The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

On common ground (at Aye Write since you ask)

Canna in 1938, photograph by Margaret Fay Shaw

I’m looking forward to my debut at Aye Write on Saturday (2pm, March 5 in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, since you ask). I’m sharing the platform with Andy Wightman, who will talk about his new book, The Poor Had No Lawyers. Though we have both done readings and talks before, neither of us has appeared at a book festival. It is a bit daunting to find that we are up against Steve Bell, the Guardian cartoonist, who will be appearing in another room at the same time. He is a seasoned festival performer, extremely funny and vicious about politicians – an unbeatable combination. He is bound to get a full house.

Appearing with Andy, Scotland’s foremost writer on land ownership and tenure, gives me a chance to talk about John Lorne Campbell’s attitudes to the subject.  I say attitudes, plural, because his views changes dramatically over his long lifetime. He was born into a landowning family and up until his early 20s expected to manage one of the family estates. Five years later he was advocating land redistribution, legal limits on the amount of land any person or company could own and hard sanctions against absentee landlords.

When he bought Canna in 1938 it was with the intention of selling half of it to the Scottish Agricultural Department for the resettlement of displaced crofters from the Outer Hebrides. The war put a stop to that and by 1945 the policy had been abandoned.  The new Labour Government turned against crofting and failed to break up the big estates or do anything about absenteeism.

Crofting tenure gave smallholders some protection against eviction and thus enabled them to be more independent. John was rare among Highland landowners, who usually tried to have crofts abolished. He not only maintained those crofts already in existence when he bought the island, but in the 1940s and 50s created new ones. He clung to his distributionist views until old age, but by the end of his long life was extolling a idealised view of the relationship between laird and tenant which balanced rights with obligations. It is hard to find examples of it in his own historical writings which more often featured clearances and exploitation of the poor and the landless by heartless landlords.