What’s wrong with the SNH map of ‘core wild land’

Following my Against Scottish Wildness essay, I’ve been interested to see the discussion both at Bella Caledonia and on twitter, including a lively and well-mannered exchange between myself and the John Muir Trust.

I have now had a chance to address the ostensible object of this debate, namely the consultation over the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework 3, Main Issues Report.

Riveting. I know.

But it is important. If the SNH designation of ‘core wild land’ is formally used to inform planning consent that could have significant repercussions for the ability of local people to use the natural resources at their disposal. It is a very imprecise tool to prevent the ‘wind-cities’ that so alarm the John Muir Trust. If you want to respond to this consultation you have to do so by Tuesday 23rd July.

Here is the SNH map and, further below, part of my formal response.

Scottish Planning Policy already safeguards areas of wild land character. Do you agree with the Scottish Government’s proposal that we use the SNH mapping work to identify more clearly those areas which need to be protected?



Specifically, I want to take issue with sections 2.20 and 2.21: 

2.20 SNH has been updating its wild land mapping using modern GIS tools to provide a more objective approach to understanding wild land. Based on a number of attributes like naturalness of the land cover, ruggedness, remoteness from roads and the visible lack of modern man-made structures, SNH has published an updated map showing the ‘core’ areas of wild land in Scotland.


Most of what I want to say can be summed up thus: wildness is a human attribute that we ascribe to the landscape, not a quality that adheres in the landscape.

You cannot meaningfully objectify an element of human experience though SNH’s map seems to be the product of this misconception. All of this would be an arcane academic dispute were it not that such a map has the potential to limit the ways in which local people can use their own resources.

GIS is useful for many things but it would be an elementary error to say that because something is the outcome of GIS-based analysis it is then ‘objective’. My problem here is that claims to objectivity in this context are apt to conceal what is inevitably a political exercise. To designate land as ‘wild’, as this SNH mapping exercise does, is to privilege some attributes (ruggedness, remoteness etc) over others. In this way, the designation ‘wild’ brings into focus some elements of the landscape (for example scenery that conforms to a sublime aesthetic) at the expense of others (its toponymy or storyable properties; its productive potential). Unavoidably, this is a judgment about what we value and what we like; it couldn’t be otherwise. My concern is less that such judgments are made than that they are being concealed behind a veil of apparent objectivity. Any claim to objectivity in this regard is simply unfounded.

To comment on the methodology (pdf here) risks obscuring my more fundamental critique of the research design and framing. But let me draw attention to some other difficulties.

    1. For such a politically sensitive task – categorising which land can have development and which not – it is surprising that the methodology does not appear to have been subject to peer review. Claims to rigour would be more credible if it had been scrutinised by academic referees for a journal like Landscape Research or Scottish Geographical Journal.
    2. I can find no explanation or justification as to why these four attributes (perceived naturalness; ruggedness; remoteness; lack of visible development), and not others, were selected. What counts as ‘wild’ – and thus what can be used a proxy indicator of ‘wildness’ – is inherently subjective, though this sort nuance is lost amid much bluster about the ‘robust approach’. Imagine if SNH had used evidence of placenames from the six-inch Ordnance Survey maps from the 19th century, newly digitized by the National Library of Scotland. A very different picture of Scotland would emerge of an intimately known, named and storied landscape that runs quite against the grain of its apparent ‘wildness’.
    3. Plainly any model or analysis is only as good as the judgements that go into it. GIS itself confers no rigour or authority; it simply calculates whatever variables are set. Much of the important evidence for human-environment relations – the oral tradition, for example – does not come in any form that is commensurate with GIS analysis. If you exclude many traces of human engagement from the outset, as is mostly the case here, then, yes, you will find the ‘wildness’ you seek. The problem then however is that wildness then becomes a product of SNH’s own epistemology.
    4. The use by SNH of the ‘perceived naturalness’ of land made me wonder ‘perceived by whom’? The answer of course is by an ecologist via satellite-derived LCM2000 data. It would be hard to find a more apt metaphor for this attempt to define wild land than the claim that from Lower Earth Orbit it looks pretty natural. None of the many stakeholders here are in genuine doubt about the extent of human intervention in our uplands, or that much of this land, even that classified 5, is overgrazed.
    5. I have a particular concern about the criteria ‘Lack of Built Human Artefacts’. I need not dwell on the inevitable anomalies of categorization in this quantitative approach (like the fact that forestry plantations don’t count as a human artefact). But the idea of privileging the visible in the search for the wild is itself part of the long history of Romantic conceptions of wilderness. Indeed, this is the crux of the problem: the evaluation of landscape based strictly on a narrow set of aesethetic criteria will always obscure the many ways in which people have inhabited and shaped these landscapes.


In the end, all these methodological criticisms are rather beside the point. It is not that I think that SNH could just refine this methodology and produce a better map of ‘core wild land’. The undertaking is itself flawed.

The map of ‘core wild land’ assumed from the outset an a priori ‘wildness’ that is separate from the social world. In so doing, it shoulders a great deal of cultural and philosophical baggage that might still have currency in John Muir’s America, but is no longer helpful in thinking about the future of a Scottish landscape that is, and always will be, resolutely cultural.

In writing this, I should point out that I am not some libertarian advocate of development; I am also broadly supportive of a national planning strategy.

But the Scottish Government should be aware that for many communities as well as those in environmental activism and academia, the term ‘wild’ is no longer sufficient. This is not just about how we manage the landscape. It is about how we conceive of the landscape. Our conservation charities and NGOs, hunkered down in their traditional defence of an apparently ‘wild’ Scotland, have missed an opportunity to re-think what the Scottish landscape could yet become.

The Cartesian provenance of ‘wild’ will always pit people against the environment. Our planning needs a new vocabulary that is not ashamed that our nature and our culture are, and always have been, so thoroughly intertwined.