There was a big announcement in the press this week. The Assynt/Coigach area of Sutherland and Wester Ross is to benefit from a £3M grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. On the face of it this is good news, but it is also news which is viewed differently by various sectors of the population.
Apparently we live in a wilderness – it must be true because it was in the newspaper. Which is odd as I don’t feel like I live in a wilderness. Yes we are remote (although to be honest we think of ourselves as the centre of the universe and everyone else is remote from us!). But a wilderness? Aspects of the media coverage leaves some local residents feeling that perhaps some nature organisations would be happier if there were no people living in Assynt and Coigach, which I hope is not the case. Because people do live here. And work here. And have lived and worked here for literally thousands of years, as evidenced by increasing numbers of neolithic sites being unearthed. And during those thousands of years the landscape has changed and evolved.
To be blatantly obvious what is needed to help this part of Scotland develop and grow (because lets face it – staying the same or “preserving” the status quo is likely to kill communities) is employment and jobs. Opportunities for traditional forms of employment are few and far between here, although they do exist. What is needed is the infrastructure to support people to be employed in a way that, perhaps, to the rest of the UK seems unconventional and unusual, but employed nonetheless. Or to put it another way, allowing people to support themselves and their families in a way which both makes them happy and secure.
The John Muir Trust, one of the organisations involved in the project, say in their press release “Comprehensive volunteer and cultural learning programmes will help engage local people and visitors, and increase understanding of this vast area’s complex heritage”, which on the surface seems a fair point. But note the word “volunteer”. The press release does go on to say “The grant awarded to the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project will be a great boost to the local Assynt area, creating jobs and helping restore important habitats such as peatlands and the native Atlantic oakwoods that once thrived there. We hope it will help wildlife to flourish and bring people closer to the landscape in ways that will benefit many generations to come” but no concrete evidence of what that benefit may be. The Scottish Wildlife Trust says in their statement “Led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), the work will involve restoring blanket bog and heath moor, repairing paths and reconnecting fragmented native woodland” – Hmmmm still not entirely clear or definitive on the jobs front.
While, on the surface, this grant to Assynt sounds like a wonderful idea, there are those who are concerned that while the organisations involved are quick to use images of Assynt and Coigach and its natural beauty to proclaim this award, worry that very little of the £3 million will actually be spent in Assynt and Coigach. Some think that most of the money will be spent within organisations outwith the area, and the only longer term benefits for the area is a possible increase in tourism. Yes we will get upgraded paths, and restored woodland and peatlands, (with much of the work being done by volunteers under the umbrella of “education”) but the money spent on doing the majority of that work may not be spent IN Assynt and Coigach. It will go to consultants, tree growers, path building equipment providers, all outwith the area. It will secure jobs for firms in other parts of the UK to provide all the equipment needed to carry out the work proposed, and may not provide long term meaningful jobs in Assynt and Coigach. And while some sectors proclaim tourism to be the golden bullet to all the ills of this area, some local residents are would point out that tourism can be a double edged sword. The area is littered with holiday homes which sit empty for large chunks of the year while young people from the area cannot afford to buy houses because of the inflated house/land prices caused by demand for holiday homes. When working in the tourist office there were numerous times when I had to bite my tongue very hard when visitors/tourists treated me and the area with complete disdain. I recall well one visitor’s disbelief at there being (at that time) 2 Michelin starred restaurants in the area. “Why does a place like this need a Michelin starred restaurant, let alone 2?” was the question posed to me. On another occasion my colleague was presented with what I think won our award for the daftest question of the year ….. (to understand our astonishment at this tale you need to know about the concept of wild camping in Scotland) …. “Could you tell me where we can wild camp with facilities?”
One aspect of the project that I have a personal interest in is the proposed work on Clachtoll Broch. This aspect of the project was covered by the Scotsman Newspaper, but was rather glossed over by other newspapers and press releases, which focussed instead on the wilderness aspects. If I walk up the hill behind our house I can see the Broch, and I have great difficulty in absorbing that it has probably been in that very position since 150BC. A couple of years ago I visited the broch while some work was being done to try and stabilise it to prevent parts of it disappearing completely, and it was an amazing experience being able to hold fragments of pottery that had been found on the site, and which may last have been held in hands over 2000 years ago.
There are other archaeological sites waiting to be investigated further, and the development of these sites may offer a good prospect for employment in the future if these sites become tourist attractions, with local folk providing the role of guide and interpreter. Not many jobs, I grant you, but concrete jobs. Our recent visit to Orkney highlighted to me how much archaeological heritage can provide an income for folk.
During a discussion on twitter about what the term “wilderness” meant to others, we got to talking about how the photographs which accompanied the press release this week showed a landscape devoid of people. And the landscape can, in parts, look very romantic, and as if it has never been influenced by man. But sometimes photographs can mislead, and I am as guilty as many at times of only posting photographs on this blog which show the landscape looking at its best. So I will, in future, try and include more people in my pictures, or evidence of people. This is not an empty land. It is not, in my view, a wilderness.
If a similar grant were made to a built up city area for some or other project, it would probably hardly make news. 3 Million pounds would not be much and wouldn’t go far on some city projects. And the outcome in a more heavily populated area, while important to some, would not impact as greatly as it could do in an area such as Assynt where the population is approximately 1000 in an area about 600 square km. On the face of it this grant is a good thing. But the project needs to be approached by all the organisations involved with a sensitivity to those who live and work here, and will still be living and working here years after the grant funded organisations finish their work and leave. People living here are proud. They do not want to be part of some social experiment which is how some view the project. Colin McLean of Heritage Lottery Fund is quoted as saying “It brings real cohesion to the natural and built heritage of the region while reconnecting its communities with the nature that lies on their doorstep.” That can be construed as very condescending to people who have lived here for generations and who are completely connected to the surrounding landscape. It is at times like this that I really regret not having had more conversations with Alan Macrae .