Natural landscapes shaped by social injustice

View of Glen Finnan landscape by Gavin Bishop CC CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The skeleton of Scotland – its bens, glens, and lochs  –  were shaped by the brutal cleaving of the earth by glaciers; the deformities and scars reflecting the ruthless devastation wrought by Earth’s fury. No malice in how the world was shaped, it just Was.

The flesh atop those bones is an entirely artificial construct, formed over thousands of years. Mankind has long been able to overpower nature  –  we can level mountains, wipe species from the Earth, consume forests, and bend the world to our will: Highland and Island Scotland is no exception.

What we perceive as “wilderness” in Scotland is as artificial as any cityscape. Mankind’s need for food turned what once were forests to barren hills and farmland, but visceral greed has been the primary influence for what followed in recent centuries.

Where now, in so much of Scotland, there is emptiness and fallow land, there once were families, communities, and culture. Working class people were forced from their homes and communities over decades, be that by force of militia, fire, and hound; or poverty and famine. Vast swathes of land were cleansed of humans; replaced with sheep for food and grouse for the whims of the wealthy.

That so much of the country remains this way after so many years is not a result of nature’s wrath but the choices of landowners, businessmen, and politicians. Where once the thoughtless efficiency of nature carved up the world, the businessman now hammers its face into shape.

Opencast grave of highland community

As I sat on the five hour train from Glasgow to Mallaig, I watched the opencast grave of a way of life roll by, reduced to rubble and left for tourists to gawp at, preserved for aesthetics. The train wistfully meanders through the hills allowing passengers to fully take in the splendour of their surroundings.

There is only one train line, so only one set of carriages can make the journey at any one time, past the West Highland Way and into the “wilderness”. The rails nostalgically clickity-clack underneath as mist lingers and highland springs gracefully trickle down the hills. Tourists excitedly chatter as the Glenfinnan Viaduct creeps into view, a piece of industrial history made more famous by its appearance in Hollywood flicks.

Ancient boulders carried south by collapsing glaciers lay dispersed on the hills like clothing scattered from a dying man sweltering under a brutal sun. Hewn stones mark the rubble of tiny dwellings, the picked-clean carcasses of long-lost Highland communities. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Glen, next to a loch, a manor house stands cocksure, regal and garish in the landscape: Lord of all it surveys with all outside a playground. A Monarch in the Glen.

Community energy

I spend the next few days, via a few ferries and hikes, looking at rural power systems on and off the West coast. Infrastructure isn’t profitable here because the economies of scale simply don’t exist. Locals frequently make do with what they have.  A motley mix of diesel generators, tiny hydro schemes, solar, and wind now allows these communities modern appliances and creature comforts. In the past they made do with a diesel genny and only five or six hours of light an evening.

In places like Eigg, community trusts fund and maintain the power systems with community benefits. These are supported by Government grants through community energy schemes like CARES,  helping to provide jobs and amenities to local populations.

A connection to the main GB network would cost at least two or three times the entire network cost for the island microgrid with none of the independence community ownership brings, so the people simply did it themselves. They still rely on the massive power companies for support – parts, maintenance, and construction are not resources or skills readily available in the far NorthWest, and repairs can take weeks as these frequently have to be sourced externally. But it works. The engineering is jury-rigged and maintaining it is akin to “nailing jeely tae a wa’ ”, but it works. Without these communities taking the initiative they would be left to wither and collapse.

Not wild, just neglected

I sit on the opposite side of the carriage on the way home. I’ve a few tins of cider to pass the time and my pal’s brought a pack of cards. We discuss the trip and its outcomes. My heart aches. The glory of the landscape around me overshadowed by the lost human potential and history trampled underfoot.

In cities we celebrate our lost industrial heritage  –  the great cranes in cities like Glasgow or collieries of Northern England, Wales and Southern Scotland stand both in memorial and celebration. We remember the communities surrounding these industries and what was lost.

In Highland Scotland, the landlords who scattered the communities have statues built of them looking regally out to sea; they stand unaware, or uncaring, of the carnage and bloodshed wrought in their name. We celebrate the emptiness and wildness of land where people used to live and work. We call it “Wild Land” and hillwalkers in Edinburgh and landlords in London ensure the land stays bare and undeveloped; pretty as a picture.

Post-industrial cities like Liverpool, Glasgow, and Dundee get regenerated; cladding, glass, and chrome replace redbrick. The Highlands and Islands are kept as a snowglobe with any minor alteration viciously opposed by those living hundreds of miles away. Half of Scotland is owned by around 600 people, the land burned to allow rich people to go hunting for birds, or kept for farm animals and photographers to enjoy.

Development of job-creating wind-farms is opposed by those with little or no stake in the area beyond desiring that a distant landscape remains as they wish it to be – a playground to visit with gun in hand and tweed upon their back. As politicians in London bicker over immigration, a vast area of land forcibly emptied lays bare and local communities wither.

Land cleared by the rich is not wild, it is hoarded. Ancient, empty farmland is not wild, it is neglected. Highland Scotland is not a playground for the rich — it is a place where people lived and worked, and where the people that remain deserve better than what is left to them by cities, businessmen, and landlords.

Rich versus poor

When I returned to London, I sat on the Hammersmith and City line, staring out the window. I live in West London, and my route home took me through Kensington. I sat, chilled to the bone, as I got further West and neared my destination. The entire carriage fell under an uneasy silence as we approached Latimer Road.

There it was.  Grenfell. At least 79 dead – and, in reality, it could be three times as many. An entire community in a tower block lay in charred ruins because someone, somewhere, wanted to save money. Whether that be on sprinklers or fireproof cladding, scores of people lost their home, community, loved ones, or life itself, to save money.

My anger at cities cools. It is not simply rural versus city – it is rich versus poor. It is investors scraping all they can from those at the mercy of their cost-cutting and negligence. Whether Grenfell was covered in combustible cladding to keep nearby rich residents happy or to keep a bottom line happy, vulnerable people died over money. Communities were destroyed over money.

As you come out of Wood Lane station, you stand opposite what used to be the BBC Television Centre, now being converted into high-end apartments which will never be affordable for most of the people living in Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush. Next to you is the Westfield Shopping Centre, full of shops selling things most of London will also never be able to afford. The gross inequities of city life laid bare. Lives and communities destroyed to appease those with at the expense of those without.

The Laird and the pauper live much closer in a city, but the injustice remains. It is simply easier to hide injustice in an area where the remains of life can be portrayed as a romantic feature, rather than a blemish.

Featured image: Glen Finnan by Gavin Bishop Creative Commons licence: CC By-NC-ND 2.0

This article was first published on the author’s blog 

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