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INSIDE TRACK: Written word puts trust in Highland and Islands heritage

One does not immediately ­associate the Highland Games circuit with the ­literati.

But a few days ago an important book was launched at the Durness Highland Gathering.

The book concerns the county of the venue: Two Hundred Years of Farming in Sutherland: The Story of my Family, by Reay D G Clarke, price £9.99

It is remarkable tale of one family's relationship with the land at Eriboll to the east along the north coast from Durness. Although in Sutherland before the Clearances, the family became sheep-farming tenants or flockmasters for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Others came from the south as the indigenous people were largely made to leave.

The book's introduction is by two historians: Professor Jim Hunter, formerly of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Dr Annie Tindley of Dundee University.

Her book, The Sutherland Estate, 1850-1920: Aristocratic Decline, Estate Management and Land Reform, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2010.

They write that, while Reay Clarke is rightly proud of the many achievements of his flockmaster forebears, he is also painfully aware of " the enduringly negative results of the land-use revolution" which his family helped bring about, and not just the Highland Clearances.

Equally significant was the "wholly adverse " impact of sheep farming on the land itself

They continue: "Much of the Highlands and Islands is nowadays said to consist of what is called 'wild land' - land that is sometimes considered to be in some sense 'natural' or 'unspoiled'. That is not how Reay Clarke views Highlands and Islands landscapes. To him - and in this he is in agreement with the pioneering ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling, whom Reay knew well - large-scale sheep farming of the type that became the dominant land use in the Highlands and Islands in the early nineteenth century has done immense damage to land that was once, or so Reay Clarke argues, far more productive agriculturally, and far more diverse ecologically, than it is today.

"From that perspective, the Highlands and Islands are neither natural nor unspoiled. Instead the area is, as Fraser Darling put it, 'a devastated countryside'."

It is a useful reminder to those involved in the debate that continues to rage about wild land today.

But the book also serves to highlight the largely unsung contribution to Scottish intellectual life made by its publishers, the Islands Book Trust.

The trust was set up by islanders in Lewis 12 years ago, among them teachers, crofters and a retired Registrar General for Scotland.

It publishes books about islands, and sometimes the Highlands. But there are conferences and lectures. It keeps an archive and casts off on boat trips to islands. Often it is to those now depopulated, such as the one 10 days ago to Ensay in the Sound of Harris. But next week it's Canna for the Feis.

The trust is an authentic focus for those who want to better understand Scotland's islands, and a lot more besides.

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