Defending the Wild Lands

South Uist Hills

South Uist Hills – Proposed Wild Land Area

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir

The Year of Natural Scotland included a celebration of the life of John Muir, the Scottish born explorer, conservationist, naturalist and writer. Born in 1838 in Dunbar in East Lothian he emigrated to the United States as a child and was ultimately responsible for the establishment of the world’s first national park system.
A remarkable visionary Muir believed that the integrity of the wilderness was part of God’s plan for life, that preservation of the natural order was central to the continuation of life and that wilderness was more valuable than civilization. He also maintained that it was important to protect the wilderness for its own sake and not for furthering human economic gain.

It is perhaps difficult to reconcile the idealism of a 19th century naturalist with the competing demands for land use in an increasingly over-crowded island, however, it provides the basis for the public debate.
Scotland contains some of the most extensive areas of “wilderness” in the British Isles, and a new map of wild lands is stimulating discussion, generating the usual amount of hot air and hyperbolic rhetoric.
The use of the term wilderness is inappropriate in Scotland, as we cannot meet the criteria of the IUCN  (International Union for Conservation of Nature) definition:
an environment in which biodiversity and ecosystem processes (including evolution) are allowed to flourish or experience restoration if previously disturbed by human activity. Human use is limited, often allowing only those who are willing to travel of their own accord rather than via established touristic activities. Wilderness areas can be classified as such only if they are devoid of modern infrastructure, although they allow human activity to the level of sustaining indigenous groups living wilderness-based lifestyles
Our landscape has been shaped by thousands of years of human activity and although apparently wild in parts, ecologically it has been modified to some degree by settlement, agriculture or industry. Therefore, the term wild land has been adopted to describe those areas of mountain, moorland and coast which are
uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal
Inherent is this basic definition is the understanding that these landscapes possess the quality of wildness or perhaps it is a characteristic which we attach to them. Herein lies one of the problems in attempting to define an area as wild land –  the experience of wildness is subjective as it depends on individual perception and experience, thus wildness can also be experienced in places which could not be strictly defined as wild land.
I do not wish to drown in semantics or get mired in a debate on the philosophy of wildness, but for those who seek to protect wild land, it is important that there is an understanding of how it is defined.
Wild land is not necessarily devoid of human activity and often carries the ecological footprint of its cultural and social history. The fauna and flora in these regions is often extremely specialised, not necessarily particularly diverse, but usually extremely fragile. Not all areas of wild land could be classified as important for wildlife as some parts have been degraded by inappropriate land management, although they have the potential for recovery.

Alt Volagir South Uist

Alt Volagir Relict Native Woodland in South Uist Hills Wild Land Area

These are not empty wastelands, they are valuable both socially and economically. We can of course look at the bottom-line and calculate their monetary value and development potential in terms of tourism or natural resources. Alternatively we could take a different perspective and attach a value based on the wildness factor. This is the human response, aesthetic, spiritual and emotional, to the remoteness, isolation, space, solitude and quietness of wild land.
“an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded….but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer will seem mystical to them.” Wallace Stegner
It reminds us that we are part of the natural world and that there should be more to life that the current western zeitgeist of money, materialism and anthropocentricity. To quote Wallace Stegner again:
We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its
edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” (Wilderness Letter, 1960).
The current wild land map is not perfect, but for the first time it proposes to designate land in terms of something other than wildlife, geological, archaeological or landscape characteristics. It acknowledges that wildness is important and that before we set about destroying it we should think very profoundly about the consequences. It is not the modern equivalent of the clearances, it does not stop development, agriculture or wild sports, it is just asking land owners and local communities to take responsibility for maintaining the integrity of these wild lands. If you have enough influence, money or power it is possible to over-ride planning designations and convince government or local communities that the economic benefits of development are paramount. In fact if your arguments are very convincing they might give you a grant to help fund it.
I am not sure what it requires to “move public opinion in a more biosphere-friendly direction” (The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood) nor am I convinced that the required changes in cultural and economic values to move from land exploitation to stewardship are possible. However, it seems that those who wish to have the ability to destroy our wild lands also wish to constrain our ability to question their actions. The proposed new designation will not stop development or poor management practices, but it will clearly state that society values the concept of wildness and that there have to be very good reasons for it to be compromised.
The proposed designation should not be quashed because it is too subjective, because we can’t agree over boundaries and what is included or excluded, or because we don’t like the methodology or being told what to do by the Scottish Parliament. For once let us declare that there are somethings which are so valuable that they don’t have a price tag.
“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” Edward Abbey


Soup for Solace

spiced pumpkin soupThe season of the great darkness is upon us and the time of great hunger approaches. Whether the hunger pangs are caused by an empty vegetable garden after the December storms or the mortification of the flesh (January diet) after the seasonal indulgence, I prescribe soup. For those who have stretched the family budget or the waistline it is economical and a healthy option, if the cream and cheese are left in the fridge. After tea and toast it is the ultimate comfort food, warming the soul and soothing the stomach. There is nothing nicer than a steaming bowl of soup after a blustery walk or some winter gardening, it is also great for “man flu” nurturing both the afflicted and the suffering spouses.
Amongst my collection of witty, erudite and informative posts, strangely it is the recipe for celeriac soup which stands head and shoulders above the intellectual elite in the popularity poll. I doubt if I can produce another soup recipe which will be as popular, but the latest version pumpkin and chickpea had a good reception in the croft kitchen. There’s a pot on the hob if you’d like to give it a try.
This post was originally called “Soup for the Solstice” but it missed the deadline, and was left to languish in the drafty corner to evolve. As soup is for sharing, like all good leftovers it was resurrected and served in a new form with parable as a garnish.
The reciting of the heroic sagas, in the intervals between the feasting and general mayhem is an integral part of the winter solstice celebrations. Unfortunately bards have a bad habit of not realising that snores are not always a sound of appreciation, after all too many iambic pentameters in rhyming couplets can be soporific after a few horns of mead. So to lighten the mood, if not the moral tone, there is always time to squeeze in a wee folk tale.
There are many tales involving soup and I particularly like stone soup – a universal story involving either faerie folk, wandering soldiers or itinerant charlatans and a wealth of interpretations. However, I recently came across this Chinese parable which I like even more and is warming and comforting, just like soup:
“When a man asked God about heaven and hell, God first shows him a land where all the people have a delicious meat soup. But they have spoons longer than their arms, so they go hungry and suffer in hell.
Then God shows the man another place where everyone has the same wonderful soup and same long spoons. But here they use the spoons to feed each other. This is heaven.”

Advent Calendar – the Last Window

SnowdropsIt is Christmas Day 2013 and I have opened the last window in the Year of Natural Scotland Advent Calendar. So it is now time to wish you a joyous Christmas and Happy New Year, may you all grow and prosper. For those whose Christmas will be a difficult period my thoughts are with you.

Thank you to everyone who has visited the croft this year, you are always welcome and there is always tea and cake in the croft kitchen.

Christmas in the Croft Kitchen

Back to Basics and a MasterclassAlmond tartIt is Christmas eve, the wind is rising to storm force, the surf is pounding the beach and there are squalls of sleet hurtling past the window. Strangely the croft kitchen is quiet, the larder overflowing and even if we could squeeze in another culinary delight more baking would be a risky enterprise, as there is a high probability of yet another power cut. So far this month we have only managed two gardening days, otherwise it has been too wet and windy to venture farther than the shed to fetch logs or raid the vegetable and preserves store. Four big storms with winds gusting above 80 mph in 3 weeks is extreme even for the Outer Isles.
Filling the days is not a problem, but there are afternoons when we gaze longingly out of the window and sigh for a walk on the beach or session hard labour in the garden. As an alternative there is hard graft in the kitchen, although improving my baking skills is more of an indulgence, even if at times there are both blood and tears.
As usual the croft kitchen has been full of spicy aromas with dark undertones of dried fruit and molasses sugar and the heady fumes of Christmas spirit. There were also some demons to slay as I had vowed there would not be a repeat of last years extravaganzas. First the gingerbread men – with ruthless determination I blew the dust off the old recipe and assembled the ingredients, I was ready. In the shake of a snow globe, there were 36 perfect gingerbread biscuits. Self-esteem restored was I confident enough to try some patisserie or would hubris be humbling? Not for me the basic Bakewell, but tarte amandine aux pruneaux!
I was taught to make pastry by my mother, very basic, very simple and in times of austerity there were no fancy additions and certainly nothing as extravagant as butter and eggs. You rubbed the fat into the flour (usually a mixture of lard and margarine) to the fine breadcrumbs stage, by hand of course, added the required amount of water to make a dough, rolled it out and that was it. This method produced perfectly mediocre edible and rather grey pastry. With affluence and experience I moved onto to more complex  recipes including what my mother refers to as “the posh fancy bits” but I must confess that it is often made in a food processor and “resting” tends to be minimal. So I was probably in need of a “back to basics refresher course” with a chef pâtissier. My style of cooking tends to be more Prue Leith than Roux brothers, rustic with no frills. However, when it comes to bread and pastry techniques, it could only be Richard Bertinet who could sort out a lifetime’s bad habits. So in a clean apron, ingredients assembled and the kitchen surgically scrubbed, book in hand and a steely glint in the eye, I was ready. Two days later, I had produced 8 prune and almond tarts and not a soggy bottom amongst them. With a combination of almond paste and prunes soaked in brandy the filling had to be delicious. As for the pastry, it was crisp and buttery, but perhaps a little too sweet for me. Certainly worth the time and effort for something special, it is just a case of being sufficiently organised to allow time for the resting. There is also something very satisfying about making pastry by hand.
CouronneNow for the Kringle. I decided to rest on my laurels and let my own personal chef give me a masterclass. From panettonne to stollen, there are a number of enriched breads which are a traditional part of European Christmas cooking. So I didn’t get a kringle but a couronne, which is the French version. The magic combination of dried fruit, muscovado sugar and almonds is sublime and wrapped in a light buttery case is gourmande heaven. Not sure if I’m ready for this level of technical baking yet, so I’ll stick to perfecting the perfect pastry.
This year my sister declared that civilisation was coming to an end when I confessed I’d not made a Christmas cake, pudding or mincemeat. I have been experimenting with slightly lighter cakes and puddings, still involving the traditional mixtures of Christmas spices and fruit but more prima ballerina than sumo wrestler. Tarte amandine aux pruneaux is delicious, but it can’t really compete with an old-fashioned mince pie.

Slice apricot couronne

A slice of apricot couronne

For the love of three oranges

winter fruitOr to be more precise four oranges, a pomegranate and some cranberries.
At the beginning of December I begin to haunt the islands’ two supermarkets waiting for the arrival of pomegranates and fresh cranberries. These jewel like fruits are part of the essence of Christmas and, with spices, bring a touch of the exotic to winter food. The combination vibrant colours and tangy flavours can set a dish alight transforming the mundane into the stunning.
On winter mornings the breakfast crumble is still the favourite treat or when the days are really dreich (grey, dull and dismal) a comforting bowl of porridge or a dark warming bowl of dried fruit compote is sometimes preferred. After weeks of stormy weather it is now time for something special to lift the spirits and make the heart sing. A bowl of out-of-season imported strawberries and blueberries or a juicy mango? Definitely not, nor even firm favourites like pancakes and maple syrup, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, or even boiled eggs and soldiers. Perhaps a fruit salad – a bowl of winter sunshine, juicy, tangy, singing with vitamins and glowing with colour. It also needs warmth, so an infusion of aromatic spices and perhaps a dollop of thick creamy yoghurt to soothe. To be really special it needs a touch of indulgence, perhaps even a little naughtiness – almond cake soaked in a spicy fruit syrup. Cake for breakfast – why not? Naughty but very nice and redeemed by the vitamins!
So four oranges, a pomegranate and some cranberries were transformed with love into a winter fruit salad with spiced almond cake. You can find the recipe on the table in the croft kitchen.