Ian Carter: Farm Life

Ian Carter Farm Life in Northeast Scotland 1840-1915: the poor man’s country (1979, paperback edition 1997, John Donald, Edinburgh) is the only detailed study of Northeast Scotland’s rural class relations. This makes it unique. There has been a lot written about the Highland Clearances, especially John Prebble‘s Fire and Sword Trilogy – Culloden (1961) The Highland Clearances (1963), and Glencoe (1966).  My 1976 doctoral dissertation at Gothenburg University was based on a micro sociological study of John Prebble The Highland Clearances (1963).

Ian was a colleague at Aberdeen University in the late 1960s. We were also in the same small group of ramblers. It was Ian who lent me his copy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings just before I left. He also put on a Doric dialect when he phoned to ask about my Prospect Terrace flat that was on the market. So when he decamped for a Chair at Auckland University, I kept an eye out for his work. I read Farm Life when a year or two after it first came out in 1979, borrowing it from The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. I was deeply impressed by its History Workshop approach: detailed historiography of a complex peasant class situation, and described in loving detail. Around 2000 I bought a copy of the 1997 paperback edition (unchanged except for a new introduction). So the only new text is the preface to the paperback edition. His regret at having to leave Aberdeen was evident. But apart from that his work was noticed by Raphael Samuel and he joined the History Workshop editorial board for a brief period before his “exile from a loved land”, as he puts it on p. iii.

This post can only briefly introduce the main outlines of this fascinating book. I would only urge those who have not read it to do so. Ian makes a further comment that says more about rural sociology than about his book: the only other study of regional differences in lowland farm labour organisation was a collection of chapter length studies edited into book form by Tom Devine in 1984:

“That apart Farm Life seems to have settled down in Scottish academic circles to tombstone status: a relic to which authors give a respectful nod before plodding off in other directions. When last I looked, this still was the only book-length study of nineteenth century agricultural change in a lowland region. That still puzzles me.”

Indeed, it puzzles me too. The only explanation that makes sense is that Farm Life is so detailed and of such scholarship that others have been put off even trying to do the same for other regions, as the comparison would be unfavourable. Ian mentions Thatcherism as having devastated Aberdeen sociology. But the new laissez-faire (aka Neoliberalism) continues to this day. Neoliberalism has its distorting effect on all areas of life, and academia is no exception. Some gifted sociologists have suffered burnout – I am thinking specifically of Chris Allen, but there are many more. Women suffered particularly from this as I noticed when I was at Plymouth University. The double burden is itself onerous to carry but when added to the academic neoliberal bureaucratic apparatus that Britain has – I refer to the Research Assessment Exercise instigated by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 – the double burden easily becomes unbearable.

In any event, Ian’s opus magnum will not be likely to be equalled in another lowland region until this wave of neoliberal revanchism is over and researchers have the time and space to do the research. Who, in today’s hierarchical academia could afford to spend a decade researching and writing a book to match Farm Life? Yes, the data in Scotland is outstanding and goes back further than it does in the rest of the UK, but pressures on researchers to publish many articles – often multiply authored to speed up the process – is not designed to encourage quality, despite what neoliberal politicians believe. This was why I chose to leave Plymouth and go to the new Institute for Housing Research that Bengt Turner was setting up at the time. I was sorry to leave the Southwest, but it proved to be a wise choice and gave me the space to do research I was interested in.

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