The Angry Corrie 4: Nov-Dec 1991

Opinions... Land use, access and ownership

Whilst it has always been the intention of TAC to publish the work of previously unknown hill-authors over and against that of weil-kent famous ones - better the devil you don't know and all that - the following piece sent in a grubby envelope by a Fifer calling himself Hamish Brown, is a good deal different from that upon which he has built his reputation. It's about the inequities of land-use, about the Disaffection of an author other than Kelman, and about the need for a radical, political rethink of how the Highlands are to be managed And as such, we think it deserves an airing. So read on, write in, let us know your thoughts...

The endless debates on conservation, access and everything else to do with the hills are, under the present system, a waste of time. It is like listening to an endless replay or a record stuck in a groove. Useless labour. What we need is not yet another tune, but to smash the bloody record player. Scotland has been emasculated (which might explain the squeaky voice), and is therefore impotent in dealing with its own destiny.

This is politics of course, and everyone bends over backwards, sideways, and stands on their head to avoid trying to introduce politics into problems. Which is why the overall position does not change. Munro-baggers (Munro-haters too!) are no better than cone-gatherers. The constant talking and compromising merely keeps the record turning. Scotland has been taken over and is controlled by an external power just as surely as were the Baltic States or Poland. Then they stood up and said No. Scotland doesn't, and now is the only country in Europe which has no say in its own affairs. What good is our utter rejection of England's ruling party at the polls when their interests still prevail?

We are constantly told how dependent Scotland is, how much we gain by union. If this was true, why is England so reluctant to be free of us? It's damned lies of course. Scotland is a useful place for fiscal experiments or dumping the world's nuclear waste or asset-stripping our resources. We're written off politically, a lost cause, so what the hell? Could you imagine the Mar Lodge saga dragging on as it did had the estate been in an English marginal constituency? We are treated with condescension and contempt. Which is all we deserve of course. We've been cajoled, bribed or hammered into subservience for hundreds of years now. Scotland is a myth.

What other country in Europe allows its landscape heritage to be bought and sold, neglected and misused, by all and sundry? Hillwalking in the wilds is not a right, as in most countries, and only exists because we make it so. Perhaps we should make it more so? At the end of the 20th century what place is there for the medieval landowner set-up that exists? Over vast tracts of the Highlands the land is in poorer state now than it was a century ago.

Last year the Scottish Landowners Federation hosted a press gathering at Ardverikie on Loch Laggan to put over their point of view. We were told, as if it were meritorious, that the estate was vital for the local good. After all, it supported fifteen families. As, two hundred years ago, it supported maybe five hundred, who's fooling who? My cynically-made suggestions on several money-spinning lines brought truth to the surface: 'Do you really think that would be suitable for our ambience?' That weekend probably did the landowners more harm than anything before or since. A publication by the triple-barrelled owner bore his home address - in the English Midlands. (Eh, what's wrong with that? -Derbyshire-born Ed.)

The system is rotten, depending on foreign richness or institutional investment, neither of which is very aware of Scottish traditions, of our moral right to roam our country. Or is it blatant speculation as we've seen with the asset-stripping of Knoydart. In no case is the land improved for the land's sake, for the future good of the country itself. The government has done nothing to stop this waste of people and land, but then it is about as 'green' as porridge.

Apart from its obtrusive jaundice-coloured signs, I've a good deal of praise for Atholl Estates. There the population has increased and the landscape has improved. Estate taxation should be geared to such improvements, with generous rebates for each additional family or new home or industry - and fierce penalties or confiscation for those who do nothing except perpetuate their own gracious living at the price of continuing decay. Or perhaps the whole system should be done away with?

Deer have to be controlled, but couldn't smallholders and farmers do that as efficiently as under the (unpeopled) present system? I know of a keeper denied a wee garden in a remote glen because it would take one acre of 30,000 available for grazing deer. A hundred people owning these 30,000 acres would be more commercially viable - and the land loved and lived in.

Should second homes be permitted at all? Whether it is of an estate mansion house or a wee holiday home, the absentee owner is a curse to permanent settlement. There is no moral or commercial justification for them. Only when people live in their houses, on their own acres, permanently, is there real commitment. The rest is playing - as if our heritage was a toy! Trouble is, everyone joins in. Half the Creag Dhu, never mind half the SMC, have second homes in Speyside now. The angry young men of my youth now flit from committee to committee in the endless whirl of bureaucracy's rotating disc. Conservation becomes a comfy living not a crusade, pre-recorded messages instead of furious creation.

Which is why matters return to my original contention that this is all wind on the crags until we have revolution. I can't see it happening, though. The majority are too cosy, too selfishly indulgent to vote, either in the ballot box or with their bodies before the Whitehall tanks. Maybe I was over-generous in my initial picture. It is not a record-player we need to smash but a tape-recorder. The machine is at the wrong speed anyway and the tape is being chewed up inside. Scotland is just a useless brown ribbon shimmering on the breeze, hanging from an alien English oak.

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