There are the Highlands of the imagination, a landscape wild, unsullied: the bedrock of the tourist industry. A land of hills and glens, of burns and lochs, of deer and eagles, of the but and ben, the backdrop to centuries of culture and history. The Highlands of the politicians and, indeed, of the public at large, there for all time, immutable, a symbol of Scotland. A landscape which distinguishes Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, indeed, making it special on the world stage.

And then there are the Highlands of reality, where the "wild and unsullied" is retreating into ever-smaller enclaves. Where, every day, new development is eating into the heartland, whether phone masts or pylons, dams or wind turbines, fences or tracks, ploughing or forestry.

Although politicians are always referring to "Scotland’s fantastic landscapes", they make no effort to look after them. Instead, they give in to every developer and landowner who wishes to maximise their income from the land. The effect on the aesthetics or visual appearance rarely gets a look-in and, even if a community objects on the grounds of landscape impact, this is often overridden by a government-appointed reporter on the grounds of "overwhelming national interest".

The appearance of the landscape itself apparently is of no national interest, in spite of the importance given to it in the words (but not the actions) of politicians. This is why the Highland landscape continues to erode into a global normality of "development everywhere".

But do we, and more importantly our children and grandchildren, really want to live in a world where there is no space for the wild and unsullied? Where you can walk for a day, or perhaps nowadays less than half a day, without encountering planted trees, concrete dams, bulldozed roads, wire fencing, metal masts and mega turbines. Where the sound is not of traffic or the roar of wind through windfarm blades, but of the October roar of the stag, of a river or burn free to find its own way to the sea, of the wind over the crags.

Maybe the problem is that our politicians and political institutions are largely based in the Central Belt, and have no real understanding of rural issues? Politicians may occasionally sully forth to the north and west but the hills they pass through will appear wild compared to the urban centres where they were brought up - which is certainly true. But their eyes are not open to the reality, focused entirely on the cause of keeping the money coming in to the benefit Scotland and its people. Worthy certainly, but surely there is more to life than economics? When are the people of Scotland going to wake up to what is happening to their land? Most likely when it is already too late, when we have lost the very features which make the Highlands unique.

James Fenton’s book Landscape Change in the Scottish Highlands: Imagination and Reality is due out in December, published by Whittles.