Peter Ross: Scotland’s natural beauty – Scotland on Sunday

Withe the launch of the Year of Natural Scotland, Peter Ross argues for valuing and protecting the sublime natural beauty of Scotland.

LOCH Lomond in December. Where better to spend a cold, still morning as the last days drain from the paling year? Above Tarbet, the air is fragrant with wood smoke, and Ben Vorlich has snow on its peak. The wan winter sun, where it seeps through the clouds, drips patches of buttermilk on to the dark ­water as the Lomond Chieftain departs the pier at Inveruglas.

A retired couple from Oxford are among the few hardy souls on the top deck of the cruising boat. Most folk are down below with tea and whisky, but Keith and Daphne are enjoying their ninth holiday north of the Border since 1999. “We just love Scotland,” she says. “I’m quite moved to tears some mornings by how beautiful it is.”

Were Alex Salmond to overhear Daphne he would, perhaps, mistake her words for the sound of a ringing till. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park receives an estimated four million visitors each year; Scotland as a whole is visited by about 15 million people annually, generating in the region of £11 billion. There is money in beauty.

Next year, 2013, will be the Year of Natural Scotland – a government initiative, led by VisitScotland, aimed at boosting tourism by promoting the idea of this country as a sort of breathtaking playground. One can’t help but be wary of such things; it is never comfortable on the receiving end of a sales pitch. And the programme feels thin. Events which would be happening in any case, such as the Royal Highland Show, are being brought within the Year of Natural Scotland umbrella; though, one might add, an umbrella is rarely unwelcome at ­Ingliston.

Also, the Year of Natural Scotland may well prove as controversial as its predecessor, the Year of Creative Scotland. Already, anti-wind farm campaigners are saying the Scottish Government will be hypocritical if it approves the turbines proposed for the Monadhliath mountains on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. The next 12 months, no doubt, will see several such flashpoints.

Cameron McNeish, the walker and broadcaster, is calling, for instance, for the government to back a community buy-out of 58 acres around Cape Wrath to prevent its purchase by the Ministry of Defence and the end of public access to this north-westerly corner of Britain. “I hope that the Year of Natural Scotland is not just a banner-waving process and that the government will actually do something,” he says.

Yet, for all this inevitable cynicism, the idea of “natural Scotland” is one which most people will accept instinctively. Still, as a concept it is vague. When we talk about natural Scotland, what do we mean? There is a tendency, when we hear the word “nature”, to picture some bland composite hill and glen, complete, perhaps, with a ginger princess. Yet we do Scotland a disservice when we think in such general terms. The great joy of the Scottish landscape is in the intensity of the specific; in the details we notice and remember forever. Often, it is only when we begin to list these that we realise how much we see and how much it actually means to us.

When I reflect on my own encounters with “natural Scotland”, I remember many things, very little of it picture postcard. Much, indeed, has a certain ache. A seal washed up, glossy and eyeless, on Ceannabeinne beach. Priestly buzzards hunched on motorway verges. Lichen furring the graves of monks and crofters. The skin’s hot throb after swimming in Loch Coruisk. Mud nests built by swallows in the dank corridors of abandoned houses, and beneath the eaves of the towering white stupa at Samye Ling monastery. Woodlice scuttling from ­between the pages of a Gaelic Bible in a ruined shieling in the north of Lewis; the sunlight slanting through the ­collapsed roof a reminder of the Scots name for these creatures – slaters. That one bright morning in October, the month of spiders, when webs bejewelled with frost gleam from every garden gate. The birds singing at dawn on the day my father died. Natural Scotland one and all.

The popular idea of Scotland as a land of great beauty, especially those wilder parts to the far north and far west, is relatively new. Mountains in particular, so important in attracting tourists and residents who wish to see and climb them, were until well into the 18th century considered ugly and frightening. Dr Johnson wrote of being repelled by their “hopeless sterility”.

Now, given the numbers of climbers who die each year, it might be wished that we could regard mountains with at least some of the instinctual apprehension of our forebears. The point, though, is that we have learned to see mountains and wild places as beautiful. There has been a mass acceptance of the “sublime”, a term popularised in 1757 by the Irish writer Edmund Burke. The sublime is a mingling of beauty and terror, a kind of sweet dread – an idea that would find expression in the works of the Romantic poets and many painters, including Turner, whose boiling, roiling Staffa oil describes the rough magic of Scottish landscape better, perhaps, than anyone before or since.

Landscape has been the main tourist draw in Scotland since the late 1700s and the publication of influential accounts of tours by both the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant and the now much better known Boswell and Johnson. As the century drew to a close, Scotland was becoming fashionable among the wealthy, especially as the French Revolution had closed off much of Europe. A typical tour of the period might begin at the Falls of Clyde, hymned by Wordsworth, and then head north-west for Loch Lomond. The real boom came with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady Of The Lake in 1810, a massive bestseller which prompted a rush to visit the Trossachs.

When we talk about our sublime landscape, we mean many things, but if we were to dig right down, the bedrock of our meaning is the land itself, the stuff of which Scotland is made. This country was once part of a continent, known as Laurentia, which included North America. We were separated from present day England by an area of water larger than the Atlantic. Scotland is made up of a range of different rocks including, in the Hebrides, Lewissian gneiss some three billion years old. The force of the collision, about 425 million years ago, of Scotland and England resulted in the formation of that great granite range, the Cairngorms. The late Aberdonian writer Nan Shepherd, in her brilliant book The Living Mountain, written in the early 1940s, described sensing these furious elemental forces, while resting in the hills she loved.

“So there I lie in the plateau,” she wrote, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between 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.”

Such epiphanies are open to all of us. The land is out there. According to the John Muir Trust, only about 2 per cent of Scotland is urban. Around 30 per cent is what we might call wild, which is to say remote, rugged and largely unaffected by human intervention.

But one needn’t travel into wilderness to get a sense of the Scottish landscape. I grew up on a council estate between a middling, declining industrial town and the fringes of the countryside. On mornings when I missed my bus I’d walk to school through the woods. In the autumn, I’d go with my dad and look for mushrooms – Coprinus comatus – which he called shaggy tops and which had to be picked before they became inky. On one occasion we borrowed an air-rifle and shot some pigeons; the meat, I remember, was dark and strong, seasoned with pride and guilt. Even now, living in Glasgow, nature seems near at hand. Foxes are everywhere. Roe deer crop the verges of the M77. You can see the Campsies out past the high flats. This, surely, is how most of us experience “natural Scotland” – something glimpsed, sensed, a quiet neighbour whom we worry about from time to time.

The feelings we experience while out in the Scottish landscape are not uncomplicated. It isn’t often simple wonder. Think of the almost oppressive melancholy which can be felt in certain places, for instance Glencoe or – a less celebrated example – heading west at dusk over the Clackmannanshire bridge and seeing the flat, wet carse laid out before you, the oil refinery flaring on the horizon, making an aurora of the lowering clouds. You wonder to what extent our character is shaped by our landscape. Are we given to gloom because of what we see around us, or do we see the land in this way because of the sorrow in our souls?

There is, too, sometimes, a feeling of moral uplift that comes from being out in nature. We sense that we are where we ought to be. Some of the most fulfilled people I know have shaped their lives around the landscape and witnessing its unceasing grace.

This sort of noticing, this devotional attention, can feel like prayer. The writer Sara Maitland, a practising Roman Catholic, lives in an isolated part of Galloway. She moved to the high moors some years ago, motivated by a desire to live as silent a life as possible, but it is the landscape which keeps her there. She loves the “magnificent loneliness” of the Galloway hills, walking alone along the Rhinns of Kells and the Range of the Awful Hand. “There is something extraordinary about being in those kind of places that makes you feel at least that you could be a better person and sometimes that you are,” she says. “I think it’s about being humbled. It’s about exposure to beauty that we didn’t make.”

A beauty that we did not make. But one that made us. Our relationship with the landscape is a kind of love, a kind of faith; the relationship of a child in the womb to its mother. When Cameron McNeish talks about the experience of walking in Scotland, he says, “you can almost feel the heartbeat of the land”, and anyone who has spent time, especially silent time, out there on the hills or even in the edgelands around town will know what he means.

It should and does not take a specially designated year for us to hear that heartbeat. But we would all do well, in 2013, to hearken to its nurturing pulse.


Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss


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