Landscape and Sustainability

I was delighted that one of the first exercises in this course involved considering and writing about landscape and society. It’s a subject that I’ve developed a tremendous interest in over the last couple of years, particularly in relation to the politics, history and culture of my own home country Scotland.

The landscape is one of the defining images that people associate with Scotland. From Shortbread tins to Hollywood movies, to sumptuous VisitScotland adverts the majestic Scottish countryside is the backdrop against which we choose to present ourselves to the world. The unspoilt beauty of the country promises a haven of tranquillity for those wishing to get away from it all and bask in the glory of nature.

And yet the truth is that the countryside that we like to think of as a beautiful, pristine wilderness is, in fact, and entirely man-made wasteland. Over the course of millennia human development has stripped away most of the original ecology of Scotland and turned it into one of the most heavily managed and controlled landscapes that I know of.

What now appears to be a rugged and barren country was originally covered from coast to coast by the Great Caledonian Forest. Every inch of Scotland was covered in thick deciduous forest that provided a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife that can no longer be found anywhere in the UK. They include bears, wolves and beavers along with Golden Eagles and many other species.

Over time however the Caledonian Forest began disappearing. In the present day only a few small scraps of the original forest remain, scattered in pockets across the country and often the focus of co-ordinated preservation efforts. There are a number of theories as to why the Caledonian Forest vanished, with the principle theories involving a combination of mass deforestation through human activity and potential catastrophic weather events brought about in the past by natural climate change.

One thing is for sure and that is that the loss of the Caledonian Forest had a severely detrimental impact on the original ecology of Scotland. Once the forests were gone the land was exposed to the full force of the North Atlantic weather systems. The combination of severe wind and rain accelerated soil erosion and left behind the blasted and barren landscape that we know today.

That is the geography that has helped to shape the whole way in which Scottish society has developed. Much of the country’s history has revolved around struggles to control the fertile land of the Central Belt and East Coast. For centuries the society of the Highlands revolved around subsistence farming (or crofting as it is known in Scotland) and fishing. In central and eastern Scotland urban development grew up through the creation of Royal Burghs that had charters to carry out international trade. In contrast the Highlands remained a rural society dominated by the clan system.

Originally the Scottish clan system was a social order in which communities were built around large extended families who held land and other natural assets in common ownership. Each clan was headed up by a Chief who nominally ruled in the interests of the whole clan. From the 12th century onwards this began to change as lowland culture in Scotland started to become heavily influenced by the federalist system introduced by the Normans. Highland society began to follow suit and gradually the clan rulers went from being ‘Chiefs’ to becoming ‘Lairds’ – feudal overlords who laid claim to all land rights and who increasingly seized personal ownership of what had formerly been commonly-held land.

This is a system that continues to the present day. The best studies that are available suggest that scarcely 500 owners control 50% of all the privately-owned land in Scotland. Landowners in Scotland continue to hold extensive rights over development and still exercise a large degree of control over communities that inhabit their land. In Scotland the feudal system only officially came to an end in 2004 following the passing of the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament. Reform of land ownership remains an immediate and pressing political concern and it is an issue that has been extensively highlighted in the course of current debates around Scottish Independence.

No matter what shape future land reform may take the history of feudalism has left an indelible mark on the geography, society, culture and history of Scotland. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the legacy of the period known as the Highland Clearances. This was an era that ran from the late 18th to the late 19th century, running concurrently with the Industrial Revolution and forming the main expression of the 2nd Agricultural Revolution in Scotland.

This was an era in which the philosophy of the European Enlightenment was driving the development of both industrial and agricultural capitalism. Applying the principles of agricultural ‘improvement’ the Highland lairds realised that they could make a greater profit from their land by removing the people who had lived there since time immemorial and replacing them with sheep or cattle.

The Highland Clearances were carried out through a combination of carrot and stick. In some cases the landowners did their best to encourage and facilitate their tenants to leave the land and find new opportunities in Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the rapidly growing cities and industrial communities of the central belt.

The clearances remain famous however for the far more notorious forced clearances that place in counties such as Sutherland. Here the full force of the police and military was brought to bear in forced evictions that saw families dragged from their homes and forced to watch as those homes were burned to the ground in front of their eyes – occasionally with other family members still inside.

Once the original Gaelic culture of the highlands had been displaced the way was clear for new interpretations of Scottish culture to take their place. The romantic myth that dominates portrayals of Scotland nowadays was almost wholly the invention of this period of history. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decided to start spending their summer holidays at Balmoral they sparked a craze for all things tartan. Enormous shooting estates grew up across the country as lairds started breeding herds of deer and flocks of grouse for wealthy visitors to come and hunt.

The long-term ecological impact of the hunting estates has been enormous. In order to protect grouse stocks armies of gamekeepers were employed to kill off birds of prey – many of which gradually went on to disappear from Scotland. Meanwhile the active encouragement of the deer population served to speed up the destruction of forest habitats. Deer principally graze on tree saplings, and as herds were allowed to grow to huge sizes (far in excess of what the ecosystem would naturally support) deforestation accelerated, jeopardising many rare plant and animal species.

The whole of Scottish culture became packaged around an idealised caricature of the older highland society – a caricature that was very largely invented by Sir Walter Scott. That particular image of Scotland continues to dominate outside perceptions of the country – in no small part because it provides an extremely valuable ‘unique selling point’ for the tourist industry, a sector which makes up a significant portion of the entire Scottish economy rivalling both North Sea Oil and the entire worldwide sales of Scotch Whisky.

Culture and history do not stand still though, and increasingly Scotland is looking to the future rather than the past. The country is rapidly repackaging itself as a modern beacon of sustainability. The tourist industry increasingly promotes itself as an ideal location for eco-tourism and the country as a whole is estimated to contain 25% of the potential renewable energy capacity for the whole of Europe. Whilst energy policy remains the reserved responsibility of the UK Government the Scottish Government has introduced an effective moratorium on the building of new nuclear power stations by using their control of planning permission to block such projects.

Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1997 Scotland has become a vibrant test-bed for new models of sustainable development. Inevitably these bring with them fresh debates and arguments and this blog has only allowed me to provide a very brief snapshot of the issues that we face and of the history that has brought us here. If anyone would like to find out more about these issues I would strongly recommend checking out the following sources:

The environmental impact of deer hunting

First up we have a recent Guardian video exploring the environmental questions around the management of deer populations (Warning: contains footage of dead animals)

You can compare that video which has been shot in the last year with this episode of the 1980s STV series Weir’s Way, where presenter Tom Weir visits a re-forestation project in Glen Affric, showing that the issue is by no means a new one.

A more evocative and artistic take on the issue can be found in the following T.S. Eliot poem, which draws parallels between the deer stalking industry and the Massacre of Glencoe that took place in 1692.

Rannoch, by Glencoe

Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot. The road winds in
Listlessness of ancient war,
Langour of broken steel,
Clamour of confused wrong, apt
In silence. Memory is strong
Beyond the bone. Pride snapped,
Shadow of pride is long, in the long pass
No concurrence of bone

 Land ownership in Scotland

Over the last decade Andy Wightman has become the leading expert on land ownership in Scotland, both in terms of current patterns of ownership and in terms of the historical development of land ownership.

His book The Poor had no Lawyers: Who owns Scotland (and how they got it) is an essential reference for anyone interested in the subject. He also provides up-to-date coverage of current issues and topics on his blog Land Matters

Renewable energy and tourist development

Renewable energy development is thriving in Scotland and the Scottish Government aims for the whole of Scotland’s energy needs to be met by renewable energy by 2020.

As in many areas there are tensions between the competing questions of environmental preservation and the development of renewable energy sources. Scotland is no exception to this, and an interesting debate took place on the Bella Caledonia website last year between Fraser MacDonald, who took issue with attempts by the John Muir Trust to block wind farm developments, and Alan McCombes who defended the policy.

Even though the Scottish Government boasts of its Green credentials the SNP still continues to fall down in a number of areas. Specifically they operate a policy known as ‘Single Purpose Government’, under which the primary goal of every government department is to look at how they can boost economic growth. This has led to a number of situations where the SNP’s supposed commitment to sustainable development has been rightly questioned.

The best-known area of conflict was around the development of a new golf course by Donald Trump on the Balmedie Sands – a designated site of Special Scientific Interest. The construction project became the source of major controversy in Scotland and was the subject of award-winning documentary ‘You’ve been Trumped'(available via Netflix)

I’ve also spoken and written about the contradictions between the Scottish Government’s Environmental and Economic policies in a previous talk that was delivered as part of Creative Scotland’s Open Sessions in 2013.


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