Some books are simply enjoyable. Others are a joy. "A History of Scotland's Landscapes" by Fiona Watson with Piers Dixon is both. There's something about a large, beautifully-produced and magnificently-illustrated book that brings out the inner five-year-old in all of us: the sense of "wow" as you first open the book and leaf through, simply soaking in the pictures and the scale of the authors' achievement.
You get an excellent sense of what the book is about from the front flap of the dust jacket. "It is easy to overlook how much of our history is preserved all around us - the way the narrative of bygone days has been inscribed in fields, forests, hills and mountains, roads, railways, canals, lochs, buildings and settlements. Indeed, footprints of the past are to be found almost everywhere... 'A History of Scotland's Landscapes' explores the many ways that we have used, adapted and altered our environment over thousands of years. Full of maps, photographs and drawings, it offers a remarkable new perspective on Scotland - a unique guide to tracing memories, events and meanings in the forms and patterns of our surroundings."
The book begins with a thought-provoking preface, an account of what can be seen and learned during the course of a single twenty-minute drive through Perthshire, and also has an introduction, a conclusion, and some fascinating land-use maps. These apart, the book is divided into four long chapters, looking at settlement, farming, industry and infrastructure, and leisure. Though the illustrations are plentiful and superb (and often very large), this is by no means just a picture book. The chapter on settlement begins with prehistoric dwellings and monuments before moving on through castles to towns and villages. A two-page aerial colour photograph that shows the remains of a crofting township on the Island of Scarp, off Harris in the Western Isles, makes a superbly eloquent point about the scale of depopulation in the last two centuries. Conversely, an equally-impressive and equally-large aerial photograph of Dundee taken in 1988 shows the scale of expansion and development over the ages.
The chapter on industry and infrastructure begins with Roman forts and roads, and progresses via shale oil and lead mining to an industrialised and then almost post-industrial nation; while we see coal and nuclear power being largely replaced by power generation through more renewable means. We spent ages trying to fit an aerial photograph taken in 1927 of the huge oil shale works at Broxburn in West Lothian into a map of the modern landscape of the area, without complete success: but that's half the fun of old photographs. The chapter on leisure ranges from royal hunting forests through landed hunting estates to gardens and golf, again with an emphasis on what you can still see on the ground.
An outstanding book likely to be of immense value to anyone who takes an interest in the landscapes we see around us in Scotland.