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 Ecology and Scottish Identity


Book Reviews for ECOS - Journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists


By Alastair McIntosh

Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology


Published in ECOS: Journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, 23(2), 2002, pp. 71-73.





Polygon at Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 2002.

276 pages + xii.

Paperback £14.99  ISBN 0-7486-6272-3





Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002

410 pages + xxii

Hardback £65.00  ISBN 0-7486-1312-9

Paperback £24.99  ISBN 0-7486-1313-7



The fact that England contributes roughly nine tenths of the British population whilst Scotland has the lion’s share of Britain’s wild land creates a demographic asymmetry in nature conservation issues. It means that environmental, landowning and land management interests north of the border are disproportionately represented by southern incomers.


In an era of political devolution, this requires special sensitivity. Scotland is, socially speaking, a different country. For example, we would never have elected a Margaret Thatcher. We tend to mistrust, rather than look up to, such markers of social class as a public school education. And as for the notion that land can be private property, beyond one’s own modest back garden we basically don’t believe in it.


In the opinion of this reviewer, none of these cultural differences need be insurmountable for non-native conservationists. But it does make cultural awareness vital in conservation work. The requisite sensitivity is all the more important where the links between place and national identity are at issue.


Anna Paterson, to her credit and unlike many, acknowledges the central importance of these links. She is an academic who has spent most of her professional life in England. Her book explores Scottish national identity in relation to landscape and cityscapes.


Scottish identity, in her view, owes much to an England where “the loss of innocence and belief in English certainties has damaged Britishness.” This, she opines, “is felt by the Scottish, who – whether they like it or not – are inextricably linked to their dominant neighbour by precisely the kind of cultural meshwork that makes for a shared sense of identity.”


Nonetheless, she concedes, “I do think that there is such a thing as Scottishness, a kind of extended group identity.” But in her view it’s all rather Braveheartian and backward looking: “The Scottish identity industry is in many ways less sophisticated than the English one, and the Scottish sense of belonging seems less secure.”


“Listening carefully to the voice of Scotland speaking through its writers,” she concludes, “has made it clear that the landscape – the place, the environment – is not a serious concern of the majority.”


What makes this conclusion remarkable is that she reaches it after dismissing writing from before the 1970’s. She further admits that, “I have not tried to investigate Scottish-based writers using Gaelic or Scots or Doric, since their exclusion of most English-speaking readers suggests that these writers are pursuing a very special local discourse.” And to crown it all, she adds, “After much agonising, I decided to exclude poetry….”


Really, this is as if a Scot had parachuted in to write a tome about London for Oxford University Press, but refused to include pre-1970 Cockney voices because their rhyming dialect was insufficiently “Mockney Esturine”!


“Perhaps,” Paterson says at the close of the book (in an echo of landowner-establishment thinking that finds considerable venting in right-wing tabloids these days), “my main concern is that the Scottish bureaucracy seems to be running out of control…. It is still a mystery to me why the Scottish people do not ‘speak up’. Is it lack of insight?”


Indeed, “Could it be …”, she ventures, in this naive work which denudes the central landscape fact of the Highland Clearances down to a single sentence about “overpopulation by black-faced sheep replac[ing] overpopulation by impoverished farm workers”… “Could it be ignorance?” she asks!


After all, she says, “Modern Scots are comparatively (with other First World nations) ill educated in mathematics and the sciences. Maybe environmental systems and the processes used for analysis are seen as too complicated to bother about.”


My dismay that an imprint of Edinburgh University Press should have let this book through its refereeing process does not extend, however, to their other output under review here - Managing Scotland’s Environment.


Charles Warren is a mainstream environmental scientist, originally trained in the University of Edinburgh’s acclaimed MSc in Resource Management and now lecturing in glaciology and environmental management at the University of St Andrews.


I’m told he’s also English, possibly public school for all I know, but what impresses me is the way he succeeds in doing Scotland a masterful service by producing a brilliant compilation of environmental facts, figures, policies and debates all nested in national, British and European context.


Part One addresses the nature and control of the land. Here’s where to look for a synopsis of how the planning system works. Here too, you’ll find when the megafaunal extinctions took place, or when sheep, rats and rabbit were introduced. I could have done with more than one line about “cultural landscape”, but Warren compensates in other ways. He asks fundamental questions like “What should we be trying to conserve, why, and who for?”


Part Two looks at the sectoral manner into which Scottish land management has traditionally been divided - agriculture and crofting (including the GM debate), watersheds, wildlife and conservation designations. Land reform, he concludes, “unavoidably addresses power relationships…. Its temptations have too often led to abuses.” As for whether it works, the jury, he says fairly, will be out for long time yet.


In Part Three the book shifts to “interactions and controversies”, with chapters on land access debates, native species reintroductions, deer management, farming and case studies like the Cairngorm funicular railway.


Part Four explores environmental ethics: sustainable development, the precautionary principle, and the debate over contingent valuation methodology.


And Part Five concludes by pointing beyond environmental science, and towards the need to integrate conservation with social development though such approaches as participative decision making. This is actually the weakest aspect of Warren’s analysis. He seems a little unclear as to the distinction between consultation and participation, and misses the opportunity to link participation, and the ability of a community to take full responsibility for its place, with the motivating energy behind land reform.


But this reviewer can forgive him that, given the overall splendour of the offering. Indeed, this reviewer will even go the extra mile. For to this reviewer’s delight, Warren identifies land as being, yes, important economically, environmentally, culturally and politically, but also, and remarkably for a scientific book, spiritually.


Nevertheless, he seems to harbour a residual professional shyness about permitting the spiritual to rise much beyond iceberg status. This shows where, in referencing my own work on the Harris superquarry campaign, he says, “Opponents of the quarry unashamedly [my emphasis] drew on spiritual concepts to support their case”.


Well, I’ll go the extra mile in reciprocation. I hereby unashamedly prophesy that Warren’s book will come to be seen as the Bible of Scots environmentalism!


Scotland is an elemental place and Scottish identity is an elemental force that emerges from that place. As Isobel MacPhail brilliantly showed in ECOS 23:1, it comes from being a community of place as distinct from a mere community of interest. That means that any incomer must be very careful about applying a merely sectoral approach to environmentalism in Scotland. The place demands, and we Scots demand, nothing less than an holistic human ecology.


Give us more such English friends as Warren, I say. And as for Paterson, a revised and much expanded second edition might cement a more happy future relationship. Clearly she means well, but must listen more deeply, to more tongues, and always, always, to the poetry.







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4 February 2003


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