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 The Future of Wild Land in Scotland

The Future of Wild Land in Scotland


“Yes, about the faeries and all that…”



Alastair McIntosh



This article was commissioned by the Scottish Wild Land Group for their contribution to The International Year of Mountains 2002, Scotland's Wild Land - what future?, ISBN 0-9543790-0-4, £4.00, 5-8.




Let’s start by stopping kidding ourselves about what wild land means. We need to set the notion of wildness in historical perspective. We need to remember that modernity, that post-Renaissance idolisation of rationality, established its dominance over our conscious minds by literally imprisoning, torturing and, as the almost-final solution, burning the wild out of our forebears, particularly women.


Yes, I’m talking about the so-called “witches”, the true nature people, and all that. I’m talking about the guilty little secret of wildness repressed beneath modernity’s manicured and poisoned turf. I’m talking about what ecofeminist philosopher, Carolyn Merchant, calls “the Death of Nature”. I’m talking about something that it’s time for more of us to wake up to and, yes, to get WILD about; as Susan Griffin suggests, it’s a matter of letting loose “the roaring within”.


Aaaaah! How good and refreshing it is to stand naked! Naked in the mind in a force 8 north-westerly, on a coastal headland, overlooking the graveyard where, as in Gray’s Elegy, those of “sober wishes” have at last passed away having died from their very own boredom!


Aye, how good and refreshing it is to reflect upon Thomas Gray and his Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard. I’m a Scot, and I happily say, “Give us more such Englishmen!” Many more. Aye, remember, the Elegy and that most mellow of English pastoral scenes:


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.


And remember the remarkable insight that comes to Gray from that twilit zone, that liminal threshold over which the poet has stepped as he enters a world symbolic of the unconscious. Notice the shamanic eye with which he reflects on the respectable, upright but uptight village dead slumbering in their country church-yard graves:


Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.


It is they in their pettifogging small-mindedness, Gray notes, who “shut the gates of mercy on mankind”. They who comprise the “madding crowd”, brought to their conforming knees because “Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,/ And froze the genial current of the soul.”


And in those lines, too, lies the key by which all of us sleep-walkers of modernity can come back to life. The “noble rage” must be released. We need wildness in which to rediscover and express our own “born to be wild” natures – to go crazy and thereby to escape from being driven mad. To be crazy is different from being mad. It means “to be cracked”, and as Jungian psychotherapist, James Hillman, suggests, the cracking in question is precisely that which preserves you from the madness of conformity; precisely the cracking of the ossified cage around the soul that otherwise blocks spiritual growth.


Aye – crazy perhaps, but not the madness of normality! Do you want to know what “normality” is? Normality is Tony Blair saying in today’s newspaper, “You do, necessarily, as you get older, moderate your politics…. There are roughly 100,000 jobs in this country that depend on defence or associated industries, and I simply don’t agree with shutting that industry down.”


That’s normal madness. And it’s the same mindset that also justifies the wanton destruction of wild nature for jobs, jobs and more coprolitic jobs. Breaking out of that is the kind of sane craziness that, for example, Jesus was accused of by his detractors. We’re in good company!


What drove us into the cage of mainstream insanity in the first place? Well, by the end of the 20th century “we”, by which I will mean here, Western “man”, had reached a point of such spiritual sterility that the mere existence of the wild had to be justified on “scientific” grounds. As such, many of nature’s wildest spots were protected not because they were uplifting, beautiful, or magical – not because they were fantastic sacred places of divine Creation - but because they fitted the tick boxes for designations such as “Sites of Special Scientific Interest”.


You can just imagine kids in our inner city schools having visions of wild nature being where boffins in white coats flutter about with magnifying glasses, popping beetles into test tubes for God-knows what vivisectional purpose!


This is not, I repeat, not, a criticism of science and scientists. Even technology and the wild do not have to be opposites provided that technology recognises that it is a subset of nature rather than the other way round. What I do criticise, however, is our society’s shrivelled vision that, in the past, could only bring itself to respect nature if it could be justified “in the interests of science”. The trouble is that science on its own is a very partial perspective. It’s not the whole picture. My quarrel is not with science itself, but with modernity’s post-Baconian reductionist pseudo-scientific mindset that has, too often, and with too few exceptions, refused to accord visibility and protected status to anything that doesn’t conform to rational quantification. It’s a mainstream, utilitarian and basically colonising mindset that honours “Logos” (the logical or rational), but denigrates “Mythos” (the root of poetry and story), and as for “Eros” (passionately felt connection; feeling good in your body about something) – that’s thrown right off the Richter Scale of credibility.


What’s so great about the wild is that it forces us back into touch with all our faculties. To know it means knowing reality through the joint perceptual faculties of Logos, Mythos and Eros. It means having sound scientific understanding, yes, but also appreciating the roots of story that lends meaning to nature, and being able to feel our own connection to nature. As deep ecology puts it, the human self is, ultimately, the “ecological self”, and so self-realisation means realising the wild within.


Wilderness is not the same thing as desert. Desert is a place where life is sparse because carrying capacity is low. Wilderness, by contrast, is where life is free, and when we lose touch with this we become sick of soul. Wilderness is where we get real with life. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C. G. Jung put it like this:


Plainly the urban world knew nothing about the country world, the real world of mountains, woods, and rivers, of animals and “God’s thoughts” (plants and crystals)…. People who know nothing about nature are of course neurotic, for they are not adapted to reality.


The future of wild land in Scotland is therefore something that cannot be separated from the future of ourselves. This goes at the individual level, but also in our wider communities (hence the importance of land reform), and all the way up to the level of nationhood. We need wild land if we are to heal and sustain a sense of Scottish nationhood, and if that nation is to be one in which suffering humankind can find refuge and healing. As such, having wild land is central to our cultural psychotherapy – to the psychospiritual health of a whole people.


It is striking that most indigenous British cultures actually have an understanding and language for nature’s wildness, but it has been relegated to folklore and legend. I refer to the realm of “faerie”. By this I mean much more than just children’s fairy tales. I mean, rather, a way of understanding the imaginal realm where nature is animated by Spirit.


Bear with me, please, dear reader!


Writing in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness (LIX, 1997), the eminent Gaelic scholar, John MacInnes, suggests that faerie represents the wild. The village boundary was more than just a marker of arable and grazing land; it was also a liminal boundary, a psychologial threshold beyond which lay a mythological and spiritual territory that set ordinary life in a context of wider spiritual meaning.


Elsewhere, John has described the importance of the faerie hill. Celtic lore maintains that if you spend a night in such a tree-fringed Hill, you’ll emerge either mad, or inspired with poetry and music. One of my former students, Patrick Laviolette and I published a paper on these features of cultural landscape in the British nature conservation journal, ECOS, in 1997 (it’s on my website). His fieldwork revealed that people living around recognised Hills still respected taboos about not damaging or taking anything from such sites. As a result, they comprised miniature reserves of biodiversity. The faerie hills, so to speak, are our European “sacred groves”. O’Carolan, the great Irish harper was reputedly granted the gift of music after sleeping in such a “rath”, and John MacInnes tells of a bard on the Isles of Uist who, when composing poetry, would say, “my mind was away in the Hill”.


MacInnes suggests that the Hill is “a metaphor for the imagination”. We might see it, too, as a metaphor for repressed green consciousness – a consciousness that now needs to emerge back out into the open. There is nothing new-fangled about this. Indeed, I have pointed out in Soil and Soul that even Socrates, to his great astonishment, gained some of his greatest insights about the divine madness of love after a friend, Phaedrus, dragged him out of town and took him down to a sacred grove by the river where they prayed to Pan.


I suspect it doesn’t matter whether we consider the faeries to be “real” or metaphoric. What matters is that the wild is a space – whether as large as a national park or as small as a lovingly-tended urban window-box – where the magical door into the Hill can open and we experience the subtle magic of consciousness change. In wildness are the faeries, and after resting there for, say, seven years and a day, we return to the mundane human realm inspired, more able to cope with the rest of life, and as True Thomas found, more dedicated to the truth and its blowtorch ability to burn off layers of delusion. Indeed, a well-known American psychotherapist, Jane Middleton-Moz, once told me that no less than 70% of the victims of child abuse and alcoholism that she worked with had started to heal after first finding solace in nature.


In the past both religion and science have blocked the Hill’s magic door. This has served certain peoples’ political interests, but neither religion nor science need, per se, to be obstacles.


If by “faerie” we mean recognition that the divine Spirit is incarnate in nature, then from a Judeo-Christian perspective one need only consult, as one of several possible texts, the book of Job. There in chapter 12 we find poor Job pouring out his woes, complaining that “I am a laughingstock to my friends … a just and blameless man”. And what does he then do for solace? He looks to God’s immanence in the wild:


But ask the animals, and they will teach you;

the birds of the air, and they will tell you;

ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;

and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Who among all these does not know

that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing

and the breath of every human being.


Jesus, similarly, went to the wild whenever he sought spiritual insight or composure of soul. In Matthew’s gospel alone he goes eight times up to the mountains to get away from it all.


As for science being an obstacle, well really, it is just a question of procuring empirical evidence. Generations of our forebears had no problem on this account. Indeed, Lizanne Henderson and Edward Cowan (Professor of Scottish History at Glasgow University) say the following in their splendid recent historical work, Scottish Fairy Belief:


There is, arguably, as much evidence of one kind or another for the activities of the fairies from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries as there is for the existence of either the Picts, the Britons, the Angles or the Scots during the first millennium of Scottish history…. They were a part of everyday life, as real to people as the sunrise, and as incontrovertible as the existence of God.


I must admit, however, that the faeries have not been greatly in evidence during the 20th century. However, we must examine this deficiency in the due context of a prophetic utterance by Nan MacKinnon, a tradition bearer from the Isle of Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides:


Yes, about the fairies and all that…. They say they are here for a century and away for another century. This is their century away.


That ethnographic interview comes from issue 42 of Tocher, a Scottish journal of folklore. It was published in 1996.


Today, as we contemplate the future for wild land, wild things and wild people, we might note that the 20th century has, finally, in Gray’s words, “wound slowly o’er the lea”.





26 December 2002

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