In a recent column in the West Highland Free Press, former Labour Cabinet Minster Brian Wilson led the charge against the Scottish Government’s proposal to provide a degree of protection from large scale development for 43 areas of core wild land as mapped by Scottish Natural Heritage. He reserved some of his most venomous polemics for the John Muir Trust and other ‘zealots of the environmental movement’, which he claimed – in the scaremongering tone that will be familiar to those who remember his intervention in the 1979 referendum – want to ban every visible human structure from hen houses upwards on wild land from Cape Wrath to Morvern.
Specifically he suggested that, if wild land protection had already been put in place, “there would certainly not now be three turbines whizzing away at Loch Carnan [in South Uist] earning money for the community.” That same theme was taken up – in a more measured fashion certainly – by Fraser MacDonald in his Bella Caledonia post, Against Scottish Wildness. Fraser, perhaps having read and accepted at face value Brian Wilson’s column, cites the same example and develops the same theme.
But before coming to that, I should declare an interest. I am an employee of the John Muir Trust, the villain of Brian Wilson’s piece. I write this, however in a strictly personal capacity, as a pro-independence socialist. Brian Wilson, it should also be said, is no impartial commentator; since he stood down as UK Energy Minister in the Blair Government he has held a lucrative portfolio of directorships and consultancies in a range of energy companies involved in coal, fracking, wind, nuclear and biomass. Brian, in other words, has a serious financial stake in preventing the protection of wild land from commercial development.
But first, let’s turn to Against Scottish Wildness. Fraser MacDonald says that is that there is no such thing as wilderness in Scotland. There is no argument on that point. Almost every square centimeter of our land has been subjected to human intervention over the centuries. That is ABC – but there are other letters of the alphabet too. The Cairngorm plateau, the Cuillin mounatins and Knoydart peninsula may not be wildernesses – but neither are they Kelvingrove Park, Hyde Park or the Meadows. Anyone who believes otherwise should try to venture through these landscapes in a January snowstorm, or even spend a few days in the summer wandering through these areas without map and compass.
People don’t travel from across the world to visit Strathclyde Country Park. But they do come to the Highlands to climb the mountains, walk the hills, breathe the clean air, photograph the landscape. And they sustain thousands of small business in the tourist sector – which is by far the biggest employer in the Highlands today, with a workforce eight times larger than the entire onshore energy sector and nine times bigger than in agriculture, forestry and fishing combined.
It is simply wrong, therefore, to counterpose economic activity against wild land. Without the tourist sector – driven by landscape and employing tens of thousands of people in bars and cafes, campsites and outdoors centres, hostels and guesthouses – a new Highland Clearances would begin.
The term wild land can be deliberated upon ad nauseum, the criteria refined and nuanced until the deer disappear from the hillsides. But such a debate simply side-steps the key question: should that land, which is neither agricultural, nor urban, and which is rugged and relatively free from roads and other large modern structures, be given special protection from commercial exploitation by corporations and landowners? Or should it just be business as usual? Should the deregulation of land, which has failed so abysmally over several centuries to protect the people, the ecology and the wildlife of vast tracts of Scotland be allowed continue for another century or two?
This is not about protecting wild land from the communities who live there. The John Muir Trust is involved in a number of community partnerships, including with the North Harris Trust, the West Harris Trust, the Galson Estate Trust in Lewis and Knoydart Foundation. To suggest , as Brian Wilson has done, that the John Muir Trust would ban economic activity in these wild land areas an insult to the intelligence of those and other communities who work closely with the Trust (and perhaps Bella Caledonia might want to invite the John Muir Trust itself to make an offical contribution to this debate)
A range of environmental organisations – and political parties including the Scottish Socialist Party and now the SNP – support wild land protection not to strangle communities, but to stop the wholesale exploitation of wild land by corporations and private landowners.
It was not environmental organisations who were responsible for the near destruction of the Gaeltacht, the Highland Clearances and the degradation of much of our landscapes. The guilty men were the industrialists and landowners of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and their legacy of abuse is being carried on to this day by their class descendants. If anyone is standing up to the sporting estates and the energy corporations , it is those same environmental and land protection charities which are under fire from people like Brian Wilson.
Which brings us back to the connection between money, energy and land. It know it can be difficult in polite, progressive company to question the renewables industry, but it’s time the political the left stopped acting like starstruck teenagers before those energy corporations who have discovered that wind power is a highly lucrative business. These people are not benevolent crusaders fighting climate change – they are capitalists prepared to stop at nothing to make themselves piles of profit.
When a proposal is put forward to erect, in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains, 67 steel turbines taller that any building in urban Scotland, each with a concrete foundation the size of an Olympic swimming pool, in a scheme which involves tearing up a vast area of carbon-storing peat and bulldozing 40 kilometers of access roads using materials blasted out of the surrounding landscape – and creates virtually no permanent local jobs – shouldn’t we at least be asking whether this development is really necessary in this place at this time?
And when we discover that the landowner, Charles Connell of the Clydeside shipbuilding dynasty, stands to make £60 million as his cut from the profits of a project driven by an energy corporation privatised by Thatcher and subsidised directly out of the fuel bills of people in Easterhouse and Craigmillar, do we suspend our critical faculties for fear of being accused of failing to take climate change seriously?
I personally support radical measures to reduce carbon emissions, ranging from nationwide free public transport to Scottish state ownership of North Sea oil with a hefty portion of the profits invested in developing marine energy, including wave and tidal power. I’m further in favour community ownership of land and outright public ownership of the great sporting estates to allow that land to be reclaimed for people and nature. But that programme is not on the manifesto of any major political party right now.
In the meantime, wild land protection offers some degree of protection against those who see Scotland wildest land as nothing more than a vast goldmine to be plundered for profit. Protection is not the be-all and the end-all – and there’s a still debate underway about what it might mean in practice. But it would least make a clear statement that wild land belongs to the nation of Scotland and not just to those who happen to currently hold the title deeds.