This Is Not a Postcard

Tales of 2 people on 3 continents

Scotland: A tale of death and life

I. Appalachia, UK

There’s nothing particularly normal about the Scottish Highlands.

The wide open landscape of rolling hills, dotted with sheep and the occasional wild goat. The heather, the grasses.

The bogginess.

The bare and craggy peaks. The ruins of old farmhouses.

As we climbed over hill and dale along the West Highland Way, I kept being struck by the feeling that something was amiss. Sad, even.

Scots might say those were the echoes of an exceedingly bloody and painful history. Probably true.

But there was something else.

Whither the trees? Wither the forest?

Whither the creatures?

Whither the… people?

Whither the life?

To me, it looks apocalyptic. Like a vision of what West Virginia will be once the coal companies really get their way.

Naked mountains. Mountains that seem to ache from the pain of prolonged exposure. Mountains that continue to suffer the daily indignity of millions of tiny herbivore-inflicted bites.

I mean, these mountains look raw.

The puny little isolated stands of planted pine only serve to punctuate the overall effect. And there’s nobody living out here. It’s just miles and miles and miles of empty until you hit a little farmhouse, or a guest cottage.

That’s about as much as James or I knew about it all the while we walked along the West Highland Way. We spent seven days covering about 95 miles on foot, camping every night except the last which we spent in a hostel.

Once we got off the trail I started investigating further. It’s weird actually how little anyone tells you about the history of the landscape here. Either through brochures, or informational signs, or tourist offices, or even in conversation. It’s all just about the aesthetic appreciation.

Ok, so here’s the deal:

The trees in Scotland were all chopped down ages ago. So long ago, in fact, that no one really knows what the forests even looked like to begin with. Paleoecologists have attempted to reconstruct past ecosystems based on fossilized remains (many of which were preserved in peat bogs) as well as written accounts, but it’s still mostly conjecture.

The earliest farmers arrived in Scotland about 4,000 years ago and began clearing the land. By the time the Romans arrived, over half of all the native forests had already been felled.

Beginning in the 18th century, the Highland forests were exploited, burned and otherwise reduced to a greater extent than ever before.

When the trees were lost, so were the animals. Lynx, wolves, giant wild cattle (known as aurochs), boars, bears, salmon, elk and beavers all thrived here once upon a time.

What we are now left with is a highly degraded ecosystem, unable to successfully regenerate even when left to its own devices. Most all of the arable soil has eroded into the sea. The only sizable patches of forest are mini-plantations of introduced species like Sitka spruce which are unceremoniously clear cut when mature.

Certain creatures, of course, have found success in this “new” Scotland: the hunted species, namely red deer and grouse, and the heathers and grasses with provide them with habitat and sustenance. The domesticated grazers –sheep and some cattle – have also fared well.

But the richness and complexity of this ecosystem (if you could even call it that anymore) has been drastically reduced.

What James and I found really interesting after some more reading was the historical relationship between land ownership patterns and land use in Scotland. An environmental scientist named Richard Hobbs wrote a particularly interesting article on this topic entitled Ecology, history, culture, economics, politics and change (ain’t that a mouthful).

Here, he discusses the changes that took place before and after the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, which ended in defeat for the Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden (note: citations have been removed).

The clan, or family, system was the main social system within which the clan owned lands and the clan chief, a hereditary position, was responsible for the welfare of clan members who farmed smallholdings and tended cattle, in return for military service when required by the chief.

After Culloden, many of clan lands fell into the hands of non-hereditary chiefs and at the same time the clan chiefs grew more attracted to more sophisticated ways of life which were expensive to maintain. The clan members who had previously been secure within the clan system now found themselves without any security of tenure. Numbers on the land were also increasing because of the advent of the potato as a reliable staple food.

The need to pay for expensive lifestyles led to an expansion of the few industries which were capable of making reasonable profits from the highland landscape. These were kelp, or seaweed, harvesting at the coast and extensive sheep grazing inland. Extensive sheep grazing increasingly replaced the more intensive cattle husbandry previously practiced and was incompatible with the continued presence of large numbers of small farm holdings. The fact that the farmers had no security of tenure allowed landowners to remove the farming communities from their lands, at first from the inland areas to the coast and then increasingly away from Scotland altogether.

A long period of systematic depopulation of the Highlands began in the 1750s and continued into the late 1800s, hurried along by other factors such as the potato famine which occurred in the mid-1800s. This process, known as the Highland Clearances, resulted in the forced eviction and emigration of thousands of people, many of whom were transported to the United States, Canada and elsewhere. The message from landowners was clear. Buchanan quotes from Lady Matheson, speaking in Lewis in 1888, well towards the end of the clearance period, to tenant farmers: “The land under sheep and deer is my property and I can do with it what I like.”

When demand for Scottish wool decreased and the land lost its commercial importance, wealthy English families from the south turned the Highlands into their high-end hunting playground. Romantic era depictions of the landscape commissioned during this period portrayed the region as a wild and empty place. This is the characterization we are most familiar with today.

On a positive note, I’ll leave you with a picture of a small community forest in the town of Tyndrum where native species are being propagated – and deer and sheep are being kept out, at least until the trees have a chance to establish themselves.

The forest is dead; long live the forest!

II. Rat-ho!

We began and ended our visit to Scotland in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. We had the great pleasure of being hosted by a Canadian couple there named Brian and Sharilyn Clowes. We met them through Couchsurfing.

Sharilyn and Brian live in a little canal town called Ratho which is located about 45 minutes by bus from downtown Edinburgh.

James took to calling the town “Rat-ho” in honor of Rathole, his sister Molly’s beloved childhood Monchichi.

There is one pub in Ratho, the Bridge Inn, which you can see in the above photo. This was the scene of one of our most memorable Scottish experiences – single malt whiskey tasting followed by an appearance by a giant (i.e. room-sized) inflatable elephant. A gag engineered by some (seriously tanked) pub regulars.

We didn’t have the good sense to take any pictures, actually. But through the magic of Facebook, a photo of the event in question appeared online the next day. What happens in Ratho does not stay in Ratho!

Sharilyn and Brian enjoy a lifestyle that seemed familiar to us. They get local produce delivered to their home once a week. They only use hot water in the shower. They have three chickens in their backyard that produce one egg a day each – when they’re not being broody. They bike and walk to work – no car.

Brian is an ironsmith, a real craftsman. He was kind enough to take us to the forge on a Sunday and teach James how to make a leaf out of a rod.

What’s interesting about this forge where Brian works is that they do really creative contemporary stuff, not just repairs of historical ironwork. Here’s a beautiful little gate that was recently completed by some of his colleagues, for example.

Sharilyn works at a world-class climbing facility that just happens to be located near the little town where they live.

The structures in the photo above are about 5 or 6 stories high. This place also functions as a sort of community center – Sharilyn is a crafts instructor at “The Honey Pot” ceramics studio.

Here are a few images of a walk we took from Ratho up the Union Canal with another one of Sharilyn and Brian’s couchsurfers, a cyclist named Ryan from upstate New York. Notice how the canal actually crosses bridges over highways and gorges. Also, May was (invasive) rhododendron season in Scotland – they were spectacular.

Sunny days are a bit of a rarity in these parts. You can tell from the way that the sheep loll around like ragdolls as soon as it hits.

One last nugget on the Scots – they are big fans of traditional dances called ceilidhs (pronounced “kay-lees”). We were lucky enough to be invited to one in Edinburgh the night after we arrived. Guess what? They are exactly like our contra dances. Exactly! Same music, same dances, same crowd. It’d nice to see that this particular tradition has been so dutifully maintained across space and time. I suppose that is another outcome of the Highland Clearances, albeit a more positive one!

Loads more fun pictures at our Flickr site of Edinburgh, Ratho, the West Highland Way, as well as Oban and the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. And don’t forget to request a postcard before you close this page!

Love, Sonia

p.s. I still like the blog format that we chose but the one thing I really don’t like about it is the fact that the photos need to be relatively small in order to fit into that first column. Do click on them as you read so that you can see them in a larger format. They’re so much more interesting that way.



  Mary Anne Flournoy wrote @

Brings back lovely memories of being in Scotland. We have a friend I met at Johns Hopkins in grad school who is a barrister in Edinburgh. Her father was the leading constitutional law historian at Oxford. Athens has been enjoying extraordinarily wonderful weather: cool, breezy and lots of rain. My flowers are gleeful in their glory. McDavis signed the Sustainabiity Plan. They are about to hire your replacement. We’re working with Rural Action on Zero Waste Project and landowner education about fracking. I love reading your posts! Mary Anne

  Steve Hutcheson wrote @

Hi James and Sonia! I never even considered that Scotland once had forests! Your entry was a sad, but informative read. I’m forwarding it on to my Dad (born and lived in Scotland until mid-20’s). Whenever I visited family over there, I always had a ‘feeling’ as if the rolling hills were missing something. Now I know.

If you ever make it to Tillicoultry (east of Stirling on the Old Dollar Rd.), pop by and say hello to my Aunt Rena and Uncle Jack at 51 Ann St. Wee Tilly is where my Dad grew up. Hope the gear has held up well for you guys!!

Happy trails,


  lahuth wrote @

Very interesting! I’m getting quite the history lesson as I read your posts. This is stuff that never appears in the history books I’ve read.
– Laurie

  kortneyj wrote @

Such a sad story! I love that you guys are doing this much research about the history of the places you’re visiting. And the stuff you come up with makes for a great read! Of course it doesn’t hurt that you’re a great writer, Sonia. =)

  Sonia Marcus wrote @

Hey, thanks for your feedback everyone. @Steve, we’re already back in Finland now, but would have been fun to check in with your fam there. Next time!

  Val wrote @

I found your discussion of Scottish forests fascinating. I’ve done the WHW and other long-distance paths in Scotland and have the same amazement you had about the forests. Also shocking to me is how deep, dark, and DEAD the planted monoculture spruce forests are. Not a bird twittering, no animal life to be seen, and no light at all reaching the forest floor. The clear-cutting of large sections of planted forest also seems horrible, yet no one who lives around there seems the least bit disturbed. “Don’t you worry about erosion when you clear-cut like that?” I asked one landowner. “No, that isn’t a problem,” she told me. It MUST be. I just finished the Rob Roy Way– sheep EVERYWHERE, on top of every hill. Come one people, this is just not a good idea. The Scots seem to have lived so long without real forests they have no concept of what they should be!

  Sonia Marcus wrote @

Val, thanks so much for your comments. Good to know there are other people out there who have had the same reaction we did. Totally agree with you on the deadness of the spruce forests, too. Strange and sad.

  Listen to the minor cords « This Is Not a Postcard wrote @

[…] Scotland was still largely covered with Scots pine, the preferred habitat for capercaillies. Then a combination of factors including massive deforestation as well as the onset of the “Little Ice Age” conspired to wipe […]

  Julie Stewart wrote @

Beautiful! My husband and I traveled all over Scotland as far north as Shetland. I had the same feeling about the highlands. A beautiful sad empty feeling. It is so bare and ominous. I adore my fathers homelands. Thank you for sharing!

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