A History Of Scotland's Landscapes

By Fiona Watson and Piers Dixon

Historic Environment Scotland, £30

Review by Susan Flockhart

SOMETIMES, in the middle of an apparent wilderness, you realise you are wandering in the footsteps of people who walked there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. The track you are following could simply be a deer trail, of course, but something about the ground beneath your feet suggests this was once a footpath or cart track. Carry on walking and it may lead you up a steep slope to a scattering of stones that might once have been a village. And there, among those crumbled walls, you can think about the lives lived on this remote place, where even cooking the dinner must have involved hauling back-breaking loads of peat up that hill.

Discovering the traces left by former generations is one of the pleasures of exploring our countryside and A History Of Scotland's Landscapes is designed to help readers do just that. “This book's main purpose,” says the preface, “is to explore how to 'read' a landscape, how to notice ... the depths of the past all around us and to understand how and why our predecessors did what they did in the places where they lived and worked.”

What looks like a dried-up riverbed, for example, might actually be a path worn by centuries of human feet – and even now, boot-clad mountaineers are carving out tracks that will remain visible long after Munro-bagging has gone out of fashion.

Written by medieval historian Fiona Watson and archaeologist Piers Dixon, the book covers town as well as rural landscapes but as the authors point out, many early urban settlements have been repeatedly built over, making their origins hard to detect ¬ except occasionally through street patterns. “You're likely to have found a medieval village or the original core of a town,” we are told, “if you spot a collection of stone houses sitting somewhat randomly along the sides of roads, curving or straight, radiating from a central point, be it a church, main street or market square.” An aerial photograph of Kilconquhar village in Fife illustrates the point.

The countryside offers richer pickings for antiquity-spotters and while the book touches briefly on the geological and climatic factors that shaped our landscapes, the real focus is on the way humans have responded to those environmental challenges by adapting the world around them to suit their needs and wants.

Settlement, farming, industry and leisure are dealt with in four separate sections, the first of which covers ancient structures such as burial cairns, forts and brochs as well as domestic dwellings. In the Highlands, cairns and standing stones were long thought to have been monuments to soldiers killed in nearby battles, though we are warned that oral accounts handed down through many centuries can be as unreliable as those of early travel writers such as Dorothy Wordsworth, who in 1803 described Inverary new town as “a doleful example of Scotch filth”. “The essence of the problem,"--- write Watson and Dixon, “lies in the fact we so rarely hear directly from those who actually occupied [these settlements] and must pick our way through the words of those who were either outsiders” or, like the ministers who wrote the old Statistical Accounts, “came from a very different social class from their neighbours”. As the book points out, Inverary's residents - evicted from their previous homes by the Duke of Argyll – were probably too busy with the labour-intensive business of gathering peat to be polishing their windows and doorsteps.

Rectangular “haggs” or scars created by peat harvesting remain clearly visible from the air, as do the reverse-S shaped patterns cut by ploughs under the old runrig system of farming. Fossilised traces of those rigs can be seen in the field patterns of Galloway and north-east Scotland, we are told, and those reverse-S shapes remain detectable in the street and field patterns of West Cornton Vale between Stirling and Bridge of Allan.

As is widely known, the runrig system itself fell victim to the “improving” zeal of landowners keen to amalgamate small, tenanted plots into larger more profitable units, or to turn the land over to sheep or deer. And while many of the stone cottages and large farmsteads that replaced the cleared tenants' homes remain, the original houses - often built of clay – have largely vanished from the landscape. The people themselves did not all go quietly, however, and Watson and Dixon recount a spirited tale of the evicted Alness cattle farmers who decided to “raise the war-cry against sheep” by rounding up thousands of the creatures and marching them towards the Border, only to be apprehended by the Black Watch.

Many of the changes wrought on the Scottish landscape bear witness to human ingenuity and ambition, even if some environmentalists today may consider them to have been symptoms of human arrogance. The draining of more than 10,000 acres of loch and bog at the Carse, Stirling, for farmland in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a case in point – as is the bridging of huge waterways such as the Firth of Forth and even the sea to Skye.

Road-building, quarrying, coal mining: our industrial history has left a deep imprint on the fabric of our nation, but so too have leisure activities – particularly those of the landed gentry. Scenes carved on Pictish stones suggest stag-hunting has ancient roots and over the centuries, the pursuit of wild animals for sport has left its mark, “from the grouse moors with their intermittent drystone shooting butts and burnt patches, to wooded plantations providing cover for pheasants, to the many and varied lodge houses scattered throughout the Highlands”, in the words of Watson and Dixon. Golf courses, too, have been highly formative.

A History Of Scotland's Landscapes is a beautiful book, copiously illustrated with lovely old maps as well as paintings and photographs, not only of the various topographical features studied but also depicting early life and labour in Scotland. There are wonderful images of Highland living conditions in the late 19th and early 20th century, and of hunting parties – including an otter-hunting party – from the same period.

There are some illustrative gaps, however. I searched in vain for an image showing the aforementioned West Cornton Vale street patterns and I'd love to have known what “the very charming Rhynie Man” mentioned in the section about the Aberdeenshire Pictish site, looked like, without resorting to Google. I found the book's structure a little unwieldy and was at times confused by the tendency to dot backwards and forwards over vast time periods, and by the frequent use of quotes whose sources are only revealed in the end notes. Also, given the stated mission of helping us “read” landscapes, I'd have liked more emphasis on the various historical clues we might encounter on the ground, and how to interpret them.

Undoubtedly, however, this interesting and informative history will be treasured as an invaluable reference book, particularly as it's well indexed and supplemented by land-use maps as well as a helpful glossary of technical terms such as crop marks - visible archaeological outlines detectable in arable fields during dry weather, in case you're wondering. I look forward to approaching future walks with a renewed understanding of the forces that shaped our towns and countryside, and the people who lived and worked here before us.

Fiona Watson and Piers Dixon will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 27 August