The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.
The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded, it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.
It’s the empty, treeless expanse below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens, beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be animals and birds. And trees.
Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.
These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.
Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.
There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.
At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.
My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.