New Visions for Land in Scotland

Bella is delighted to be the media partner for SEDA’s New Vision for Land Use in Scotland, a series of six conversations covering land, soil, ecosystems, economy, all with a programme of arts and community. The series focuses on the multiple challenges presented by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss in the context of both covid and Brexit. How can we create a Just Recovery in these times? The answer according to those who have curated the series lies in a holistic approach that brings multiple perspectives together and looks at systemic problems (and solutions).  Ahead of the first talk on the first of March, Gail Halvorsen
 lays out some of the thinking behind the series.
It was about this time last year that I watched George Monbiot’s Channel 4
 documentary ‘Apocalypse Cow’ while reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree. The
 combination of these two left a big impression on me and I found myself looking at the countryside with a more critical eye. Whereas previously I enjoyed the rolling fields of Midlothian, dotted with trees, I now notice the monoculture, the lack of wildlife and the scarcity of woods.
This led me to the idea of running a SEDA event about Scotland’s approach to land use. After all, we design the landscape.

Land Conversations

Initially we intended to run a one day conference as a fringe event to the original COP26 in Glasgow, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the climate change event and gave our conference extra urgency, so we decided to hold a series of six online “conversations” in March and April 2021. Rather than work under the conventional headings of farming, renewable energy, forestry and ownership, we opted to focus on six themes or conversations that straddle these topics. We want to break down barriers between entrenched sectors and encourage holistic thinking, while drawing on grassroots knowledge, different disciplines, and emerging science.
Our goal is to bring together a cross-section of people with an interest or stake in the future of land use in Scotland; from sectors including farming and estate management, forestry, renewable energy, tourism, regulation and government. David Seel (SEDA ex-chairperson & co-organiser) and I have been surprised how little dialogue there is among these disparate groups. As an independent third-party, SEDA is in a good position to bring them together. By going back to basics, analysing the evidence and discussing new ways of building bridges between different sectors we hope to shift entrenched positions and open up new ways of thinking about land use.


Themes for the six conversations:


1. The Lie of the Land (Monday 1 March)
How climate change and food security will drive future land use in Scotland. More details here.

2. Soil & Growth (Monday 8 March)
The science and ecology of soil: carbon emissions and carbon capture explained. More details here.

3. Ecosystems & Energy (Monday 15 March)
Promoting biodiversity: the role of natural resources and renewable energy. More details here.

4. Natural Benefits (Monday 22 March)
Nature’s impact on health: creating inclusive local economies. More details here.

5. New Rural Economy (Monday 29 March)
Changing economic patterns: reimagining where we live and work. More details here.

6. A Story for the Future (Monday 12 April)
Art and community: hard facts alone don’t win the argument. More details here.

Scotland is ahead of England with the Scottish Land Commission and the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement both established in the wake of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. Part of the current problem is undoubtedly the heritage of the disparity of land ownership in Scotland, but this event will concentrate on land use and land management, not ownership.
There are a surprising number of landowners wanting to do things differently; who are aware of their obligation to combat climate change, increase biodiversity and involve the local community. For some the emphasis is on rewilding (Anders Polvsen at Glenfeshie) and for others it is on local community (Ninian Stuart at Falkland). Jeremy Leggett (former scientific director at Greenpeace) is teaming up with and investing in local timber frame manufacturer Makar for new eco-tourist and affordable starter homes at Bunloit, an estate he recently purchased on the north shore of Loch Ness. The eco-building on Bunloit has the wider aim of deep emissions reduction and Build-Back-Better reconstruction in Scotland.
We will also be drawing on the work by organisations such as the Hutton Institute, the Soil Association and Nourish to promote more sustainable
 agricultural land uses, as well as addressing the renewable energy sector, large sporting estates, tourism and the timber industry – all competing for the same resources.

Land contributions

One of our main speakers, Magnus Davidson of the University of the Highlands and Islands Environmental Research Institute, has developed a vision of what a 21st Century rural Scotland might look like. He foresees a region that works for both people and nature, where centuries of depopulation and ecological degradation are reversed, a restored, re-peopled, and re-wilded landscape that incorporates the vast renewable potential of rural Scotland, leading to sustainable industries and communities, rooted in the unique social and cultural traditions of our rural areas.

One example of interdisciplinary thinking is from Mór Hydro Ltd. who re- saturate Highland peat bogs by blocking the drains which dry the land for grouse breeding, and use the stored water source for hydro power. This win- win situation improves carbon storage, biodiversity and potentially, greater revenue to the estate owners.

The response to our Conversations idea has been incredibly positive. The Hutton Institute has offered to act as scientific consultants for the conference. We already have an impressive array of speakers from academia, landowners small and large, community run land, policy makers and NGOs as well as poets and writers. Scottish National Heritage, The Scottish Land Commission, Scottish Land & Estates, The Landworkers’ Alliance, Reforesting Scotland, The Crofting Commission and Sustain have already agreed to participate.


We are working with the Hutton Institute to provide a series of online, interactive maps showing the distribution of land uses of the whole of Scotland in the past, present and future, inspired by Scots planning pioneer, Ian McHarg.

The data for these maps will be provided by scientists who make projections, drawing on a range of scenarios for a sustainable and more self-sufficient future. Their assumptions will be based on demographics, consumption habits and culture, energy use, economics and agriculture. We are sure that these maps of the future will challenge people’s preconceptions and be a catalyst for discussion.

Artistic involvement

An important part of the conference, reinforcing the idea of out-of-the-box thinking, is the contribution of artists in every conversation. Artists bring a fresh perspective. Interspersing highly personal reflections of song, poetry and video into the relatively dry discussions will provoke the panel and audience to look at each topic in a fresh way.


Our aim is not come up with definite solutions but provide a body of work to help inform future land-use decisions in the form of the maps and a report summarising all six conversations. These will be available to participants, policymakers and the public. We hope to spur Scotland-based charities and NGOs to engage with the broader issues around changing land use.

A lot of scientific research has been done in this area but is not in the public domain and, to date, it has been presented piecemeal. New Visions for Land is, as far as we are aware, the first time that all the issues affecting rural land will have been addressed at the same time; another for SEDA.

Comments (21)

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Excellent.I look forward to reading outcomes. Time we protected our precious land. Well Done Bella.

  2. Michael Finnegan says:

    “A vision of what a 21st Century rural Scotland might look like. He foresees a region that works for both people and nature, where centuries of depopulation and ecological degradation are reversed, a restored, re-peopled, and re-wilded landscape that incorporates the vast renewable potential of rural Scotland, leading to sustainable industries and communities, rooted in the unique social and cultural traditions of our rural areas.”

    I’m particularly concerned in relation to how the industrialisation of our precious wild spaces is to be contained. Of course I support renewable energy and if that involves some onshore wind generation as part of its production then so be it. That however is very different to the blanketing of hillsides in wind turbines. Local opinion is frequently disregarded. Local decisions to reject planning applications are overturned by Holyrood in favour of the multi-national energy companies and developers (of which the plan to build a theme park at Loch Lomond is one of the more egregious examples). We cannot disregard the mental health and well-being engendered by access to wide open spaces and landscapes. Spaces they currently seem to be up for grabs to the highest bidder.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      I object to the classification of rural Scotland as ‘a region’, with the implication that it can be covered by a blanket ‘national’ strategy.

      The nationalisation of rural Scotland is a big part of the problem. It’s treated as a national resource that can be exploited for its amenity on a national scale. Energy production, for example, is scaled to supplying a national grid rather than the needs of local communities; likewise with mineral extraction and food production.

      The aim should be for each community to produce for its own needs. Such local scaled production would be more sustainable, less impactful, and, potentially, more democratic. It would directly provide more local employment and more economic activity generally through increased local demand for ancillary services. Surplus production could, of course, be traded with other communities.

      Certainly, this would lead to the reindustrialisation of the countryside, but it would be industrialised in a much different way from that which has despoiled large parts of it and turned those localities into human wildernesses, lost to productive activity.

      Anyway, there’s a vision towards which an independent Scotland might work: a radically denationalised economy; economy scaled to local needs.

      1. Jamie MacDonald says:

        Well said, totally agree ‘think global – act local’ would re-genstate hollowed out local economies.. Barman- get that bore a pint.. Cheers!

        1. Jamie MacDonald says:

          Re- generate..

  3. SleepingDog says:

    I remain sceptical about this initiative, partly because it seems to be an organization of architects:
    who are not the usual consorts of rewilding projects.

    If you don’t have the charities and NGOs on board who champion or seek to protect wildlife and the non-human environment, then I am not convinced that this is anything beyond a greenwashed nature-exploitation exercise, a Berlin Conference for carving up Scotland’s ecosystems. I hope I am wrong.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      I mean, the concern is ecolonisation:
      when we could just be discussing how much of Scotland to leave alone, perhaps with the reintroduction of native keystone species, and not ‘use’ it at all. I wonder how many of those architectural partners think “land defender” is the name of a SUV they might be interesting buying the next time they popped into the local dealer’s showroom.

    2. Pub Bore says:

      A minor phenomenological point, which might nevertheless have major ecological implications: there’s no such thing as a ‘non-human’ environment; or, at least, none of which we can have any cognisance. The very notion of a ‘non-human environment’ founders on the paradoxical question of whether a tree that falls in an empty forest makes a sound. To ‘rewild’ the countryside is just to humanise it in a particular way.

      This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t humanise [parts of] the countryside as wilderness; it might well suit our [human] purposes to use the land in this way. It’s only to say that humanity is ubiquitous, that even ‘nature’ is a human construct, and that our ecology needs to take account of this. The key ecological question is: How do we make a habitable home for ourselves, a sustaining environment?

      As I’ve quoted before: “It is true that we did not make the stars as a carpenter makes a table, but didn’t we, after all, make them ‘stars’?”

      1. Good point. This is really true – the whole debate about ‘re-wilding’ is fraught – and at aleast one of the speakers is introducing the idea of ‘re-peopling’ – I expect this to be explored at length.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Pub Bore, you confound your own argument. Anyway, I cannot make sense of your frequent vacillations between solipsism and grand theories of human development. In any case, Scottish forests can be photographed by satellite, no aural confirmation required.

        I do accept there are matters of degree, and islandisation. The biosphere of Planet Earth has pervasive elements of human activity (plastic pollution in Arctic seawater, atmospheric pollution, particulates from industry in soils) hence the designation Anthropocene. Much of the planetary surface has been colonised by humans. However, it is possible to designate some areas off-limits to human activity, and other areas where there are more or less restrictions. Personally, I have no problem with hillsides of wind turbines if there are good arguments for this being the least harmful way of generating required power. Views are another form of human usage and consumption.

        And sure, rewilding can have some human input as I mentioned in replaced wiped-out species, or it can be a natural process. It is not perhaps an ideal term, but in any case you can imagine (or can you?) what might happen to the planet if humans died out. But if you think that nature (as opposed to the concept ‘Nature’) is a merely a human construct, perhaps you cannot. You seem to have great difficulty placing a value on anything that is not directly valuable to yourself.

    3. But the article lists a host of charities and NGOs on board: the Hutton Institute, the SRUC, Scottish National Heritage, The Scottish Land Commission, Scottish Land & Estates, The Landworkers’ Alliance, Reforesting Scotland, The Crofting Commission and Sustain – maybe you missed that bit?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, I know who SRUC is, and the first word that jumps out from their website is ‘cultivating’. Before commenting, I did check out the mission statement of the (James) Hutton Institute (website currently appears to be inconveniently offline) which is apparently a big player in something called the Natural Capital Initiative:
        These are all use-oriented, even capitalist ventures. No wonder they’re bringing in some artistic camouflage.

        There appears to be no representation from wildlife and environmental NGOs and charities (such organisations can have divergent, conflicting and diametrically-opposed agendas, of course). My point about the Berlin Conference was that the inhabitants of those lands in question, in Africa, were never consulted or represented at the deliberations. This is also true for non-human living interests, not even an environmental ombudsperson, a Lorax who speaks for the trees and other species who live on (or are affected by) these lands. This is not stewardship, it is colonialism.

        1. Pub Bore says:

          Are you saying that it’s wrong to advocate for public policy and business decisions that steward rather than exploit the world’s natural resources? Because that’s what the Natural Capital Initiative is about.

          Natural capital, as conceived by Fritz Schumacher, who is best known for his proposals for human-scale ‘appropriate’ technologies (scientific and technical applications that are small-scale, affordable by locals, decentralised, labour-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous), can be more properly understood as analogous to social capital.

          Social capital is the networks of relationships that obtain among people who live and work in a particular community, which enabling that community to function effectively. Analogously, natural capital is ecology; the networks of relationships that obtain in an ecosystem that enable that ecosystem to function effectively.

          Of course, you might take the view that we should simply remove ourselves from the ecosystem and let it take care of itself (‘rewilding’). But this ignores the fact that we ourselves are inescapably a functional element in our ecosystems and that there is nowhere we can be ‘apart from’ them.

          The traditional dichotomy between ‘man’ and ‘nature’ is an artificial one, an ideological expression of their alienation in the post-Socratic world. For Hegelian ecologists like Schumacher and Heidegger, it’s this alienation that needs to be healed through a sublation of the conflict that’s arisen and developed between them in the course of world history, at least since Plato.

          And by the way: the Lorex is a fabulous creature of Dr Seuss’s invention. Who, among us humans, would ‘speak for the trees and other species’ – and on what authority – in our environmental fora?

          A near neighbour of mine claims to be able to channel Nature (and has made a lucrative business out of doing so on behalf of the gullible). Maybe she could speak for the trees and other non-human entities.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Pub Bore, I am saying that the framing of SEDA’s initiative is suspect because of the biases of its membership and agenda which excludes the kinds of bodies I mentioned. Rather than new visions, it looks like updates of the old ones which have caused contemporary problems on a planetary scale. On a diplomatic level, it causes problems to ask/demand/pay other countries to leave large parts of their land undeveloped, if we show unwillingness to do this on any reasonable scale in Scotland. SEDA’s publicity materials seem to only go as far as asking ‘what can biodiversity do for us?’. That does not mean the initiative has no value, but in the timescales of the emergencies outlines by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, possibly not enough, and a continuation of a colonial-capitalist mindset. When human activity has caused the problem, the solution may involve some future human inactivity, at least in certain areas.

            There are objective measures on the health of ecosystems, some of which are used by the United Nations, and even if such frameworks are not universally accepted, humans are generally keyed to detecting the difference between healthy and unhealthy environments.
            Building consensus for a green authority has been a long-term project, and significant progress has been made in international agreements, even if we have not yet reached the point of a global legislative assault on ecocide.

          2. Pub Bore says:

            Sorry, what kinds of body does SADA exclude from its membership? I’ve just checked out its membership criteria and it says it’s ‘open to everyone with an interest in ecological design’. What’s stopping the kinds of body you say it excludes from joining?

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Pub Bore, wildlife and environmental NGOs and charities appear to be excluded from the SEDA initiative. I have no idea why, whether this is a passive or active process, but SEDA makes it clear they are a formal membership organisation charging fees. The article makes it clear that the “land uses of the whole of Scotland” are in scope, not just actively managed rural land, say. Equally clear is the intent to influence policy: they are a lobby group. My questions relate to exactly who they are lobbying on behalf of. The professions are represented very unequally, and there are no academic members listed.

            As far as the natural capital idea goes, which is promoted by SEDA’s primary partner, the James Hutton Institute, I remember that approach being strongly criticised by George Monbiot:
            and it does seem to teeter close to neoliberal-economics gibberish. I am not opposed to governments adopting a better measure than GDP (never designed for the purposes it is now used for), as apparently recommended in a recent report by Cambridge University economist, Partha Dasgupta. However, I doubt that this kind of bodge will do anything but harm in long term. I have read a bit more of the Natural Capital Initiative texts, and there seems to be a clear theme of aligning private landownership with public policy without changing the nature of private landownership, or indeed taking land out of private hands.

            If large areas of Scotland were taken out of private hands and left to regenerate off-limits to human activity, how would people know that behind those woody walls were not palatial estates for the rich, powerful and well-connected? Society would have to change too, to remove the rich, powerful and well-connected. All must be even in our commonwealth. Not opinions I would expect to hear during SEDA’s conversations.

          4. Pub Bore says:

            ‘SEDA’ even!

          5. Pub Bore says:

            Sorry, SD; I still don’t see why you say that wildlife and environmental NGOs and charities are excluded from SEDA. What’s to stop them from joining?

            You clearly disagree with SEDA’s constitutive mission; so, I can see why you’d choose not to join and advocate for your views within the organisation. But that’s not the same as saying that you’re ‘excluded’ from SEDA; it’s only to say rather that you don’t share in its community of interest. Perhaps all those ‘excluded’ organisations to which you allude simply don’t share in the community of interest shared by those organisations that have associated in order to promote the interest they share.

            Likewise, I can never see myself joining the Scottish Country Dancing Association or the Scottish National Party, but that doesn’t mean that I’m ‘excluded’ from joining the SCDA or the SNP.

          6. The conversations are a collaboration by half a dozen or more organisations, many NGOs, environmental bodies and third sector groups. It’s not very difficult to understand.

          7. Pub Bore says:

            I know, Bella; I’m just pulling his chain.

  4. Graeme McCormick says:

    Having read the introductions to each conversation I’m surprised that the use of land as the principal source of public funding is not included.

    How that is developed will have a massive influence on land use both in rural and urban Scotland.

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