Assynt – one of the last wilderness areas

They say Scotland has some of the last wilderness areas left in Western Europe. But where exactly are they? And how particular should we be about protecting them? The government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is inviting views on its latest map of 43 “wild land” areas which will be offered some sort of protection under the planning laws. The haggling over this map will pitch conservationists against developers, city dwellers against country folk, romanticists against realists and will define the sort of country we want to live in.

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands
Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands
Most of the 43 areas are, of course, in the Highlands and Islands. But there are three in the south of the country – Merrick, Talla-Hart Fells and Broad Dollar-Black Laws. Waterhead Moor-Muirshiel, just north of Glasgow, is also included. The rest stretch from Arran to Shetland by way of the Arrochar Alps, Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms, the Cuillins, Torridon, the Flow Country, Harris and the Orkney island of Hoy. (see full list below).

“Measuring wildness in inherently difficult,” SNH admits. One man’s wildness is another man’s wasteland. But the agency has tried to come up with a scoring system that is scientific. Four factors are taken into account: naturalness, ruggedness, remoteness from public roads, and a visible lack of built developments or “modern artefacts” such as wind turbines, pylons, telemasts etc.

Some compromises have had to be made where features do not spoil what’s called “the wider sense of wildness” eg the General Wade road that runs through the Corrieyairack Pass or the railway line through the Flow Country or an isolated farm building. On the other hand, some borderline areas have been left out of the map that some people might think should be included eg the Lowther Hills, Strathy Forest and North Lewis.

All in all, about 20 per cent of Scotland’s landmass has been classified as “wild” which means that planners will have to take the new designation into account when they are deciding on any new development, whether that be a wind farm, or a fish farm, or radio mast or a hotel or housing estate, or, dare we mention it, a golf course.

We’ve seen that such designations are not sacrosanct. Donald Trump has demonstrated that you can build a golf course on a SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. And there are a dozen other such designations – NNR, SPA, SAC, NSA, AONB, not to mention national and regional parks – where such exceptions have been made. The John Muir Trust estimates that you can see a wind turbine from more than half of Scotland’s land area.

JohnMuirTrustGreenThe John Muir Trust is leading the campaign to preserve Scotland’s wild land and it has welcomed the new map. Other conservation organisations, like the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust are similarly hoping the new map will be widely accepted.

But it is likely to be opposed in detail by local councils, developers, farmers and tourism businesses. An earlier draft of the map was sent back to the drawing board and SNH has had to carry out further statistical analysis to prove that certain areas really are “wild”.

There are those who argue that nowhere in Scotland is wild. All of our landscape, they say, has been influenced by human habitation but grouse moors, farmland, crofts and fishing villages still make for a beautiful, peaceful and spiritually pleasing experience. But even those opposed to wild land designations, or particular lines drawn on the map, admit that there is a balance to be struck between economic gains and preserving the natural wildness that is attracting businesses in the first place.

The Scottish government’s National Planning Framework hints that the presumption will always be against developments in wild land areas. Paragraph 99, for instance, reads: “ Some of Scotland’s remoter mountain and coastal areas possess an elemental quality from which people derive psychological and spiritual benefits. Such areas are very sensitive to any form of development or intrusive human activity and great care should be taken to safeguard their wild character.”

We shall see whether the government will live up to these fine words when the final map of wild land is written into the planning rules. And then we shall see if we can stick to them. The consultation period ends on 20th December.