How Scotland’s Environment has shaped Scotland’s Culture

The following is the text of a talk presented at the 'Scotland on the Threshold' series at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in 2013.

I have a particular interest in cultural ecology and the traditional arts, which is the wider focus of this series of events here at the Storytelling Centre. In a myriad of ways, environmental perceptions play a crucial role in shaping our identity, and inform much of our thinking about who we are, both individually and collectively – at the level of the local, the regional, the national and the international. In order to understand ourselves, we need to look searchingly at our places, at our landscapes, for they are a clue to our culture. 

This presentation will reflect on the relationship between the categories of ‘culture’ and ‘nature,’ between place, memory and the imagination, explore the stories we tell ourselves about our environment and think about the implications of these narrative imaginings. This is such an expansive, elusive and often subjective topic. All of the ideas are so very much interconnected and so it is quite difficult to find a pathway through. While this is not intended to be an academic talk, I will introduce some theoretical ways of thinking through ideas. What I am saying is not new or complicated, but it might be articulated here in a slightly different way.

As is the nature of this kind of subject, this is also a very personal talk, and my own experience is woven into the narrative. Given the audience, I haven't focused on Gaelic material, and where I have referenced such material, I have used translations. Given that this is such a vast topic, this hour is very much intended to be an overview; my aim is to share my love for this topic, to pique an interest that might lead you to explore some ideas further – a writer, a singer perhaps. More than anything, this is a chance for you to think about your own experience and your own relationships to places – to landscapes – and  to reflect upon how these relationships have shaped who you are. Think of this talk as a journey: there is a main road, but there are many side-roads. I’ll do my best to keep you on course.  

The first question we must as is this: what is Scotland? The land, the people, their stories. We can think of Scotland as a collective story. The geographer Doreen Massey talks about places as being the ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far.’ These stories are both real and imagined, comprising fragmented histories and many layers of narrative. Scotland, as an idea, is the simultaneity-of-stories-so far; but the story, like our own identity, is always fluid and evolving.

The term ‘cultural memory’ has become popular in recent years, used to describe the memory of a local area or population, or the intangible memory that ties people and communities together. We might think of cultural memory as a shared sense of self, ‘shared community identity.’ The sociologist Homi Bhaba, in his book Nation and Narration (1990), writes that ‘Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind's eye.’ When did Scotland’s story begin? 

Before Scotland had a history, it had a geostory. This story spans some 3 billion years of the Earth’s existence. This is quite fun as a thought experiment, to get you into a contemplative mood. Patrick Geddes would have had you running up and down the stairs to kick-start your senses, so you’re getting off lightly! Unlikely though it may seem, the landmass we now recognise as ‘Scotland’ has journeyed extensively across the globe. Plate movements have driven this landmass across the surface of the planet from near the South Pole to its present location in the mid-¬latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. During the course of its journey, Scotland has experienced a range of different climatic environments, from polar to equatorial to desert. One of the most amazing facts about our geo-story is that 500 million years ago, what we now call ‘Scotland’ was once separated from the landmass that now constitutes England and Wales by an ocean as wide as the north Atlantic. 400 million years ago, these landmasses collided, to create the geography we now associate with Britain. 

For its size, Scotland has a remarkable diversity of rocks and landforms, ranging from among the oldest in the world to the most recent– the oldest being Lewisian gneiss rock, now in in the north-Western part of Scotland. The remains of fossil plants and animals preserved in the rocks record the changing environments. Mountain ranges of Alpine proportions were raised and eroded down to their roots; chains of volcanoes erupted and thick masses of rock were slowly deformed and thrust horizontally over many kilometres. The highlands and islands are the eroded roots of the mountain belt that formed when the continents collided. The Great Glen divides the North of Scotland along a line from Fort William to Inverness, a fault line that has been active for 400 million years (and still shivers from time to time today!). More recently, in geological terms, Ice Age glaciers buried all but the tops of the very highest mountains, and sea levels rose and fell.

It is almost impossible to grasp the timescale and the unimaginable forces that have played a part in this ancient and on-going geo-story, yet the environment we live in today still carries the its legacy. Rocks and landforms are distinctive parts of our modern urban environments. Here we are in Edinburgh today, a city shaped by the legacy of volcanic rocks and Ice Age glaciation. Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags very much dominate our skyline. Here is the poet MacDiarmid’s take, in his poem, ‘Midnight’ – a favourite of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus:

Glasgow is null
Its suburbs shadows
And the Clyde a Cloud.
Dundee is dust
And Aberdeen a shell.
But Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream
Fitful and dark,
Unseizable in Leith
And wildered by the Forth,
But irresistibly at last
Cleaving to sombre heights
Of passionate imagining
Till stonily,
From soaring battlements,
Earth eyes Eternity.

The central question I have been asked to talk to you about today is this: How did Scotland’s environment shape its culture? First, we need to think about the word ‘environment.’ The word is ubiquitous with many difference meanings dependent on context. Our environment is often defined as the ‘external surroundings’ to which we and other organisms adapt. It is perhaps a habit of mind that we often think of the environment in terms of ‘natural processes’ - all living and non-living elements, physical geographical features, flora and fauna, our atmosphere, the climate, the air we breathe, the weather. We might also think of our built environment, our architecture, and our urban environments.

For me, such a definition – our ‘external surroundings’ - does not address the complexity of being alive, of our lived experience as human beings. From a cultural-ecological perspective, the internal landscapes of the mind produced by modern consciousness - imagination, intangible elements, language, beliefs, values, art practices - are equally important for human beings for human beings to flourish as are their external environments. 

We know from lived experience that ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ are intertwined. But often, without reflecting, we tend to think of these as separate categories, split off from one another. Some scholars have argued that this is a consequence of Western dualistic thinking, a view that orders and categorises the world by dividing it into opposed pairs of concepts: mind is split from body, spirit from matter, culture from nature. This is an established problem and continuing debate, particularly in anthropology. Were humans once part of nature? If so, when did they split off from it? Such absolute categories of thought don’t always exist in non-Western societies - for example, the Native American Jon Mohawk described nature as ‘anything that supports life.’ This might seem very abstract, but it has very real consequences. It has been argued by some ecologists that it is the theorised abstraction of man from nature that has led to the ecological crises we face today.

This might all seem very abstract, but this dualistic mind-set is still a popular motivating current among scientists, conservationists and the public, and global biodiversity policies are still based on the man-nature antithesis. Recent ecological thought attempts to address this central problem through re-thinking environmental relations. Culture, nature and the environment are seen to be held together in ‘a complex and delicate web.’ We might think of ‘culture’ as an expression – tangible or intangible (even this division is unhelpful!) of our relationship with our environment.

One of the first environmental thinkers in a Scottish context to realise the interconnectedness of culture and nature was the Victorian ecologist Patrick Geddes. Geddes’ priority was about creating the conditions for the flourishing of life, and did a lot of work right here in the old town (this is a picture of the storytelling garden just outside!). He believed in a ‘Scots Renascence,’ in which cultural awareness could be restored by a return to local tradition and to living nature. You might recognise him by his famous proclamation, ‘Think Global; Act Local’ or, ‘By Leaves We Live,’ adopted today by the poetry library. Geddes published a short magazine, the ‘Evergreen,’ structured around the theme of the seasons - with the idea of the seasons as manifestations of the inescapable influence of nature on both the individual and the community. The title cleverly alludes both to Scottish cultural history and to nature – ‘Ever Green’ was the title of Alan Ramsay’s collection of old Scottish poems in the early 18th century. 

Cultural ecology is necessarily about culture in environment, about culture in place. 'Place' itself can be conceptualised as the synthesis of nature and culture. The natural environment influences the way we create our culture, while our culture, in turn, affects how people read and relate to the environment. The environment both shapes us as we, in turn, shape the environment.  

Wisdom Sits in Places (1996) is the title of a study by anthropologist Keith Basso, working in Arizona. In his view, knowledge of ourselves – individually and collectively - cannot be constructed without ‘place.’ In Basso’s view, acts of ‘place-making’ are ways of constructing social traditions, where personal and social identities are created.  We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.' Archaeologist Christopher Tilley writes

Place is an irreducible part of human experience, a person is ‘in place’ as much as she or he is ‘in culture.’ Personal and cultural identity is bound up with place. Experience begins in places, reaches out to others through spaces, and creates landscape or regions for human existence.

In recent years, in an attempt to reconcile troubling debates in multicultural identity politics, many people have become increasingly interested in the cultural significance and local distinctiveness of ‘place.’ In place, diverse individuals and groups find their common denominator, whatever may separate or distinguish them. For many people, place – and their cultural connections with it – is significant on multiple levels. But the notion of place is complex. The academic Peter Davis puts it well when he says, ‘place is a chameleon concept, changing colour through individual perception and changing pattern through time.’ 

In the 20th century and following the second world war, any ‘ideology of place’ was shunned and feared because it was perceived as open to extreme xenophobic misappropriation, leading down the path to territorialism and genocide. Many people shunned any deep connection to place, preferring to define their identity through the postmodern notion that places are constructed, imagined and invented. I think this attitude is very much a generational interpretation; wholly understandable given the history of the 20th century. But we need to move on from this way of thinking. It is crucial that we re-think our connection to our environment; that we start a new conversation between people and place that can shape a more fulfilling and responsible way of thinking, feeling, being. We may be able to create sustainable ways of living out of bits and pieces selected from diverse cultures across the globe, but it would be wholly unwise to attempt this without first understanding culture in context, in place. The more knowledge we have about our own environment, we not only engender a connection and responsibility to that environment, but we see the connection between other cultures and our own.

The ecological anthropologist Tim Ingold sees life as an on-going, unending process of what he calls ‘wayfaring.’ In his view, life unfolds not ‘in places’ but through them, along paths. Proceeding along a path, every person lays a trail. Where people meet, trails are intertwined, as the life of each becomes bound with the other. Every entwining is a knot, and the more that lifelines are entwined, the greater density of the knot. Places, then, are like rich knots, and the threads from which they are tied are lines of wayfaring, extending far and beyond the place itself. A place very close to my own heart is the Meadows here in Edinburgh. I walk these paths every day, and have done for several years now, and I watch the seasons turn the leaves and as the summer starts they burst with blossom. Walking under their archways is deeply meditative, a space to reflect on the passing of time. 

The phrase ‘to have a sense of place’ is used in various ways by different people in different contexts. To some, it is about local distinctiveness - those characteristics that some places have and some do not. To others it is more of an affective perception held by people; a lived, embodied, felt quality - those feelings that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging, not inherent in the place itself. The Gaelic word is dùchthas - it means something like ‘the sense of belonging in a place.’ A 'sense of place,' then, is hugely subjective – in Basso’s view, ‘people, not cultures, sense places.’ Perhaps one of the reasons why we feel such a profound anguish when a we leave a place, or a loved place is altered out of recognition is that we lose not only a place, but a part of ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of life. 

This ‘sense of belonging’ is perhaps best expressed in the rich tradition of songs of place, or songs of home. One of my personal favourites is the song 'Norland Winds,' or 'The Wild Geese,' by Jim Reid. This is a conversation between a man in exile and the north wind, asking the wind to describe what it sees as it blows over the land. The poem was written by the Angus poet, Violet Jacob. 

Oh tell me fit was on yer road, ye roarin Norland wind?
As ye come blawin frae the land that’s never frae ma mind.
Ma feet they traivel England but I’m deein for the North.”
”Ma man, I saw the siller tides rin up the Firth o Forth.”

”Aye wind, I ken them weel eneuch an fine they fa and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creepin mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, fit saw ye on the way?”
”Ma man, I rocked the rovin gulls that sail abin the Tay.”

”Bit saw ye naethin leein wind afore ye come tae Fife?
For there’s muckle lyin ‘yont the Tay that’s mair tae me nor life.”
”Ma man, I swept the Angus braes that ye hivna trod for years.”
”Oh wind, forgie a hameless loon that canna see for tears.”

”And far abin the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o beatin wings wi their heids toward the sea,
And aye their cryin voices trailed ahint them on the air.”
”Oh wind, hae mercy, haud your wheesht for I daurna listen mair.

I must emphasise here that being ‘local’ to a place does not necessarily connect an individual with it. Our favourite places are not necessarily where we were born and raised. I have a deep love for the Ross of Mull and Iona, where my fondest memories of being a child are played out in my imagination, on the white sandy beaches fringed with wild yellow irises, with pink granite rocks and turquoise blue sea. These images make my heart sing. All this discussion is to say that our engagement with place – whether our own local place, a place we come to call home or our favourite places to visit - is often deeply felt. This attachment has been explored in a Scottish context by contemporary writers such as Neal Ascherson, James Hunter, Alastair McIntosh, Kenneth White, Kathleen Jamie and others - a wonderfully rich and flourishing tradition worth exploring.

In Scotland there is a  wealth of writers, poets, artists, musicians and singers who are so closely identified with a particular place it is impossible to imagine their work being set elsewhere, even in another part of Scotland.  Our writers - from George MacKay Brown's Orkney, Sorley MacLean's Hallaig, Neill Gunn's ‘Landscapes to Light,’ the Mearns of Lewis Grassic Gibbon to Edwin Morgan's Glasgow, ‘place’ has given Scottish writers a badge of' identity as recognisable as their voice itself. 

One of the most original, inspiring and profound reflections on a relationship with a landscape is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977). Shepherd lived her whole life in the same house in the village of West Cults, a couple of miles outside Aberdeen. From a very young age she began walking in the nearby Cairngorms and did so all her life. The Living Mountain is an appreciation of the energies and forces that have shaped the Cairngorm Mountains, and highlights the integrity between the geological past – the ancient geo-story - and the present landscape, and between the natural processes and the plants and animals. It is highly aesthetic art, not in the usual meaning of being beautiful, but in the sense that the spectrum of the senses are operating at their peak, present in the current moment, resonating with the excitement of the thing we are experiencing and when we are fully alive. 

So there I lie on the plateau, under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between me the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow ­ the total mountain

Another great example is from one of my favourite books: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song (1932). Here, the heroine Chris Guthrie is torn between the land she loves and her desire to pursue an education, between what she calls her ‘Scottish’ and ‘English’ selves.

You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.

Alastair McIntosh has written that such literary sources 'reveal a deep human affinity with the landscape and with the taproot that connects the land, community and the human spirit.’ We have talked about some literary examples. I would argue that in the traditional arts, this connection is always there: it is very deep rooted. The traditional arts are a collectively created expression of a people’s identity; of an encounter with geographical, historical, psychological and social circumstance, and as such they offer a unique way of understanding the ecological relationships between people and culture, and between people and the natural environment. Through re-creation, re-invention, we can see how this relationship has changed through time. That is to say, the arts of tradition are informed by their very origin in place and in community; each tune, song or story is a collective creation. It could be argued that the totality of the traditional arts is like a picture of local ecology: if you put all the tunes, songs and stories together you get a real picture of how we inhabit our places. 

Traditional storytelling, for example, is a kind of cultural ecology in in which human memory encodes and passes on knowledge of geological forms, flora and fauna, through language, visual imagery, music and narrative structures. The stories and songs of the oral tradition are honed to the rhythms and patterns of speech which are connected to the land itself. The natural environment influences the culture shaping story while myths and legends, in turn affect how people read and relate to the landscape. Many traditional songs and stories can be seen as early examples of deep ecological thinking: how human beings interact with other creatures, the natural environment and all life on earth. A fantastic example from history is the song ‘Westlin’ Winds,’ by Robert Burns. Written when Burns was only a teenager, it is rich in description of his natural surroundings. 

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer

The partridge loves the fruitful fells
The plover loves the mountain
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring hern the fountain
Through lofty groves the cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the linnet

Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

But Peggy dear the evening’s clear
Thick flies the skimming swallow
The sky is blue, the fields in view
All fading green and yellow
Come let us stray our gladsome way
And view the charms of nature
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn
And every happy creature

We’ll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shines clearly
I’ll grasp thy waist and, fondly pressed,
Swear how I love thee dearly
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, my lovely charmer

There is particularly strong relationship between traditional music and place. There are many contemporary traditional artists working today exploring this connection to place. Julie Fowlis and her work on Heisgeir, Duncan Chisholm’s ‘Kin’ notable amongst the most recent  examples. This is connection most clearly demonstrated, in piper Gary West’s view, when we listen to piobaireachd, the ‘classical music’ of the bagpipes. Gary also has a theory that the highland piping tradition reflects the jagged highland mountain scape with is overpowering sound and often staccato strathspey rhythm, while the lowland border pipes more reflect the gentle rolling hills of the lowlands landscape. Whether this is a truism or not, it is a rather wonderful metaphor. 

One of the very best examples is the work of the late and brilliant Martyn Bennett. Here, the highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes, the fiddle and whistle give his music an unmistakeable Scottish inflection, and yet he embraces modern sounds and sounds from other cultures, inviting us to contemplate at once the difference and universality of human culture, and our connection with place. On an album sleeve, he writes:

Try and find those things that make us Scottish. They are not necessarily tartan, but are no less colourful. Try and see the old ways in new surroundings. I hope when you listen or dance to these tunes you get a sense of your own roots. If you push back the pressure of urban development for a second you might remember where you came from. Go climb a mountain and see.

A great example of his music is a track from his album Bothy Culture 1998): 'Hallaig,' with the voice of the poet Sorley MacLean. The original poem was in Gaelic and speaks of the desolation of Raasay following the clearing of the land. The deep seated highland belief that we each leave indelible mark on the landscape as we pass through it is there in this music as it is in the poem itself. 

Time, the deer, is in the Wood of Hallaig.

The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight slender young rowan.

In Screapadal of my people,
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the stream.

Proud tonight the pine cocks
crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra,
straight their backs in the moonlight –
they are not the wood I love.

I will wait for the birch wood
until it comes up by the Cairn,
until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
will be under its shade.

If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.

They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim
the dead have been seen alive.

The men lying on the green
at the end of the house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.

Between the Leac and Fearns
the road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bands
go to Clachan as in the beginning.

and return from Clachan
from Suishnish and the land of the living;
each one young and high-stepping,
without the heartbreak of the tale.

I’d like to unpack these ideas a little more here and revisit the quote, ‘Experience begins in places, reaches out to others through spaces, and creates landscape for human existence.’ The word 'landscape' has transformed its meanings over the centuries. Along the way, the word has taken on the association of being a static picture, a framed representation of the land itself. But we know that landscapes are very much ‘lived’ in as well as looked at; ‘experienced’ as well as ‘envisaged.’ The landscape is not just the land itself. It is the land as seen from a particular point of view, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Landscape is both the land and our perception of it. It is not simply ‘what we see’; it is ‘a way of seeing.’ We ‘see’ with our eyes, but we interpret what we see with our mind. How we look at things is very much a cultural matter – already laden with cultural values, attitudes, memories and expectations. Landscape can therefore be seen as a mirror of our memories, encoded with meanings which can be read and interpreted.

Historian Simon Schama, in his work Landscape and Memory, writes that landscape is so bound up with experience that ‘landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’ That is to say, the landscape itself is a repository of intangible values and human meanings that nurture our very existence: this is why landscape and memory are inseparable, because landscape is the nerve centre of our personal and collective memories. By contrast, ‘space’ is unnamed, un-historied, un-storied.

One way in which this permanent bond between people and their environment is expressed is through language, and captured in the naming of the landscape. Many Scottish place names have their roots in either the Gaelic, Pictish, or Norse These names reveal layers and layers of cultural memory, revealing the process of codifying the landscape, the stories we tell ourselves about our environment, shaping our sense of self, our identity. Another fascinating topic!

The diversity of our landscapes provides a living canvas of Scotland's history, reflecting ways of life and traditions that are deeply engrained in Scotland's culture. In recent years there has been increasing attention given to the study of what are called ‘cultural landscapes,’ defined by the World Heritage Committee as ‘properties ... represent[ing] the combined works of nature and of man.’  The character of the landscape reflects the values of the people who have shaped it, and who continue to live in it. Where we have no oral or written evidence, the landscape becomes crucial as a less easily destroyed historical record.

Neal Ascherson writes, 'a cultural landscape is very much what Scotland is: something showing marks from all periods and land uses of all kinds, an artefact whose art is human and in-human at once.’ The use of stone for monuments and buildings, in particular, is one of the clearest expressions of the links between geology and culture, both in the countryside and in the city, as we’ve seen. Geo-diversity has played a part in human activity in Scotland, influencing land use, sites for settlements, sources of water and building stone. Areas such as Orkney, the Outer Hebrides and Argyll all have remarkable archaeological records in the form of stone monuments, burial sites and historic settlements that demonstrate these evolving links and the inter-­connections between people and geological landscapes through time. For example, we have the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae in Orkney, and the stone circle of Callanais in Lewis. 

In Scotland, the island of St Kilda has achieved World Heritage status. 90 km west of the Outer Hebrides and just 5km long, this volcanic archipelago has some of the highest cliffs in Europe with rare and endangered species of birds, especially puffins and gannets. While it has been uninhabited since 1930, it bears the evidence of more than 2000 years of human occupation. The life of people on St Kilda has been chronicled by outsiders since the 17th century. Romantic travel writing in the 19th imagined this pre-industrial, small-scale society to be a utopia of harmony, purity and cooperation. Tourist literature even described these people as ‘animals’. With Charles Darwin on the mind, people even believed that the St. Kilda inhabitants had evolved differently, with special feet for scaling the rock face to find birds eggs! Such writing about St Kilda over the centuries has built up a particular iconography about the island, which may or may not reflect the reality of life there. 

This is a crucial point. The landscapes of human experience are not just perceived; they are also imagined. David Lowenthal, a heritage and landscape scholar, talks about the landscape encompassing both the ‘world outside’ and the ‘pictures inside our heads.’ What he is getting at here is not ‘pictures inside our heads’ in the narrow sense of graphic scenes and maps, but as world pictures: ontological cosmologies that shape who we are, how we think, and how we live, ways of being. The expression of landscape, therefore, is very much cultural process; a process by which identities are formed. 

The interplay between ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ is quite fascinating when we reflect upon how we ‘see’ our landscapes here in Scotland, both from within and from outside. Scottish landscapes have been heavily mythologised. We project aesthetic values and narratives, real or imagined, onto the landscape, ascribing meaning to its features. For example, the modern perceptions of the Scottish highland landscape have largely been shaped for two and a half centuries by the 18th and 18th c Romantic imagination (romantic with a capital R) – and the associated aesthetic ideals of the sublime and the picturesque. The ‘sublime’ was the idea that aesthetic response is not derived from the intellect, but from primitive impulses of human nature, in fear response to physical danger, wildness, and natural power. This portrayal continued into the 19th century and was further fuelled by the international success of Sir Walter Scott’s novels and their depiction of idealised Scottish heroes and dramatic landscapes.

This process of mythologising began in the late 18th century, with the impact of James MacPherson’s ‘translation’ of ‘Ossian,’ (Fragments of Ancient Poetry). Ossian was a Celtic bard who is supposed to have lived during the 3rd century AD. Along with incantations of dark, stormy hills, bending oaks, grey mists and blasted heaths, the narrative of Ossian was fused with the contemporary Romantic cult of the ‘sublime’ and projected onto the Highland landscape. The imagined Scotland became more ‘real’ than the land itself, blurring the boundaries between history and myth. Here is an excerpt from the fourth book of Fingal, which deals with Ossian’s lady loving:

Lead me to yonder craggy steep. The murmur of the falling streams; the whistling winds rushing through the woods of my hills; the welcome rays of the bounteous sun, will soon awake the voice of song in my breast. The thoughts of former years glide over my soul like swift-shooting meteors o’er Ardven’s gloomy vales.

The ‘cult of Ossian’ has been well-documented in its instrumental role in bringing forward the association of the Highlands with Romantic aesthetics: it both conjured the sublime and the picturesque, the primitive and the primeval, the wild and terrifying. It helped to initiate an industry of tourism among European elites that promised an escape from town life and its artificial landscapes, and invented the noble Highland savage as a naturally gifted poetic genius. Since the very early days of tourism and romanticism, scenery has always been Scotland’s most compelling lure to visitors: a desire to see allegedly untouched mountains, waterfalls, lochs, and glens. It could perhaps be argued that Scotland’s environment captured the Romantic imagination precisely because of its geographical location: on far north-western fringes of civilised Europe.  It was seen to embody the idea of the ‘north,’ notions of purity and lost values of ‘nature. 

The narrative of Ossian evoked an aesthetic very much of absence, loss and nostalgia. Here is an example of this sentiment, from Fingal, Book VI:

Let thy bards mourn those who fell. Let Erin give the sons of Lochlin to earth; and raise the mossy stones of their fame. That the children of the north hereafter may behold the place where their father’s fought. And some hunter may say, when he leans on a mossy tomb, here Fingal and Swaran fought, the heroes of other years.

This is where fiction and history become intertwined: in the name of social and agricultural improvement, Scottish history saw the Highland Clearances, which emptied vast swathes of northern Scotland and replaced its settled communities first with sheep, and then deer. Thus, the whole Highland landscape is charged with the implicit narrative and memory of its own desertion. The cairn, for example, embeds dominant cultural narratives of defeat and exile in the Scottish landscape, associated with loss, with pain, social fracture, displacement and a sense of belonging lost. 

Once established, particular imaginings become moral realities that can affect local practices and politics. We can see this at play in popular media on a daily basis, in the debate around windfarms, for example. There is a very current discourse around ‘wildness’ or ‘wilderness’ in Scotland. Wildness, like ‘nature’ itself, is a discourse, it is a human creation, laden with expectations and values – that we have somehow given magical ontological status (as is our habit as humans). Some would argue that ‘wildness’ and the meanings ascribed to it is a post-enlightenment industrial era fantasy, a place that exists in the Western imagination – a retreat we have created to escape the advances of modernity. The highlands of Scotland have not always been conceptualised as such – something I will talk more about on Monday. Since Victorian times and into the present day, landowners have sought to re-fashion their estates according to an essentially Ossianic fashion of the peopleless landscapes of the picturesque and the sublime 

As a consequence, much of the Highlands are maintained in a state of near desert, solely to support the recreational bloodsports of princes and bankers. What we often take to be ‘wild land’ today is really a closely managed political ecology that has turned these landscapes of privilege into the familiar canon of Scottish ‘scenery.’ If you haven’t read Andy Wightman’s wonderful and incredibly well-researched book on land ownership in Scotland, I wholly recommend you do! Please. What is being ‘protected’ is not just the ‘appearance’ of specific landscapes, but a wider aesthetic, a vision of what Scotland’s landscapes should look like – that ultimately has its provenance in an eilte way of seeing. Yet we cling to the fiction of ‘wildness’ as part of our collective Scottish identity. It is an extremely powerful story we tell ourselves about who we are, and where we come from.

This is not in any way to take away from the majesty of Scotland’s landscapes. It is to reflect on the values we ascribe to them and why, and think deeply about the consequences of doing so. Norman MacCaig’s wonderful poem, A Man in Assynt, makes us think about this idea, with a rich play on the idea of ‘possession.’

Who owns this landscape? —
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? —
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?
False questions, for
this landscape is materless
and intractable in any terms
that are human.

‘Any landscape is a condition of the spirit’ (Henri Frederic Amiel). This beautiful quote connects the physical landscape to an individual’s sense of spirit.  A sense of identity and belonging is one of humanity’s deepest needs - a connection to something outside or beyond our own individual, corporeal existence. A common denominator in this is the relationship with landscape and how we create our identity, both as individuals and collectively. There is no doubt that the elements of place – both tangible and intangible – are vital in helping us to understand both our own and other places in the world, and provide us with the resources to construct our sense of ourselves, and create our cultural identities.

The environment both shapes us as we shape it. We construct our ‘national’ identity through valued and symbolic landscapes. We laud our virtues and achievements through iconic landscape imagery. The meanings we ascribe to our environment provide a sense of continuity, and reflect our changing cultural, political and aesthetic values. But we often forget that equally, the ordinary everyday places we inhabit reflect deeply who we are, and are a storehouse of subjective and cultural memory. 

The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static. It shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were, who we are and what we might become. The story of Scotland, like our own identity, is fluid and evolving. It is always in the process of becoming.

I’d like to finish with a poem. The poem itself is like a map of the cultural landscape, drawing upon a deep well of heritage and its links to the land. The text makes references to a variety of Scots poetry and song from North, South, East and West - som of the works I mentioned earlier.  It’s called ‘Here Lies Our Land,’ by Kathleen Jamie:

Here lies our land: every airt
Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,
Belonging to none but itself.

We are mere transients, who sing
Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,
Northern lights and siller tides,

Small folk playing our part.
‘Come all ye’, the country says
You win me, who take me most to heart.