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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.