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Issue 49 - A land of outstanding beauty

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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A land of outstanding beauty

The Scottish Landscape is an ever changing canvas, John Hannavy investigates.

Scotland’s landscape is a living, working and changing place, and an outstandingly beautiful one. But some of that beauty derives from the marks left by men over several thousand years – men who have modified the landscape by farming it, by building on it, and by living in it. In so doing, they have changed some of Scotland’s finest panoramas. Many of those changes now have the established familiarity of time and tradition, but in their day, others have raised emotions to surprising levels. Imagine how different some of Scotland’s skylines would have been if, for example, the farmers around medieval Stirling had successfully protested that putting a castle on that outcrop of volcanic rock was going to ruin the view from their crofts! Or planning permission had been refused for the Glenfinnan Monument, the Forth Bridge, or the wonderful Border abbeys. These are so much a part of Scotland’s landscape that it is impossible to imagine their absence. But, of course, when they were all built, there was virtually no such thing as planning consent, and the power of the vox populi was still well in the future.

There can be few more emotive subjects today than wind turbines, certainly when it comes to erecting them on some of the bleakest skylines in Scotland. The unwillingness of a large number of very vocal rural Scots to live with the persistent throb of these giant machines seems even to outweigh the disadvantage they would experience if the lights eventually go out!

And given the choice of a wind farm or a nuclear power station, I know which I’d rather live within sight of!

It has always been that way – just about every new innovation over recent centuries has been described by somebody as a hideous intrusion into the landscape, and perhaps no invention more so than the railway. Many landowners fought hard to keep the iron road from scything its way through their estates – impacting hugely on the future prosperity of towns thus removed from the routes – while others were complaining a century and a half ago about the impact the railway would have on the beauty of the landscape, a beauty only then starting to be widely appreciated. And yet today we celebrate the great viaducts which carried highland railway lines, list them as ancient monuments, and spend a fortune preserving them! We feel a warm nostalgic glow as we watch a vintage steam train, plumes of smoke and steam trailing over the coaches behind it, make its way through the few picturesque glens which still have a railway. Perhaps we are amongst those who pay to travel on the trains. The Glenfinnan Viaduct even appears on a Bank of Scotland £10 note!

Will we ever feel the same way about wind turbines? Perhaps not, but as I drove up over Soutra in late autumn, the silhouettes of the turbines at Dun Law Wind Farm set against a dramatic darkening sky did make me stop the car and get the camera out. To me, they are much less of an eyesore than the lines of brutally functional electricity pylons which destroy the natural beauty of many a landscape and, as a photographer, I abhor them. There are, for example, few views of the spectacular ruins of Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe which are not infected by these very necessary impositions on the stark beauty of the mountains towering over the castle.

A few days later, and many miles further north in the spectacular landscape of Glen Ogle, the beautiful morning sunlight on the decaying railway viaduct which once carried the Callander & Oban Railway again caused me to stop the car and reach for the camera.

The Lochearnhead, St Fillans & Comrie Railway, which connected with the Callander & Oban at Lochearnhead was, I believe, the first railway line in Scotland to be the subject of a parliamentary question about its environmental impact. So nimbyism is nothing new – that was as long ago as 1897!

While the parliamentary enquiry eventually supported the line’s construction, at Tynereoch near St Fillans, just a few miles south of Glen Ogle, the main road was even moved by twenty metres so that a plantation of trees could be laid between road and track, ensuring that road travelers would never have to look at the railway!

Many of the changes made to the countryside by agriculture have, arguably, enriched the landscape, and accentuated the seasonal changes of colour which make repeated trips around Scotland so different and enjoyable. The planting and harvesting of crops change the landscape with the seasons, as do the leaf colours of the rich variety of trees with which many hillsides are planted.

The impact of an increasing population, and of industry have also made huge changes to the landscape we see. Loch Katrine, for example, which we celebrate as one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland appears very different today to what it looked like in the early 19th century. When it was turned into a reservoir in 1859 and its waters connected via a massive and complex pipeline to feed the growing population of Glasgow, a small dam was built at the south end, and the water levels raised. The increase in the water level may not have been much, but it was enough to submerge the Silver Strand so beautifully woven into Scott’s Lady of the Lake, and change the shoreline of the loch forever. To many at the time, that was a hugely retrograde move, but more than a century later, we enjoy the loch and its setting perhaps even more than our predecessors.

But we live in 2010, not 1810 or 1910, and the landscape cannot be mothballed. It has to grow and change with the needs of the society which pays for its upkeep, and there are still thousands of wonderfully unchanged views to enjoy. Standing at one of the viewpoints overlooking the Kyles of Bute, looking east towards the morning sun, the sheer majesty of the silvery strip of water stretching into the distance before me, and the towering sky above it, can take one’s breath away. That is Scotland wearing her finest mantle. And yet, look closely, man has left his mark there as well.