I reckoned that Wightman’s The Poor Had No Lawyers would be my reading for the weekend. I over-estimated my ability to deal with his thorough-going detail. For here we have a “dense” text — dense in the best sense of the word. Wightman is scrupulous in detailing and referencing his arguments.
So I’m currently heading into the middle of the book: chapter 12, Who Owns Scotland. That means I’ve scaled the foothills, and followed Wightman’s exegesis of land-grabs:
- the Reformation, and how that meant Church lands were acquired by you-can-guess-who;
- the devices and desires of lawyers, working assiduously in the interests of you-can-guess-who (with many a crumb falling into their maws from the rich man’s table);
- what, in English terms, would be enclosures, but for Scotland is the way commons were appropriated by you-can-guess-who, at the expense of the vast majority of the populace.
Those are Wightman’s Big Four land grabs, to which in chapters 8 and 9, he adds:
- the way the assets and properties of the burghs of Scotland were acquired by devious means and to the benefit of you-can-guess-who;
and how, having run out of local realms to conquer,
- “the sixth land-grab — colonial adventures”: there was land left to plunder beyond Scotland’s shores and Scotland’s land-owners were enthusiastic participants in the imperial century following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo [page 87].
That one gives Wightman the wry opportunity to reward his readers with the final bit of imperial pink to be imprinted on the world map:
On 18 September 1955, Captain Connell of HMS Vidal, acting in pursuance of a royal warrant , led a naval expedition which landed on the rock, planted a Union flag, affixed a bronze plaque and formally annexed Rockall to the British crown. Lieutenant-Commander Scott announced to his two companions on the rock and to the bemused puffins, guillemots and other seabirds in the area, ‘In the name of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I hereby take possession of this island of Rockall.
The three men stood to attention as the flag was raised and HMS Vidal sailed past and unleashed a twenty-one gun salute as the final act of territorial annexation in the history of the British Empire drew to a close.
Compare that with wikipedia on the same incident. I was greatly disappointed to find that fine naval vessel (all 1,940 tonnes displacement, with no fewer than four 3-pounder “saluting guns”) was named, not for the distinguished American ironist, novelist and essayist — which would be too, too, sweetly appropriate — but after an influential surveyor or explorer of the Royal Navy… the nineteenth century surveyor Alexander Thomas Emeric Vidal. [Just as well I proof-read that: the ever-interfering spell-check had rendered his middle name as Emetic. Still …]
Perhaps the brightest moment (though I have hopes for the 200 pages yet to come) in Wightman’s ruthless dissection of all that was and is adrift with Scottish land-holding is this:
Another celebrated case concerned what was then known as the Pilmour Links and Commonty in St Andrews and is now better known as the Old Course, the most famous golf course in the world. In 1797, the Town Council was bankrupt and sold the town common to Charles Dempster, a rabbit farmer. The local inhabitants were furious at the fact that their historic commonty was to be turned into a rabbit warren. They obtained legal ruling that they had a customary right to play golf and to destroy the rabbits. This led to a series of ‘community riots’ and twenty years of legal and physical war between the rabbit farmers and the golfers before the golfers prevailed and secured their rights. Without this action and the legal decision that upheld the townspeople’s common rights, there would probably be no golf links in St Andrews today.
In which case, the Lady in my Life would have been standing on a bunny-burrow last Friday: