Unwilding Scotland


In the final years of the last century I elected to live for a while on the island of North Uist. From the moment of my arrival I was absorbed by the landscape as if by a realist novel of depth and character, with a sinuous plot that wound, like a hill track, across five millenia. As an academic geographer, the idea of ‘reading the landscape’ has long since come in and gone out of fashion. And yet it well describes the desire I had to know this place. In Uist, I discovered a kind of practical curiosity about how – culturally, visually, ecologically, economically – the landscape had taken shape.

What struck me first were the birds and – oddly – the machines of the machair. The cacophony of corncrakes, lapwings, skylarks and curlews was like nothing I had heard. More intriguing, was the fact that these birds were often to be found skulking in fields in and around the rusting remains of Massey Ferguson and Fordson tractors, Bamlett threshers, Bamford reapers, Cockshutt ploughs, as well, of course, as the more ubiquitous skeletons of Land Rovers and Mini Metros. The whole history of modernity, it seemed to me, could be seen in this series of lichen-encrusted exhibits.

As it turned out, my alertness to things ornithological and mechanical was by no means unique. A former RSPB warden, Philip Coxon, once described in his memoir how in Uist ‘almost every croft house stood at the centre of what looked like a used car lot. Some of the vehicles were skeletons of rust, others more recently abandoned and intact, used as hen-houses or dog-kennels … I felt I was touring Britain’s junkyard’.

Coxon experienced the Uist landscape as a contradiction – wonderful birdlife, irresponsible locals – without seeming to recognise that the machair was itself the hybrid accomplishment of crofters and wildlife and that the birds thrived here because of, not in spite of, crofting agriculture.

Had Coxon not died young, he would have been pleased to learn that these wrecks have now largely been cleared away. Indeed, under the ‘Environmentally Sensitive Area’ agreements, crofters have had little choice other than to tidy up in the name of visual amenity, leaving behind a more ordered landscape but one with fewer signs of the human labour that was invested in its transformation.

For the best part of two years, my time in North Uist was spent in a thatched cottage beside the postcard perfect sands of Vallay Strand. One luckless tourist, so diverted by the beauty of the scene, once nose-planted his car into the ditch. On another occasion, I found myself in an animated discussion with a BBC wildlife cameraman about the placement of my wheelie bin which – he made clear – was disrupting his footage. I obliged, eventually, by moving it.

I was reminded of all this when following recent debates about ‘wild land’ in Scotland. My memories of Uist impressed on me how much background human labour goes into making a picturesque scene. All that editing, moving, cropping and tidying up.

This, too, is the paradox of what we call wildness – that while it promises an ideal of pristine nature, one that is philosophically anterior to culture, it can only be realised through much imaginative and material ‘work’ of humans. Wildness is only brought about through a great deal of human intervention.

So here’s a proposition: that wildness is an attribute that we ascribe to landscape not a quality that inheres in landscape. It is a cultural ideal, and one which has its origins in the European Enlightenment, with its long taproot into the Judeo-Christian tradition. There are, in other words, no wild places before we insist on their wildness, a status that can only be sustained through suppressing our knowledge of the extent of human intervention in the landscape.

Most of Scotland’s conservation bodies acknowledge that we have no ‘wilderness’ in the classic sense of the term; and that our landscape has been subject to human management for millennia. But this muttered concession in no way discourages their retention of the cultural and rhetorical frame of wildness as a way of talking about much of Scotland. And this wider frame, it seems to me, always overwhelms the hesitant acknowledgment of human labour.

John Muir, patron saint and poster boy for the Year of Natural Scotland 2013, embodies the problem: his conception of wilderness as ‘a refuge from society’ left little room for the indigenous peoples he encountered on his travels. Now, his devotees in the John Muir Trust are campaigning to enshrine wild land as part of the planning system. Their drive to make Scotland wild may yet succeed.

I’ll be frank and say that I tend not to like ‘wildness’. It is not that I dislike places that are deemed wild, far less do I want to see them inappropriately developed. As a birdwatcher as well as a geographer, I relish time in Scotland’s less populous districts. My problem is that the specific cultural lens of ‘wildness’, with its fixation on predominantly visual attributes at the expense of other meanings, stories and histories, tends to obscure more than it reveals. It is precisely because wildness emphasises an external agency – an abstract, pristine Nature that aparently precedes humans – that it ends up rendering human history, labour and experience as marginal.

The challenge is to find a new vocabulary of nature that does justice to the myriad ways in human history and natural history are entwined. There is a great irony in the fact that although Scotland has produced more than its fair share of fine environmental thinkers, we have devoted our attention to the wrong ones. If only Patrick Geddes – with his synthesis of place, work, folk – was given the same acclaim as Muir.

Nature conservation in Scotland is now in desperate need of conceptual renewal, having rarely been subject to the sort of philosophical challenge that is routine in other disciplines. Insights from the humanities and the interpretative social sciences – the idea, for instance, that wildness is a social construction – are conspicuously absent. So it would be a welcome development if some of the creative intellectual stirrings that are being catalysed by the independence referendum might find application in our approach to the environment.

It is not just that we need to act differently, we first need to think differently. Can we find ways of celebrating a nature that has always been resolutely cultural? And can we do so without seeing this as a loss of something pure that has become compromised by the social world?

I am sympathetic to the sorts of visions that are discussed under the rubric of ‘re-wilding’, most recently in George Monbiot’s Feral. Enchantment is a great starting point for thinking about a more intimate involvement in the natural world. But I worry, too, that ‘re-wilding’ signals a reprise of a concept that, at its heart, disavows human agency. We might need to un-wild before we can re-wild. And if this feels like futile word play, it is an obvious truism that how we talk and think about the world is indivisible from how we can change the world. We should certainly be concerned about the quiet rise of instrumental conceptions of Scotland’s nature such as ‘ecosystem services’. Appeals to landscape value expressed as an object of capitalist accounting are not just dispiriting; they also set the terms for what kind of world is possible.

I feel something similar about the recent wagon-circling defence of wildness. We need a different approach: one that can allow us celebrate the ways in which our landscapes narrate the hybrid labours of humans and non-humans. Stop worrying, in other words, and learn to love the rusting tractor.

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  1. Dave Coull says:

    I had never heard about John Muir until I heard about him from my wife, who is from California. At first I thought it was great that this Scot had done so much for the environment in America. But as I learned a bit more about him I noticed a bit of a contradiction in wanting to preserve a “wildness” which had in fact been inhabited by, and interacted with by, Native Americans, for many thousands of years. If that is true of the wide open spaces of North America, then it is even more true of our own landscapes. Pristine nature? The only pristine nature this country ever had was when it was covered by glaciers a mile thick.and I don’t want to go back to that, thanks very much. Ever since the ice began to retreat, our forebears have been having a huge impact on the environment. And WE are part of nature. It is natural for us to be here. Now I am all for us trying to be as responsible as we possibly can be in our role in nature. I am all for us seeking to reverse some of the worse things we’ve done. And I think, precisely because we really are so much more powerful,than other species, and because we have greater knowledge of our environment, and greater awareness of ourselves, and of our history, that does give us a particular responsibility. Now, I tend to read most articles published by Bella Caledonia. But I approached this particular one without high hopes, more as a sort of duty than expecting to get much from it. As it turns out, my low expectations were wrong. A very interesting article.

  2. milesking10 says:


    I enjoyed your piece very much, perhaps because it reinforces my own views, rather than because it is right. Though I believe that too, obviously.

    I think we do have a vocabulary for the relationship between the natural and the cultural. For many years now ecologists and conservationists have been relaxed with the notion of the semi-natural. Thus almost all wildlife habitats in the UK and Europe are semi-natural, in that they have evolved as a result of human activity on previously natural ecosystems. Though how far back one would have to go to find a “natural” ecosystem is a big debate in itself.

    Semi-natural, in as much as it has a formal definition is, according to SNH “a community found in an area where human activity occurs, but is not the dominant factor affecting its ecology.” or “modified by human influence but retaining many natural features.”http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/seminatural

    If you are interested, I have written widely about the semi-natural in my current and previous blogs. http://www.anewnatureblog.wordpress.com and https://grasslandstrust.wordpress.com/2010/10/.

    For a counterview from the re-wilders, I would recommend Mark Fisher’s blog http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/

    Miles King

  3. douglas clark says:

    I was always under the impression that the Cairngorm Plateau was the only bit of wild country we had left. Everything else had the hand of man – and woman – on it.

  4. Paul Webster says:

    The strawman has always been useful when writing a polemic.

    I simply don’t recognise the proposals to protect wild land from this article. Fraser writes of the crofting landscapes, of the machair of North Uist, of tractors and local communities. The impression is that the Uist crofters will have to somehow hide themselves or clear off.

    Actually, the proposed wild land areas do not include communities. They do not include crofting landscapes. They do not include the machair. They do not include any land on North Uist at all – to suggest otherwise is misleading. Noone is suggesting they should.

    Look instead to the great, arctic plateaux of the Cairngorms – look at Braeriach and Cairn Toul. Whilst ‘wilderness’ defined as a place where there has been no human influence no longer exists anywhere in the world – and these areas are small – these come close. These places have never been – and never will be – people’s homes and communities. They have never been farmed. The human influence here is a few worn paths from hillwalkers, older ones built by Victorian sporting estates, and climate change reducing the length of the snows.

    Yes, there are other landscapes on the wild land map which are far less natural than this. Whilst most of the proposed wild land is the high mountain ground, there are glens included where the Caledonian pine forests and Atlantic oakwoods have been felled. Predators have been exterminated. Vast numbers of grazing animals – first sheep, and later deer for sporting estates – have denuded the vegetation and destroyed the biodiversity. Yes, we need to repair the ecological damage in many of these places. But this is not ground which is going to be worked for agriculture.

    Maintaining ecological balance and diversity is one of our greatest challenges. Fraser’s seems to me to be suggesting that SNH are making some sort of philosophical error in that defining wild land – basically as being land visually free from human artefact – and setting this up as the ideal for all landscape. It is not an ideal for all landscape. In fact, they state explicitly that protecting wild land is about protecting the cultural value these areas have. Quoting from their policy statement: “The appreciation of wildness is a matter of an individual’s experience, and their perceptions of and preferences for landscapes of this kind. Wildness cannot be captured and measured, but it can be experienced and interpreted by people in many different ways.” Could this be clearer?

    Economically, the Highlands have many disadvantages. They are far from markets, much of the land is inhospitable and transport is difficult and expensive. The area had a subsistence agriculture – which was decimated during the Clearances before a partial recovery – but such an agriculture alone cannot satisfy the standards of living we expect today.

    In spite of these obstacles, the population of the Highlands has actually been rapidly increasing. Why? It is because the Highlands and Islands also have strengths. One of their greatest strengths – economically – is from the wild land to which these communities have easy access. SNH again: “[Wildness] is enjoyed by visitors as they tour Scotland and view scenery from the roadside which is markedly different from what they experience at home, and which may appear to them to be highly natural. Wildness is often experienced through the active outdoor pursuits – not just walking and climbing, but fishing, sailing, hunting, riding, canoeing, or wildlife watching – indeed, any recreation or pastime which draws people into the remoter and more challenging areas of land or coast. And for many people, the enjoyment of wildness is an inspirational experience, rewarding for its own sake.”

    Is this important? Whether it is something you enjoy personally or not, the answer for the Highlands is Yes. It is by far the largest source of employment here. Without it, the population increase would not have occurred – instead the exoduses of the past would be continuing today.

    Noone is trying to set up wild land as some sort of ideal for every landscape. I agree protecting wild land on its own isn’t the same thing as maintaining and re-establishing a stable and diverse ecology though we should be doing that in these areas too.

    Our remaining areas of wild land have massive cultural and economic value – both to people living in the Highlands and Islands, and to the wider population as a whole. Some people may not personally appreciate or value wildness – but a great many others do. Our planning policy seeks to protect and enhance cultural values, it seeks to protect our economy, it seeks to protect historic sites and buildings, it seeks to protect our ecology.

    It can and should protect our remaining wild land too.

  5. John bryden says:

    Nice to see a good article on this subject with which i agree completely! Well done, Fraser.

  6. Apparent “wild” spaces in Scotland exist because those who lived there were driven off by landowners to make way for hunting estates, of course.

    Though I am thrilled to see a reference to Patrick Geddes in the article!

  7. Dave Coull says:

    I have just watched “Unnatural Histories” on BBC4, about the creation and the development of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the USA. Interesting programme. They really did create a very un-natural “wilderness”. And one of the first things that had to be done to create this very un-natural “wilderness” was ethnic cleansing. Because, of course, there were Native-Americans living in the “wilderness”, some of them there all the year round, others only for some months of the year on an annual migratory basis (just like some of the other animals). That was natural, but it didn’t fit in with what the capitalists who promoted the “wilderness” as a tourist destination wanted.

    1. Mark Fisher says:

      Perhaps you should read some books, like Joel Janetski’s “Indians in the Yellowstone National Park” (Uni. of Utah Press 2002 ISBN 0-87480-724-7) as I did when I spent two weeks walking the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. It would be more educational than watching the arch polemicist Bill Cronon bang on with his usual anti-wilderness diatribe. BTB there is no designated wilderness in Yellowstone NP.

      You might also learn about Ferdinand Hayden, head of the US government’s geological survey, and his official USGS exploration of the Yellowstone region in 1871, with William Henry Jackson as official photographer and Thomas Moran as accompanying artist.

      Subsequently, a House Report from the Committee on the Public Lands accompanied a Bill to Congress to establish Yellowstone as a National Park. The USGS survey significantly informed the contents of the House Report. The photographs of William Henry Jackson and the paintings of Thomas Moran provided Congress with powerfully persuasive images of the region as a place of uniquely American natural wonders that needed protecting against the expansion of Euro-American settlement. The report emphasized the natural wonders of Yellowstone, and noted that “If this bill fails to become a law this session, the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonderland will, in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare”

      The Yellowstone Park. House Report No. 26. From The Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Forty-Second Congress. 1871-72.
      An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park.” [S. 392]

      The Act designated Yellowstone as a park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” with “all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders” within it to be retained “in their natural condition”

      Thus the conception of the Park lay in the desire to keep out the expansion of the rapacity of European extractive uses, especially its farming and domestic livestock, and not necessarily the exclusion of the native population. In fact, as in a number of other National Parks, because of their intimate knowledge of the area, Native Americans were employed to be guides for Government trips inside the Park.

      However, by 1871, Native American living in the West was already highly constrained through Manifest Destiny, the widely held belief that Euro-American settlers were destined to expand across the continent. It had been the Nez Perce campaign of 1877 that had set the Park against Native Americans. The Nez Perce, or more properly Nimiipu, were the subject of attempts in 1877 by the Government to get them to confine themselves on a reservation. After hostilities broke out with the military and settlers near the Wallowa Valley, Oregon, five of the Nez Perce bands chose freedom and set off for Montana where they would either seek refuge with the Crows, or flee to Canada.

      About 700 originally journeyed eastward, harried by the military. Their route then became far from linear as their leaders showed considerable guile in outwitting the military following on behind. On reaching the boundary of Yellowstone, they sensibly did not use the Bannock Trail, located in the northern part of the Park, which was an easy route through the rugged country of Yellowstone, established much earlier as a throughway to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. Avoiding detection, they came along what is now called the Nez Perce trail (which I have walked) avoiding confrontation with the military, but coming across and kidnapping (and injuring some of) a group of startled tourists.

      They eventually released them all, and came within 40 miles of the Canadian border at Bear Paw Mountain before they were finally confronted by a substantial military presence. The battle lasted six days. The cold and starving Nez Perce decided to abandon the fight, with some 300 escaping to Canada and the rest surrendering, but it would be eight years before they were reunited with their tribe on their reservation in Oregon, being instead shunted around Kansas and Oklahoma.

      The Native American way of life outside Yellowstone was rapidly degraded by the despoliation of their prized root meadows in the greater Yellowstone area caused by the herds of cattle, horses and hogs of Euro-American settlers that were barred from the Park (but who poached buffalo). The Bannock in particular were incensed by this, especially since they were increasingly forced into being dependent for their food on “Indian Agents” rather than from their former self-reliance of hunting and gathering in rich landscapes. Raiding on settlers broke out in 1878, leading to a bloody war with “renegades” splitting into small groups. One raiding party decided, like the Nez Perce the year before, to flee to Canada, but this time they chose to cross the Park by the Bannock Trail. Considering all this, it is perhaps less surprising that Norris, Yellowstone’s first Superintendent, perceived Native Americans as a deterrent to tourists. He thus sought agreement in 1880 with the Crow, Bannock and Shoshone that they would stay out of Yellowstone.

      The easy accusation that the National Park system in America was predicated on the back of ethnic cleansing will be met with a hollow laugh for those who have a better grip on history. In Eastern States, it was the Euro-American settlers who were displaced. There was a gradual relocation of the 20 tenants living on or using property in the area of Rock Creek Park, established on land next to Washington after a bill had been passed in 1890 that land in Rock Creek Valley “be perpetually dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States, to be known by the name of Rock Creek Park”. The park would “provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition, as nearly as possible”. The first regulations for use of Rock Creek Park, and which would guide the transition from private property to public landscape, stressed public safety and conservation of the natural beauty of the park, by prohibiting off-road use by carriages and horse riders, placing a 10mph speed limit for the drivers or riders of carriages, bicycles, and horses, and prohibiting firearms or fireworks, hunting, trapping, fishing, the cutting or defacement of vegetation, and the grazing of livestock.

      I had an important lesson about human impact reinforced by reading about the history of Shenandoah National Park while there, how the Park was pieced together in the 1930s from a 1,000 individual tracts of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains, purchased or condemned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the resultant 176,000 acres presented to the Federal Government in 1935. Many mountain people, at least 500 families, had to be relocated out of the Park during its formation, to new homesteads in the Virginia piedmont. They came there first as hunters and trappers, but soon after 1750 settlers moved into the lower mountain hollows near springs and streams, and then ever moving upward they searched for land for farming, grazing, and orchards. Later would come mining for copper, as well as taking out lumber, and bark for tanning of leather.

      There should not be some mystique about mountain folk, that they sought refuge to live in sympathy with the land. Many settlers were tenants of a few large landowners, but they and homesteaders all embarked on a common pursuit of exploiting the land, by ringing trees with their axes – a process called “deadening” – to clear fields for pastures and orchards; killing all the large carnivores so they weren’t a threat to their cows; and hunting out the white-tail deer, so that they had to be restored to the park when it was set up.

      A similar story of displacement of settlers can be told about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park further south in N. Carolina, which had been opened the year before Shenandoah.

      What is clear is that the American system of protecting wild nature understands that the greatest threat comes from a species that is no longer an undifferentiated member of the animal kingdom. What that doesn’t mean is human exclusion, just their extractive activities that are excluded.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for these very interesting responses. I have replied (mostly to Paul) over at my own website here:


  9. Reblogged this on EcoPost and commented:
    Check out the following article by Fraser MacDonald! It provides a fascinating discussion of ‘wild land’ and offers an insight into how our philosophical history has shaped our perception and treatment of our environment here in Scotland.

  10. Pingback: Land Matters «

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