The Angry Corrie 56: Jan-Mar 2003

Group theory: Scotland's wild land - what future?, edited by John Digney

Scottish Wild Land Group, 2002, ii+34pp, ISBN 0 95437 900 4, 4

Review: Val Hamilton

Many TAC readers will have heard of the Scottish Wild Land Group without really being sure what it is. This publication, marking both the SWLG's twentieth anniversary and the International Year of Mountains, explains that the SWLG "was formed in order to raise public awareness of the threats posed to the wild character of Scotland's natural heritage." The clean-cut A4 softback format is identical to standard Scottish Executive and Scottish Natural Heritage publications, so it looks as if its main intended audience comprises MSPs, lobbying organisations and journalists. But, contrary to the image, this is not a policy document containing the SWLG's blueprint for the future. There is a one-page introduction to the wild land context and a concluding column of specific Bad Things (bulldozed tracks on hillsides, badly sited hydro schemes and wind farms), but no single message which the writers are expected to be "on".

One uniform aspect however is the authorship: the first impression of a taliband of beardie men turns out, on a face count, to amount to only four beards out of ten, but all chins on display are definitely male. The content (and quality) of the contributions is nevertheless varied and surprisingly hard to summarise - which indicates what complex and diverse issues the concept of wild land embraces.

One recurrent theme, as stated in the foreword, is the need to move away from a position where "opposition to intrusive development in wild places carried far greater clout if based on particular threats to habitats and eco-systems, while objections based on landscape damage seemed to take second place." It was this approach which led to the scouring of the Cairn Gorm corries for the Lurcher's equivalent of the Teesdale violet and to the species-ism which allows the RSPB to put birds before the general environment. The point is made in a number of ways, with Alastair McIntosh's "away with the faeries" essay being the most original.

Political emphasis on evidence-based decision-making has grown over the last 20 years. The challenge is to gain acceptance of a broader scope of what policy-makers will include as evidence when considering impacts on wild land. The present reality is brought home when Mark Wrightman of SNH still proclaims it as a success that the construction of a vehicle track was prevented because of potential damage to plant communities.

There are a number of attempts at definitions of wild land. Paul Johnson explains how the National Trust for Scotland has attempted to reduce the elements of wild land to a table containing columns headed Enhancers, Neutral and Detractors. There are signs of camel-constructing committees at work here and the terms themselves are sometimes clumsy. Most leave scope for further debate - eg "scenic grandeur" (an Enhancer), "unsympathetic recreation activities" (a Detractor) - but some tick-list of this sort is necessary to try and expand the evidence base which the powers that be require. SNH too has tried to define wild land, and its management aims include "a policy of minimal outward promotion of these areas as recreational destinations", so it seems that the "singular lack of info for TAC types" at the Lomondshores Information Centre highlighted by Perkin Warbeck in TAC55 is not an oversight but a conscious policy.

Some of the SWLG's writers have clearly sat through too many of these committee meetings and want a less defensive, more instinctive approach. Striding out on his own, the contribution from TAC's Ed is nominally about the dying art of exploration and has two main themes, neither of which will surprise TAC readers. First, three Marilyns above Glen Loth are harder/wilder than two Munros in the Blackmount. (Those who were out on the Stob Ghabhar day he cites will however be surprised at the downgrading of its wildlife count: an eagle, dippers and an aggressive tawny owl will do most of us quite nicely.) Second, he laments the blanding-out of the outdoor publishing industry by taking a wide swipe at guidebooks, coffee tables and magazines and their role in stifling originality of approach to the hills (and moors and bogs).

One of the last pieces is an interview with John Love, SNH area officer for St Kilda, which starts out innocuously enough with his primary school nature diary. As a representative of conservation he speaks of "plenty of room for compromise", but then says: "Personally I feel that rock climbing should not be allowed to take place on St Kilda and that the Stacs, Soay and Boreray should have limited access, mainly to monitor the state of the ruins and the wildlife that is on there." Winded by this low punch, my eye slipped a couple of lines to the phrase "St Kilda's World" and I thought, here is the compromise: build guano-coated fibreglass scaled-down replicas in some post-industrial wasteland and so spread the St Kilda Experience to the masses. No more unlikely than the Grundy World of Xmas. Sadly it transpired to be just a fortuitous line break in the phrase "St Kilda's World Heritage Site status", but I still think that St Kildaland Inc has potential.

So here is something to annoy everyone, with much to agree with and more to debate, and even among TAC's readers these three categories will differ. Scotland's wild land - what future? is a well-produced, worthwhile publication and one likely to provoke more thought in its 36 pages than anything in your stocking from the Christmas bestsellers' list.

Copies of Scotland's wild land - what future? are available, for 5 including postage, from John Digney, Creagmhor Lodge, Lochard Rd, Aberfoyle, Stirling, FK8 3TD.

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