TAC 28: Aug-Sep96

TAC 28 Index


Paul Hesp

I once asked this question in an essay on "depopulated areas in rural Europe" for the Dutch hillwalkers' magazine Op Lemen Voeten. My answer was yes; my basic argument: a sane approach to agriculture means a more diversified landscape plus more people on the land, and therefore better infrastructure - public transport, places to eat and sleep. Hillwalkers benefit from taking an interest in rural development.

Over the years, my basic impression of the Scottish/British hillwalking press has been that most walkers take little interest in the Highlands as "a living being", to quote the American landscape photographer Craig Thiessen. Nice and empty, those hills: you can concentrate fully on the top bits. Ovis anthropophagis and Myrtle are the only animals that regularly make it to the pages of TAC. The Highlands, it seems, are no more than a theatre for Operation Wet Desert Storm, a playground for open-air number crunchers called Munrobaggers1 (I'm not saying this because I lost the Xmas quiz). Vandalised bothies and frequent accidents are logical consequences of this attitude. From a distance, walker and laird look rather similar: bagging types who both claim the Highlands as their sporting estate.

Maybe I'm wrong. The macho attitude may hide a love for nature that dare not speak its name. TAC does write about crofting. And the bagger's bothy reading may already include James Hunter's On the other side of sorrow: nature and people in the Scottish Highlands or the beautiful little brochure Norway and Scotland: a study in land use published by Reforesting Scotland.

Hunter makes the amazing suggestion that poetry can provide the basic ideas for a revival of the rural communities in the Highlands, consciously or unconsciously echoing Reginald Blyth's concept of "poetry as insight into reality". He draws a parallel between what colonialism did to the culture and mentality of Third World people and what happened in the Highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. In both cases, turning to the roots of their own history and civilisation helps people to find "dignity, glory and solemnity" (another surprise: somebody who quotes Franz Fanon anno 1995).

In the late 20th century, thinking about civilisation means thinking about the relation between nature and people. Hunter argues that the roots of green consciousness can be found in Gaelic nature poetry. The poems he quotes go back to what we usually call the Dark Ages. Their quality makes you wonder whether that term is not another example of a dominant culture belittling a culture it doesn't (want to) understand. It is marvellous stuff. But of course you are all familiar with it, so I won't bore you with quotations.

Fortunately, this type of poetry is also found elsewhere. The mood of East Asian poetry, for example, is often very similar; many great Chinese poems about nature are in fact contemporary with the oldest works quoted by Hunter. But there is a more important similarity: the poets themselves aren't much in evidence. "No poet anywhere to be seen" is Blyth's comment on a poem by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho. This is echoed in Hunter's book: the Gaelic poet Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair described nature "with so much absorption that his own personality is dropped entirely out of view".

So what? Well, if the citizens of this planet, hillwalkers included, are going to make it through the next couple of centuries, something more self-effacing will have to replace the culture which puts the individual first. People who see Himalayan peaks as just so many scalps have turned glaciers - sources of other people's drinking water - into rubbish dumps. Their little brothers and sisters, the Munrobaggers, more often than not treat bothies as dustbins. And those who believe, with a former British prime minister, that "there is no such thing as society" are of course never going to build communities, in the Highlands or elsewhere. So we're not just talking about ancient Chinese and Gaelic poets.

By now, some readers will feel uncomfortable: this smells of hermits in hair shirts! But actually, your blood brothers and sisters just across the North Sea are very comfortable with a (political) culture which still retains a couple of pre-me values. Comparing agriculture and forestry in Scotland and the area around Bergen, Norway and Scotland... shows how sensible the Norwegians are.

Feudalism never had much of an impact in Norway; it is a country of small, independent farmers. Access to the countryside (there are some exceptions for cultivated land) is ensured at all times by a wonderful Nordic institution: "everyman's right". A farm may only be sold outside the family to a buyer who is or will become an active member of the local community, preferably a farmer. A very large proportion of Norway is under forest, as diversified as the latitude allows, and much of it is locally controlled. It grows up to Munro level - a great boon to walkers in a climate that is even worse than Scotland's. Forestry is integrated with agriculture. Organic farming is not given priority, to my knowledge, but the government's incentive system does discourage overproduction. Cultivated land looks ... cultivated. The desperate economic situation of many British farmers (suicide, I read, has become a major cause of death among them) is visible in the neglected look of their farms.

There is in Norway a strong political consensus to support rural activities which, given the climate and the topography, wouldn't stand a chance in the present world market. This again is the result of a fairly strong consciousness of rural roots (most people still count a farmer or fisherman among their grandparents) which is also reflected in hillwalking culture. Fjell og Vidde, the journal of the Norwegian Mountain Touring Association, regularly publishes articles on the mountain economy. "Depopulated mountains would be poorer mountains" was the motto of a recent hillfarming special. Fortunately, the decline of hillfarming seems to have stopped. Most farmers now have a second income from non-farm activities, catering for hillwalkers being one of the most important.

I remember my first visit to a Norwegian hut, Svukuriset - part of a hill farm and miles from an asphalt road - where I arrived after a long trek through the wilderness along the Swedish-Norwegian border. I took off my boots, as I would at home, and stepped into the kitchen. An elderly lady was cooking, her portable radio played a Mozart string quartet. I was sat down at a table; there was a jar with wild flowers on it. After a cup of coffee I was given a bucket of hot water, for ablutions in the yard. In the evening I had a three-course meal which included locally-caught salmon.

From hair shirts I've gone to the other extreme, and the average Presbyterian Munrobagger must be absolutely horrified: huts with old ladies, flowers, three-course meals and, worst of all, Mozart - a Papist in silk knickerbockers! Not to worry, just stick to what the Norwegians call unstaffed huts. Even there people take off their boots, though, and the huts are no dustbins; you may find a compost bin. Why? Because "the Norwegian countryside is made up of many stakeholders", as Norway and Scotland... points out (writing before Tony Blair). And that includes hillwalkers.

How much of this can be realised in Scotland? There are political, economic and cultural obstacles to reviving rural communities. First, there is an enormous political problem: "... a landownership system which has been identified ...with so many of the wholly negative developments of the last two centuries" (Hunter). The special relationship between the remnants of the feudal system and Britain's political monoculture will make it very difficult for local communities to get control over local resources(2).

Assuming that this obstacle can be overcome, it still remains to be seen whether the new rural communities, with their limited natural resource base(3), will be economically viable. Partly this will depend on the mix of activities, partly on a redefinition of economics. Economic viability, as understood at present, ignores environmental and social costs. These are "externalised" because they mess up the balance sheets. Internalising them would put an end to a lot of international trade, making locally-based activities viable again.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean a return to more or less self-contained communities. Some radical ecologists think in those terms. Apart from the fact that this sort of economic extremism isn't going to work, there is the danger of returning to a tribalist, narrow-minded view of the world. Hunter quotes a sour poem by Catriona Montgomery in this context, and similar foreigner-go-home stuff has been written by RS Thomas in Wales (let me add that I like most of his work). You can't help being a citizen of this world. If you switch from teak to Scottish oak, the logger in Malaysia will lose his job - so help him find a good alternative, too.

Hunter, finally, sees a potential for conflicts with those who want to preserve the "wilderness" or, to be more exact, the wet desert which is a result of the Clearances. Yet crofting, as he points out, has actually enriched the Highland landscape. And a new rural economy which is in harmony with its resource base would also be the basis for a new vernacular. Working in harmony with the local environment means taking care, paying attention to detail; naturally, this will result in farms and villages whose beauty has nothing to do with open-air museums.

That would not only make Dietrich Schmidt (TAC25) happy. I agree with him that much of the built environment in the UK is unbelievably shoddy. Can it be that two centuries in the "Paleotechnic Inferno" - Lewis Mumford's term for Britain's industrial cities - have atrophied the esthetic sense of most British citizens? The real problem, more likely, is the tendency of British business to "underinvest chronically", to quote management consultants Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars. Europe's number one "stockjobbing nation" (sorry, that's Marx) prefers quick returns, to keep the annual shareholders' meeting happy. Its counterpart is political short-termism. Creating a business and political culture based on long-term investment in people and nature may be more difficult in the UK than elsewhere in Europe.

Supposing that it works - will repopulation mean reduced access? Quite the contrary, I think. The main reason for keeping walkers off the estates is that they frighten the deer, which angers the shotgun crowd. Crops are unlikely to wilt at the sight of a walker (although the smell of some ... John Merrill never washed his socks or shirts, I forget which). No Austrian farmer has yet objected to my using a track across his land. It's a good opportunity for a chat, and the stranger may buy eggs or apples, a pint of home-made cider or a bottle of slivovitz.

Farmers have little to fear from us if we show some respect for rural culture. Hunter quotes a poem by Norman MacCaig:

"Who possesses this landscape?
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?"

That would make the serious walker a stakeholder. A stakeholder has both rights and responsibilities. Hillwalking is important for Scottish GDP, and it can help to keep the Highlands alive - other forms of tourism often turn countryside and coast into geriatric wards. If you love hillwalking you should realise that respect for the hills is not just a matter of personal safety, but of survival in the widest sense. And that you can learn a lot by stepping over your border.


- James Hunter: On the other side of sorrow: nature and people in the Scottish Highlands, Mainstream, Edinburgh/London 1995.

- Reforesting Scotland: Norway and Scotland: a study in land use, Reforesting Scotland, Edinburgh 1994.

You might also read:

- RH Blyth: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Tokyo 1942 (reprint).

- Wang Wei: Poems, Harmondsworth 1973.

- Charles Hampden-Turner / Fons Trompenaars: The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, London 1994.

(1) I was first confronted with the odd Weltanschauung of some baggers when I was asked to review John Merrill's book about his race around the British coastline. Merrill literally went out of his way to avoid people; he always talks about mileage, pounds of chocolate consumed, etc. He was number one to complete the trip, so he may have gotten into the Guinness Book of Records.

(2) The Scottish Office is apparently planning to turn over its land to the crofting communities, from which 1,400 crofters would benefit. That doesn't sound like an awful lot. But it would certainly have political value.

(3) Soil degradation following deforestation has no doubt ruined a large part of the Highlands. The Norwegian region described in Norway and Scotland... also suffered badly, but during the two centuries that the Highlands were destroyed, Hordaland was reforested.

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