement association, are along with the Plotlands movement, important forgotten parts of recent British history. They stand as highly useful and inspiring examples of post war movements of people back to the land and the countryside. The Plotlands were bottom up and anarcist in nature (although I highly doubt the participants would have identified as anarcist!), whilst the land settlement movement was far more top down with state and non state actors involved.

This book is short, sweet and very detailed about facts, figures and costs whilst making keen observations about the surrounding politics. The sub title ‘something must be done’ is a quote from Edward Windsor when he was part of the British royal family which in part antagonised the government to take action on the huge number of unemployed people in Wales by supporting them into running smallholding businesses. Edwards words were seen as inflamatory, and inappropriate meddling by the supposedly a-political monarchy at the time.

A History of Allotments in Sheffield by Margaret Boulton

This is a really great deep dive into local Sheffield history whilst at the same time providing lots of context which I imagine would make it still of interest to those further afield.

I drank it down and revelled in the geekery, for example, did you know that Mount Pleasant is the name for the part of each town or city where all the night soil (aka human poo) was taken every morning so farmers could transport it to their land for fertiliser?

Natives by Akala

Race and class in the ruins of empire

We are major Akala fans here in the herd and regularly send his various short youtube videos over to folks for homework.

I’m not going to write about this book here because The Guardian’s book review does all really good job of inspiring you to read it.

After you’ve read this, The Many Headed Hydra is a great companion book to dive deeper.

The Same Sky over All by David Smith

An account of farming in the Chelmsford area of Essex

Another book in the same genre as ‘Where Beards Wag All‘ which perfectly and poetically captures the last days of pre mechanised peasant agriculture in Essex and the first steps of the transition into fossil fuel fuelled farming. Simply and beautifully written, a good way to look back to look forward

Where Beards Wag All by George Ewart Evans

A really beautiful insight into the last days of peasant agriculture in England before the post war mechanisation of agriculture and the role of the oral tradition in rural communities.

From his landmark study of rural life in East Anglia, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (1956), George Ewart Evans set about, in a series of books, unveiling the sylvan round of myth and merriment, plenty and hardship, that informed the traditions and texture of country living. Core to his chronicles is the oral tradition, echoing through the years, and it is this that he concentrates upon in Where Beards Wag All (1970). Here are the memories, unmediated and raw, of the craftsman, the drover, the marshman – a chorus to the seasons’ constant turn. And it is by no means an idyll they describe: thrift and want, poverty and subjection are often their lyric. The depression of the 1930s is vividly brought to life, and a particularly affecting section details the migration of East Anglian farm-workers to the maltings of Burton-on-Trent. Where Beards Wag All is a touching and faithful portrait of the countryside of fading memory.

Cotters and Squatters by Colin Ward

This book is magnificent and tragically out of press with second hand copies going for silly money. I’ve tried to persuade the publisher to re-issue it or to make it available digitally but to no avail yet. Succint, throughly readable and utterly compelling, I hope your local library can sort you out with a copy.

Squatters were the original householders, and this book explores the story of squatter settlements in England and Wales, from our cave-dwelling ancestors to the squeezing out of cottagers in the enclosure of the commons.

There is a widespread folk belief that if a house could be erected between sundown and sunset the occupants had the right to tenure and could not be evicted. Often enquiry into the manorial court rolls shows this to be the case. Unofficial roadside settlements or encroachments onto the ‘wastes’ between parishes provided space for the new miners, furnacemen and artisans who made the industrial revolution, while cultivating a patch of ground and keeping a pig and some chickens. Colin Ward’s book, full of local anecdote and glimpses of surviving evidence, links the hidden history of unofficial settlements with the issues raised by 20th century squatters and the 21st century claims that ‘The Land is Ours’.

Colin presents a wealth of fascinating anecdote, analysis and polemic highlighting the sheer variety of ways individuals have created sustainable homes and livelihoods in nooks and crannies at the margins of society.” Regeneration and Renewal

“Rural squatters are now only a footnote in social history. Their families built themselves a house on some unregarded patch of land… For years, the environmental humanist Colin Ward has tried to rescue such people from the mythology of heritage museums, the indulgences of romantic novelists and the dust of local archives; and to draw lessons from them for today. Cotters and Squatters is the latest vivid instalment of his campaign.” The Independent

“Ward is not averse to a little squalor, or at least untidiness.The modern countryside is altogether too neatly packaged and sewn-up for the benefits of the well-off, he feels. Overzealous planning laws, and what he calls “the suffocating nimbyism of the countryside lobby, with its Range Rover culture,” are dismissed as an affront to rural history. His new book is an exploration of the long struggle of the rural poor to acquire and keep a roof over their heads.” The Guardian

Dadabhai Naoroji – Britain’s first Asian MP in 1892

Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) was the first Asian to sit in the House of Commons, a hugely important leader in India before Mahatma Gandhi, as well as being an anti-racist and anti-imperialist of global significance. Well worth learning more about his inspiring life via: