The hutters at Carbeth dwell in the forest -when they can get there. They have a history: it’s a green one and a working class one; it’s one of urban folk in the countryside, and they’re prepared to fight for it. Greg Thomas speaks to a couple who make and remake their stand in the forest.
“We both knew Carbeth before we knew each other,” says Morven Gregor, Curator of Contemporary Art at Mount Stuart, a grand fin-de-siecle gothic house on the Isle of Bute repurposed as a gallery. Morven lives in a converted free church in Rothesay, Bute’s main town, with her partner, poet Gerry Loose. They are hunched over a phone in a cosy, domesticated enclave of the building, talking to me on Zoom.[i]
Unorthodox living arrangements have clearly always appealed to Morven and Gerry. Over a 14-year period from 1999 until 2013 they were lynchpins of the hutting community at Carbeth that made history by successfully buying out their site from landowner Allan Barns-Graham. This happy ending followed years of rent strikes, court disputes, and even recriminatory hut burnings, after Barns-Graham – nephew of the artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – imposed massive and sudden rent hikes in 1997.
But what is a hut? According to the website of the Thousand Huts Campaign, which provides advice to prospective hutters – and which Gerry and Morven helped set up – “hutting is the term used for the traditional model of hut use which came to the fore in Scotland between the First and Second World Wars, whereby workers from the industrial areas of Scotland paid a little ground rent to a landowner so they could build a simple hut for the use of their family and friends.” Hutting is common in wooded, northerly parts of the world, from North America to Scandinavia. In many of these countries, particularly the Nordic nations, the number of huts dwarves the figure in Scotland because the countryside is parcelled out amongst a far larger number of landowners, each of whom owns a small patch, many of them passing sites down through families.
The story of Morven, Gerry, and their lovingly maintained hut at Carbeth (a 90-acre wooded site near the Campsie Fells, Carbeth is about ten miles north of Glasgow and contains 140 huts) has many narrative strands, not least political and historical ones (and literary and philosophical). But the story’s not in the past. “We’re still out there every chance we can get,” Gerry says. “There are green spaces in towns and cities,” as Morven puts it, “but it’s not the same as sitting on your own front step with a cup of tea, looking at a little patch of grass and some trees.”
The longer-term history of Carbeth is a rare case of working-class people finding a space of their own in the Scottish countryside, which, for the most part, remains in the hands of a tiny number of estate owners. As journalist Leslie Riddoch notes in her 2020 book Huts: A Place Beyond, a mild-mannered community organiser from Govan called William Ferris (1894-1963) was at the centre of it all. In 1918, Ferris was a Sergeant with the Highland Cyclist Battalion, stationed at Ballinrobe, Ireland. It was from here, weeks after the armistice, that he wrote letters to Allan Barns-Graham Senior (grandfather of the rent-hiker) asking if he and two companions might build a clubhouse at Carbeth, which had been a popular camping site before the war. Barns-Graham senior refused but offered them the chance to camp there semi-permanently instead.
Gerry outlines the stealthy process by which tents became huts: “it started out at one particular location in Carbeth, called the Fellowship Camp, and then at some point wooden floors were introduced into the tents. People would dance at a big community tent. There was great community spirit. And then people eventually put sides on those floors and so huts came about.” By Riddoch’s account, “Barns-Graham Jr insisted that his grandfather finally allowed huts to avoid the health and hygiene problems associated with camping.”[ii] It’s also worth noting parallels with the tradition of overnighting in bothies. These structures were originally built as temporary accommodation for indentured labourers but were abandoned after the Second World War and so became covert camping spots. In both cases, patterns of usage were established around and in spite of the rules laid down by the laird class, who eventually came to tolerate or endorse them.
In either case, the hutting community at Carbeth thrived across the early twentieth century, just as hutting was taking off across Scandinavia. (The early-twentieth-century tradition of working-class self-built homes on the south-east coast of England, explored in Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward’s Arcadia for All ,is another point of comparison). Then, Morven adds, “a big expansion came with the Second World War and the Clydebank Blitz. After that, the local authority in Clydebank made an agreement with the landowner that people would be rehoused out at Carbeth because their homes were flattened.” By 1946, Riddoch states, there were 285 huts.[iii]
Carbeth was a place where urban families whose main income was from primary industries such as shipbuilding could get away for the weekend—with the exception of rehoused families, the huts were not first homes. “This was the time of the Socialist Cycling Club and the Clarion Scouts,” Morven says, “all those great working-class traditions of getting access to the fresh air and not just spending all your time in the polluted central belt. Although Carbeth’s not a million miles from the central belt, the air quality must have been infinitely better than in Clydebank or in Maryhill, which are the traditional areas that folk came from.”
Over the latter half of the twentieth century, though, Carbeth was subject to chronic underinvestment and the community dwindled and split apart, perhaps with the arrival of cheap foreign holidays. Riddoch’s account also suggests that the loss of Ferris as a mediating and galvanising presence led to souring relations between the tenants and the Barns-Grahams. Many huts fell into disrepair or were vandalised—while their Nordic equivalents were being fitted out with electricity hook-ups and running water.
Then came the rent hike: 26% according to the landed family; at least double according the hut-owners. Tommy Kirkwood, a retired shipyard worker, summed up the spirit on the hutters’ side of the dispute in 2011: “I don’t think the Barns-Grahams realised that a lot of the people up here were very politically minded. I was a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, and there were people here from the Scottish Communists and the British Communist Party. They weren’t very likely to stand for being ordered around by a landlord.”[iv] It was into the middle of this febrile situation, with their eyes wide open, that Gerry and Morven walked, in 1999.
At this time, the couple were just getting to know each other. Both were living in Maryhill but visiting “separate gangs of friends” at Carbeth, Morven says. They first stayed out there together, Gerry recalls, “in the hut of a friend of mine who was engaged quite heavily with the strikes.” The writer was living in a high-rise with his ten-year-old daughter and, having grown up in rural Ireland, “wanted her to know there were alternatives” to their cramped urban routine. The pair decided they needed a hut of their own, which, in another curious caveat, they bought from comedian Phil Kay. It stood on its own, “isolated, within trees, at the end of a little track…A lot of the other huts were kind of hugger mugger with others, and that wouldn’t have suited us.”
The fact that they arrived from Maryhill, one of the traditional heartlands of the Carbeth milieux, was one reason the collective “took us to their hearts,” Gerry suggests. But the bedded-in hutters were also impressed with the new arrivals’ spirit of thrift, their commitment to making-do and mending to restore their dilapidated new home. During the 1930s-60s, people would have walked out to Carbeth across the Kilpatrick Hills from Clydebank just for the weekend, Gerry points out, often carrying scrap materials to use on their plot. “Many of the original hutters were shipyard workers, used to manual work and not shy of building things for themselves, or of finding something on site that apparently had no use and taking it out to Carbeth.” “That is the hutting way,” Morven adds. “So when we arrived with bricks that we’d carried on the bus [neither of them drove at the time] it was in the hutting tradition…. A really old hutter said to me ‘there are two sorts of people, hutters and people who have huts, and you’re hutters’.”
This way of living was part of the attraction of Carbeth. Gerry’s 2021 book The Unfinished Hut, a set of lyrical evocations on sitting down, thinking, mending, and sharing space with tiny fauna at Carbeth, is replete with the spirit of recycling and bricolage. Opening sequence “An entrance,” for example, describes the gathering of bric-a-brac for a new door:
[S]lowly, this and that was accumulated…a pair of hinges, along with boxes of screws that I took when the owners of the very last ironmongery in Glasgow’s Great Western Road disappeared….A stained glass window thrown out from a house renovation in Bowling village. Curved oak from a broken chair left for the bin men in a city street. A right-angled branch section from Ardnamurchan…[v]
“I think you’ll find,” Gerry says, “that everything in the book is accounted for.” In other words, not a plank, fastener, or bracket is mentioned without its provenance in scrapyard, skip, or building site being relayed.
Musing on the satisfaction earlier hutters must have felt putting their manual skills to use to make a home, Morven describes a kind of re-enchantment of the relationship between worker and product opposed to the alienation of the factory line. “Obviously, if you’re working on a ship, you’re highly skilled and proud of your work but it’s an individual, demarcated piece of labour. But if you’re creating a hut, you’re building your own world, albeit within a general aesthetic of recycling.” This reflects a wider sense of class consciousness, or perhaps rather of the levelling egalitarian spirit of Carbeth, that also inspired the duo. “Carbeth is the most egalitarian place I’ve ever encountered,” Gerry says, “and that is something that I absolutely cherish.” It’s to do, he suggests, with a kind of collective self-reliance. “You might be a lawyer, part of the bourgeoisie in name, but you’ve still got to draw your own water, you’ve still got to chop your own firewood, you’ve still got to muck along with the neighbours even, and perhaps even because, they piss you off.”
As all this might suggest, when Gerry and Morven became hutters it wasn’t in spite of the well-documented problems with the landlord but, at least in part, because of it: a desire to muck in, and to scrap for the place. “At that time all purchases went through the landowner,” recalls Morven. “In fact, you were the last person he sold to,” she says, nodding to Gerry. “It was fun,” Gerry says with a twinkle, “because I knew exactly what I was getting into. I signed the contract and agreed to everything he said knowing full well that I was joining the rent strike as of the moment that I owned the hut. He had no knowledge of that whatsoever.”
Before asking about the resolution of the strike, I want to speak to Gerry and Morven about the hut in literary and philosophical imagination. The couple’s evocations of a recycled Shangri-La, of boat-parts and skip fodder, puts me in mind of a kind of post-Cubist, collagist aesthetic: something like Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Barn, or Will McLean’s boxed constructions. But there is a wider history of the hut as motif in the western imagination. It begins, perhaps, with Heidegger’s black forest hut, from which emerged much of his metaphysics: a space, in the author’s own formulation, in which the inauthentic self or dasein of the urban dweller (the “they-self”) can be cast off. Heideggerian individualism of this kind was, of course, hugely problematised by his involvement with Nazism. Paul Celan and, more recently, J.H. Prynne, developed the motif of the hut as a metaphor for the encounter between individual and world, mediated by language, in a way that subverts Heidegger’s example.[vi] Closer to home, Ian Hamilton Finlay made much of Heideggerian thought in his recreation – both citational and literal – of “woodpaths,” solitary canopied walkways conducive to inward contemplation, at his poet’s garden Little Sparta, in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh.
For Gerry, however, the relevant examples are a world away:
Through my engagement with Japanese literature I’d known about hutters and hermits, poets and artists living in situations a little like ours at Carbeth. Many of them were actually fairly aristocratic people who had been sent into exile, others had failed Chinese exams and were relegated to simple living or, because of revolution in Tang times, they’d been forced to take refuge in huts. I was drawn to this kind of literature and it continues in Japan as a tradition of withdrawal from the world.
Amongst East-Asian literary reference points in The Unfinished Hut we find snippets from Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book (ca. 990-1002), Yoshida Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa or “Book of Idleness” (1330-32), and a verse from the twentieth-century Dadaist and Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi. We might also mention Kamo no Chōmei’s Hōjōki of 1212, often translated as “An Account of My Hut,” an ascetic treatise on human impermanence composed from a ten-square-foot mountain dwelling. “I felt something of a kinship with those those early hutters, people who lived, by necessity, very thriftily and very carefully, a life – what was it Thoreau said, misquoting Socrates? – a life examined. It was important for me to live a life examined.”
Gerry adds, however, that “he never would and never could withdraw from the world. That’s not my philosophy.” Sure enough, what comes across most clearly from the pair’s account of their time at Carbeth is their dogged commitment to save the community from ruin. “The hutters badgered us and badgered us to sit on the strike committee,” Gerry recalls, “and I really had my hands full, and I hate committees, but I could see no way round it. If you’re part of something, you’ve got to fight for it.” Their arrival gave a new lease of life to the fight to save the 90 acres. “There’s different phases of energy that go into any dispute,” Morven says. “When there’s the threat of eviction, the trauma of huts being burned down, court cases, that takes a huge amount of energy out of you. And maybe after those points of high drama, if nothing really improves, folk start to drift away.”
Morven is partly referring here to an unsuccessful attempt by the hutters to claim “security of tenure” in a 1999 court-case, which outcome resulted in hutter Bill McQueen’s eviction.[vii] Then, of course, there were the infamous burnings that mysteriously befell those troublemakers most involved in the rent strikes. “We knew precisely who had done it,” Gerry recalls. “The landlord had employed what he euphemistically called ‘wardens,’ who were basically thugs. And it was them. Everybody knew it was them but there was simply no proof.” The spate of arson was brutal and traumatic: a dog was trapped inside a hut and killed. “And it was fortunate that no one else was seriously hurt, either in the fires or because of the violence that could have ensued because of them.” Being vocal in the dispute, Gerry and Morven also lived in fear, for several years, of finding their own hut in cinders one day.
Still, the pair had what Morven called “determination in spades. We came along with renewed energy….We were the right people at the right time.” The whole business still took 13 years but eventually, after protracted negotiations with an increasingly exhausted Barns-Graham, he agreed to sell the land to the hutters. In the intervening period they had unsuccessfully bid for the Scottish Land Fund grant scheme; called in a team of lawyers specialising in land reform; set up a community company; and secured conservation status for Carbeth so that the architecture of the site couldn’t be touched. “That was a big gamechanger,” Gerry says, “because at that time there were other very small enclaves of huts where landlords had just rushed in with bulldozers.”
The buyout brought to happy resolution an extraordinary and at times nerve-shredding saga. It’s a story whose significance to the past, and future, of communal land-use in Scotland belies the straightforward and genial way in which Morven and Gerry recall it all. (They also casually mention their role in helping to secure special status for huts in a piece of 2014 Scottish Government regulation, so that huts can now be built more easily than other permanent structures.) What, finally, is the legacy of Carbeth? I ask if they helped power the wave of community buyouts across rural Scotland – from Eigg in the Western Isles to Assynt in the northern Highlands, and Comrie in Perthshire – that has characterised the last few decades? “I doubt it,” Gerry answers, “because most of the examples you could give are in very rural communities. If anything we showed that a community of interest could start the ball rolling within central Scotland. Because Carbeth, although it’s kind of rural, is ten miles from the centre of Glasgow. It’s still well within urban complexity.”
Morven agrees, and gives an example. “One of the daughters of one of the folks that’s been there right through the rent strikes and for generations before that, works for a young person’s organisation in Clydebank, and they’ve created a hut for their organisation that works with marginalised young people in and around the area. Now, if even one of those kids, in their twenties or thirties, decides that actually they wouldn’t mind having their own hut, that would be a fantastic thing to have come from it all.” Up with the huts.
All photos are by Morven Gregor, from hutdays.wordpress.com.
[i] All interview quotes are from this discussion.
[ii] Lesley Riddoch, Huts: A Place Beyond, (Edinburgh: Luath, 2020), p157.
[iii] Riddoch, p161.
[iv] Qtd. in Riddoch, p167.
[v] Gerry Loose, The Unfinished Hut (Glasgow: PlaySpace, 2021) p11.
[vi] I have leaned here on Nichola Thomas’s article “Stark, Necessary and Not Permanent: Huts in The Work of Paul Celan and J. H. Prynne,” German Life and Letters 69.3 (2016) pp350-64.
[vii] See The Herald, 23 February 1999, “Sheriff rules against security of tenure claims; Landowner wins battle to evict Carbeth hutters.”