On Land and Purpose

IMG_0701It 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.

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  1. Tam says:

    Do you actually have any practical answers to current rates of extinction and habitat loss, or are we to depend on the ‘poetic cadences and softly sibilant speech of our native inhabitants’ for answers. You’d be wrong if you think that these issues are just the preoccupation of middle class ‘townies’ ; they affect us all and those in Edinburgh and elsewhere have every right to be involved, anywhere in Scotland. A rural address confers no special privileges, unless you subscribe to the views of sporting estates and their lackeys in the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

  2. john says:

    Small point, but I think a very significant one. You said:

    “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.”

    “evolution” did not kill off those species you named, it was people and their stupidity, greed and fear. The creatures previous presence was a pretty good barometer of a healthy and balanced, productive environment. Don’t ‘just’ see a lynx, when you see ‘reintroduction’ – see a healthy and productive ecosystem that provides ‘welfare’ for people as well as the animals they share the place with.

  3. Fran says:

    I’d like to see more land made available for huts. Many of us in the city are only a generation or two away from crofters and still have the need for the land in us. In fact I think everyone would benefit physically and mentally from access to a simple hut and time out of the city.

  4. Entropy Juggler says:

    ‘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?’

    The ‘economic’ opportunities become quite clear once a thorough and rigorous scrutiny is applied to the status quo of current land use*, a true audit reveals a system of subsidised financial transactions on a quest of efficiency*, however… this can only be maintained by not accounting, so called, ‘externalities’, such as land degradation, erosion, pollution, climatic flux, biospherical vulnerability etc etc…and all of it enabled by massive energy inputs. there is nothing ‘economic’, in the highest sense of the word, about the entire process.

    We’re now way beyond the realm of ‘conservation’ and must now focus our collective efforts into restorative* and regenerative* practices., by doing this we can bolster and increase biodiversity whilst simultaneously gleaning yield/profit from ecological reparation, it’s far cheaper (read as profitable*) to assist the natural processes and work with them, by retaining as much photosynthetic energy on the land, in the form of flora and fauna, and hydrological recharge open to aquaculture, we can stabilise and create dependable ecosystems of a primary account, from which we can develop secondary and tertiary exchange. In the end…if it isn’t ecological, then it isn’t economical.

    Here’s a demonstrable site of scale.
    https://www.academia.edu/15003109/The_Great_Work

    Policy makers, take note, that this can be done mostly anywhere on the planet.

    Kind regards.

    1. Derek Pretswell says:

      The late Robert Robertson, founder of the Resource Use Institute was promulgating the use of cultivation terraces way back in the 70’s. Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell were promulgating the view of the degraded landscape of Scotland which had an enormous biological potential and came up with a programme for restoration and development in the 1980’s/1990’s called New Caledonia. Based on our experiences of restoration in an upland environment.

  5. Jeff says:

    This article articulates the underlying sentiment that many people in the Highlands and Islands feel towards ‘Edinburgh environmentalists,’ but it also shows that this is often a baseless and reactionary response. There isn’t a single example of what these ‘Edinburgh environmentalists’ have done or plan to do to recieve surch irk. The only point was against the reintroduction of species wiped out by humans and we are poorer in their absence – beavers for example diversify the landscape providing flood mitigation and breeding ground for salmon. This presumption that all Gaels have an innate understanding of the land should be closely examined. Just look at the Assynt crofters who upon buying out the estate from a tyran laird who was recking the landscape with inappropriate deer numbers have carried on letting out stag shooting to rich guests (economic activity) and so continued this environmental abuse. Maybe they should listen to a few environmental scientists. This worlds not just about our ‘own precious species’ you know.

    1. Alison says:

      If you’re referring to the Assynt Foundation (who control the land acquired by the second big Assynt buyout, done in 2005), then it might be relevant that few or no ‘native’ people are now among the directors currently running the estate (although I know very little of the early years after the buyout).

  6. Peggie says:

    This must be the best article that I have read on Bella Caledonia for a very long time and the content of the comments so far, would only add to the importance of the article, in illustrating the points made. “Experts” and “environmentalists” now abound in the Gaeldtach, mostly with an agenda that doesn’t involve Gaels and so I do think that, contrary to John’s point, a rural address does confer special privileges as we are the people who live with the consequences of how the environment is managed, by “experts” or otherwise.
    Thankyou Bella Caledonia for articulating what so many people would like to say.

  7. Dougie Blackwood says:

    We have a balance to strike in Scotland. Our SNP government are talking about land reform but are coming up with very watered down proposals. Of course we should make radical changes to the way land is owned and managed but, in our present circumstances, if we went down that road, the consequences from the establishment in the House Of Lords and our Tory government might be too terrible to contemplate. Lets get independence first then do it right.

    1. C Rober says:

      yer naw wrang , I wouldnt let the SNP have their corrupt mittens on decisions regarding land reform.

      Why would I use the word corrupt , when you ignore the data and the community , disregard long term previous development denials , and hire an independant reporter to Hollyrood that decides for the landowner and developer seemingly from the offset , even aiding them to defeat rejections , then is there any other way to describe it?

      Last year after wee eck was in the local paper promising to protect prime farmland in Ayrshire , yet the SNP council and Hollyrood allowed it for use for unwanted housing , under the lies of affordable housing , which it clearly would never be.

      Any council that is happy that it will take over 100 years to create Council housing to fill todays demand , yet promotes their failings through the Local MSP as positive , well it just shows you that the SNP is not the saviour of the community it protrays itself as being against the landlord.

      For decades the council when led by Labour prevented using farmland for 400 houses , worth tens of millions to landlords and developers vs thousands as farmland , an increase on a village of 20 percent , in one of little need or demand by thier own reports.

      The Snp ignored their own policies , thus showing their contempt on the community whom had said no and summarily ignored them too.

      Land reform , fae the SNP , my arse.

  8. Isobel McAllister says:

    As the Land Reform proposals are being watered down to homeopathic proportions, could we at least see local councils making enough allotments available? The demand is far greater than supply but councils seem very unwilling to fulfill their legal obligations.

  9. ben clinch says:

    Trump & Salmond & the case of a SSSI that is now a golf course – sustainable development? Political ‘influence’? It ain’t just the Tweeded set that have destroyed valuable natural capital.

    On a wider note:
    A quick look at SNHi via a Google search will show the on a map the location and scale of land designated for conservation SAC’s, SPA, NNR’s and SSSI’s (the first three designations are EU controlled). Go into each one and you will then see the constraints put on land uses. Then there is the ‘Wild Land’ much campaigned for by the Mountaineers, Ramblers and National Parks and of course the National Scenic Areas.

    Balancing the opps and constraints with existing lands uses on many sites is like playing 3d chess. This is the reality at present. Is Land reform going make this any easier?

    There must be a tension between economic sustainability and conservation and now re-wilding within the of the wilder rural areas in Scotland. Jim Hunter tweeted that was a potentially a good fit with LR and Rewilding George Monbiot agreed, but as it twitter there was no more detail given. I would be interested in understanding the basis for this claim, as i am not convinced (my mind remains open though).

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