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Published in English by the Guardian Weekly




Fisherfolk and the sharing of the rent of the sea

Peter Gibb on the land reform agenda below high tide

THERE ARE MOVES to bring control of Scottish fisheries into community control. Two questions are raised by this: who is the community; and what exactly is meant by “control”.

Two hundred miles north of Edinburgh - Scotland’s capital city and the venue for July’s 23rd biennial Conference of the International Union for Land Value Taxation - lies the Royal Burgh of Cullen, with a falling population something under a thousand. The town sits on the relatively balmy south coast of the Moray Firth. At a latitude of 57 degrees north of the equator, figs ripen on the vine in the local hotelier’s garden, warmed, amazingly, by the dying licks of the gulf stream.

Cullen is the seat of one of Scotland’s greatest private landlords, the Earl of Seafield. If not idyllic, Cullen has been a pleasant home to generations. The proto-Georgist Professor William Ogilvie, born 16 miles west at Pittensair outside Lhanbryde, was master of Cullen Grammar School in 1759 for a year. And for five years now, a farm a mile outside of town has been the base of Land Reform Scotland.

The people of this area are close to the pulse of what is happening in the seas around these islands.

A hundred years ago, Cullen was in the midst of a herring bonanza. The Moray Firth was the scene for an economic miracle, a bed for technical progress, and a generator of unparalleled regional social change in modern times. The Scottish novelist Neil Gunn, in The Silver Darlings, tells the story of those heady times. The fishing gave Moray its industrial revolution; and, perhaps unusually, the fish was largely a popular revolution.

Most Seatown families owned a sail boat. With the men home for the weekend, Cullen harbour - like those of neighbouring Portnockie and Findochty, and many others further afield - could be crossed, quay to quay, over the water, by stepping from deck to deck of the closely moored fishing boats completely filling the harbour -jammed together, like sardines in a tin. The coastal towns of the Moray coast were built on the wealth from the sea. But it did not last.

CULLEN’S fall from common wealth is there to be read, in a series of sepia photographs ranged above the public bar of The Three Kings Inn.

The Inn, named after an local battle, a long time ago, in which a Scottish, a Norwegian and a Danish king lost their lives-another fight for control of land and resources - sits on the town’s North Castle Street. The street slopes steeply down to the holiday houses of the Seatown, the foreshore unused but by the dogwalkers and sand castle builders, and the all but empty harbour.