An extract from Lesley Riddoch’s new book, Blossom


While the topic of land reform has seen an increase in profile lately it’s still not a subject that your average working class Scot gets too worked up about.

In this extract from her forthcoming book Lesley Riddoch suggests that land reform may not be a marginal matter but core to Scotland’s unenviable record as sick man of Europe with one of the world’s most unequal societies.  And central to Scotland’s future independent or otherwise…


Scotland’s Natural Assets – Look But don’t touch

When Lord Vestey carved the North Lochinver Estate out of his massive northern domain and put it up for sale in 1989 – provocatively advertising the populated land as ‘an unspoilt wilderness’ – he drew boundaries already used by the local Crofters Union branch.  The estate was bought by Scandinavian Property Services Ltd but when that company went bust in 1992, the Assynt Crofters Trust didn’t hesitate to acquire it from the liquidator.

Crofters living on this ‘new’ parcel of land already knew and trusted one another and had a shared history of practical deeds, land management, complaint mediation and action.  If Vestey had doubled the acreage, he might easily have weakened the crofters’ resolve by requiring them to bond with relatively unknown, distant neighbours.  As it was, the only real obstacle the Assynt crofters faced was themselves, and that negative inner voice constantly muttering – dinnae get above yourselves.

Sociology has something useful to say about that. Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu devised the concept of ‘cultural capital’ – the knowledge, skills, education, and outlooks which combine to determine what people like to do, see, wear, listen to, eat and drink.  ‘Taste’ or ‘habitus’ may seem individual, but according to Bourdieu, cultural preferences are chosen, even preset by the social or class group we belong to – it’s not a commodity that can be bought or traded like a gift.  People are socialised to share the preferences and beliefs of their class.  That may sound unduly determinist.  But in 2013, the ‘Great British Class Survey’ created seven distinct social classes beyond the ‘old’ three – working, middle and upper – by adding three dimensions of economic, social and cultural capital.  Bourdieu’s theory in action.  In practice though, how does his theory work?

Habitus means working-class Scots will not adopt double-barrelled names after marriage in case they sound pretentious and middle-class, young folk will not listen to classical music lest they seem prematurely aged and serious-minded people will not even accidentally know the names of X Factor finalists lest they lose credibility with friends.  ‘Each to their own’, you might say – but if poor Scots feel somehow ‘honour bound’ to reject the mind-set and cultural preferences of middle-class managers, then self-improving behaviour like eating well, quitting cigarettes or running at lunchtime will feel like forbidden fruit or acts of betrayal.

If Bourdieu is right, this is potent and dangerous stuff.  Cultural preferences feel natural and instinctive, so individuals feel they are betraying roots and letting their ‘side’ down by adopting the habits of other classes.  Poor Scots may even feel compelled to avoid healthy living altogether if that’s seen as the preserve the wealthy and privileged.  Preserving group identity matters more – so actions that appear self-defeating to ‘right-thinking people’, can still serve to maintain a place in the group.  So ‘choice’ is often not choice at all.  Loyalty and fear of siding with the opposition are powerful dynamics in Scottish society.  Perhaps Bourdieu’s theory helps explain why.

In my own case, like the descendant of many other cleared Highland families, I cannot fish, ski, sail or hunt.  That always seemed perfectly normal in my world until I went to Norway, where only the disabled or seriously overweight don’t regularly do some of these activities.  Over there the habitus is different.  ‘Country sports’ are not the preserve of an elite.  Hunting over there has nothing to do with wearing plus fours and a deerstalker, skiing doesn’t mean you have au pairs to mind the kids, fishing doesn’t mark you out as a friend of the landed gentry and sailing doesn’t automatically connect you with the well-heeled, summer visitors of the county set.

Now I’ll grant you these are all clichéd views of sports (particularly fishing) which are actually enjoyed by a wide range of humanity – even in Scotland.  But habitus doesn’t depend on reality – just on the way activities are perceived.  If your group thinks sailing is elitist, it wouldn’t matter if you were skelping along on a boat made by the great-great-grandson of Robert Burns with Nelson Mandela at the helm fundraising for Oxfam.  It would still feel wrong.

Of course all of this is my subjective interpretation of a sociological theory whose academic masters rarely depart from their own high-falutin habitus of complex language to provide comprehensible examples.  Habitus is also nigh on impossible to measure or prove.  That doesn’t make Bourdieu’s theory any less powerful.

So how does it apply to the fraught world of land ownership?  Well, if the dispossessed don’t want to share any characteristics with the landowning class, they won’t want to own land, manage the countryside, hunt, fish, own any kind of second home, exhibit knowledge of nature or mix with heavily accented people who do.  More than that, if land and the countryside appear to belong exclusively to the wealthy, then Bourdieu’s theory suggests the urban dispossessed must shun all knowledge of that domain and all experience of the great outdoors to maintain group cohesion and their own distinct identity.

Imagine Marvin from The Scheme sailing on the Clyde, joining a mass clean-up of Kilmarnock, going to see a play (even with a 100 per cent discount for the unemployed), watching a ‘how to quit smoking’ video by a well-spoken member of the Scottish Rugby squad, eating lettuce, reading a book or even wearing glasses – it’s not going to happen.  Such a self-styled wild man would rather be seen dead than consciously taking care of himself (his girlfriend or the planet).

Of course, Red Clydeside produced a host of exceptions.  But hardy ‘Men of the Mountains’ like Jock Nimlin, Tom Weir and Hamish MacInnes walked miles, rowed even further and slept in caves, bothies and even under bridges in the rain – to distinguish themselves from the soft, feather-bedded, deer-shooting elite whose louche enjoyment of the land had to look completely different in character.  According to Bourdieu, the essential desire for social solidarity creates taste and demands conformity – so for tens of thousands of working-class Scots who weren’t as hardy as Jock Nimlin, it’s been simpler to regard the land and countryside as ‘out of bounds.’

Perhaps I’m laying it on a bit thick.  Perhaps I have misinterpreted Bourdieu (though I wouldn’t be the first).  Or perhaps this matters hugely.  Perhaps excluded Scots have no confidence problem at all but a habitus that effectively stops them joining in ‘healthy’ and ‘outdoorsy’ activities associated with natural resources because they have traditionally been the preserve of the upper classes.

To stretch the point further, perhaps such a profoundly unequal nation isn’t really a nation at all – just a clutch of wary groups for whom maintaining group identity and class cohesion is more important than any new, larger loyalty.  Put absolutely bluntly, such a divided, unequal nation is unlikely to push wholeheartedly for a cause like Scottish independence.  Why bother when folk have got far smaller fish to fry?

The book’s official launch is Sept 4th, Jam House, Queen St, Edinburgh – tickets are free via and there is a bar and (modest) swally.

Blossom is £11.99 & can be bought in bookshops, online at, or Amazon or send a cheque for £11.99 to Lesley Riddoch at address below for a signed copy (post and packing free & include the words you’d like written, Pls allow 10 days for delivery) or on kindle

Jamesfield Farmhouse, Newburgh, Fife, Scotland KY14 6EW