In defence of wild land is not in defiance of people

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A response to Who’s Land is it Anyway by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach

The Core Areas of Wild Land (CAWL) map produced by Scottish Natural Heritage and the John Muir Trust (JMT) has received much criticism and little support from groups involved in land rights, highlighted by the word of Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach.  The map has been perceived by many as “… [an] untamed, untouched image of the Highlands… which erases millennia of occupation by Gaels and other peoples (1).”  This concern of “white settlers” continuing the colonisation of the Highlands and Islands, which has and does cause so much misery, certainly holds weight.  Additionally, people are rightly apprehensive of nature conservation on the back of numerous conservation projects around the world which have extirpated native people to create wilderness and other protected areas.  The National Park movement which stems from John Muir’s time in North America has often been a colonial project, damaging to natives around the world.  Some of the best known examples are in Africa, where native peoples were often removed in the name of protecting the natural environment, such as the creation of national parks in Kenya and Tanzania (2).  However, it would be a mistake to assume that conservation is inherently colonial.  More particularly, does the emerging wild land movement sustain this dark aspect of environmentalism?  What is the CAWL map even for?

The American National Parks and ‘pristine wilderness’

A criticism of the American National Park movement is that it created the idea of pristine wilderness where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” (3) when in fact native people had been living in such places long before white people ever ventured to the states.  Yosemite is an example of a natural area which is designated as ‘off limits’ to most activities due to being ‘untrammelled’ by human activity, a key component of the Wilderness Act.  It was removed of native people during the gold rush when colonists pushed out the natives in a massive land grab and at times whole-scale slaughter (4).  John Muir campaigned for this and other areas to be protected by the State after he witnessed first-hand the ecological destruction resulting from livestock over-grazing.  This came after the native people had been removed to reservations by the Government.  Muir has been accused of writing negatively of Native Americans and wiping the landscape clean of their presence in his writings including by Carolyn Merchant in her book Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History.  In fact during the course of his life Muir became sympathetic towards the Native American cause, particularly after time spent living with natives in Alaska.  He identified that such people lived within the natural environment rather than opposed to as white settlers did:

“I greatly enjoyed the Indians’ camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were… connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals… (5)

At Muir’s time of frontier expansion it was only possible to protect the natural environment by preventing (white) people from constructing or utilising the natural resources in scenic and wildlife rich areas.  That native populations were decimated and prevented from repopulating such areas is a distressing outcome, but not the doing of preservationists such as Muir.  It was expansion capitalism and the American state, bent on eradicating the culture of native people as have white settlers in too many parts of the globe.

There are certainly parallels and lessons to be learned from the North American nature preservation history books and the experiences of John Muir.  ‘White settlers’ is an appropriate derogatory term when directed towards people who edge out ‘natives’ such as is the case with wealthy people from outside the Highlands and Islands buying houses for holiday homes and bumping up prices.  Additionally, it has been ‘white settlers’ (as well as corrupt natives) who have bought and commanded huge swathes of land, removed the people and devastated the natural environment in the pursuit of financial return (i.e. Clearances, deer forests, grouse moors, sheep farms).  However, not all incoming population is damaging to the land and the people; often it is incomers who are very active in community organising and boost dwindling populations.  Further, Highland Scots are amongst the most widely distributed people and must surely consider human migration to have positive outcomes, whatever the causes.

As Muir is accused of painting a picture of a pristine nature without people, so too the CAWL map is accused of wiping areas of Scotland clean of historic and contemporary inhabitation by people.  But just as Muir grew to see that the native people lived as part of nature, so much of the conservation movement has moved towards supporting healthy human populations interacting positively with the natural world.  This can be seen from interaction between the JMT and community land trusts.  The real issue here stems from the perceptions of how people should interact with the natural environment, and community ownership could herald part of the solution.

Breaking the nature vs people dichotomy

Fiona McKenzie wrote in Place of Possibility that community ownership breaks down the nature vs people dichotomy which a patriarchal and neoliberal society creates (6).  Using the North Harris Trust as an example she shows that community ownership has resulted in local people becoming more of a part of the natural landscape and taking an active role in positively contributing towards biological diversity through tree planting schemes and managing deer numbers to promote natural regeneration.

“No longer are people considered as separate from the interests of conservation of plants and animals – non-human and nature – but part of the working of these designations.”

This example shows that when people are given responsibility over the land they live on they care for it because they are of it.  They can see how humans are part of the complex matrix and must interact positively to the mutual benefit of all species.  It is no coincidence that JMT are on the board of the North Harris Trust, as indeed they provide support for the Knoydart Foundation, the Assynt Foundation and the Galson Estate Trust.  It is true that conservation NGOs have become a major landowner in Scotland and this could be perceived as just more domination by outsiders.  However the purchase of land by conservation groups stems from abusive land management which results from an inequitable land ownership system.  The descendants of Victorian gentry and their sheep farmers continue to wreak havoc with overgrazing, muir-burning and managing the natural environment for monoculture.  The land which has come under management for conservation was previously short grazed heather moorland or sheep clipped grassland.

What comes from Fiona McKenzie’s conclusions is that people and non-human nature can cohabit to the rigorous growth of all and community or cooperative ownership structures are an effective means to achieve this.  However this will not be possible if inappropriate development is permitted.  The reaction to the CAWL map is too quick off the mark.  The primary reason for the map is to prevent the rapid industrialisation of remote areas by large-scale wind farms.  One thing is for sure, you can’t live on a wind farm, and more to the point who would want to.  As John Muir said this is “not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress…”  The industrialisation and commercialisation of the Highlands and Islands is a very real threat to radical land reform in that it provides yet another cash stream for large landowners to follow, just as they did with sheep farming in the 19th Century.  There should be made a distinction between development and industrialisation which is often to the detriment of non-landowning people and the natural environment.  Going back to North Harris, the community is developing by constructing affordable housing and a small business complex.  This kind of small-scale low-impact development is occurring all over the community estates.

Self willed

That some people in the conservation movement would follow the American national park system and remove people entirely from the picture in order to create wilderness areas should be resisted, but the concept of wild land should not be disregarded by tarring all environmental concerns with the same brush.  The root of the word ‘wild’ is ‘self-willed’ and this means that natural mechanisms, such as woodland regeneration, are not controlled and dictated by human hands.  It does not mean that humans should not live active lives and interact with the landscape which they inhabit.  Following McKenzie’s conclusions a healthy, happy human population results when people feel that they are part of the environment they live in.  It could even be said that by definition, a self-determining, self-governing community of people is ‘wild.’  There is no wilderness myth to be had here if a self-willed land includes self-willed people.  There is however a myth of conservation = bad for people, undoubtedly caused by historic events.  With the rise of community ownership there is an opportunity to “…to reconstitute a nature – and a wild – whose meanings interrupt the ‘colonial legacy (6).’”  Grasp the wild for our own.  Our ancestors were wild.  I hope that the future is wild.


(1) Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach (2014) Whose land is it anyway? Available from:

(2) Roberth H. Nelson (2003) Environmental Colonialism. Available from:

(3) Dave Foreman (2013) The 1964Wilderness Act’s Four Definitions of Wilderness.  Avalaible from:

(4) Christine Rose (2013) Native History: Yosemite National Park Created on Native Homelands. Available from:

(5) John Muir (1916) Travels in Alaska.

(6) Fiona Mackenzie (2012) Places of Possibility: Property, Nature and Community Land Ownership.

Comments (15)

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  1. epicyclo says:

    Coming from a background of cleared ancestors on all sides, and having lived in Tanzania on the edge of the Serengeti, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of environmentalism.

    A land without humans living off it is an artificial landscape IMO. Keeping it “wild”, is just continuing the work of the clearers.

    You only have to go into the hills and mountains to see traces of settlements going back to the Iron Age and further to realise that large amounts of people lived where now just the wind blows.

    Scotland’s landscape has been artificially destroyed by the actions of the few who own most of it. Their idea of “wild” land is raising semi tame animals to be killed and maimed by “sportsmen”.

    Surely we can do better than being a playground for obscenely rich psychopaths?

    The rest has been altered beyond recognition by monoculturalists with their sheep and forests.

    Disallowing ownership of more land than an individual/family unit can reasonably manage would give a truer picture of what a natural landscape would look like.

    If we want to have a genuinely natural landscape in Scotland it can be done by re-introducing an almost extinct species – the native highlander.

  2. mary vasey says:

    Excellent post thank you. I agree with all you have said and epicyclo I agree wholeheartedly with your second last paragraph- it’s past time we did something about these obscene landowners who have no interest in local people beyond being estate workers with no right to own their house etc.

  3. A point to bear in mind for the medium future. As the world warms and the wind turbines are either worn out or moved offshore where they are more efficient, we are left with access roads to large areas of our uplands. Could this improved access be used to for liming and improving the soil? Building windbreaks? We would increase the quantity and diversity of the crops that could be grown.

    Tourism is important but a very variable and fickle market. 20-30 years down the line as the global economy stagnates, perhaps implodes, we will be very grateful of land that can produce something other than stunning backdrops. Those who would whine about destroying the naked majesty of the hills should be asked to live on a diet of majestic views.

    Oh and shoot the bloody geese on Islay, its not as if the species is particularly endangered. Bird lovers should be encouraged to accompany their whines of disapproval with cheques to support the local indigenous humans if they are that concerned about the possible extinction of sub-species.

  4. Crubag says:

    “Our ancestors were wild. I hope that the future is wild.”

    Our ancestors were cultivators. That’s why there’s so many of us now.

    Hunting, shooting, fishing – and a bit of subsistence gathering – can sustain a population, but only a much smaller one.

  5. Tony Philpin says:

    It is not strictly true the Americans view their Federal owned land as ‘pristine’ wilderness. There have been many management tools over the last 30 years which scale the degree of wildness as a spectrum. The classic tool has been the ‘Recreation Opportunities Spectrum”. It includes intermediate classes such as ‘back country’, and also classifies distance from roads etc. as part of the index. A modifed version of ROS would have been very valuable and applicable to our own setting here. I am biassed as I worked on ROS as a recreation and land use planning tool some 20 odd yrs ago and feel it still is very uesful. Yes we are in a different cultural, historic land use and and landscape environment. As this post states – wild land is a social construct and rightly points out that it is the scale and nature of human impacts – past, present and future which need to be addressed. If SNH have not explained the context then that is a sin of omission not commission. Regardless of Indy, we in Scotland need to discuss our relationship with the land, and how we manage this social as well as economic resource. A timely piece !!

    1. Crubag says:

      THe SNH map is largely a GIS construction – distance from roads, visible man-made objects, steepness, etc.

      To qualify, land units also had to be a certain size, so the map largely excludes coasts and islands which are actually some of our most “wild” land forms. St Kilda doesn’t qualify, for instance.

  6. goldenayr says:

    Some see heartfelt desires
    Some see chances missed

    I see,lives gone
    To be replaced by our mist

    Where is our future
    Where is our chance

    Do we swap it all
    For one last dance

    Or do we RISE NOW
    And tell them,how

    We stood and told them
    Tae think again

    1. Good to see the passion of poetry in the land debate.

  7. This is a very thoughtful response to Dòmhnall Iain’s original stimulating piece. I am encouraged by the growing recognition only when local communities are in the driving seat can the fullness of place – as the melding of the natural and the social environment – be achieved. Local communities can then use designations/recognition from outwith to strengthen their ability to resist, for example, corporate intrusions, and also as a source of grant income to resource conservation. This has been hugely effective on Eigg when the last people who would want to ruin their environment are the residents who, over the years, have established a symbiotic working relationship with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Likewise, North Harris with the JMT, and other examples.

    Too often in the past “conservation” has indeed been a colonising dynamic and this, combined with economic inequality, has had the tragic effect of poisoning the chalice for indigenous communities. Changing that requires that agencies and government departments “from away” recognise what it means to be (and gradually, to become) indigenous to a place. Iain MacKinnon’s paper for the Scottish Crofting Federation on this remains a seminal piece of work in this regard – see . See also the paperback re-issue this month of James Hunter’s important book, “On the Other Side of Sorrow” (Birlinn Ltd) – the new Foreword to which tackles issues of how colonising dynamics have adversely affected the indigenous perception of nature, and why that needs to be recognised and redressed via community empowerment and land ownership.

  8. Iain MacKinnon says:


    I have sympathies with the position you are putting forward in the article but I think that some of the recent history of community development in the Highlands and Islands does not sit easily with your suggestion that the community groups and activists in the north west who are opposed to the wild land map haven’t really thought through their positions. I believe they are less likely to be responding on the basis of an ideological principle [‘I hope the future’s wild’] than to be reflecting their past political experiences. That is, I think it is more likely that their opposition arises from the fact that several of these groups have had problematic experiences of the conservation agenda stretching over a number of years.

    While there are instances of conservation organisations and community groups working well together (especially including the example of Eigg that Alastair McIntosh highlights), some of the past actions of conservationism in the Highlands and Islands, including in relation to the North Harris Trust, suggest that conservation legislation can be and has been used as a means of seeking to thwart small-scale community led energy projects.

    Around ten years ago the North Harris Trust were in travails over their plans for a three turbine wind farm which was to be sited in sight of (but not inside) a National Scenic Area. At a conference at Sabhal Mor Ostaig around the time I recall the then North Harris Trust chair David Cameron describing the long and, at that point, fruitless process of engagement the trust had undertaken with SNH to try to make the development happen. It was to be a critical income generating project enabling other developments to take place.

    SNH were acting within their statutory powers, and perhaps would have been in breach of them had they not opposed the wind farm plan. I was impressed by David Cameron’s patient tenacity and thought how good it was that the North Harris people had someone working on their behalf with these qualities, and the time and energy (working for a small voluntary organisation) to take on SNH in this case. Eventually NHT were able to take the project forward (because of a ministerial intervention if I remember right) before it fell for other reasons.

    The NHT has not been alone in finding SNH a stumbling block to community energy projects. John MacKenzie of the Assynt Crofters Trust has described in great detail a similar process of trenchant SNH opposition to the ACT’s plans for a hydro scheme on Loch Polly. Eventually ACT got their hydro scheme. In my view it was fundamentally the tenacity of the person driving the project that made it happen.

    So there is strong evidence that a centralised, displaced conservationism has opposed small-scale community led renewable energy developments; not necessarily out of any malice to these projects but because their narrow conservation remit requires them to. When conservationism uses its power to thwart the will of communities to develop in a way that these communities have chosen it is then that conservationism is perceived as coercive and in terms of what the geographer Mark Toogood described as the ‘colonial legacy’ of nature conservation in the Highlands and Islands.

    To argue that the wild land map will be used primarily to stop industrial wind farm development in the Highlands and Islands is to presuppose how its powers will be limited and to overlook the consequences of its potential secondary uses – Brian Wilson in the West Highland Free Press has claimed that it could be used to block any development larger than a hen-house. Its legislative authority may have serious consequences for community landowners who have already engaged in protracted antagonistic and unequal struggle to move ahead with much-needed developments.

    I think it would be a useful study to analyse the bases of such antagonisms between the conservation agenda and community groups, their consequences for community groups, and how the disputes might be mitigated or avoided altogether. In the meantime, I can understand why Domhnall Iain, Community Land Scotland (now chaired by David Cameron, previously MHT chair) and Storas Uibhist, the largest community landowner, are expressing their suspicions.

    1. You are right that SNH opposed the 3 wind turbines, but the John Muir Trust supported the North Harris Trust’s proposal. JMT has since its founding sought to work with local communities, and has an explicit policy of supporting community-scale developments, as opposed to – for instance – industrial-scale wind farms.

      Many thanks to Johnny Marten for this post. It is a basic truth that humans depend on a healthy environment. Local communities and environmental communities need to find ways of working together, as in the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape (CALL) project which is just getting going.

      1. Iain MacKinnon says:

        Hello Denis,

        Thank you for giving the John Muir Trust’s perspective on the Harris windfarm case which as a JMT trustee you are well placed to do.

        As the JMT is a substantial landlord in Scotland it is of course inevitable that you will have to work with local communities. In fact, several conservation bodies are also major landlords. For me, what is critical is how (rather than whether) such organisations work with communities on their estates.

        In relation to the JMT, there was a troubling instance last year when your organisation came in for scathing criticism from people in the Strath area of Skye where the JMT is a the landlord of several crofting communities. The JMT was criticised for a fundamental lack of democracy and for a series of unilateral decision making processes which thwarted the desire of crofters there to take greater management responsibility for their lands. It was claimed locally that the attitude and conduct of JMT had led many in the area “to lose faith” with the organisation.

        These claims, which came from a former JMT trustee, a grazings committee chair, a community association vice-chair and an internationally respected Scottish academic, were backed up by another local resident who said the JMT had shown “ill disguised contempt for one of its own communities” and that its response to local criticisms had been “brutal, crude and indiscreet”.

        The invective here is strong, and probably, in part, reflects the frustration of wasted volunteer effort over more than a decade. One way that the JMT could perhaps avoid such anger (and, indeed, the suggestion that their decision making processes are at heart imperialist) in future would be to implement open, transparent and fair management processes which are independently facilitated and formed in collaboration and agreement with community interests on JMT estates, and which are open to subsequent renegotiation by the parties involved.

        1. Thanks, Iain.

          First, I am not currently a Trustee of JMT, having stepped down over a year ago.
          I am thus not in touch with current JMT affairs on Skye; so all I’ll say on that is that there are (at least) two sides to the story of community relations there.

          I think alluding to JMT policies with “inevitable that you will have to work with local communities” is ungenerous. Communities have been at the centre of JMT thinking since it was founded in 1982/3 over Knoydart, and JMT has given major donations to community buyouts in Knoydart, North Harris and Assynt.

          You raise plenty of issues in your last para that I would enjoy discussing at length some time. I would hope that both communities and conservationists aim for “open, transparent and fair management processes”, and the fact that both sometimes fall short of such ideals is not a reason for giving up on working together for the land that (in Norman MacCaig’s phrase) possesses us.

  9. Iain MacKinnon says:

    Hello Denis,

    The dispute in Strath in Skye became public knowledge early in 2013. Were you still a trustee at that point? If so, as you have given Bella Caledonia information on the North Harris windfarm (presumably you were also a trustee at that time), perhaps you could give us some insight into another side of the story at Strath?

    As regards my comment on the inevitability of JMT working with communities, the comment is intended to emphasise the dual nature of JMT. On the one hand JMT is a conservation lobbying organisation. In its capacity as a lobbying organisation it is not inevitable that it should work with communities – and so its contributions to the community buyouts (which I presume came without conditions) were both welcome and generous.

    However, JMT is not just a lobbying organisation. It is also a major landlord in the Highlands and Islands and in this capacity it is inevitable that it should work with communities. The Strath dispute raises the question of how the JMT is working and should work with communities. I think it would be useful for communities and conservationists to consider and discuss such matters further.

  10. HarveyCymn says:

    P.S. DId you know the Egyptian generals are going to pick 80 of 100 people who will draft a new Constitution .?

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