What do you see when you look at this image? Perhaps you see one of the classic views of the Scottish Highlands. The Scots Pines, the loch, the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The romantic view of a Highland Dawn. You could almost say it’s the quintessential Highland scene, all it needs is a stag drinking from the loch.
It’s a place I’ve visited often, however recently I’ve begun to question this landscape. Take the melancholy stunted Scots Pine tree in the foreground, it’s gnarled form twisting like an old man’s back beneath a heavy load. Or cast your eye up to the bare hills rising above the loch, stripped of all vegetation, bar the hardiest of grasses. Or the dark ranks of commercial forestry that cloak the far hillsides.
This landscape isn't natural. It’s as shaped by man as the cities are.
This immediate area is a tree zoo. A protected area of a once common, but now endangered landscape typology. It is one of the last remnants of the great Caledonian Pine forest which once covered most of Scotland, a temperate rainforest in which wolves, boar and bears roamed. Much of the forests were cut down to provide grazing land, to provide timber for shipbuilding or used as fuel for industries. The increase in deer numbers, whose population has exploded since the removal of apex predators such as wolves have ensured that natural regeneration of these woods cannot occur. This area at Loch Tulla is now fenced off and should hopefully regenerate but it needs careful management, and crucially time.
Perhaps everyone knows this. Or perhaps people don't want to know. Maybe in a time of fake news, terrorism and stress we subconsciously crave a natural landscape, wildness, or a return to a simpler time, even if it is an idealised notion of what constitutes a natural landscape. We want to believe that wild land, unsullied by man is still out there and is easy to reach after a hard week at work.
So what does this mean for the photographer? Well, maybe not a lot. Does it even matter that this isn't a ‘natural landscape’? I’m sure many will be happy to ‘bag’ this image and move on to the next ‘location’ without reflecting on what they are actually shooting. However, I feel that by gaining an understanding of the processes, both human and natural, which shape the landscape it enriches our experience, deepens our connection and ultimately leads to a greater appreciation of the special places we love.
This article originally appeared in Outdoor Photography April 2017