ThinkBooks: Uncommon Scottish wisdom from a Galloway shore

ThinkBooks: Uncommon Scottish wisdom from a Galloway shore

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 2, June, 2020

Red Rag to a Bull: Rural Life in an Urban Age, by Jamie Blackett

THIS BOOK is balm for the soul. At a time when Scotland is in danger of being overwhelmed by tacky, propagandistic literary offerings reeking of shrill urban radicalism, Red Rag to a Bull is an understated account of the passing of the seasons in a farming estate  located in a beautiful coastal part of Dumfriesshire in south-west Scotland. 

Jamie Blackett’s family has deep roots in an area rudely occupied by the Vikings over a millennium ago and which waged stiff but unavailing resistance to the encroachment of centralising Scottish kings in the 13th century. A diplomatic ex-soldier, he describes his skirmishes with inflexible and self-important new centralisers keen to impose EU-driven bureaucratic edicts on the life of the land.  He displays wary suspicion of the firmly urban liberators waving the flag of Scottish separatism who seem even keener than Brussels to impose stifling regulations on nearly every aspect of rural life. Ecological considerations are supposedly their watchword but he has no trouble in showing how proposals dreamt up in Edinburgh bureaucratic offices or by urban left-wing extremists, threaten to destroy the delicate balance in land and river use and species conservation.

In 2000 Jamie Blackett took over an estate long in his family’s hands but facing various vicissitudes and made a go of it after converting the land from arable to dairy farming, building up from scratch a herd of Luing cattle. He has an original authorial voice. A sparse but engaging writing style manages to draw in the reader as he describes the different ways of managing grass, the courtship rituals of bulls, and the effort and resolve that went into reviving field sports in his neck of the woods, with the appearance of the Dumfriesshire & Stewartry Foxhounds.

Blackett is a conservationist whose love for the wildlife on his farm easily shines through. He comes over as a natural optimist but one ready to give vent to frustration about the implacably urban world view which unites the world of state officialdom and Green militancy. He is on the side of the ‘limes’ not the ‘watermelons’ in the Green world, the genuine environmentalists rather than the warped extremists exploiting feelings about the planet and its creatures to create a new front for mindless revolution.

He writes about the badger, an ideal species for the left to bestow iconic status upon. Given the enhanced protection it has acquired through determined militancy, its population  has exploded. But as is the way of things, other more vulnerable species that were once more common have declined – hares, hedgehogs, bumblebees, ground-nesting birds like the lapwing and corncrake.

Zealots love re-introducing predators as some kind of Rousseauist fantasy of restoring a primordial landscape, he observes. The classic tale of bad reintroduction concerned the sea eagles who originally lived on fish. As the fish ran out, perhaps helped by the EU Common Fisheries Policy, the sea eagles off the North-West coast of Scotland came to rely, instead on lambs.

The author practices ecologically friendly farming methods. But however responsible a farmer, he feels himself to be on the wrong side of public opinion. The pressure of activists and the media has enabled the view to gain ground that crops are environmentally good and livestock are bad. But Blackett quietly points out that without the livestock to produce the muck that renews the soil, the fertility leaches out of it.

He is also a realist and he thinks that the devolved government’s evangelism for tackling climate change will, if carried through, mean the end of viable livestock farming by the 2050s. Farmers have no voices to plead their case in the corridors of power. His Kafkaesque dealings with officialdom are brilliantly conveyed in a section covering the eponymous ‘Bruce Tentacle' from the Rural Payments and Inspection Division of the Edinburgh bureaucracy, determined to test the letter of the regulations for mapping land to destruction. Maps he submitted of his land were being rejected months after submission and his rural payments were not being paid as a result. He ruefully observes that ‘sometimes it feels like being the manager of one of Stalin’s collective farms, terrified that the local commissar will find fault.’

He concludes: “probably every farmer in Britain has similar stories to tell of being held captive by a global subsidy system that forces them to lose money farming, so that they rely on the largesse of the EU to keep them going; of the lunatic bureaucracy that flows down from Brussels, gathering momentum all the way to the Local Area Office.”

Officialdom is also ready to hamstring farmers not only in core areas but ancillary ones like the hospitality trade. Vested interests try to use regulations as a barrier to entry. It was only thanks to the intervention of the excellent local MSP, the late Alex Fergusson that he was able to get zealous officials from the fire brigade off his back after they insisted on fire-proof steel doors worthy of Fort Knox for two guest bedrooms. 

The fatal combination of devolution and political nationalism comes across in the book as a cause of much woe but the author does not necessarily see deliverance coming from the south. He offers a vivid account of Countryside Alliance protest in London after the English ban on hunting was introduced in 2004. The core of the march was made up of ordinary men and women fearful for their livelihoods. He writes about ‘top Hunt banners redolent of colliery brass bands, and the colours of the old county regiments’. So huge were the numbers that batons were soon raining down on the crowd.

“The Big state had bitten back.” He spotted mounted police in riot gear poised to wade in waiting in side streets. The Independent Police Complaints Commission later found that several police had deliberately concealed their identities as they inflicted serious injuries.

If Tony Blair, the architect of this crackdown on age-old rural pursuits is eventually succeeded in power by another middle-class radical Keir Starmer, my thought on reading this passage is that he would be even less afraid of unleashing the full force of authority down on any despised interest prepared to defy other PC edicts from left-wing Metroland.

Blackett displays no evident love for the European Union but he voted Remain in 2016. He thought that, free of the Common Agricultural Policy, the evidence that British farming would necessarily fare better, was very scanty indeed with different sorts of urban priorities re-asserting themselves. He cited a 2017 article by Daniel Hannan who described Britain as ‘post-agrarian’ and who advocated buying food from overseas and paying farmers to ‘curate’ the countryside. Such views smacked of metropolitan elitism, this time on the right and were deeply naive. Blackett argues that no small part of the success of British tourism derives from tourists seeing animals grazing in green fields. He further points out that British wildlife is heavily dependent on farming. “The cowpats and the spilt grain in the fields are the building blocks for all our insects and wildlife.”

Writing before this year’s pandemic he showed the danger of relying on supply chains from faraway, writing that “a dozen dirty bombs could disable the dozen or so major ports we rely on for importing our food...”

Perhaps unsurprisingly he is sombre about the political condition of Scotland. Even though his part of Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Union in the 2014 referendum, he was concerned at how the nationalists were able to win over retired soldiers by making the bogus promise of restoring the Scottish regiments. Stalwarts of the farming scene even switched to the separatists citing the view that Scottish agriculture had suffered thanks to the actions of London.

He writes: “Those febrile months of the Independence campaign in 2014 changed the way we think about ourselves and the divisions may take generations to heal….the Saltire... has become more like the Irish tricolour that I remember being displayed everywhere in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland”. 

Much responsibility for the emergence of such a fractured land is placed at the door of the Blair government. He sees its devolution strategy as a “crude attempt to gerrymander the UK into one big Labour pocket opened up deep wounds and released poison in the nation’s bloodstream.” 

The strife erupted in his politically settled corner of Scotland in the summer of 2015 when David Mundell, the local MP and a cabinet minister, was “confronted by an angry mob at a food bank in Dumfries. Talking to the author afterwards, he was sardonic and mentioned how eye-witnesses had spotted most of the marchers boarding coaches to go back to the Central Belt.”

The appeal of separatism is overwhelmingly urban. Ministers presiding over vast bureaucratic departments often have few evident qualifications for high office. This is true of the three ministers of health who have succeeded each other in quick succession as crises and scandals accumulate, or indeed of a recent finance minister who left university without ever completing his degree only to hastily quit on the day he was due to present his budget, under a cloud of scandal (which made no difference to the SNP’s popularity).

Blackett cleverly weaves political themes that have a bearing on rural life with snatches of biography as he describes the poverty and misery he saw on a winter break in Cuba. At the end he was fuming: “Fidel you bastard, you are nothing but an old fraud. You have no right to inflict this on these people.”

Inevitably, the governance failure behind the progressive hype made me think of Sturgeon’s direction of travel. But at least the Cuban commissars are not puritanical. He writes ruefully: “Ours is the first generation to be unable to drink at social occasions. Sturgeon’s mission is to dry out Scotland”.

Blackett makes the case for improving landowners such as William Craik (1703-1798) who inherited Arbigland, the place he now farms. When he arrived it was a windswept, treeless peninsula covered in thick undergrowth where around one hundred people eked out a Hobbesian existence. He modernised the estate and must have literally employed thousands of people to do so. He swept away the old subsistence economy but what replaced it was far superior. It survived until mechanisation and helped to create a rural middle- and artisan class.

Craik’s story could be the basis of a Scottish television series on par with Downton Abbey. When he died in 1798 his estate was capable of feeding a thousand times more people but he and others have moved from being enlightened heroes to near villains in the history taught at school today. Instead, doubtful figures such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid (an admirer of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler!) is increasingly honoured. There is a large road sign on the A7 proclaiming his birthplace. Thomas Telford, arguably Britain’s greatest engineer, another son of Dumfriesshire born nearby is overlooked by the tourism authority.

Despite his endorsement of various C20 totalitarians MacDiarmid is fashionable because his poetry is thought by academic and political activists to embody a spirit of Scottish resistance. The author doesn’t bow down to this left-wing group think as the Scottish Conservatives increasingly do. In chapter 13, he describes (entertainingly) the perils of being a landlord. It is rare to see the case made in print for landlords who come up against anti-social tenants and who find the law leans far more heavily on their side than that of property owners irrespective of how destructive is their conduct. The author currently has tenants who have brought useful skills with them and who have become friends. But he describes a different era with wry humour and understatement. 

He also writes dispassionately about the Anglo-Irish ancestors on his father’s side of the family who came up against land reform drives. His wife Sheri’s grandfather Oliver Newton won three Military Crosses in the war and belonged to the Rhodesian white community which was left in the lurch by Britain from Wilson and Thatcher to Blair.

He argues that it is justifiable for Southern Scotland, an area about the size of Wales, to continue with devolution within the UK if a local majority unhappy with Scottish independence. Blackett is a calm and unruffled character who has a strong sense of right and wrong. In perhaps one of the last things he ever wrote, Roger Scruton in a dedication to Blackett’s book observed:

“And when the peasants next march on London to confront the nonentities in Parliament, they will surely each be carrying a copy of this book in their pocket.”

Red Rag to a Bull is a life-enhancing book not least because it has a positive story to tell about survival and renewal in Scotland despite the wrong people being in charge.

Red Rag to a Bull: Rural Life in an Urban Age, by Jamie Blackett, Quiller Publishing, 2020,£20.00, 255pp.

Tom Gallagher resides in Cumbria and is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. He has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is a biography of Portugal's Antonio Salazar which Hurst Publishers are bringing out in July on the centenary of his birth.

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