National Geographic : 2017 May
whose moors are they? 111 stags may be found, which client is to be ad- dressed as “Dave,” who is to be called “Sir,” and when a client misses a shot, will console with exquisite tact: “Difficult bird, Sir.” Step into the manor library. Note the leather- bound volume with “Alvie Game Book” stamped in gold. Leaf through a diary of life and death in the tally of stag, snipe, and grouse eulogized in ink. “August 22, 1908—107 grouse shot by guns JB Barrington and JFM Lawrence...fine weather.” The assumption of plenty was misguided, today’s owners admit. In 2015 Williamson can- celed grouse shooting. Wet and cold weather in late spring killed insect and plant life; fledglings starved; bird numbers plummeted. The estate lost £50,000. But grouse shooting represents only 4 per- cent of estate revenues these days. “The toffs still come,” he says, but “we farm tourists now.” The big money—more than £500,000 ($632,000) a year—comes from renting holiday cabins and camping sites with Internet and TV hookups. Forestry, a zip line, a granite quarry, and a fish hatchery provide additional revenue. “Being a laird doesn’t make me a villain,” Williamson said. “The criticism of being one of the too few with too much is a distortion.” For Allan Macpherson-Fletcher, the former Laird of Balavil, all is moot. With the estate sold, there are no more awkward meetings with the bank manager. “In a good year the estate would break even; in a bad, we would lose money, so we had to borrow.” These days the crest on the Macpherson family silver would read: “It is not my problem.” “As I left Balavil,” Macpherson-Fletcher told me, “I took a final look round, expecting a tear in my eye. And no, there was nothing, because it was just a tired old empty house. All the atmo- sphere and history had gone with us. What was left was just bricks and mortar.” on the sUBJect oF ownership, the ancients leaned in on responsibility. Aristotle proposed that how one used one’s property was an indi- cator of virtue. “ We get greedy,” said Alison Hester, a professor and biodiversity scientist at the James Hutton Institute, a research group based in Scotland focused on sustainable use of land and natu- ral resources. The year had turned toward fall. Shadows had lengthened. Soon the soft hills would turn russet; the horizon would be smoke- smudged as gamekeepers on the great estates burned old heather to encourage new growth for grouse to eat. As part of her dissertation, Hester studied and surveyed heather. She counted the number of shoots in an acre, then the number of flowers per shoot, then the number of seeds—each the size of a pencil dot—per flower. “Heather is abso- lutely beautiful,” she mused. “It hums with bees. It’s rich with the smell of fresh air and wind that blows your troubles away. As a child, we would go to the moors, fill our mouths with blueberries and listen to the curlews.” That’s different from woodland, she con- tinued. “In woodland you have the sheltering sensation of trees and the sweet honey smell of birch in spring.” The debate over which is better, she suggested, is an impossible one. “I think it important to acknowledge up front that one reason for the love of moorland is be- cause it’s a cultural landscape, and not to dress it up as something else. We protect other things for their cultural importance, so we shouldn’t belit- tle that aspect of it. Perhaps we need to step back and think about the bigger picture.” Maybe instead of maximizing the population of grouse, you sacrifice some moorland to wild- land, she offered. “What do we really want to pre- serve? Whatever the decision, something is won and something is lost.” In the service of civilization, meadow yields to olive grove, prairie land becomes wheat field, moor replaces forest. How land is used depends on need, economics, and ownership. But also pol- itics, power—and, Aristotle might say, virtue. j Former Editor-at-Large Cathy Newman has written more than 40 stories for the magazine. Photographer Jim Richardson, a no less prolific contributor who was once named Kansan of the Year, continues his photo- graphic exploration of his beloved Scotland.