The Bones of a Nation
29th June 2017
The skeleton of Scotland— its bens, glens, and lochs — were shaped by the brutal cleaving of the earth by glaciers; the deformities and scars reflecting the ruthless devastation wrought by Earth’s fury. There was no malice in how the world was shaped, it just Was.
The flesh atop those bones is an entirely artificial construct, formed over thousands of years. Mankind has long been able to overpower nature — we can level mountains, wipe species from the Earth, consume forests, and bend the world to our will: Highland and Island Scotland is no exception.
What we perceive as “wilderness” in Scotland is as artificial as any cityscape. Mankind’s need for food turned what once were forests to barren hills and farmland, but visceral greed has been the primary influence for what followed in recent centuries.
Where now, in so much of Scotland, there is emptiness and fallow land, there once were families, communities, and culture. Working class people were forced from their homes and communities over decades, be that by force of militia, fire, and hound; or poverty and famine. Vast swathes of land were cleansed of humans; replaced with sheep for food and grouse for the whims of the wealthy.
That so much of the country remains this way after so many years is not a result of nature’s wrath but the choices of landowners, businessmen, and politicians. Where once the thoughtless efficiency of nature carved up the world, the businessman now hammers its face into shape.
As I sat on the five-and-a-half hour train from Glasgow to Mallaig, I watched the open-cast grave of a way of life roll by; reduced to rubble and left for tourists to gawp at, preserved for aesthetics. By car the journey takes just a little over two hours, but the train carriages wistfully meander through the hills to allow one to fully take in the splendour of their surroundings.
There is only one train line and so only one set of carriages can make the journey at any one time, past the West Highland Way and into the “wilderness”. The rails nostalgically clickity-clack underneath as mist lingers and highland springs gracefully trickle down the hills. Tourists excitedly chatter as the Glenfinnan Viaduct creeps into view, a historic piece of industry made particularly famous by its appearance in Hollywood flicks.
Ancient boulders carried south by collapsing glaciers lay dispersed on the hills like clothing scattered from a dying man sweltering under a brutal sun. Nearby, hewn stones mark out the rubble of tiny dwellings, the picked-clean carcasses of long-lost Highland communities. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Glen, next to a Loch, a manor house stands cocksure and regal in garish juxtaposition from the landscape surrounding it: Lord of all it surveys with all outside a playground. A Monarch in the Glen.
I spend the next few days, via a few ferries and hikes, looking at rural power systems on and off the West coast. Infrastructure isn’t profitable here because the economies of scale simply don’t exist. Locals frequently make do with what they have — a motley mix of diesel generators, tiny hydro schemes, solar, and wind- which allow these communities modern appliances and creature comforts where in the past you’d have to make do with a diesel genny and only 5 or 6 hours of light an evening. In places like Eigg, community trusts fund and maintain the power systems with community benefits. These are supported by Government grants by schemes like CARES and help provide jobs and amenities to local populations.
A connection to the main GB network would cost at least 2 or 3 times the entire network cost for the microgrid on the Isle with none of the independence community ownership brings, so the people simply did it themselves. They still rely on the massive power companies for support — parts, maintenance, and construction are not resources or skills readily available in the far North-West, and repairs can take weeks as these frequently have to be sourced externally. But it works. The engineering is jury-rigged and maintaining it is akin to “nailing jeely tae a wa’ ”, but it works. Without these communities taking the initiative they would be left to wither and collapse.
I sit on the opposite side of the carriage on the way home. I’ve a few tins of cider to pass the time and my pal’s brought a pack of cards. We discuss the trip and its outcomes. My heart aches. The glory of the landscape around me overshadowed by the lost human potential and history trampled underfoot.
In cities we celebrate our lost industrial heritage — the great cranes in cities like Glasgow or collieries of Northern England, Wales and Southern Scotland stand both in memorial and celebration. We remember the communities surrounding these industries and what was lost. The anger burns in the remains of these cultural loci and in the hearts of those who were there to witness its destruction.
In Highland Scotland, the landlords who scattered the communities have statues built of them looking regally into the sea; they stand proudly in resplendent alabaster utterly unaware, or uncaring, of the carnage and bloodshed wrought in their name. We celebrate the emptiness and wildness of land where people used to live and work. We call it “Wild Land” and hillwalkers in Edinburgh and landlords in London ensure the land stays bare and undeveloped; pretty as a picture.
Post-industrial cities like Liverpool, Glasgow, and Dundee get regenerated; cladding, glass, and chrome replace redbrick. The Highlands and Islands are kept as a snowglobe with any minor alteration viciously opposed by those living hundreds of miles away in townhouses with a few acres of land. Half of Scotland is owned by around 600 people, the land burned so as to allow rich people to go hunting for birds or kept for farm animals and photographers to enjoy.
Development of job-creating wind-farms is opposed by those with little or no stake in the area beyond desiring that a place hundreds of miles from them remains as they wish it to be- a playground to visit with gun in hand and tweed upon their back. As politicians in London bicker over immigration, a vast area of land forcibly emptied lays bare as local communities wither.
Land cleared by the rich is not wild, it is hoarded. Ancient, empty farmland is not wild, it is neglected. Highland Scotland is not a playground for the rich — it is a place where people lived and worked, and where the people that remain deserve better than what is left to them by cities, businessmen, and lardlords.
When I returned to London, I sat on the Hammersmith and City line, staring out the window. I live in West London, and my route home took me through Kensington. I sat, chilled to the bone, as I got further West and neared my destination. The entire carriage fell under an uneasy silence as we approached Latimer Road. I gazed out at the tower blocks and cranes around me — the concrete, glass, and chrome that had angered me so but a few hours ago.
There it was — Grenfell. At least 79 dead- and, in reality, it could possibly be as many as triple that. An entire community in a tower block lay in charred ruins because someone, somewhere, wanted to save money. Whether that be on sprinklers or fireproof cladding, scores of people lost their home, community, loved ones, or life itself, to save money.
My anger at cities was then tempered. It is not simply rural versus city- it is rich versus poor. It is investors scraping all they can from those at the mercy of their cost-cutting and negligence. Whether Grenfell was covered in combustible cladding to keep nearby rich residents happy or to keep a bottom line happy, vulnerable people died over money. Communities were destroyed over money.
As you come out of Wood Lane station, you stand opposite what used to be the BBC Television Centre, now being converted into high-end apartments which will never be affordable for most of the people living in Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush. Next to you is the Westfield Shopping Centre, full of shops selling things most of London will also never be able to afford. The gross inequities of city life laid bare with lives and communities destroyed to appease those with at the expense of those without.
The Laird and the pauper live much closer in a city, but the injustice remains. It is simply easier to hide injustice in an area where the remains of life can be portrayed as a feature, rather than a blemish.
The illustration is by Murray Robertson, more details of a recent exhibition of his here.
You can follow the author at @Magnus_Jamieson and on Medium here.