Do you think you know Scotland? Anyone who travels at all widely across the Highlands and Islands will have developed a feel for the range of landscapes on offer. And it's fairly widely recognised that areas that at first sight can appear to be wild and untouched by the hand of man are in truth neither of those things. Many enlightened visitors will be able to tell you that land use across large parts of Scotland has changed significantly in recent centuries, and just about everyone will have heard of the Highland Clearances, the most controversial and evocative example of the changes that have taken place.
But if you really want to understand what has happened to significant parts of a country that is loved by so many residents and visitors alike, then "Castles in the Mist" by Robin Noble is essential reading. The author has lived in various parts of the Highlands and Islands since the 1970s and his book is a fascinating distillation of decades of living in, and learning and teaching about, the natural and not-so-natural history of the northern and western parts of Scotland.
The structure of the book interleaves essays on a wide range of relevant topics with accounts of the author's travels in the area. "Before the Victorians" is followed by "A Walk in Glenleraig"; while "A Walk in Coigach" is followed by a chapter on "Gamekeeping and Other Impacts". In the latter parts of the book the walks that previously occupied alternate chapters are replaced by drives, for example "...up the Strath of Kildonan" and "...Around Rousay". The effect is to give the reader two very different books in one. On the one hand there is a compelling historical analysis of the factors leading to changes in recent centuries, and of the extent and impact of those changes. On the other hand there are a series of beautifully written and inspirational journeys, on foot or by car, that could be followed by the reader and which illustrate many of the causes and effects being highlighted elsewhere in the book. Among the significant issues discussed are the impacts of deer population, of forestry, of sheep, of moor burning, of track building, of the efforts to protect game from predators, and more.
If you do think you know Scotland, then this book will probably make you think again, for there is much here that is thought-provoking and more than a little that is surprising. Tucked away right at the back, for example, is an appendix entitled "The Reality of Highland Population Figures". This reveals that the most significant period of depopulation of the Highlands and Islands was not, as most readers might expect, during the clearances, but between 1911 and 1951. More shocking than surprising are the accounts, from estate's own game books, of the extent of the killing of "vermin". In the last three years of the 1830s, the Glengarry estate killed over 4,000 "head of vermin", including 108 wildcats, 48 otters, 27 white-tailed sea eagles, 15 golden eagles, 18 ospreys, 462 kestrels and much, much more. Meanwhile, in 1868 the Inverewe estate in Wester Ross killed - in one year, remember - 1,314 grouse. Little wonder that the Highlands and Islands have changed far more profoundly than most of us realise. Which more than anything else is what makes this such an important book.