Iknow the road to Abriachan better on the map than on the ground. I can trace it back and forth up the hill as it rises above the old graveyard at Killianan, through the hazel woods, out to the open ground by Balchraggan, past the Balbeg mill that belonged, my father told me, to his great-grandfather. Abriachan is the place of my father’s people, a district of crofts plotted across a basin high above Loch Ness. The Gaelic, Obar Itheachan, means ‘mouth of the hill river’, and the road winds up beside the streams that drain into Allt Killianan: Allt Loch Laide, which runs from the mill loch, and the Balmore burn, where Dad was sent as a boy to collect dry pine cones. Auntie Maggie called them duircean – they burned with an intense and even flame that was better than peat for cooking girdle scones. The pinewoods were a source of fuel and the gnarled, ancient birchwoods above Balmore were for pasture.
Birches of all shapes & Twisture …
I would study the Birch
It should be my only Tree
wrote Coleridge, just a few miles from here. My knowledge of this place comes in part from family stories and photos that I have raked over in the long lockdown months since my father died. I haven’t been able to visit Abriachan so I have spent time instead with the old Ordnance Survey maps now digitised and made available online by the National Library of Scotland. Sometimes I get stuck looking at these maps.
At Allt Loch Laide, the road forks and the eastern branch ascends through the birchwood, ending at a cluster of stone buildings. The name on the map is almost bigger than the settlement it describes – Achbuie, Achadh Buidhe, the ‘yellow field’. By toggling the transparency of the overlay, I can make the parchment white of the map fill with the colours of a recent satellite image. Slide left: a patch of gorse in flower. Slide right: the inked outline of 19th-century black houses, long since gone. Geographers call this ‘remote sensing’ – an apt phrase.
During the last few months of my father’s life, he and I often talked about the MacDonalds of Achbuie, Gaelic-speaking Presbyterians who inhabited the hills between Glen Urquhart and Beauly. ‘It was a sad day we left the croft,’ he said (I didn’t tell him that Sad Day We Left the Croft was the title of a Scottish punk compilation from 1981). He could be heavy-hearted when he recalled his father turning the key in the door and walking down through the advancing bracken. My father’s Uncle Alick was the last MacDonald in Achbuie, after generations had scratched a living from a few acres of hill, a thousand feet above the Great Glen. The family worked the croft for about two hundred years until an entropic ending in 1960 when the land outpaced Alick’s capacity to maintain it. Everything had become overgrown – ‘derelict’ was the word they used.
There was a spell in the 1930s when the teenage Jessie Kesson lived on the neighbouring croft, before she became a writer. I don’t think she and Uncle Alick saw eye to eye, but her later descriptions of the crofters ring true: ‘No one ever retired on the hill,’ she wrote, ‘they just died when their work was done.’ It wasn’t so simple for Alick. When he could no longer manage the croft, he was taken to Aigas House, a care home run by the council in a dilapidated mansion in Strathglass. His agitation and confusion at being removed from Achbuie made him difficult to manage. He’d be up at the window of his room, pointing to invisible threats: ‘There’s wild beasts out there,’ he’d warn anyone who would listen. ‘Wild beasts.’ My father interpreted this as a symptom of dementia, but it was allied to a more general feeling of apprehension among crofters of his era. There were plenty of ordinary things to worry about – a sick cow, or an autumn gale that could flatten the oats. To live in Abriachan was to be attuned to the hazards of the landscape, dangers that were often recast as the otherworldly creatures of the Gaelic oral tradition.
I was reminded of Uncle Alick’s wild beasts when I recently discovered that Aigas House is now home to the nature writer and rewilding advocate Sir John Lister-Kaye, who has restored the building to its Scots baronial glory. Aigas is now a field centre, an ecotourism business and the site of two experimental programmes: a Beaver Demonstration Project and a captive Wildcat Conservation Breeding Programme, which plans to start releasing genetically pure-bred animals back into the Highlands next year. Rewilding, according to Lister-Kaye, is ‘the great green hope for the revolution that we need’, a move away from isolated nature reserves towards a more expansive and connected vision of restored woodland, wetland and peatland. Some records suggest that the area around Loch Ness was one of the beavers’ last strongholds before their extinction in Scotland in the 16th century, so there is a geographical propriety to the return plotted at Aigas.
It took until 1995 for the beavers’ potential return to be officially explored in a study by Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot), which eventually saw them reintroduced to Knapdale in Argyll in 2009. Some landowners opposed their return, fearing tree damage and flooding. There were others for whom this was the entire point: Lister-Kaye and another estate-owner, Paul Ramsay of Bamff in Perthshire, were so enthusiastic about the benefits of the beavers’ ecosystem engineering that they didn’t want to wait for civil service timelines. Instead, they set up private trials on their estates, funded by visiting tourists. Beavers have been remarkably adept at finding holes in the fence. More than 95 per cent of the thousand beavers recently recorded in Scotland are descendants of private collections, with the tiny residue being the authorised population in Knapdale. Many are thriving in catchments not far from Bamff, with some even to be found scrunching their way through riverside alder and willow in Perth city centre, for example. In May 2019, the Scottish government recognised beavers as a protected species, meaning that any farmer seeking to control numbers has to apply for a NatureScot licence. The old guard used this legislation to fight back: 87 animals had been shot under licence before the year was out; 115 in 2020. This year the battle has gone to the Court of Session, with the rewilding charity Trees for Life obtaining a judicial review and alleging that NatureScot breached habitat regulations by giving licences for shooting. The National Farmers Union Scotland and Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, are contributing to NatureScot’s costs in defending the right to control ‘damaging’ species.
It’s easy to frame this as a dispute between conservationists and landowners, or even between beavers and landowners, when it’s actually a dispute between the different people (or organisations) who own the land. There’s a more general disquiet among the unlanded residents of the areas that are increasingly deemed ‘wild’. For them, beavers or wild cats aren’t the problem. They question why the laird gets to decide which species – human or not – belong on the land. The current spate of rewilding projects is underlining the fact that ecology lies outside the structures of local democracy. That is no doubt part of the appeal for green lairds: an estate is a blank page on which to make their mark – a landscape-scale presentation of the self. This impulse to monumentalism used to find expression in the ownership of Scottish castles and paintings like Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen. The land agency Strutt & Parker attributes the current buoyancy of the Scottish estate market (a record £112 million of sales in 2020) to the rise of the green investor, lured by the possibility of afforestation and carbon capture. One new landowner is the brewery and pub chain BrewDog: its Lost Forest project includes the planting of millions of trees as well as a new eco-hotel, distillery, hiking and bike trails. The company’s new purchase, Kinrara in the Cairngorms, which was on the market for £7.5 million, is ‘bigger than seventeen actual countries’, according to the company’s co-founder James Watt. BrewDog is already claiming to be ‘carbon negative’. But what if you live nearby, have a view on ecology, and can’t afford to buy an estate? Then do please submit your feedback to this website. Or turn up to this local meeting. Your views are important to us. All stakeholders will be consulted.
One lesson that can be drawn from beaver reintroduction is that the slow, patient work of building a local mandate for ecological restoration in the Highlands is unnecessary. When 432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land, rewilding can happen easily enough without local support. This is the reason people in the Gàidhealtachd – Scotland’s historic Gaelic-speaking areas – have misgivings. They understand that the land is denuded and overgrazed, ‘improved into a desert’ as the Scottish geologist and folklorist Hugh Miller put it in 1843. There’s recognition, too, of the extent of biodiversity loss and the reality of climate change. But many in the Highlands see the green laird as an example of a species that never left: the landlord with a passion for charismatic wildlife and landscapes. It’s just that beavers and Scots pines are now preferred to deer and grouse moors. The status of red deer has slipped from regal quarry to herbivorous villain, and red grouse are attracting belated scrutiny on account of estate managers’ close association with criminal acts of raptor persecution as well as their responsibility for the desolate condition of managed moorland. Despite all that, it’s easy to see how the culture of Highland field sports – Balmorality, it used to be called – might evolve into a form that disavows its ecological sins but keeps a tight hold on the land itself.
Seven miles southwest of Uncle Alick’s croft, at Bunloit where his great-grandmother was born, another new experiment dawns. Bunloit Rewilding is the project of Jeremy Leggett, a former petroleum geologist and scientific director of Greenpeace, whose renewables firm, Solarcentury, was sold to the Norwegian utility company Statkraft last year for £118 million. Leggett aims to ‘create an exemplar of local solutions leadership via land use in a biodiverse, wilding, growingly beyond-zero carbon sink’. Rewilding, it seems, can never just be about establishing particular ‘keystone species’ or planting native woodland, it has to be an exemplar, a showcase, a mission, a blueprint, or – as Leggett describes Bunloit – ‘a flagship for hope’.
This ambition can be valuable, but as well as imagining the future of land, these projects also determine the future of place, even if this distinction is not apparent to many new landowners. ‘I will be conferring on the prospects for bison to join the grazing team,’ Leggett told a journalist. ‘I think my streams, sorry “burns”, are too steep for beavers, but will be checking with experts.’ I have an ancestor who drew water from Bunloit’s Allt na h-Eireige, the ‘chicken burn’, which gives me no more claim to the place than anyone else, but makes me bristle at Leggett’s possessive pronoun. Land can be owned; places are more complicated.
Leggett’s tone has changed a bit recently in response to public disquiet. The talk now is of ‘repeopling’, ‘community prosperity’ and reviving crofts in what he claims is a rural version of the Green New Deal. All of this sounds fine. Who could complain about new jobs, homes, carbon sequestration and biodiversity? Wouldn’t this be better than the traditional sporting estate? Almost certainly, but the problem lies less in the particular instance than in the general tendency: the consolidation of land in anticipation of a market in what is being called ‘climate services’. Bunloit isn’t a one-off. This summer, Leggett announced that he had acquired the 860-acre Beldorney Castle Estate near Huntly in Aberdeenshire as a ‘blank page for rewilding efforts’, with 10 per cent of the profit to be ploughed back into the community. The aim, he said, is to create a ‘Scottish natural capital verification-science open laboratory’, which could be taken to mean that if desirable ecological change can be measured, it can potentially be traded in the form of carbon credits. It’s not just a question of who owns wild Scotland, but of the way that wildness is conceived and framed. The language of the northern laboratory and the island experiment has a long provenance: the Highlands were a testbed for 18th and 19th-century agricultural Improvement (read: Clearances); St Kilda was a ‘natural experiment’ after the evacuation of its population in 1930, and so was the island of Rum, after it was sold to the Nature Conservancy Council in 1957 (it’s now owned by NatureScot). In all these cases, the language of science was used to authorise certain kinds of management, reinforcing the landowner as the primary ecological agent in the landscape and sidelining human communities.
On the other side of Loch Ness from Achbuie, a different sort of rewilding project is taking place. The newly refurbished Aldourie Castle is on a grander scale than Bunloit but driven by a similar entrepreneurial vision of networked forest carbon sinks and peatland. Aldourie is one of thirteen estates owned by the Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen, Scotland’s largest private landowner, and managed by his company Wildland, which boasts of a two-hundred-year vision for its land holdings. ‘We wish to restore our parts of the Scottish Highlands to their former natural splendour,’ their manifesto says. ‘And not just the land, the whole fabric of these great estates.’ An overnight stay at Aldourie is expected to cost around £10,000.
The opulence of these estates was always a world apart from the life of crofters like my Uncle Alick, but important threads connected them. In Alick’s case, Aldourie was where the Lovat Scouts were founded, the yeomanry regiment in which he and many other Abriachan hill men served. The regiment, in turn, produced local musicians like Pipe Major Donald Riddell, who also played the fiddle and whose influence remains strong among players on the hill today. That’s the thing about these places: they are culturally constituted by their communities. They have a hinterland.
Like other green lairds, Povlsen has talked about wanting to encourage ‘thriving communities’, and this seemed to be a sincere aspiration until an actual community broke step with his two-hundred-year vision and inclusive statements gave way to boardroom tactics. The crofters of Melness in Sutherland tried to lease a small portion of their land, a peninsula of blanket bog called A’ Mhòine, for what could be Britain’s first commercial spaceport. Povlsen has Melness effectively surrounded: geographically by his landholdings at Polla, Eriboll, Kinloch, Strathmore and Ben Loyal; legally, as an objector to their planning application, and as the funder of both a judicial review (which recently failed) and a pending case in the Scottish Land Court. He has also invested £1.4 million in a rival spaceport in Shetland. This is a cold demonstration that consultation only goes so far; capital drives the rewilding economy. It’s the reason crofters suspect that landed power may be one part of the natural order that lairds will seek to preserve.
Rewilding can be done differently,however. Last year saw the community purchase of Langholm Moor in Dumfriesshire from the Duke of Buccleuch, demonstrating that the restoration of native woodland and wetland can be a collective endeavour. Other such projects are springing up here and there, but it’s in Abriachan that I find grounds for hope. Back in 1998, the residents organised themselves as a community trust to buy back 540 hectares of Forestry Commission land, with the aim of creating employment from the management of commercial plantings, while also developing native woodlands, forest schools, 40 km of footpaths and a better understanding of the area’s cultural heritage. I don’t think the Abriachan Forest Trust has ever called itself a flagship or an exemplar. But it has built a community around a common woodland.
Is this rewilding? Not exactly. But what rewilding means is always a matter of local interpretation. There is no stable meaning because wildness itself is unfixed. It’s a way of seeing that emphasises certain attributes, sometimes at the cost of obscuring the long history of human involvement in the landscape. This isn’t a popular view: it can seem obtuse or obstructive to say that I don’t much like ‘wildness’ when in fact I’m an advocate for the ecological restoration it’s usually taken to mean. But time may have run out for this kind of philosophising: atmospheric CO2 is at 420 ppm; rewilding has slipped under the fence and is out there, flourishing in the world.