In Scotland, in Britain and in most of the Western world we have a profoundly dysfunctional relationship with work and leisure. For too many of us living for the weekend, or living for our two weeks of holidays a year is what gets us through dehumanising, alienating work. While work doesn’t need to be like that, we must also change our relationship with leisure.
Creeping commercialisation corrodes the quality of our lives. The very act of avoiding consumption has in itself become revolutionary. By rediscovering how previous generations avoided the alienation of paid work we can discover ways we ourselves can be freed from the alienation caused by consumerism’s infiltration into every aspect of our lives.
For that reason a range of the most vigorous activists in Scotland have got together to back the Thousand Huts campaign being run by Reforesting Scotland. Scotland’s hut tradition sits alongside those in other northern countries – particularly Scandinavia. But in those other countries hutting has been supported by government to become a widespread leisure activity. In Scotland it’s been regarded as an esoteric pursuit for individuals deemed to be rather odd by Civil Servants. As a result hutting has never attained the popularity Dominic Hinde wrote about it having elsewhere.
Many of you may well think those Civil Servants are right. When I’ve had conversations about hutting in the past few days, it’s been clear that people have no real idea what the tradition means. The marginalisation of hutting robs us of an important relationship with rural Scotland. It also robs rural Scotland of important opportunities to sustain vital services, trade and develop.
At the launch event on Wednesday, Gerry Loose gave a wonderful account of the Carbeth Hutters. Carbeth is at the point where the newly urbanised working classes of Glasgow, Renfrewshire and Clydebank met having walked or cycled out of Glasgow. Making use of their newly won weekends and summer holiday weeks, workers began to rediscover the rural land their parents or grandparents had left to move to the city.
And Carbeth was one of the places where they would meet, celebrate and enjoy their free time. In the 1920s the landowner decided that letting plots to people to build holiday homes was the most productive use for his land. The site is on the route that became the West Highland Way in 1980.
What emerged was a community of self-builders using the skills they deployed daily in the shipyards and factories of Clydeside to re-claim a bit of rural Scotland for themselves. This fits in a much broader radical tradition of reclaiming the land. The Cyclists’ Touring Club, British Workers Sports Federation and other outdoor organisations were deeply concerned with the freeing access to the land as an act of revolutionary justice. This inspired the famous Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in 1932, where walkers deliberately reclaimed the right to roam on the land upon which our ancestors freely walked.
Hutting was a political act. It was a way of resisting the alienation of industrial work. Hutters were taking back the land, they were taking control of their own lives, they were reclaiming their humanity from the reductive and dehumanising working conditions imposed by depression-era industrialists. At the heart of the hutting philosophy is the belief that it’s not work that’s the problem, it’s who you’re working for. Working for someone else can be deeply alienating. If you’re working for yourself and your community it’s liberating, enjoyable and life-giving. It’s that spirit allowed the Carbeth hutters to build a community through building their own huts.
In the 1930s this offered an escape from the insecure jobs, unemployment and deprivation of industrial Clydeside. Latterly it has offered a sanctuary from those whose livelihoods have been forcibly reorganised by deindustrialisation in the West of Scotland.
The idyll of the 1920s and ‘30s continued largely unmolested into the 1990s. The site developed, and the community grew. In 1997 a new landowner inherited the land. He decided that the Hutters had to go. The Hutters refused. They went on rent strike. Even the newly formed Scottish Parliament failed to sort the problem out. Civil Servants tasked with investigating the situation concluded that there were too few hutters for it to be worthwhile doing anything about. Through sheer dogged resistance and creative energy the Carbeth Hutters have been able to see off the predatory landlord. They now have an option to buy the site and are working to finally take control of the site.
Hutting will offer the chance for very many more urban Scots to develop a new relationship with the land. Since the clearances, the Irish famine and the mass immigration of the 20th Century the link to the land has got progressively weaker. By valuing land as the root of human and natural community we can create a stronger environmental consciousness that is based on lived experience rather than sentimentality. Hutting every weekend, and for weeks at a time in the summer would allow a greater engagement with Scotland’s non-urban environment.
The Carbeth story is one of radical history and recent struggle. But hutting could offer a way to transform the economy of many of our rural areas. Ardfern in Lunga, Argyll has a community of hutters, permitted by the enlightened landlord. They have contributed to the retention of local services and the provision of accommodation for local people who can’t afford local houses. By creatively addressing a housing shortage people have been able to sustain a rural community that may otherwise have declined. Sadly Argyll and Bute Council are seeking to destroy the community by forcing the hutters out.
There are a number of ways we could promote hutting. It would be easy to create a new class of dwelling – the hut. Support for people living off-grid could be increased. In Scandinavia the average hut is only 25 miles from the hutter’s primary residence. We could encourage urban Councils to seek sites for Hutting (as they presently do with allotments) from nearby local authorities. Glasgow could negotiate with Stirling, Edinburgh with the Borders or East Lothian and we could give retrospective planning permission to all existing huts.
The first Scottish Parliament made Land Reform its greatest achievement. This Parliament could make hutting a Scottish phenomenon, and something that is copied through the rest of these Isles. Hutting could make a huge difference to our lives and our communities. We could create a place where people can reclaim community, rediscover skills and create a new way to work. It’s a truly exciting campaign.