Early morning view of Gairich, on the route from Glengarry to Glen Loyne
IN the course of a 470 mile walk through a country you get the opportunity to observe things at closer quarters than you would if you were to drive through it. Travelling by foot takes you into wild landscapes that most people, including policy-making politicians, are totally unfamiliar with. How to protect these wild landscapes is the question I have pondered on most while walking north from Kirk Yetholm.
I’ve seen massive changes in the Borders in my own lifetime, with huge conifer plantations shrouding historic hillsides, the loss of hedgerows and patchwork fields due to large-scale agro-industry practices and in more recent times the growth of industrial scale windfarms.
Further north the coniferisation is no less severe and the constant drive for renewable energy sources will change the face of highland Scotland forever unless we can, somehow, mitigate the visual effects of it. But how much of a sacrifice are we willing to make?
Climate change is a very real issue and Scotland is one of the few countries in the world attempting to seriously tackle the problem. Energy is another vital issue and until renewables like wave and tidal power come on-stream then politicians have to embrace whatever else is available. Giving that few Scots want nuclear power stations on their doorstep that alternative, for the moment, appears to be wind power, both onshore and offshore. But large-scale windfarm industrialisation is the biggest threat to Scotland’s wonderful landscapes, areas that attract thousands of tourists to Scotland every year.
I firmly believe we need areas of wildness, places where people can find renewal, and peace! The American writer Edward Abbey once said that we need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. Slightly tongue-in-cheek perhaps but I would agree with the concept.
Even in Scotland, with our much-acclaimed land reform legislation and freedom-to-roam, many of us still think of land predominantly in economic terms, rather than in aesthetic or philosophical terms. How can you put a price tag on the likes of the Cairngorms, or the Torridon mountains?
It’s time we took the advice of another great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold. He said that when we consider land as a commodity to be bought and sold we tend to abuse it. If, on the other hand, we think of land as a community to which we also belong, then we will treat it with love and respect. We are part and parcel of that community, whether we like it or not, but still we continue to abuse the land.
We even pollute the very air that we breathe. Dramatic changes to the world’s climate are obviously not enough to change our consumerist ways. If God himself appeared in some worldwide wondrous form and demanded change then we’d still think up ways of denying it. We’d still crucify him…
On the walk I often sat beside some long ruined shieling. I thought of the people who once lived and worked in these highland glens, many of whom were later evicted. Large scale sheep farming replaced people after the highland clearances and today those sheep have largely gone. Victorian sporting estates dominate the highlands and large areas of the borders and one wonders how sustainable they are in these very uncertain times. Very few of these estates are profitable and many landowners keep them on as hobbies, as playthings. While some landowners are working hard to regenerate native woodland and control deer numbers most estates are run on a monoculture basis, managing vast acres as a wet desert for a few grouse. Or encouraging large numbers of red deer, which browse every bit of new vegetation that pokes its head out of the dirt. This is surely not the way ahead for Scotland?
Land reform is one answer, where communities control the land on which they live and work, and there have been some success stories like in Knoydart, Assynt and the Isle of Eigg, but large-scale community buy-outs are still a long way off, particularly under the current economic climate.
So what’s the next throw of the dice for Scotland’s wild places? I wish I knew.
My end-to-end walk threw up lots of questions, but few answers. Renewable energy appears to be the most obvious bet and that isn’t a pleasant option for those of us who treasure the wild places, unless we can find a means of balancing our energy/climate change needs with landscape conservation.
I’ve probably enjoyed the best of Scotland’s wild places in my lifetime, but I have grandchildren and I want the best for them too. I want them to enjoy Scotland’s hills and glens as I have because I know the benefits of such a relationship. That’s why I’ll keep on campaigning and lobbying politicians to protect our wild places. The right to remain silent is no longer an option. We all have a duty to speak out for wild places, or we will lose them.
But first take the bus to Kirk Yetholm, tie up your boot laces, hoist your pack on your shoulder and gaze north. Lying before you is an adventure like no other. Step out and enjoy it before things change too much. A nation awaits you…
This extract is taken from Scotland End to End – available from this website at the special price of £15.00 (read more…)