Jon lives in Skye and writes about the impact of the pandemic on his job as a tour guide and on the Scottish travel industry.
Glendale, in the north west of Skye, feels like an unlikely place for a rebellion. Today, its most striking characteristic – besides its natural beauty – is its abundance of holiday homes and B&Bs, which have mushroomed in recent decades to capitalise on the island’s ever-growing tourist traffic.
The picture was a bit different in the 1880s. In the aftermath of the Clearances in Skye, those who remained were forced to subsist on increasingly small and barren pieces of land. In 1882 the islanders fought back, trespassing on private land in the Braes and violently seeing off a party of police sent to disperse them. The crofters of Glendale followed suit with a series of trespasses and rent strikes, and the British establishment responded with a naval force. Five ringleaders from Glendale were given short prison sentences, but attracted a huge degree of public attention and sympathy, contributing significantly to the passage in 1886 of the Crofters’ Act – generally regarded as marking the end of the Highland Clearances.
The story of the Glendale Martyrs, as those imprisoned became known, is still widely told and celebrated, with many retellings finding a convenient endpoint in the Crofters’ Act. But this fails to do justice to the story, and not just because the Crofters’ Act didn’t resolve the problems of land ownership in Scotland. Emphasising a concession from the establishment as a final victory threatens to whitewash the real significance of Glendale – what makes the story so remarkable is the methods, solidarity and the militancy of the crofters. Police were denied hospitality, scabs were threatened and intimidated, and the area was essentially unanimous in its rejection of the rule of law. As Roger Hutchison explains, “Glendale had effectively declared itself an autonomous community, in which the only laws were those of a broad consensus of the population, and where any attempt to impose an external jurisdiction would be resisted with force”.
If we lose sight of this, we risk consigning the Glendale Martyrs to history. And when even reactionary historians canheap praise upon the Martyrs without a hint of irony, one can’t help but feel that the story, like so much of our history, has lost its punch.
Today, Skye is generally depicted and marketed not as a scene of intense struggle against material injustice, but as a mystical, otherly, celtic wilderness. But even now, there is hardly a single thing about Skye – its landscape, its stunted ecosystem, its exploitative hospitality industry, its major tourist attractions or its crisis-ridden housing market – that has not been contorted beyond recognition by greed.
At Glendale itself there is a monument to the Martyrs accompanied by a layby, but most visitors fly past to join the throngs of tents, tripods and selfie sticks at Neist point, jostling for the perfect photo of one of the island’s most breathtaking spots. Until recently, the cars heading to Neist Point would have been joined by minibuses from Scotland’s many tour operators, from companies big and small alike. Had the pandemic not cut short my own career as a tour guide, at some point I would have been among them.
Scotland’s major tour operators depend upon international visitors, and have seen demand collapse almost entirely during the pandemic. But today, just as in the 1880s, the rich and powerful have had the first and last say, and the workers at the bottom have been left voiceless and abandoned. Most of the workers employed alongside me in the absurdly named Radical Travel Group – a company registered in the Virgin Islands and owned by a family of convicted tax dodgers and Tory donors – were made redundant and refused furlough by the company last year. The multimillionaire CEO of Rabbies, perhaps the best-known of the brands which frequent Neist Point, was recently the subject of a gushing sympathetic portrait by the BBC for the effect the pandemic has had on his wellbeing. The wellbeing of the scores of workers he dismissed (again, despite the availability of the furlough scheme) was not mentioned in the article.
Tour guides know their history, and tend to take great pleasure and pride in talking about struggles against injustice throughout Scotland’s past. Yet across Scotland’s tourism industry, there has been little resistance to the way workers have been cast aside during the pandemic. And so, looking back on all of this, I’ve often found myself wondering – couldn’t we do more to join up the dots between the past and the present? When we talk about farmers literally taking up arms against police in defence of their right to occupy and work the land – just two lifetimes ago – in between telling stories about faeries and giants and unapologetically bullshit stories (“haha, they actually believe that Loch Bà was named after the noise sheep make”), are we actually learning from them? Or are we detaching them from reality almost to the point of fiction? Put simply – why don’t we see ourselves in them?
Giants and faeries were once very real to the people of Skye, their existence woven into the landscape and the livelihoods made upon it. Their stories are still told, but now as a relic, with an amused and ironic distance. And just as Skye’s landscape has been disenchanted of its giants and faeries, so too has it been disenchanted of the spirit which drove officers of the law out of Glendale. These stories belong to history now – with history itself belonging to another realm, altogether separate from the neverending present in which we find ourselves.
It might be naively optimistic to describe the pandemic as a ‘moment of reckoning’ for Scotland’s tourism industry. Industry leaders have largely escaped accountability for their treatment of workers since last March, and have only had to reckon with falling profits – many of these offset by government grants as part of Holyrood’s owner-centred ‘recovery’ strategy. But even if the threat to the industry is not existential, question marks still hang over its future – international tourism will take years to recover, and the tourism lobby’s panic over the industry’s current hiring crisis is growing more and more apparent.
Tourism itself is not going anywhere. The pandemic’s most enduring effect on the industry will be an accelerated shift towards self catering, with more campervans on the NC500 and more rural communities shattered by the spread of holiday homes. Tourism grandees, inevitably, will find ways to capitalise. The industry will continue to be held up as one of the country’s greatest commercial assets, particularly when the prospect of independence comes into view.
For myself, much of the past year has been spent asking – what does all of this mean for workers? Is there room for an organising culture in the future of Scottish tourism?A cursory glance through the past 15 months is less than encouraging, and the obstacles to organising in such a nebulous industry are legion. And yet there is now a genuine opportunity for workers to reshape the industry in their interests. As we are already seeing in hospitality, sudden spikes in demand caused by the easing of restrictions can catch employers out, leaving them suddenly desperate for workers. This will either mean more precarity for workers, or the beginning of a new organising culture in which workers say “OK – but only on our terms”. This is up to the workers themselves – so as we begin to navigate this new landscape, maybe now is the time to pick up the mantle of the Glendale Martyrs.