Here at the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds, our eighteenth-century reading group has spent the last few weeks looking at Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment figures looked to the Scottish Highlands as an untapped source of natural wealth. Agriculture, mines, fisheries and townships emerged from the imaginations of natural historians, surveyors and agricultural improvers. Colonisation and prospecting in the Highlands occurred in conjunction with a flurry of Enlightenment ideas and values. Belief in a divinely-ordered nature led Scottish naturalist John Walker to survey the wilderness for minerals, while agricultural improver John Sinclair mapped acres of untamed land for future cultivation.
Herman Moll, “The north part of Great Britain called Scotland,” 1732. The National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/view/74417584
By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment drive for Highland prosperity narrated by Jonsson had come to a close. Hopes of unlimited growth and prosperity had run into real-world obstacles. It had been thought that agriculture and land management would alter the harsh climate of the Highlands and that fixed townships would be established. In reality, the end of the Napoleonic Wars proved the bane of many Enlightenment schemes. The market for Scottish kelp and wood collapsed alongside the profitability of projects such as the Caledonian Canal. As failure followed failure, pessimism crept into natural history circles. Surveyor John Williams warned of limits to the Scottish coal supply, while Malthus’s essay on population, which cited disease, war and famine as natural checks on population circulated.
Sir Frank Fraser Darling (right), at the BBC Reith Lecture, 1969: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13647943
Enlightenment’s Frontier closes with musing on modern population and environmental fears, from the Club of Rome’s 1972 The Limits to Growth to anthropogenic climate change. Yet an alternative vision of the Highlands was established some years before by ecologist Frank Fraser Darling in his West Highland Survey (1955). Darling claimed that excessive exploitation of the Highlands had inflicted severe ecological damage. Eighteenth-century iron smelters and nineteenth-century sheep pastures had caused unprecedented forest loss in the region. The loss of the traditional clan system and annexation of the Highlands in 1745 had, Darling suggested, upset an environmental equilibrium that Gaelic culture had achieved over centuries. His solution to the Highland “problem” of poverty and depopulation was conservation and ecological study, based upon Gaelic society and culture.
In many ways, Darling’s vision was as flawed as that of Jonsson’s actors. On the island of Tanera Mòr, where Darling was based during the 1940s, he had correlated the ecological value of woodland with long-term economic success, without actually working out the finances involved. For eighteenth-century improvers, the harsh and unyielding conditions of the Highlands doomed many of their Enlightenment-themed projects. For Darling, it was these very attempts at “improvement” which had devastated the Highlands.