The Fall and Rise of the Scottish Community

The Fall and Rise of the Scottish Community
Alex Walker


Community-based organisations (i.e. bodies owned and controlled by a membership open to all in their geographical community) are distinct from intentional communities, which are generally self-selective. Despite suffering potentially terminal decline during the 20th century, community organisations are now thriving in Scotland and have received significant encouragement from government in recent years. This paper charts this rise and some of the opportunities they present for regeneration and renewal and offers some comparisons with their intentional counterparts.

Historical Background

The way in which Scottish Highlanders experienced community for much of the historic period was through the clan system. These networks of extended kin relationships formed the backbone of medieval society and even as late as the 17th century this Celtic way of life probably had at least as much in common with traditional Native American lifestyles as it did with the English-speaking populations of Lowland Scotland of the time.

The clans were broken up in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and by the subsequent Highland Clearances that led to communal systems of land holding being replaced by landed estates owned in perpetuity by aristocratic families. The result of these traumatic changes was predictable. Large scale emigration to cities and distant lands became the norm. By the 1960s levels of earnings, unemployment and continuing net migration were so bad that a government agency, today called Highland and Islands Enterprise, was set up to combat them.

In the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh the idea of community enterprise fared little better. The growing numbers of urban poor sought to improve their position through the activities of trade unions. The provision of key services (including housing for the majority) was seen as the responsibility of the state and of local authorities. Locally-based collective action was, generally speaking, not given a high priority.

By the latter half of the 20th century these "local" authorities had also abandoned their community roots, becoming (as they remain) amongst the largest in Europe, serving on average a population of 115,000 and in the view of some, creating a "democratic deficit". (Compared to the lowest tiers of government in e.g. Norway, where the average is 4,000 and Germany where it is 7,000.) Perhaps the nadir for the idea of community in Scotland came during the 1980s when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that "there is no such thing as society". 

However it is in the nature of things that renewal often comes amidst the rubble of the old and the rest of this paper charts the remarkable rejuvenation of community-based action in Scotland during the last two decades. 

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