In his address to the Spring Gathering of the Dunbar John Muir Association in April 1995, Professor Aubrey Manning highlighted the distinctive contributions to modern environmental thought made by the Scottish naturalist-activists John Muir, Patrick Geddes and Frank Fraser Darling. An article by Douglas Aberley in the Spring 1995 issue of the journal Reforesting Scotland also drew attention to the considerable influence of these three figures.
The contribution of John Muir to the conservation of wild land and our appreciation of the spiritual value of wilderness does not need to be stressed to the readers of this Journal. However, the vigorous debate which the very terms “wilderness” and “wild land” continue to provoke in a Scottish context testifies to the problematic nature of Muir’s concept of “wilderness” in a country where the human species has been an integral part of the ecosystem for around 10,000 years and all but the most inaccessible areas have been profoundly altered by human activity.
As a result, even our wild land has strong historical and contemporary associations with human communities and our responses to it inevitably reflect the considerable cultural baggage which each of us carries with us. As James Hunter points out in his seminal exploration of the relationship between people and nature in the Scottish Highlands, On the Other Side of Sorrow, the pronouncements of environmentalists on the natural heritage of the Highlands have too often shown scant appreciation of the history, culture and aspirations of the people who actually inhabit the land which they so earnestly seek to conserve.
The John Muir Trust has been a pioneer amongst environmental organisations in recognising the social and economic dimensions of conservation and committing itself to working closely with local communities to safeguard and restore wild land and develop sustainable land management practices. However, it is the environmentalism of Patrick Geddes rather than that of Muir which is likely to have most to offer when it comes to discharging that commitment.
Geddes, despite his acknowledged importance as a founding father of modern town and country planning, is a notoriously difficult personality to come to grips with. His enthusiasms were diverse and idiosyncratic. He is still variously described as a zoologist, botanist, sociologist or town planner and during the course of his career he was all of these, though never exclusively or conventionally any of them. The sheer difficulty of categorising Geddes within any of the conventional academic disciplines has discouraged examination of his ideas and this task has only recently been attempted seriously.
Geddes was seventeen years younger than John Muir, being born in 1854. Like Muir, he developed an interest in the natural world through childhood exploration of the countryside around one of Scotland’s historic burghs (in Geddes’ case it was Perth). Subsequently, he studied under the eminent English biologist, Thomas Huxley before moving on to Paris where he encountered the ideas of the French sociologist, Frédéric Le Play.
In 1880, Geddes was appointed Assistant in Practical Botany at the University of Edinburgh and took up residence in the city’s Old Town. He was appalled at the conditions he found there. Following the construction of a gracious Georgian New Town beyond the Nor Loch, Edinburgh’s middle classes had abandoned the high tenements and narrow closes of the Castle ridge, and the Old Town had rapidly degenerated into a noisome slum. Geddes responded by throwing himself into the promotion of an ambitious programme of civic and environmental renewal, involving local people in the rehabilitation of tenement property, the improvement of open spaces, and the creation of gardens where the urban population could enjoy the restorative effects of contact with nature.
Geddes was also acutely aware of the significance of the Old Town as the historic home of Scotland’s political and cultural institutions. The loss of the Scottish Parliament in the early 18th Century had left a vacuum at the centre of the city’s political and cultural life and by the late Victorian period the city had lost the intellectual pre-eminence which it had enjoyed during the golden years of the Enlightenment. Geddes drew direct inspiration from Edinburgh’s cultural and intellectual heritage and the great variety of environmental and educational projects which he promoted in the city were primarily aimed at stimulating a cultural and intellectual revival.
An appreciation of Geddes’ close engagement with the fate of Edinburgh as a national culture-capital is crucial to an understanding of the particular perspective which he brought to land use planning. His conception of the nature and purpose of planning was quite different from that of other planning propagandists. For Geddes, the central concern was not with the technical problems of urban expansion or the creation of brave new utopian settlements but with the task of inspiring communities to an active participation in their own cultural and social renewal.
From his starting point as a natural scientist, Geddes attempted to apply the principles of Darwinian evolutionary theory to the study of modern society. The objective was to gain sufficient understanding to enable the raw evolutionary forces which were shaping society to be harnessed and guided in positive directions towards the greater fulfilment of Mankind. Thus his aims were ultimately spiritual rather than material. What he sought was the restoration of a “harmony” or “balance” to human life and social relationships which he believed to have been lost during the trauma of the industrial revolution; in short, the recreation of physical and social environments in which human beings could enjoy greater personal fulfilment and creative expression.
Geddes’ distinctive contribution to the development of regional theory stressed the interaction between the environment, economic activity and community, expressed in the triad “Place/Work/Folk”. He saw the modern region as the product of continuous interaction between the human species and its environment; each of its communities adapted to its particular geographical setting and responding to changing circumstances by a process of cultural evolution. He therefore rejected standardised solutions to environmental and social problems, believing that proposals should be individually tailored to local conditions, with due regard to existing customs and systems of social organisation.
Geddes looked forward to the coming “neotechnic” age in which clean and efficient new technologies would replace the polluting industrial activities of the past. He also believed that electricity and modern communications would liberate industry from the old locational constraints, enabling its benefits to be distributed more evenly between town and country and encouraging a revival of skilled craftsmanship. In lectures delivered before the First World War, Geddes and his associates argued that the early Norwegian hydro-electric schemes offered new hope for the Highlands and suggested that the experiments in co-operative agricultural production then being pioneered in Denmark and Ireland pointed the way forward for Scottish rural communities.
While Geddes worked primarily in an urban context, his son-in-law, Frank Mears, applied the same approach to cultural and environmental renewal in his pioneering planning work in rural Scotland. In the early ‘fifties, Mears addressed the problem of rural depopulation in its most acute form in a strategy for the revitalisation of the County of Sutherland. Against the prevailing wisdom of the time, he rejected the notion that the problem of rural decline could be solved “by a simple process of decanting a given proportion of large-scale industries into partially depopulated areas”. Instead, in a plan strongly influenced by Fraser Darling’s Preliminary Report on the West Highland Survey, he advocated a strategy based on the regeneration of the crofting economy through measures such as land rehabilitation, tenure reform, investment in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and the encouragement of small rural industries based on indigenous resources.
John Muir is rightly acknowledged internationally as one of the founding fathers of the modern conservation movement. However, the contemporary land debate would benefit from a wider appreciation of the contributions of figures such as Geddes, Fraser Darling and Mears to the development of a distinctively Scottish environmental perspective which accords human communities a central role in conservation and land renewal. More particularly, Geddes’ commitment to community empowerment and the active involvement of local people in the restoration and improvement of their own physical and cultural environments can provide valuable inspiration to the Trust in its work with rural communities.
This article was first published in the John Muir Trust Journal & News No. 22 in January 1997. I think it remains relevant to contemporary debates about environmentalism, environmental management, rural development and wild land.