This article was published as part of our 16-page Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

AS we contemplate the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh on the east coast of Sutherland, and the 100-foot-tall (30-metre) statue perched on top which is that of George Granville Leveson-Gower, Viscount Trentham, Marquess of Stafford and first Duke of Sutherland (1758–1833) – the notorious sponsor of the Sutherland clearances – it is important to remember this sandstone edifice, raised in 1837, means nothing.

We understand reality because of light. Without light there is no life and no meaning. Meaning is not eternal. Only songs and poems protect humanity from meaninglessness because they are manifestations of love, which is eternal. Without love there is no life, no light. Songs and poems shed light. They are love. They are the human memory. Not sandstone blocks raised in honour of a tyrant. The people of Sutherland are celebrated in the poems of the 18th century bard of Strathnaver, Rob Donn Mackay. Not in Beinn a’ Bhragaidh’s stone arrogance.

The 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine wrote: “Freedom, which has hitherto only become man here and there, must pass into the mass itself, into the strata of society, and become people.”

In a 1968 essay, in response to this, the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson declared: “What Heine says of freedom applies also to poetry.

“Poetry becomes everyone, and should be everyone. But in fact, at any rate in the Western World, it is only a few individuals here and there. Our most urgent task, as I see it, is to make poetry ‘become people’.”

Freedom, people and poetry. These are the grand linking sisters of human experience. They are the three graces of possibility. But there is one sister missing, and it is the land. Our freedom, people and poetry depend upon it but, currently, it is denied to us.

This is a cultural dilemma and culture is what people living together in both settled and transient communities produce. Art is the result of that. Art is also people in a landscape. If there are no people in a landscape then there is no culture and therefore no art. It is empty.

But the Highlands of Scotland is not an empty landscape. It is an emptied landscape. The story of the emptying of the Highlands of Scotland, and of Sutherland in particular, is one of illegal land enclosure and of the wholesale forced removal of the native population to the sea coast, where the worst ground was to be found.

This was followed up by the violent destruction of the people’s built culture, the suppression of their language and lived culture.

After that it was the transportation – in unseaworthy ships – of almost three quarters of the dispossessed population, thousands of miles across the Atlantic to North America.

Then followed the re-writing and re-framing of these crimes as progress. This was the genocide which was planned, executed and celebrated by the Gordons of Dunrobin from 1800. If the statue has any meaning at all, then it is this: it represents the continuity of tyranny.

The National:

The proto-environmentalist Frank Fraser Darling in his 1955 “West Highland Survey: An Essay in Human Ecology” for the Department of Agriculture wrote: “The bald unpalatable fact is that the Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.”

The devastation, he pointed out, was the inevitable outcome of bad land use. The Highlands had first been stripped of their natural forest cover, then had been subjected to repeated burning, intensive grazing, overstocking and to other forms of maltreatment which had drained their soils of fertility and made them steadily less productive. He concluded that, although it was a much-lauded landscape, it was in fact man-made – “a wet desert”.

It is often a fault of the independence movement to wish to be understood to the world before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves. So let us be clear. We need hope. We cannot do anything without optimism. Hope is a discipline. Our job, as people on this Earth, is to cultivate hope, and that is what we are trying to do as we climb Beinn a’ Bhragaidh – both the hill and the metaphor. We are climbing to the idea of a Scottish Republic where the people are sovereign and not the Crown in Parliament, where an individual can be a citizen and not a subject. Where the land belongs to the people of Scotland and not just a few wealthy and absent individuals. In the Republic, the land will be taxed to create wealth and the people will be liberated to create their new country, for their children and for the future. From the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh we can see that future: freedom, people, poetry, land and love.