It was no accident that Jim Hunter’s excellent book, ‘On the other side of Sorrow’ was republished twenty years after it was first released. Its central theme is still as relevant today as when it was first published. The tension it describes between sustainable economic growth and environmental conservation runs across the Highlands and Islands like another Great Glen fault. In the dynamic tension of this ecosystem, politicians inhabit a niche which is much more uncomfortable than it should be, as they endlessly suffer the slings and arrows launched by each side, as the battle runs and rages like a tribal conflict.
In some ways it is still the old conflict that Stevenson articulated so well in novels like Kidnapped; the tension between Lowland and Highland Scots. Jim Hunter’s argument is that Highlanders have a centuries old understanding of their environment and mankind’s place in it; an understanding that is both deeper and broader than that of Edinburgh environmentalists. He draws the comparison of the indigenous understanding of our environment that we Highlanders share with Native Americans. A similar impulse no doubt inspired Alistair McIntosh to invite Native American Warrior Chief, Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, to give evidence during the Lingerbay Quarry enquiry. It is almost an antithesis of Burns’ admonition, ‘to see ourselves as others see us’, that we perhaps see ourselves more clearly by looking across the Atlantic; noticing traits we share with other indigenous peoples in this mirror.
The blame for this myopia might be partly laid at the door of Walter Scott who painted a romantic and picture postcard vision of the Highlands, inhabited by a few ‘noble savages’ and many that were not so noble, and opened the door to tourism with the idea that the Highlands should be the playground for tourists and the wealthy. In Scott’s ‘book’ this is a worthy idea and one that, such was the power and popularity of Scott’s writing, entered and stayed in the public consciousness.
This contrasts strongly with American writer, James Fennimore Cooper, writing around the same time as Scott, whose novels have an underlying theme that would be quite at home in a modern Green Party or environmental conservationist’s manifesto; noting the enlightened environmental practice of the natives and comparing it unfavourably with the environmental destruction brought about by greed obsessed colonists.
My grandfather who was variously a gamekeeper, crofter and fisherman, fed his family throughout the war years with gun and net and yet never took more than was needed. He trod as lightly upon the earth as Chingachgook or Hawkeye but was by no means exceptional amongst that generation of Highlanders in his understanding of and respect for his environment. I wish I had listened more carefully to him, but those that really need to listen to those who still retain this knowledge, relationship with, and understanding of the environment, are our environmental scientists.
The current debate about the Land Reform Bill and land ownership has not yet fully proceeded to a wider re-examination of what this land is for. Such a debate needs to be informed, not just by the rose tinted vision of Edinburgh environmentalists, but also capture the legitimate voices and understanding of indigenous folk. Patrick Geddes, grandfather of town and country planning, with his emphasis on close observation as the way to discover and work with the relationships between place, work and folk would have understood this. Perhaps this was because he was a botanist first before he became a planner and polymath.
Some common understanding of what the land and the sea are for and what we are aiming at has to be articulated and understood.
At the moment, like many people, I am perplexed. I understand the needs of those who still live and work on the land and the seas around it, but I am somewhat at a loss in understanding the environmentalists, beyond a general and vague idea of conservation. Some have ideas of turning back the environmental clock, reintroducing sea eagles and beavers, with ambitions for the reintroduction of lynxes, bears and wolves. My understanding of evolution, such as it is, is of a one way process. I am not certain that our environment can be put on rewind and even if it can, what point in history we are aiming at.
Some conservationists may have lesser and more pragmatic ambitions. Whatever this vision is, it has largely excluded that threatened native species, Homo sapiens, whose younger members migrate increasingly to cities and other countries.
If we are to move this dynamic equilibrium to a better place then we need to resolve these issues. That means sharing our understanding in more open and genuine conversations about what we seek to achieve; about what the end point we are striving for is; about how achievable this is and in what timeframe.
Timeframe is important because you cannot force an environment to evolve quickly any more than you can force people along a given pathway without them being ready to travel with you on the journey.
So far the science that has been applied is purely within the province of the natural environment. Not nearly enough work has been done to understand our place in this environment, however desirable better environmental practice may be. Where will the economic opportunities be in this new countryside of environmental good practice? How will our farmers farm, our fishermen fish and our crofters, croft? How will we manage this in order to maintain functioning, viable and sustainable communities?
Much of this is also within the province of our town and country planners and the inhabitants of these places, as the custodians of the environment, as well as that of environmental scientists. But none of this is as yet clearly understood, giving rise to much uncertainty and unnecessary conflict. We badly need a holistic vision of what our rural areas will look like in twenty or thirty years. Just as importantly, we need the conversations that will precede the development of this vision and when the talking is over, a coherent policy framework for bringing this about.
You have to listen carefully to hear the philosophy within the poetic cadences and softly sibilant speech of our native inhabitants but it is worth listening to. When we do listen we will understand how we can move towards a better environment in less painful ways that increase economic opportunities and enhance the livelihoods of our own precious species.