Can Scotland’s empty landscapes be populated once again?

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Human presence barely registers on stretches of Scotland’s vast, empty landscapes - but it wasn’t always that way.

Work is ongoing to repopulate some of the country’s most remote territories and reverse years of decline set by the Highland Clearances and mass migration.

The Knoydart peninsula which has been in community ownership since 1999 after its previous private owner went into receivership. PIC: TSPL/ Donald MacLeod.

The Knoydart peninsula which has been in community ownership since 1999 after its previous private owner went into receivership. PIC: TSPL/ Donald MacLeod.

Since the late 1990s, Scotland’s community landowners have been amongst those working to reinvigorate these lands.

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Peter Peacock, policy director of Community Land Scotland, said much of the work has been motivated by the impact of depopluation of the past.

He said: “Vast areas of the Highlands that were cleared are still empty. There is a very strong cultural sense of ‘why should they be empty, why can’t they go back?’

Abandoned house on Lochboisdale on South Uist  shows remnants of past occuptation. PIC Contributed.

Abandoned house on Lochboisdale on South Uist shows remnants of past occuptation. PIC Contributed.

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Around 500,000 acres of Scotland - home to some 25,000 people- are managed by community landowners who have successfully taken land out of private hands.

Despite the sizeable hurdles, more than 300 new homes have been built by just 12 community land organisations with new enterprises in sectors such as tourism, renewables, retail and forestry supporting livelihoods.

On Eigg, which was bought by the community from its landlord 20 years ago, the population has grown by 60 percent.

Knoydart was home to around 65 people in 1999 when the community bought the estate from the Bank of Scotland after its owner went into receivership.

Now 115 people live there with a range of community businesses helping to employ local people, from a home maintenance firm to a venison butchery and forestry.

With Scotland’s population to rise by 350,000 by 2039, some believe Scotland’s rural areas offer a potential alternative to the country’s creaking urban centres.

People numbers are due to rise by 21 per cent in Edinburgh and 17 per cent in Aberdeen over the next 22 years.

Meanwhile in Highland, despite significant recent growth, the figure falls away to 3.5 per cent.

Mr Peacock added: “If you think over the very long term, when Scotland will continue to grow over time, were are going to need more land for people. Where is this land going to be? Well, it is potentially in the countryside.”

Despite the population rise, some communities remain incredibly fragile. In the Western Isles, population is due to fall by 13.5 per cent due to “negative natural change” - or when the death rate outstrips the numbers born.

Women are less likely to move to the islands and more likely to leave.

Mr Peacock said there were several practical issues that potentially worked against re-population and the growth of communities.

Planners favour developing existing settlements, not least because expensive infrastructure, such as water, sewage and roads, is already in place.

A general presumption against building in the countryside unless it is linked to agricultural use also remains, he said.

“But you don’t have to work the land to live in the countryside anymore. You could run a publishing company from home if you wanted to. People are very entrepreneurial ” he added.

The balance between protecting Scotland’s great landscapes as places of escape, solitude and adventure with the needs of rural communities was also a potential issue, Mr Peacock said.

Around one-fifth of Scotland has now been designated “wild land” with 42 areas now receiving extra safeguards from development.

However, some believe the wild land designations don’t recognise man’s place in the environment over centuries.

Mr Peacock added: “Some of our members look out on wild land and they don’t see wild land. They see forlorn land, land that is empty and that was once full of people, of children.”

“In some of the land that is now designated wild land, people were living there until 80 years ago.”

The designations were created in 2014 following lobbying from Mountaineering Scotland and the John Muir Trust given a string of controversial wind farm applications in the Highlands.

Scottish Natural Heritage - which devised and mapped the areas - generally define wild land by its perceived naturalness, ruggedness,remoteness and visible lack of buildings, roads, pylons and other modern artefacts.

The designations have helped to see off six planning applications for windfarms in the north and north west.

But it has not yet been tested how the designations will impact on developments that can be viewed from within wild land areas.

Mr Peacock said: “Of course we want people to still enjoy the mountains, the views, the landscapes. But it’s quite nice to see a few natives in the foreground.”

Dr Chris Dalglish, director of the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development, is researching the impact of wild land designations and other protected areas on the people who live there.

He said: “There is a feeling the system gives a privileged position to certain points of view about the landscapes.

“There is a very strong undercurrent, and a lot of people have voiced this in the Highlands and Islands, that external forces are determining the future of the region.

“People feel this is story that has gone on for generations.”

Early next year, pilot projects will run in South Uist - a wild land area - Lewis and Dumfries and Galloway to help improve the way people are represented in planning decisions.

“Communities will present their own robust studies of the land from their point of view, their own maps and their own written statements so that they are on a much more level playing field,” he added.

Dr Dalglish said that communities often shared values associated with organisations leading on designations when it comes to views of the land, wildlife, natural beauty and heritage.

However, he added: “People are very aware that a lot of the big conservation charities are very powerful, they have a lot of members and are well funded.

“Communities don’t tend to have that level of resource.”

The John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland have called for statutory protection for wild land areas along the lines of that afforded to national parks and national scenic areas.

It follows the outcome of a judicial review which upheld Ministerial approval for a 22-turbine wind farm on the Altnaharra Estate in Sutherland. Five turbines encroach on a wild land area.

The John Muir Trust said the wild land areas were designed to protect against such industrial development - and not to impede community developments.

Chief executive Andrew Bachell said: “The purpose of the map, as we see it, is not to block housing, hydro schemes or any other community-scale projects, but to provide a degree of regulation and protection of important landscapes from outside commercial interests.”

Who shapes the use of Scotland’s land has been an issue for centuries. For now, at least, it appears be far from settled territory.