Angus-Peter Campbell

Lochboisdale seemed like a city to me as a child: after all it had street lights. Whereas I lived in a pre-electrical village, woken by the cockerel crowing, and surrounded by sheep, cows, dogs and horses. I could see where eggs and milk came from, and knew that the best soup was made from the stock of that old fat hen who was past laying.

We all live in an increasingly urbanised world. A recent United Nations report shows that the global percentage of people living in an urban environment (cities with a population of more than 20,000)has risen from 13% in 1900 to just over 50% now, with a projection that the figure is likely to rise to 90% by the year 2050.

In the long history of mankind city living is a recent phenomenon. If we had a human clock, we’ve really only been living in urban environments for the past few minutes. Around two thousand years ago, the world had less than 250,000 people, which you’d now get if you put the good folk of Aberdeen and Dunfermline all together in one big stadium. Which sounds like a dangerous idea.

Up until the 16th century, the population of most cities ranged from just two thousand up to twenty thousand. Even in the time of the sparkling Renaissance, those legendary cities of Florence and Venice had relatively small populations by modern standards: 80,000 in Florence in 1338, which makes it sort of like Paisley today. Without the Medicis and Michelangelo, of course. London was astonishingly small. In the late 14th century, it had a population of just 30,000 (less than Falkirk nowadays).

The great historian George MacAulay Trevelyan paints a lovely picture of the roads to London in the late 18th century. “Night and day hundreds of horses in relays came up at trot and gallop, from the South Coast and the Berwick and Solway salmon fisheries, bringing fresh to Billingsgate the best fish of every port. A hundred thousand head of cattle and three-quarters of a million sheep yearly walked up to Smithfield for the slaughter, many of them from Scotland or from the borders of Wales. But strangest of all to the modern eye would be the droves of geese and turkeys, two or three thousand at a time. On one road, from Ipswich to London, 150,000 turkeys walked over the Stour Bridge each year.”

Cities have always lived off the fat of the land.

The impact of technological development, transportation, and the Industrial Revolution in Scotland is well documented. From the 19th century onwards millions crowded into the cities: thousands of Irish and Scottish Gaels, for instance, into Glasgow. My other favourite historian, Eric Hobsbawn described it as “a gigantic process of class segregation, where the almost universal European division into a ‘good’ west end and a ‘poor’ east end developed rapidly.” Capitalism had begun its march.

At their best, cities are beautiful. I love Edinburgh and Paris for their art and energy. Though I am well aware that cities also bear witness to the terrible, and increasing, gap between rich and poor.

In our increasingly urbanised world, it is all too easy to forget the link between people and land. Place-names near to hand give the game away. In Edinburgh, we have Haymarket and the Grassmarket and the Cowgate and Tollcross as linguistic indicators that cattle were as common in the capital city as criminals. And Glasgow has a similar history, with folk still around who recall their grannies telling them about cows being herded down through Springburn and the Saltmarket, through Glasgow Green to Flesher’s Haugh, where they’d graze before being taken to the Slaughter House in the Gallowgate.

For many of us in Scotland milk now comes from a carton not from a cow and the countryside is for those lucky enough to afford to take a holiday. The beautiful rural areas of Scotland I know have become a retirement home for many and continues to be part of an investment portfolio for others. If I could afford it (which I can’t) I too would buy a house in Skye, where a home is well beyond the reach of almost everyone I know. If one thing ought to change, then a radical land policy combined with affordable housing needs to be top priority.

Being poor and jobless while looking out at sheep grazing in a field may be a better deal than being unemployed in an inner city area, but I wouldn’t bet on it. City dwellers deserve ancient rural privileges, just the same way that country folk deserve modern urban provisions.