Against Scottish Wildness

muirBy Fraser MacDonald

I’ll say it upfront and get it out of the way: I’ve never had much time for John Muir.

He has become one of Scotland’s revered secular saints – a founding figure of modern environmentalism and, most recently, the poster boy for the Year of Natural Scotland 2013.

His name has become a byword for the preservation of wild land which is exactly what the eponymous John Muir Trust (JMT), now one of Scotland’s biggest landowners, seeks to do. Hard to find fault with this, surely?

Last month, the wild land charity published findings of a YouGov poll that apparently showed strong support in Scotland for giving wild areas ‘special protection from inappropriate developments’ (for which read: windfarms).

In case you didn’t appreciate the threats to Scotland’s wild lands, JMT have produced a stirring video in which a series of lofty vistas, untroubled by human habitation, are set to a sombre piano refrain.

The film introduces us to “Lewisian Gneiss rock … three billion years old” and then oddly cuts to a JCB excavating a building site in Fort William, with the caution that “it only takes a moment to destroy it”.

But it is precisely because these visually persuasive slippages are powerful, that the JMT’s beguiling landscapes should not distract us from thinking critically about their vision for Scotland.

“The thing is” continues their film, “we can build roads and cities and technological giants” (cue images of Forth Road Bridge, Edinburgh and, yes, a wind turbine) “but we can’t build wilderness”.

It is a seemingly irrefutable claim – an appeal to the obvious. But as is often the case with common sense politics, it doesn’t bear closer scrutiny.

“Wilderness” John Muir once wrote “is not only a haven for native plants and animals but it is also a refuge from society”. Unfortunately, his own experience did not always support the claim. On walking in the Sierra Nevada, his reveries were interrupted by what he described as ‘a lot of queer, hairy muffled creatures …. shuffling, shambling, wallowing towards me’, the ‘dirt on some of the faces … old enough to have geological significance’.

In Muir’s wilderness, almost by definition, there was little place for human beings – particularly if they were indigenous Indians.

The environmental historian William Cronon takes the opposite view to Muir and his modern disciples. ‘Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity’, he argues, wilderness ‘is quite profoundly a human creation’.

Cronon regards wilderness as a post-Enlightenment conceit that bears an uncertain relation to the physical landscape. Rather it is an industrial era fantasy that can only be sustained by suppressing our knowledge of the extent of human intervention in the environment.

All of this is particularly relevant for Scotland’s mountains which have been variously chopped, burned and grazed beyond anything like their ‘natural’ state.

Much of the Highlands, for instance, have been ecologically arrested to support red deer and red grouse, species that in turn support the recreational bloodsports of princes and bankers.

What we take to be ‘wild land’ is really a closely managed political ecology that has turned landscapes of privilege – the ‘wild’ deer forests – into the now familiar canon of Scottish scenery.

In the early days of the twenty first century, the Scottish Tourist Board launched a campaign called ‘Scotland: it stays with you’. One advert placed in the Financial Times showed a photograph of a wild Sgurr nan Gillean in Skye with the tagline ‘And you thought making money quickened your pulse’.

The blurb went on:

STB advert

Breathtaking isn’t it? And not a bull or a bear in sight (stags are pretty common though). To swap the Square Mile for something a little more awe-inspiring, simply visit our website to see our online brochure of Scottish winter breaks. After all, don’t you think it is time you blew a little of that money you’ve been earning?

This kind of oleaginous promotion is quite in keeping with the long history of landscape representation in Scotland for which, in some part, we can thank Edwin Landseer. Monarch of the Glen along with his other commissions from Victoria and Albert gave us an image of Scotland that, for all its charismatic nature, was ultimately subject to the sovereignty of the sportsman’s gun.

The John Muir Trust would doubtless agree that Scotland’s uplands have been ecologically devastated – that, after all, is at the heart of their well-intentioned purpose to restore habitats.

But why must we cling to the fiction of wildness? The Highlands have been subject to human management for millennia; and it will require further ingenuity and effort to repair the environmental damage of the last three centuries.

David Brewer – a Muir devotee and founder of the US Sierra Club – once described wilderness as a place ‘where the hand of man has not set foot’. It is a wonderfully mixed metaphor and one founded on the tired old Cartesian binary that counterposes nature as the metaphysical opposite of culture.

For Cronon, by contrast, wilderness is a place that exists primarily in the Western imagination – a retreat we have made from the disquieting encroachments of modernity.

So here’s the paradox: wildness is a human attribute that we ascribe to the landscape, not a quality that adheres in the landscape. And wildness is only achieved through a great deal of cultural, material and ecological ‘work’ on our part, whether this takes the form of making art or erecting fences or writing conservation policy. At the same time, however, the very notion of ‘wild’ prohibits any acknowledgement of the human agency from which it is constituted, demanding instead that we see only the workings of an external, pristine Nature.

All of this might seem very abstract. The point is that there are good reasons to be cautious about the political baggage carried by ‘wild’ land in contemporary Scotland, for what is being protected is not just the appearance of specific landscapes but a wider aesthetic – a vision of what Scotland should look like – that has its provenance in elite ways of seeing.

To designate much of Scotland as wild land is to give priority to this culturally specific vision while obscuring the many ways in which these landscapes have been known and named and storied, from prehistory to the present.

I am concerned then about the political aim of the JMT to enshrine ‘wildness’ within the public planning system. They are campaigning to see areas of ‘core wild land’ – recently mapped by Scottish Natural Heritage and currently under consultation – declared off limits for ‘inappropriate development’ (windfarms, again) - see here.

At first glance, these maps are pretty persuasive, at least as long as you stick to Muir’s path and think of wildness as something ‘out there’, a quality independent of human vicissitudes.

If you consider wildness to be a scientific object that can be mapped then this is the cartographic result you are likely to get. But it wouldn’t hurt SNH to employ a humanities graduate or two. Though they have big scientific guns at their disposal – quantitative methods and spatial analysis – wildness will always prove itself to be an evasive quarry, as any art historian or philosopher can testify.

In SNH’s new definition ‘wild’ is an amalgam of perceived naturalness; ruggedness; remoteness; and a visible lack of human occupation. Although SNH, unlike the JMT, are careful to distinguish ‘wild land’ from ‘wilderness’, the rhetorical function of ‘wild’ is largely the same. It props up the demonstrably unsafe pretence that some corner of Scotland has lain beyond the reach of human design.

The practical consequences of such a change could be momentous. Say, for instance, that Stòras Uibhist, the community owned estate in South Uist, wanted to use hill land to generate their own renewable energy – they might find themselves blocked by the aesthetic conventions of the late eighteenth century.

But what is really at stake here is much bigger than the present wind farm controversy. It is a question of whether contemporary Scotland can celebrate a nature that has long been woven into the fabric of our culture; or whether we need to persist, as Muir did, with the contrivance of a pristine nature in which people have no place.

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Categories: Arts & Culture, Environmental Justice, Identity, New Scotland

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61 replies

  1. A skilled wordsmith can make anything sound good.
    The sound of silence in a crowded world doesn’t need any words.

  2. It is worth listening to Brian McNeill’s Bring back the Wolf, which touches on this same issue. Who lives in the wilderness and do we want to repopulate it?

  3. Some valid points, though I think there is merit in protecting areas of natural beauty and even unnatural beauty. Part of the problem of course is the language of absolutes; genuinely sympathetic development can have a place almost anywhere but the planning system needs to be robust enough to weed out the unsympathetic and ill-thought out.

    John Muir said much which has lent itself to genuine conservation and the restoration of more natural habitat into areas that have been persistently ‘managed’ is a very good thing, not because it creates a fabled wilderness but just because it is a better ecosystem for life to survive and for people to get enjoyment from.

  4. Well said Fraser, the Highlands are plagued with this extended clique and their fantasies, whether the JMT, the Wild Land Group, the RSPB, the Ramblers or the SMC, with their committees and their fancy titles. Unfortunately in these post-imperial times, Scotland is the substitute for real wildness, as found abroad.
    Turning the country into some kind of museum, often controlled from below the border, is not good news for that most endangered species, the native population.

    • Absolutely agree. the proponants of these indulgent ideas almost never actually live in the areas their attempting to control. The land should be used for the betterment of the population, not the absurd fantasies of the environmental taliban. There are vast tracts of land in the north and upland areas which should be in commercial forestry, native woodland or producing livestock. It’s doing none of these things – it’s just mouldering and it’s supporting no-one. The drive for aforestation should be concentrated on these areas. The Forestry Commission should IMMEDIATELY review its policy of granting planting licences to in-bye agricultural land – it’s criminal to waste such a limited resource, usually to line the pockets of some absentee landlord in the England.

    • Totally agree Wullie. There’s a balance to be had and North of the Highland Fault line is already being “studied”, “categorised” and picked over by these various academic bodies with a view to using it as a counter/outdoor space for the over populated and over managed land mass south of the Scottish Border. Another reason for Independence. Leave the Scots to manage their land use, that’s what the Land Use Strategy is all about.

  5. An excellent article. The idea of wilderness in Scotland is of course a very modern conceit. From my home in Skye, I can see the rugged landscape of Knoydart, which is often referred to as one of our ‘last great wilderness areas’.

    This of course is a complete fiction, the land has been lived on for thousands of years, a wilderness where each ridge, valley and meadow has a name, given by the Gaelic speaking people who lived and worked on the land.

    The problem with institutions such as the JM Trust is that the recognition of those who lived in these areas doesn’t fit the very Victorian narrative we have of depopulated places.

    A pertinent example of this can be found on Islay at the RSPB Bird Sanctuary which recently featured on the heavily romanticised BBC series ‘The Hebrides’.

    The reserve is the site of a pivotal battle in the clan fueds over control of the islands (The Battle of Trai-Gruinard), the cairn which marks the site has been removed from signage, and access is extremely difficult due to the way the land has been classified as a wilderness, and as a result part of our history is being lost in the process.

  6. My native land of Sutherland stands as testament to the hand of mankind in the wilderness, created as it was by politics and men. Owned as it now is by the off spring of these men safe in their home counties mansions. Sutherland a is but a small snapshot of Scotland. There are wild spaces in Glasgow also created by politics and men. I think of Easterhouse, Calton, Drumhapel and many more. However back to Sutherland. The wild spaces there have to be seen to be appreciated. I had the privilege of seeing them from the air, on a private flight piloted by my pilot son and myself. From the air you can clearly see the outlines of the croft houses and the run rigs and ancient peat banks that were the life support system of a way of life, so cruelly wiped away by those with fire swords power and money. The families long gone and scattered to the four winds of the planet. mostly to Canada. Those that were strong enough to survive the journey on the cattle boats. These Straths should still be filled with people and cattle and dogs and kids. The Churches and ancient graveyards stand like silent sentinels to a story that was fast being buried and forgotten by politicians and their apparatchiks, keen to sterilise the unions crimes. The JMT is but an appendage of that system. In my own family their is still an oral record of these ancient times, as tales told by old grannies and gramps are retold again and again. “Remember when granny told us….” At last we are seeing sparks of recognition of that ignorance and neglect and small steps to reverse it, maybe one day the UK or the RUK Monarch will see fit to apologise to Scotland for the ethnic cleansing and genocide visited upon us in the name of the union, maybe…Ireland was apologised to, but then they suffered even more.

  7. I would love to see the highlands repopulated and more forested. But you can’t deny there is something tremendous about waking or canoeing for miles, pitching a tent by a loch, and going up a hill and seeing nobody.

    • There’s a long way to go before Scotland becomes heaving with humans on every inch of land however. On a recent stay in Stoer, during our evening wanders along the road, lasting an hour or so, we only came across sheep, not a human in sight, and that’s without scaling heights.

      I passed by the JMT shop in Pitlochry shortly after it opened, Large Landowners’ R US, came to mind.

  8. I recall this poorly, but we went on a tour of the Outer Isles once. We came across a completely abandoned village, probably a fishing community.

    It seemed desperately sad to me that people had just ‘given up’. But maybe that was wrong? Perhaps they were given no other option.

    Land ownership ought to be a major issue for an independent Scotland.

    • The whole settlement pattern post clearances is artificial. In an independent Scotland we will have to base some of our economic policy to encourage re population. Your fishing community probably was abandoned because of the radical changes in the fishing industry and perhaps ecological change like the death of the Loch Fyne Herrings. Remember when the people were driven off the Straths they were encouraged to move to the shore to fish.

      • Point taken. I was not very political back then and was just a bit saddened by what I saw. Clearly, as there was a ‘clearance’ off the land and the sea couldn’t provide a sustainable substitute my sadness should have been anger. This is absolutely no way to treat people. We have to be better than that.

        Thanks for getting me angry :-)

  9. In fairness to the JMT, Alan McCombes tells me that the ‘digger shot’ in their video is not, as I thought, the construction of the Tweedale Medical Centre but a wider Miller development – including a new Tesco. To be sure, Tesco ain’t pretty and raises another set of issues. In addition to the supermarket, Miller’s planning application also included medical facilities, a new Gaelic primary school, a sports pitch and industrial estate. It is important to get the detail right so I have since asked Bella to amend the piece.

    But none of this changes my underlying argument that the concepts of ‘wildnerness’ and ‘wild land’ are no longer very useful for thinking about the future of the Scottish landscape. The framing of ‘wildness’ just isn’t necessary to sustain a beautiful, just, ecologically improved, and culturally rich landscape. The conceptual legacy of ‘wild’ is problematic and inhibiting. And though I support some of the JMT’s aims, this blanket designation of ‘core wild land’ is *highly* political in that it exercises control over the ability of local people to use their land.

  10. Having just graduated in Geography (more social sciences and arts based than science) and having returned home to Inverness, I can say that SNH’s judgemental and largely uncriticised perceptions of ‘nature’ are pervasive and extremely frustrating. Sustainable living for people in the Highlands is simply not considered on the whole and I have little option but to work in a tourist focussed job, romanticizing the Clearances and the sporting pursuits of the landed gentry through gritted teeth.

  11. This is a complex issue and a comment here hardly does justice to the issue. But perhaps in terms of national planning policy is would be useful to carefully distinguish between developments, possibly community owned, and primarily there to serve local needs (and I am using development as the issue is wider than wind turbines) and large commercial developments – and here I am thinking wind farms – that are there to exploit the great wind resource in the north west of Scotland to generate power for the big cities in the south and east.

    Planning policy should be capable of distinguishing these two things and allowing the locally controlled community developments while restricting the bigger commercial developments. That might mean that big wind developments do happen in the north and west of Scotland – but that those that live and work in these areas are the people who control the development and are the prime beneficiaries of such developments.

    I would suggest that that would be an appropriate way forward, putting the total sustainability of communities ahead of the interests of visitors to areas and the interests of the large power companies.

    The Scottish Government has talked about wanting more community ownership and planning protection for wild(er) land seems to be coming. Can the Government put these two things together to help remote rural communities exploit the natural assets around them in the way they want for the future?

  12. This debate seems to be another example of disagreement stemming from perceptions – what we see people as being. Surely it’s not whether any people live on a piece of land, it’s what they do to that piece of land in order to live on it that matters. Do they destroy every obviously useful ecosystem and then move on, or do they live in ecological balance with it for generations – millennia, even?

    Our problem is that we don’t seem able talk honestly and openly, rationally even, about what ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’ are. We won’t accept that nature simply cannot keep giving what we think we need. Economies cannot keep growing – even under the false flag of making poverty history. How about making millionaires history too? Balance up the equation a bit.

    I understand and sympathise with both sides of the wilderness argument because neither side gets this fundamental problem of how we live and of what we mean by ‘development’. It’s the same for energy. One side says we absolutely need renewables while the other says they cannot replace fossil fuels. Both are right but they rarely slap their foreheads and give each other a hug as they rush off to radically reduce their energy demand.

    John Muir came from a time before oil, before huge opencast mines and mountain-top removal, before extinction rates and pollution were understood. Back in the days when our own bees could pollinate crops and most people knew how to feed themselves. When Muir was born, only a billion people walked the Earth & most of them lived ‘sustainably’ compared to what we do today. It does make you wonder what he’d think if he saw us today.

    That’s another of these areas of disagreement – population. I have no idea if current systems of intensive, fossil-fuelled food production could, theoretically, feed everyone if only we wasted nothing and distribution was fair. I don’t know – reports vary. But I’d bet my arse that such systems cannot be sustained, even if population growth was falling.

    It’s our mindset which has to change, our attitude to all people, rich and poor, and to ALL species, not just those we have a use for or which look cute. I long for the day when we don’t have to protect nature from ourselves.

  13. Why couldn’t renewables replace fossil fuels?

  14. In Galloway we have similar problems, where parts of the 300 square mile Galloway Forest Park are tagged as ‘wilderness’ -effectively the higher hills and deeper bogs which could not be planted. These areas now form the core of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere Reserve which are treated as if no-one ever lived there -despite the hills being covered with Gaelic and Scots place names given by the people who lived there until the Forestry Commission began planting in the 1950s and 1960s.

  15. I seem to recall an ecologist telling me that the only (large) part of Scotland that was free(ish) of human intervention was the High Cairngorm Plateau. The rest of it has been overprinted since time immemorial. Whenever I have climbed a mountain, the outlines of human habitation are below me to see.

    I do like the idea of nature and us living side by side. Allowing corporate interests, as alluded to by Alistairliv above, is just not on.

    Cannot a reasonable accommodation of wilderness, wild life and us be worked out? We are struggling for population, not the other way around.

  16. Reblogged this on Wild Land Reflections and commented:
    This is a tiresome article pitched as though its a new idea that nobody has thought of and that John Muir Trust ( and various NGOs and university research departments) haven’t already examined and addressed over and over again. If you don’t believe that we need places of imagination and beauty and silence and escape and places free of visible manmade constructs then join Fraser in his crusade for a devalued landscape.

    This article is like being lectured on contemporary art by someone who claims their three year old daughter could do better. Its depressingly familiar and reveals a mean spiritedness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    • Hello! I may be less mean-spirited than you think. And I definitely don’t think I’m offering anything very new (the piece was informed by Bill Cronon’s work which came out in 1995).

      I’m all for imagination and beauty etc I just don’t think that we need the pretence that Scotland is ‘wild’ is to enjoy such things. There is much pleasure to be had from marvelling at the intertwining of nature and culture in the Scottish landscape. I just don’t think we need the troublesome legacy of ‘wildness’. Not sure how you think I want a devalued landscape?

      • Hi Fraser thanks for comment, I was heavily involved in a conference in 2010 ( http://wildlands.info/Home.html ) where many of these issues were debated and the term ‘wild’ was a sticking point then and I guess will always will be. In the end it was more or less agreed that it was not helpful to use terms like ‘wilderness’ in a Scottish context but wild land was a very specific term that referred to a particular type of landscape that we have. I struggle with that term also but it’s what we have and it helps to define a debate. Lets face it Golden eagles need homes to go! Ultimately if it helps planners and policy makers decide whether they will allow 100 windmills in the Monadhlaith or not then its a useful term. best regards Simon

  17. Fraser, do you imagine that those you criticise are not in deep contemplation of these issues and contradictions every single day? Many of the members of these ngo’s are local people. Is yours an urban soap box? I appreciate that it may make for less journalistic hyperbole, but please trying being constructive.

    Muir was of his time. Brewer was too. I’m guessing we all are, even you. Recent anthroplogy shows us that wildness does not and never has equal a lack of people. Much of our own personal history tells us this more than books ever could. This is not controversial in current conservation practise, especially in Europe. Now what? You have fallen foul of the dualism you purport to stand against. Meanwhile, your article only serves to devalue what we all love and work for, which is a truely integrated ecology.

    • Hello David, I’m sure many do think hard on these issues. I wrote this because the SNH wild land map on which JMT are campaigning has the capacity to turn abstract conceptions of ‘wild’ into concrete restrictions in planning. And when material consequences for people arise from this conception of ‘wildness’ – well, that’s a good time to talk openly. I think it important to distinguish between challenging the concept (‘wildness’ and its historical legacies) from devaluing an intergrated ecology. I don’t think the former is necessary to sustain the latter.

      • Fraser, thanks for your reply. I personally don’t go along with a def. of wildness as being a place without humans, as I hope I made clear. I’m pleased to see you mention Australia in the comments elsewhere. Same goes for the USA (witness the great plains) which has faired better in retaining it’s biodiversity but mostly because of the work that Muir was a part of. Sustainable management is the goal is it not? That’s what I mean by integrated. An ecosystem is by def. a whole living system. That includes us.

        Land use changes and so we need to make informed choices about how that’s managed. I was out on the Mamores on saturday and so were huge numbers of folk enjoying the high places. I’d hate to be the one to tell them they were all misinformed about what is a really important, sustaining part of their lives (btw, 9/10 were Scots, I am not by birth – then again, making this a nationalistic issue instead of a national one is pretty incendiary stuff, as well as seeming a little essentialist for a geographer – go back far enough, and we’re all visitors).

        There’s still a few holes here: your arguments are pretty anthropocentric, which plays well but then flora and fauna don’t use the internet. And using the race card against JM is pretty mean if, as you accept elsewhere, he acknowledged native people in his writing. Anyway, this is all deck chairs on the titanic unless we look after what we’ve got, whilst we can. Without that, I think we aren’t looking after ourselves, let alone wildcats and mountain ringlet. To that end, the SNH map may not be perfect but it is but 1 tool in the box.

    • “wildness does not and never has equal a lack of people”

      Then you are not aware that some parts of the planet were not populated with people until very recently, such as in the last 1-2000 years eg. Iceland, New Zealand, Madagascar, Diego Garcia, Macquarie Island, Falklands, Chagos Islands, and indigenous people fled areas around Glacier Bay in Alaska during the little ice age, returning to what would have been a similar redeveloping wilderness that once was Britain after the ice receded here.

  18. SRFM,

    There is a challenge here that ought to be addressed. As far as I can tell the story of much of rural Scotland has been one of depopulation, buildings collapsing and nature reclaiming it’s default position. I find that a rather sad back story to the challenge that you set up, viz:

    ” If you don’t believe that we need places of imagination and beauty and silence and escape and places free of visible manmade constructs then join Fraser in his crusade for a devalued landscape.”

    You sir, have never really looked at the landscape in front of you. The landscape has already been devalued by what some would see as ethnic cleansing. It is further devalued by an admiration for ruins. Preferring ruins to communties is a frankly weird sentiment. Or should we bulldoze even the ruins to return to some sort of pristine Eden?

    Is it OK if I come along and move you out of your home and then declare the ruins a nature reserve? What, apart from currency and history, is the difference? No doubt your denuded home – as it crumbles into dust – would make an excellent place of imagination and beauty. And there are lots of opportunities in Canada and Australia for your good self. That was the deal back then.

    But at what cost?

  19. david lintern,

    You seem all over the place. What, exactly do you want for a future rural Scotland? Is it an ecology that includes man or excludes man? You are none too clear given this deep contemplation you have apparently undertaken.

    I don’t think Frazer has fallen foul of anything. Indeed his piece appears to argue for the integration you desire. Could you perhaps explain where he is guilty of dualism, whatever that means?

  20. Whatever may be the difficulties with the rhetoric of wildness, human mastery of this planet planly gives us the power now to wipe what little remains of the ecosystems which we co-evolved with. We environmentalists want to perserve some of those ecosystems, though we would skip on the guineau worm and small pox, because we do value on human welfare. Ecological preservation already is directed towards exactly those lands humans have found least useful. It seems to me our economic system of capitalism has made us far too wealthy to have any need to be ecocidal towards those small remnants.
    Your concern seems to be that ecological preservation is blocking alternative energy projects. Exactly what is the benefit of alternative energy projects? They aren’t good economically with rare exceptions. Their benefit is claimed to be environmental, but what good is an environment without thriving ecosystems? Alternative energy without preservation is a silly waste of time, and it too often is even with preservation.

    On another note, I find beneath contempt that you attempt to smear modern environmentalists by mentioning that one of environmentalism’s pioneers experienced the world in racist terms. Muir is a 19th century figure. He experienced the world in racist terms like every other human alive in Western cultures in the 19th century. You could try to interpret people from history with at least some basic sensativity to their historical situation. Or is such decency beneath you?

    • I can’t altogether vouch for my own ‘decency’ (!) but I don’t think I was trying to ‘smear’ Muir, not did I make any accusation of ‘racism’. It is well documented that Muir spoke more positively about indigenous people in other contexts than the quote I used here. But the quote here is consistent with his vision of wilderness as a place without people and a refuge *from* society. As an historian, of course, I would want to place Muir in his historical context. My problem is that his devotees want to take Muir’s ideas out of the 19th c and apply them in the 21st! Long after we acknowledge the myriad ways in which people and nature are interwoven, we are still fixated with the concept of ‘wildness’ which I think carries too much Cartesian baggage to be useful for modern environmentalism.

  21. I do think the stereotype held both by far right global warming deniers and the more reactionary within the conservationist orthodoxy that alternative energy projects “aren’t good economically” is incredible disingenuous and some might even say dangerous.

    My own objection would rather be an aesthetic one rather than economic- that’s not to say I’m not in favour of human development in so called wilderness areas; in fact I believe in the very reverse: Scotland’s many glens were once teeming with human habitation and social traffic and need to be once again. Switzerland, Bavaria, Austria, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Slovenia, amongst others, all have a preponderance of thriving settlements in areas we in Scotland would regard as ‘wilderness’- the Highlands proper is roughly twice the size of Belgium, not forgetting the wild areas of the Border regions. That is something we must get back to, after all how will we ever educate people about environmental issues if they are alienated and removed from nature by legislation that protects it like an unchanging museum?
    As someone else has already mentioned the real issue hasn’t been mentioned in the above blog: LAND REFORM. We’re getting nowhere if we don’t wrench the land from private hands of the landlords- this has to be the ultimate task of an Independent Scottish Parliament as it is not only the foundation of a new environmentalism but also a new society based purely on democratic principles. Other issues like recolonizing the Highlands, infrastructure, protection of key habitats, regenerating eco systems with the introduction of trophic apex predators such as Lynx and Wolf, must wait before Land Reform is settled once and for all.

    I do have a major issue with this view of attacking the John Muir Trusts vision of ecological preservation- limited as it must be if it is a mere conservation of the present depleted eco systems of the Highlands- as it threatens to play into the hands of the Far Right Privateers that would exploit the environment for a cheap fast buck: surely some protection of nature is better than no protection from those who would destroy it through the prism of their exploitative models?

  22. The fundamental point gets lost in the scattergun approach here – the piece tries to hit some big targets including capitalism’s ‘meritocracy’ but the artillery seems to be aimed mainly at the JMT and the man himself.

    Yes, Wild land IS a predominantly a social construct. This does not make it any less or more valid than say economics – the very dismal science.

    Wildness is basically about the escape from the city to calmer and less man dominated places. Over much of the modern world it is used as a recreation planning tool as well as to highlight areas of high conservation values. It really is not just about wind farms, though these are the latest incursion into undeveloped land.

    There is a long established continuum of ‘remoteness’ from Urban areas to WIld land based mainly on the sights and sounds of modern man – but actually complex interplay of factors.
    In the early 90s ROS work on the Peak Park Pennine Way mapped parts of Saddleworth Moor – the burial place of the Moors Murderers victims as being semi-wilderness despite being less than 12 miles from Manchester Piccadilly. It is a complex subject.

    Try reading Dr Robert Aitken’s Geography PhD from Aberdeen University and take a look at the Wild Land Group’s thoughts over the decades. Read and understand the Recreation Opportunities Spectrum work in the States and the Antipodes over the years which informs so much of recreation management and National Parks management

    JMT hold no monopoly on wild land considerations and SNH and its predecessor CCS had research and expert advice on this area of enviromental management for at least 30 years. Most of the advisers have been…. social scientists… It is anything but elitist or class based.

    Wild land is worthy of much consideration but at the very least it deserves to be well informed and nuanced which this piece is not.

    • Hello Tony. My target is the historical ideal of ‘wildness’ as the conceptual means by which we now understand and manage our upland landscapes. I hope I’m not uninformed: I know Rob Aitken’s as I used to work in the geography programme at Aberdeen; I also worked in Australia for seven years. Ideas of ‘wildness’ are even more problematic Down Under where indigenous management has been in place for the best part of 40,000 years!

  23. The points made by Fraser (and Cronin) are old ones and were taken on board by the nature conservation movement many years before the 1980s. I know it’s fashionable to knock those celebrated as heroes, is it not just a little unfair to quote Muir’s early private journal entry writing about the Indians in a way which simply reflected society’s view at that time, when Muir himself (not celebrated for his social views in any case) recanted these views and championed the native Indians in his later life?

    My dictionary defines wilderness – a noun – as land which has not been altered by human activity. In a time of global warming, yes, you can therefore say there is no such thing anywhere in the world. You seem to draw the conclusion from this that nature does not exist or that everything is man made.

    This is precisely why the conservation movement now refers to ‘wild’ land. Wild is an adjective – wilder land is land with less human impact. The Cairngorm plateau is, for instance, clearly a much wilder place than Inverness. This is not simply a human construct. Wilder landscapes are now scarce in Europe; this makes them precious.

    I think the self-styled ‘anti-wildernistas’ are actually falling for a far more romantic idea of the Highlands and history than the John Muir Trust or SNH, whose ideas are more hard-headed. The Clearances were a time of incredible cruelty, the result of one group of people treating another as mere instruments, as with many of the worst episodes of history. The anti-wildernistas seem to think that we can now – in the modern world – reverse the Clearances, presumably with some ideal of a Highlands filled with happy crofters making a living from watching windmills, keeping a few chickens, sheep and a pig, and writing world best-selling books of Gaelic poetry.

    The fact is that we cannot return to the pre-clearance period – a time with a very high population in the Highlands, but also a time when famine, starvation were often close, and at best the most basic level of subsistence that people would not tolerate today (the earlier Highlands when the population was lower was relatively plentiful). All over the world – in all societies – rural areas lost population as mankind became more urbanised and industrialised. This would have happened in Scotland, regardless of other events or class oppression. People came from the land to the cities in search of better lives.

    Sustaining a population in the Highlands today means sustaining jobs and employment here. The world desperately needs wind energy – of course it does – but please let’s not pretend that wind-farms provide large scale local employment. Following construction (by temporary workers shipped in), one single person overseas several wind farms. The economics are hardly socialist either – wind energy is funded by subsidies on household bills which hit Scotland’s poorest the hardest, and the benefits go to multinational energy companies. We need wind farms and renewable energy, but in our privatised world the effect this has on social equality is hardly laudable – but that is really another topic.

    A Highlands population needs jobs. By far the largest employer in the Highlands today is tourism. Most of these jobs are with very small firms or individual traders and families – not a powerful lobby group. The way to strengthen the Highlands economy – and population – is by playing to its economic strengths. Landscape – specifically a wilder landscape, with wild land areas, as demonstrated by survey after survey – brings people, money and jobs to the Highlands in numbers. Windfarms placed in the wildest and most precious areas would destroy Highlands tourism, reduce employment and ultimately and reverse the current growth in Highlands population.

    Do actually look at the areas on SNH wild land map. These areas of ‘wild land’ are primarily the highland mountain ground. Noone lives here – there will never be towns and villages on the mountain tops. But keeping these areas wild – and improving their wildness by regenerating native forests and other ecological enrichments – greatly benefits the people of the Highlands who live close by these areas, in the villages in the straths and glens. Their jobs and economic future depend on the protection of the neighbouring wild areas. The protection of wild land will retain local jobs and money in the Highlands. That is why the government must go ahead with its plans to protect the most important areas of wild land.

  24. Hi Paul, as I said to Michael Loomis above, Muir did write more positively about indigenous people in other contexts, though one could see this as a valorisation of them as being ‘closer to nature’ which carries its own baggage. I can’t think of any examples where Cronon’s ideas have been embraced by Scottish conservationists!

    Yes, I know a distinction is often made between ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’ but there is often – as is the case in the JMT video – a common slippage between them. In any case, the political effects of such language cannot be neatly confined to their dictionary definitions. To talk of the ‘wild’ Highlands will always activate these much older and persistent attachments to 18th and 19th century visions of the sublime and the picturesque. Why persevere with a dualistic way of thinking – nature vs. culture; wild vs civilised etc – when we could find a vocabulary that doesn’t codify human agency as a threat and celebrates the ways in which nature and culture are interwoven?

    It is important to recognise that I am not advocating any particular development or that the visual or ecological character of our mountains should be threatened. My specific concern here is if the JMT want this idea of ‘wildness’ – “objectively” measured by SNH, ha! – to place a blanket planning restriction that might inhibit the ability of local people to make decisions about their resources (c.f. the South Uist example).

    Remember that my argument is about the concept (‘wildness’ and its conceptual legacies) rather than which the concept of wildness is used to restrict (e.g. windfarms or other industry). I don’t think tourism is currently under threat from the industralisation of the landscape. And I hope our existing planning framework can tackle problematic proposals from Big Corp Energy. I also think we shouldn’t be too economically determinist about tourism which is a fickle sector. Previous Highland industry – the Kishorn construction yards, for example – was not the ecological or visual catastrophe predicted in the 1970s.

    In short: the sort of vision we might have may not be so different. I also want an ecologically restored Highlands, with community woodlands for the benefit of local people. I’m just not persuaded that the defence of ‘wildness’ is the best way to achieve that.

    • hi Fraser. I wrote the script for the film. The use of the word ‘wilderness’ wasn’t a slippage. I used it deliberately because it’s supposed to be a simple, universal statement – we can build lots of things in this world but we can’t build wilderness. Not here in Scotland, not in the Amazon, not in North America, not on another planet…

      I knew there was a danger that someone might make the point you have but it seemed right to use it. Wilderness represents what we have lost entirely in Scotland, and what other countries are often trying to protect. We can’t build it so when we talk about protection (of the closest thing we might have in Scotland) it’s a serious issue.

      I don’t understand your reference to ‘visual slippages’ in the film. The digger scene, which actually comes after the 1,000 year old Birnam Oak and not the Lewisian Gneiss rock, is simply symbolic of human impact. We couldn’t fit mass deforestation, commercial plantations, large-scale sheep farming, elimination of key predators, sport shooting, raptor persecution, climate change and so on into one image.

      You say in a tweet that the film amounts to ‘anti-modern mystification’. That baffles me. It seems to suggest that 1.nature is anti-modern and 2. next time we should use, say, a rock soundtrack instead of a piano. Still, having a penchant for guitars, I’d give the latter a go.

      But thanks for also saying the film is ‘rather lovely’. Its primary purpose was to work as the centrepiece in the Trust’s new visitor centre in Pitlochry (the one that shouts out Landowners R Us according to one commentator here) – hence no extended narratives and a soundtrack that we hoped wouldn’t drive the staff too insane.

      One final point on your comment above: it’s not about having an retro 18th and 19th Century vision, it’s about having a vision for the next century that’s quite different to that of the past few centuries when Scotland was over exploited. In many ways, it’s about having a very unVictorian vision. Of course human agency doesn’t have to be a threat. It’s all about choices. Like Mandy Meikle, we long for the day when we don’t have to protect nature from ourselves.

      In the meantime, if it takes lines on a map to protect some of our natural heritage from large-scale development (and this would mean windfarms with the footprint of a town or city, for example, not community wind turbines), then so be it. And if we need new words to reach out to more people, let’s think of some.

      p.s the visual accompanying the word ‘cities’ in the film is actually Glasgow and not Edinburgh.

  25. The people of Barra are to have an unwanted Marine Wildlife Park inflicted on them right now, which will cause hardship to fishermen. Tourists come & go with the swallows, this is real useful work.
    I can recommend Ian Mitchell’s “Isles of the West” for a wee insight on the effect of moneyed eco-freaks parachuted into island communities with their “We know best” attitude.
    Just as windmills are unwelcome in many Highland areas, It’s time to call a halt to the creeping eco-empire-building by unelected bodies, controlled largely below the border.

  26. Reblogged this on medieval dad and commented:
    Interesting piece at Bella Caledonia on balancing wilderness with local use. Again it seems to me that Maine shares some political/social similarities with northern Britain.

  27. Thanks for your reply (and apologies for all the typos when I reread my post!). I can’t really get so excited if a body sometimes uses a technically incorrect term (wilderness vs wildness) – it’s just semantics as the meaning and effect are basically unaltered. The fact that wildness is now the term mostly used should help show you that the conservationists have already long ago had this debate.

    What I really can’t agree with is your characterization of tourism as being a more fickle sector. All industries are fickle to some extent, but tourism has played a larger and larger role in the Highland economy for at least 150 years now, and dwarfs all other sectors. The potential – if ecological restoration takes place – is that it could become even more important. To use your own comparison, the Kishorn yard lasted about 15 years, took up large public subsidies, and employed workers flown in and out who were housed in giant ships on site. After this very brief klondyke which benefitted very few in the Highlands, all that is left for local communities is the mess. Which of these has been proven as a fickle benefit? Remember also that much tourism money comes from abroad, which qualifies it to count as a critical export for Scotland.

    Yes, it would be great if the Highlands could diversify in a way which did not detract from the environment and thus the key current industry. The best possibility appears to me to be the growth of IT jobs and home-working which the internet is making possible. This will require state-backing to help get the infrastructure needed, but this would surely be worthwhile (lots of hot air only at the moment) and I’m sure it will bring much income and employment to the Highlands in future. But again, it is the landscape and wildness that is likely to attract skilled IT workers to want to work here, and hence give the competitive advantage over other regions. People these days don’t just live where they are born – they make choices about their careers and where they want to live (conversely, many Highland-born children will want to choose city careers too). We should celebrate this.

    As for the comments from some others about all this ‘outside control’ coming from south of the Border. The JMT is basically a Scottish organisation, though it is expanding. It is the Scottish government that is proposing wild land protection (no such thing has ever been suggested south of the Border). It is the Scottish government that is proposing the marine park north of Barra. John Muir was a Scotsman. Perhaps just for once we can avoid this being about race?

  28. Incidentally, Gaelic poets such as Duncan Ban MacIntyre were celebrating the maintenance of what used to be called ‘the balance of nature’ long before the Western Romantics…

  29. Who mentioned race here, it’s a matter of democratic control of resources. The SNP’s Angus MacNeil blames Europe for the Barra decision, aware that there are few votes to be won on Barra on this issue. If the Sound of Barra has something worth preserving it’s because the natives have kept it that way.
    “John Muir was a Scotsman!” so what? where does the JMT get its money? the RSPB ditto. They are just another private landlord. With the emphasis on corncrakes rather than game.

  30. The JMT gets its money largely from donations and memberships from ordinary folk who support it (75% of Scots support the proposed protection for wild land).

    The RSPB has played no part in the call for wild land designations / protection, so why mention it except to help pretend the wild land campaign is some sort of foreign influence? Constant claims that anything you personally don’t like must therefore come from south of the Border can begin to sound a bit like Norman Tebbitt blaming all our troubles on immigrants.

    The JMT has been hugely supportive of local communities in the Highlands, including supporting community-owned windfarms such as on Harris. The JMT was set up in the 80s to prevent Thatcher from using Knoydart for nuclear weapons testing. This campaign was ultimately successful – without such a campaign there would be no community in Knoydart today.

    This is a debate about wild land (and not marine conservation measures which are presumably intended to help ensure that fishing can continue in the future), but since you appear to be opposed to tourism, I should remind you that the overwhelming majority of all income for people in Barra is derived from tourism. Tourism even provides the market for the fishing. Population and employment are increasing in the Highlands and Islands. Wake up to the real Highlands as it exists rather than some misty-eyed, uneconomic historical concept.

  31. I like this reflective article – thank you. Reflections on the semantics involved in such issues are important, and as I am exploring some of the issues related to windfarms in a photographic project, I value this kind of reflection.
    The formulaic question: “well, would YOU like to live by a windfarm?” is the wrong question (because often the counter-response would be “rather that than live by a nuclear power station!”), but instead we should be looking to precisely the kinds of issues you point to here, such as local democracy, decision-making processes and so on. I have found the questions raised by the likes of Andy Wightman, Lesley Riddoch and other very helpful in this regard.

  32. 75% of Scots support this innitiative? sez who. I could walk out my door now and speak to 100 people and ask them. I’d be astonished if any of them has even heard of it.
    This thread is about turning much of Scotland into some kind of theme-park and Barra is just another example. They’re getting this whether they like it or not. Lets have a poll, they had one for the Harris quarry, just ask the local people.
    As you’re great on assumptions, no I’m not opposed to tourism.
    I mention the RSPB as they are also into the land ownership business. Is this a good idea, it’s never been seriously debated.

    • Poll that Paul refers to was conducted by YouGov of over 1000 people across Scotland. It included SNH definition of wild land. 35 per cent tend to support protection and 40 per cent strongly. Four per cent tend to oppose and two per cent strongly oppose. Pretty overwhelming and consistent across party voting intentions.

      On a separate post in this debate I’ve said I support community ownership and public ownership of bigger sporting estates where there are no real communities. In the absence of that kind of radical land policy by govts, I’d rather these estates were stewarded by progressive conservation organisations, that carry out effective deer management and try to reverse the ecological destruction begun by the Victorians, than allow them by default o fall that hands of wealthy financiers who buy up Highland shooting estates to impress their clients.

      • Ecological destruction started long before the Victorians.

        A Danish shopkeeper is currently gobbling up estate after estate and is presently one of the biggest proprietors in the Highlands, he has applied “effective deer management” in Glen Feshie and decimated deer numbers. The Deer Commission is perfectly capable of enforcing managable deer numbers on overstocked estates, and even has the power to send in their own stalkers.
        In default of a national land policy, wealthy landowners contribute to the local economy by provide employment, spend cash on tradesmen & contractors and benefit the hotel trade.
        What we have too many of, are skint estate owners who pay people off, let the property go to pot and cause school closures.
        Hill Shepherds in Badenoch should be on the endangered species list, there are so few left, due partly to landowners milking the grant system for tree planting (see current letters in the “Strathy”).
        Only with independence will the land problem be properly addressed, estates are not properly taxed, if at all! landowners are getting away with murder & a land tax is long overdue.
        I don’t have your rosy-tinted view of these conservation organisations, their past history is decidedly mixed shall we say. Let me recommend Andy Wightman’s “The Poor Had No Lawyers”.
        And as for polls, we will never get independence if you believe polls.
        Would you like wild land? would you like apple pie?

  33. Sorry I am late on the scene – I agree with Fraser – the wilderness is manmade but it has been made and remade other thousands of year, not just by the Victorians who wanted it to stay as it was – and cleared of people just to make sure. Lesley Riddoch advocates the wilderness being populated with huts for people in the cities to get away from the smoke (though unfortunately there are few smoke generators left in Scotland). I would argue that it’s at least as important to encourage the city people to get back to the wilderness (wind turbines could also be smaller as the power would be used locally too). It would be good to see innovative ideas on how young people can be persuaded to do so (unfortunately in my experience it is the escaping English who are populating the Highlands rather than the Scots). I find it perplexing that new office blocks continue to be built in Edinburgh when so much of the desk work can be done over the net – it is argued that people need to talk to one another; but in my experience two office workers sitting next to one another frequently communicate by email!
    BTW I feel that the ‘elite’ is an overused word on this site – an elite looks to be anyone you disagree with. Given a vote for Independence and people using the word come to power how will they avoid becoming the new ‘elite’?

  34. Not everyone or every group in ‘power’ is an elite- an elite is a group that protects and promotes its own narrow interests outside normal democratic channels and normally in opposition to the wider community in general.
    There are many such groups in Britain and of course in Scotland as well; an independent Scotland will have to be vigilant against such elites asserting their dominance in order to replace the power vortex left behind by the ruling classes of Westminster. The current structure of mainstream politics will not be sufficient to curb political corruption nor anti-democratic elites; we need a new model of greater transparency in order to deal with groups with little or no respect from normal democratic processes.
    Did I use the word ‘elite’ enough there for you derryvickers?

    • The JMT owned about 60,000 acres in 2010, the RSPB nearly 126,000. More & more land into fewer & fewer hands is not good for Scotland, have we learned nothing from the Sutherland Clearances?
      Some stuff on the RSPB here,

      http://www.countryclub.com/ci/ci78_RSPB.pdf

      Not the cuddly benevolent outfit popularly imagined, their Gauleiters spent squillions £s of their members contributions attempting to exterminate the Ruddy Duck (saw two a few weeks ago). A major publicity shambles you might think, but water off a ducks back to these people.
      The land is too important an issue to be the plaything of the conservationists, a more fragmentory approach to landownership is the way forward, not laying up problems for future generations.
      Lairds come & lairds go, they can’t take the land with them, but once these people get a grip, there’ll be no letting go.
      Enough’s enough, time to call a halt to future empire building.

      • Folks, should be, http://www.countryclubuk.com/ci/ci78_RSPB.pdf

        Sorry about that. Much more on the web.

      • Fascinating. But as already mentioned, the RSPB have had nothing whatsoever to do with the wild land map and have not campaigned for any wild land designation. But don’t let that stop you going on about them.

        “Just another private landlord”. Of course, the large private and absentee landlords are the main interest group opposed to the protection of wild land. They are the “elite” (if you like the term) that will be lobbying against these proposals being adopted. You are – as I’m sure you are aware – on the side of the absentee landlords on this issue.

        Those of us on the left do well to remember that the nationalisation of development rights – the Town and Country Planning Act – as one of the great achievements of the Attlee government. This means – at its best – that landowners can only undertake developments which do not damage either the national or local community interest. They make it possible to protect the public interest against damaging developments, It seems from the arguments employed by many on here (and certainly from articles in the WHFP) that they are opposed to having such a planning system – and that uncontrolled development rights should be simply given back to landowners to do whatever profits themselves in the short term once again. The landowning classes must be delighted.

  35. What I am in favour of is private landowners paying proper taxes.

Trackbacks

  1. Protecting nature from ourselves | The Cheery Pessimist
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