A review from the anthropologist Brian Morris

 A SENSE OF PLACE IN THE CAIRNGORMS

By BRIAN MORRIS

REVIEW.

      BONNIE VANDESTEEG

LAND FOR WHAT? LAND FOR WHOM?  SENSES OF PLACE AND CONFLICT IN THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS.

LONDON: STORMY PETREL (2021)

          For many, many decades anthropology, as a humanistic science, has been providing us with insightful and absorbing accounts of people’s relationship to the natural world, in all its diversity. Such studies, based on detailed ethnographic (empirical) research have been undertaken in a wide variety of contexts, but especially among indigenous (tribal) people and peasant communities throughout the world.

          The present book, explicitly situated within an anthropological tradition that combined hermeneutics, history and sociological analysis, offers an absorbing and very readable account of the people of the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands and their relationship to the landscape. Based on detailed ethnographic research over several years, and an expansion of her Ph.D. thesis in environmental anthropology, Bonnie Vandesteeg’s book provides us with an illuminating account of the people of the Cairngorms. Long a political activist involved in issues relating to land rights, housing and local livelihood (in London), Vandesteeg is also an avid mountain walker and rock climber. Both of these activities illuminate the present text.

          Well researched, and, unlike many academic texts, well-illustrated and engagingly written, the book is essentially in two parts.

        The first part of the book is focussed on giving an insightful account of what Vandesteeg describes as the “sense of place” of the three identifiable interest groups associated with the Cairngorms. These are, respectively: those people focussed on recreational pursuits, such as hill walking, rock climbing and skiing; those whose principal concern is the conservation of the region for its biodiversity and wildlife, especially those involved in bird watching (the RSPB) and wildlife tourism; and, finally, those people and interest groups who depend on the Cairngorms for their basic livelihood, the various sporting estates involved in the commercial shooting of grouse and red deer, and the local farming communities. As a committed anthropologist Vandesteeg became deeply and intimately involved in all these three spheres of activity. Her descriptions of her own experiences and of the local people she closely engaged with enliven the text throughout the book.

          The second part of the book is focussed on the protracted disputes and conflicts between these three interest groups, each with their own sense of place. Such political disputes emerged especially around two issues: the establishment in 2003 of the Cairngorms as a National Park (it has to be recognized that almost two million people visit the Cairngorms each year), and the construction of the funicular (mountain railway) to facilitate skiing activities. This later project involved a storm of local protest. Vandesteeg discusses these conflicting attitudes to land use in the Cairngorms with insight and equanimity, and offers suggestions as to how the competing interests of recreation, conservation and development (livelihood) may to some extent become reconciled.

          Besides being an excellent ethnography and offering insightful reflections on the recent environmental history of the Cairngorms, Vandesteeg’s book constitutes an important contribution to anthropology.

For books by Brian Morris see: https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/brian-morris/ or https://www.gold.ac.uk/anthropology/staff/b-morris/

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