Wester Ross in the northwest Scottish Highlands is renowned for its remoteness. Being one of Europe’s most sparsely populated regions at 1.6 people per km2, its vast landscape appears untouched, attracting those hungry for wilderness in campervans, bicycles and tents that seasonally line its ridges.
The past two years, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic limiting travel abroad post-lockdown, Wester Ross has seen a large influx of staycation tourists, the consequence being a boosted economy alongside increased littering and strain on local infrastructure. It’s a familiar story of irresponsibility and carelessness that transfigures value in a landscape, often at the expense of those who have lived and worked the land there for centuries.
However, Wester Ross is unique as one of 727 UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserves. Though relatively obscure as a definition, it is hugely promising: as ‘learning places for sustainable development’, they are community-managed and differ from more well-known World Heritage Site or AONB classifications in the way that the conservation of nature is made equivalent to the conservation of cultural heritage. In this way, human activity is held in even standing with the landscape that stages and enables it. Each Biosphere Reserve regardless of its global location is organized into a tripartite zoning system, with cooperation across industries and disciplines emphasized to enable change in the landscape for ecological and social advantage. It is a highly structured framework that guides change, the manifestation of which is not so subtle as one travels through Wester Ross, that is if you look away from its signposted viewpoints.
Today, Wester Ross is home to over 8,000 people, who represent a legacy of living with the land well beyond the region’s Biosphere designation in 1976. In fact, the designation recognizes that this is a landscape likely inhabited since the Paleolithic ages, with archaeological findings evidencing the communal working of a land that has never been totally wild. A shift towards crofting following the Highland Clearances is one of the most presently visible social systems specific to this landscape - today, we find settlements still structured along the same dry-stone walls that partitioned parcels of flat fields into securely tenured land. With a social history closely intertwined with the landscape, some residents are now drawn to the scientific potential of its conserved seaweed-rich lochs, whilst other communities find internet shopping has brought advantages that allow them to embrace otherwise off-grid living, rejecting roads, washing textiles in burns, and drawing energy directly from the sea’s gusts.
These photographs question a people-less notion of wilderness, and instead observes how patterns of engagement with landscape have developed in tandem with new forms of land management such as that presented with the framework of the Biosphere Reserve. Wester Ross is doubtlessly beautiful and a breathtaking place worthy of all our bucket lists, but we must not cast our gaze away from that which also comprises its functioning as a working, social landscape. Turbines, water tanks, jetties, dams and diggers all comprise the tools which enable the rewilding, harvesting, and accessibility of the land. If the Biosphere Reserve is to live up to its ambition as an ongoing harmony between people and nature, we must acknowledge the part people play in the making of landscape - even as visitors - and expand the value of wilderness beyond the pristine and untouched. Rather, Wester Ross is undergoing dynamic processes of change that require human ingenuity, time, care and love, which we can all support through mitigating the impact of our thoroughfare and embracing all the constituent parts of this unique landscape.