Dead landscapes - the Scottish Highlands

This is the third in a series which begins with the admittedly attention-grabbing title Dead landscapes. To read the first dispatch please go to Allagash. But to briefly summarize, in that initial post I used Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway to illustrate how the wilderness we actually experience may only be a veneer, a facade of wildness maintained for our benefit. I also challenged whether what we think of as wilderness really deserves that title.

In the second dispatch in this series I focused on Ireland, and specifically the lack of trees in its western wet reaches. It is a beautiful area. But the bottom line is that, though it looks wild and remote, it too is the product of the long-standing and destructive agricultural practices of mankind. Civilization killed all the trees that used to be there.

What will be explored here, from experiences gained on a trip to Scotland, is that sometimes our management of nature’s own wildness is not an option, but a requirement, notwithstanding an urge to just let nature do its own thing.

Here is installment number three (and four).  

Part Three:  The Corrour Estate - the Scottish Highlands

 

This past November I found myself getting off a train at Corrour Station in the Scottish Highlands and, with rain gear fully zipped up to the chin, hiked over to Loch Ossian for a night at the remote, walk-in-only hostel there. I enjoyed a wonderful evening of conversation with new acquaintances and some portion of a bottle of fine Highland scotch. This evening has been covered in a dispatch once already, but this is going to be about another part of my conversation shared with fellow guests and Scottish natives, Davy and Katherine. (See Ossian)

Katherine and Davy in the common room at the Loch Ossian Hostel

Katherine and Davy in the common room at the Loch Ossian Hostel

 

It is perhaps impossible to sit in a snug, fire warmed building like the Loch Ossian Hostel, so far removed from the modern world, listening to the wind and rain splattering on the roof and windows, without talking about the stunning landscape outside at some point. It is why we were all there.

Rannoch Moor

I realized from hiking in the Lake District a couple of years back just now altered a landscape similar to this could be by reason of sheep grazing over thousands of years. The sheep there had taken what was once a forest covered land of hills, after the trees were cut down by people with tools presumably, and turned them into wild scrubby fells now providing the hill walkers spectacular vistas and great hikes. The forests were not allowed to return. The sheep would and still will eat errant baby tree saplings within reach. Take the sheep away and eventually the Lake District could become a forest again, in theory.

 

Sitting, enjoying a rest and refreshments at the New Dungeon Ghyll (see Lake District). See sheep farmhouse in the river bottom of the dale and walled pastures up hillsides.

I don’t know the policy minds of the administrators of Britain’s National Parks, but my guess is that they continue to allow sheep grazing on those fells in a National Park in part because this now is how the British public expects these wild places to look and remain. I suspect they do not wish to face the public outcry that might befall them should the fells start to host a lot of, god forbid, trees!


Still, I was surprised to hear Davy, after maybe half of the Scotch had disappeared, exclaim how dead and degraded the landscape was up in the Highlands, right outside that hostel door. Instead of a land filled with an astounding diversity of plants and animals once occupying these hills, it was now “fit for little but some deer and the grasses they fed on.” Plus a few invasive conifers, some grouse, and in summer, biting midges.

The origins of this degraded landscape are somewhat recent, dating back only to the mid 18th to 19th centuries when the great agricultural revolution of the “clearances” occurred, removing small tenant farmers and replacing them with large scale sheep pasturing.

There are, no doubt, many tourists who have seen various costume dramas on TV or in movies which were shot on location in the Highlands (such as those now descending on the Highlands in great numbers due to popularity of the show Outlander, previously Highlander and Braveheart). They come to Scotland hoping to see the Highlands as they were portrayed to exist back in some historical period. Inevitably these shows will cater to Hollywood’s US-focused bias against the “Redcoats,” and so be concerned with a war against hated and apparently amoral English troops. That historical sweet spot will be around (or in the case of Braveheart, centuries before) the Jacobite rebellions, the last of which ended disastrously for the Scots in 1745.

However, the wonderful scenery on display in those shows would not have existed at that time. I doubt the tourists care, even should some errant tour guide point this out to them. (Which they won’t.) This is how we expect the Highlands to look now and that is all anyone really cares about or wants.

More significantly, it’s an easy assumption that the Highlands as seen today simply are in their natural, wild and therefore default condition. That is what I had thought when I first went there as well. So of course we extrapolate that this is how they also would have looked before the modern era. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

The great estates of the Highlands, one of which we were on at the moment, are owned by landed wealth who today are the successors of the clan leaders that took over all this land and kicked out their own countrymen beginning around 1750. They came to look upon their position less as a clan leader and more as simply a wealthy (or maybe bankrupt) landowner, trying to maximize the utilization of this land for revenue. At the time, that meant sheep, lots of sheep. And only sheep. The farmers that had previously lived there for centuries were removed to make room.

The sheep they introduced mostly have gone now. Not enough profit in them currently. In most cases today, these estates are maintained in this condition just so their owners, friends and family, or paying guests can come and without working up much of a sweat shoot some trophy deer and a few basketfuls of grouse.

The deer now play the same ecological role the sheep did, they eat everything that tries to come up, leaving only grasses to survive. This land became suitable only for sustaining a few things, and the previously existing diversity of plants and animals plummeted.

Notice deer fencing for young saplings

Davy was not happy about this. (Though he, like the rest of us got up to look when a buck was seen to come into view outside the hostel.) He was angry in fact and found all the colorful ways that only a Scotsman perhaps could express it using the English language. And let’s remember that he was here specifically to hike and climb amongst all this degraded “natural beauty.” Its a paradox, but I get it. The place is amazing, trashed by voracious deer though it may be.

I had hiked in from the train station astounded by the wildness, the primitive power of the place. And given that there were no apparent signs of human activity, such as the grazing of sheep found in the Lake Distrct, I took this as both a wild and natural landscape. But now, the next morning I would be hiking back realizing that I was passing through a destroyed ecosystem. That’s what a little travel education will do for you. 

Walking out, morning after overnight at Loch Ossian Hostel.

One way to describe the harm done by past sheep herding practices is to look at what this particular estate where we were sitting is trying hard to actually bring back. The Corrour Estate is working to restore some of the original diversity and life of the Highlands. Not by just letting it all go, that simply wouldn’t work, the wild deer population would just keep doing what they’ve been doing. In fact the problems likely would get worse if the deer were unchecked.

Loch Ossian, trees can survive where the deer can’t get to them

This landscape has to be actively managed now to let nature have any chance.

For example, deer must be culled (meaning that we must act as their “natural” predators which no longer keep the deer population in check since we got rid of them) and yes that means someone goes out there with a gun at the right time of year and shoots a lot more non-trophy deer (a skilled hunter with a semi-automatic deer rifle can take down a deer in the most humane way possible). Or … we can reintroduce wolves to do what they do naturally, while carefully teaching them not to eat any hill walkers.

Arguably the Disney movie Bambi has done more environmental harm than any other product of Hollywood. Untold generations of other plant and animal species have been doomed to never even get a chance to live due to the unchecked population boom of deer in some regions. (We in the US are witness to similar debates about the wild horses of the American West.) Our lopsided bias favoring large grazing mammals often condemns the lands we manage to ecological imbalance.

Non native trees and grass covered hills need to be replaced with native trees. Lots of them.

Water needs to be temporarily impounded or slowed down - at the scale of small ponds, not large reservoirs - at least until beavers are put back there to do it for us. (A pilot program releasing beavers into Scotland has been undertaken already, the first time they’ve existed in Great Britain since 400 years ago when they went extinct due to overhunting.) It would have been better had Bambi been about beavers rather than deer, but I doubt Walt Disney could have been persuaded to produce a cartoon sympathetic to rodents.

There doesn’t seem to be a choice if you care about ecological diversity and health.

That doesn’t sound right to many Americans with modern notions for preserving nature. Environmentalists in America, as opposed to the old conservationists of my youth, often just want mankind to get out of the way now, ignoring what harm we’ve already done that might need fixing, and simply hope for the best. There is a reverse conceit buried in that sentiment, that because we are capable of making mistakes, we are incapable of fixing them. At the Corrour Estate, at least they are trying, they are seeking to actively manage a return to nature.

If successful these hills and vales won’t be so barren, and then some might say they won’t look as wild. Or at least they won’t embody that form of wildness that we’ve come to expect of the Highlands’ landscape. We tend to want what we think “wild” means to us. In short, we like it this way, wild or not.

But the Highlands will be healthier and more true to the natural conditions existing before mankind came and messed with them with a lot of sheep. There hopefully will be a lot more here than just a few species of non native conifers, grasses, deer and grouse.

Many of our normal policy signposts are inadequate to help us sort this out. I don’t know which side of being conservative or being liberal these things naturally would fall when sometimes we need to actively change and sometimes actively hold fast. Sometimes we need to save animals and sometimes we need to reduce them, a nice and polite euphemism for killing them. (By the way, I know of no one advocating that we not kill the zebra mussels in our waterways. There has never been a Bambi movie for phylum mollusk.)

And the debates make for strange bedfellows. Recently I read that the owners of the great estates and an organization of Scottish hill walkers, normally two groups with little in common, have joined forces to stop the planting of trees in the Highlands. The hill walkers, as I speculated might occur down in the Lake District, are upset that these new trees will impede their ability to hike and enjoy the Highland’s open vistas. They’ll ruin the view.

I don’t care much one way or another about their case. Frankly I like the Highlands this way too, their barrenness is part of why we go there. But no one can legitimately claim that the existing Highlands should be preserved against the planting of trees on the basis that the treeless landscape is both natural and wild.

But travel to these places and uncovering their real stories can be liberating, that I do know. We might discover that pretty isn’t always synonymous with wild. Wild as we understand it isn’t always actually wild. And sometimes we have to do things which the popular imagination might view as being backwards, like preserving nature by increasing hunting.

 

For all it’s wildness, this is not really a very diverse ecosystem


Here is a little test.

This view in the photo below is in Scotland. It was a stunning panorama, seen from the train as it passed through the Highlands, just a few miles north of Corrour Station in fact. I am guessing that you think it is pretty. I certainly do. It was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful  places I saw on the whole trip and I wished I had the opportunity to take a photo from outside the moving train (note dirt from windows on the shot).

A test

But now assume instead that this is a photo taken in northern Maine and is of a mountainous terrain which has been recently clear-cut logged of almost all its trees. If you were to zoom in onto every field and mountainside you would see clear-cut land, not heather and grass. From a distance, however, it would look pretty much the same as this.

Do you still think it is pretty or are you outraged? Pretty if Scotland and outraged if northern Maine? However, except for the passage of time, these are both essentially the same thing, a land whose trees have been removed. There is actually nothing in that photo other than the sky that is natural in the sense of being apart from mankind. Even the lake is a man-made reservoir.

I tend to favor where Davy was in his head. He recognized that the Highlands is a beautiful place and wanted to participate in it. To experience its power. But he didn’t let that feeling get in the way of seeing the Highlands for what it really is, a human denuded landscape on behalf of which substantial efforts should be undertaken to affirmatively restore its natural health and vigor. I expect that there is a way to do this and still be able to enjoy places such as this.

Part Four: Hollywood - Lawrence of Arabia

So. Finally. Was I wrong to think the Scottish Highlands were (and are) breathtakingly beautiful? I don’t think so. There is a montage of scenes in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia at the first moments when we see the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. (Or John Ford’s Monument Valley for that matter.) That desert landscape is both beautiful and yet virtually dead. More dead than the Highlands by far. Our appreciation of beauty does not after all require thriving, healthy, lush, diverse, and even alive.

The problem isn’t that we mistakenly think denuded landscapes like the Highlands are beautiful and amazing. They are.

The problem is that because we also think they are wholly natural, we equate this particular sort of beauty with undisturbed nature. So we don’t want this to change. We end up wanting to keep the damaged landscape intact, like the hill walkers. And probably like the Outlander tourists as well. We sometimes fail to recognize that a managed, yet healthy landscape, can be beautiful too.

I took many pictures of the Scottish Highlands and came home proudly showing them to anyone that cared to look.

Sunrise outside the Loch Ossian Hostel

 

I did not take any pictures of the garden-like, mulch covered, permaculture managed clear cut forests in northern Maine (Allagash). And even had I done so, no one would have cared.


 

 

©️ 2019 D Abbott