Land of Ghosts

John D. Burns is an award-winning writer who has spent over forty years exploring Britain’s mountains. A past member of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, he has walked and climbed in the American and Canadian Rockies, Kenya, the Alps and the Pyrenees. He has taken one-man plays to the Edinburgh Fringe and toured widely. His first two books, The Last Hillwalker and Bothy Tales, were both shortlisted for TGO Magazine’s Outdoor Book of the Year. His first novel – Sky Dance – was published last month; here he explains why he wrote it.

What do you see when you look at our hills? Do you see a rolling, natural landscape that fills you full of joy? Do you see beauty, do you see tranquillity, a place far from the cares of our world? A place that inspires you, uplifts you and makes you dream of lonely summits and endless vistas. That is what I once saw when I looked at our hills, it was those sights that drew me to our hills and filled my imagination with awe and a longing to witness them again.

John Burns

Now I see something very different, now I see a landscape of ghosts from a time forgotten. I see our hills stripped bare of the forests that once thrived upon them, their wildlife desecrated and reduced to living in the margins of the land where they can seek shelter from the hand of man. This is dystopian landscape, as if destroyed by aliens, its inhabitants eking out their existence as refugees from a holocaust. I have begun to realise that, for the wildlife of our hills, we are the aliens and it is our holocaust.

For most of my climbing and walking career, some forty years, I gave little thought to what was happening to land beneath my feet. For me it was just there, it was how it had always had been. I accepted the over-grazed hills of the Lake District as natural and the grouse moors I crossed on my walk up the Pennine Way as simply part of the landscape. My way of life was walking and climbing and I gave little thought to anything else as I ran down an icy Ben Nevis from the top of another climb or rambled amongst the hills of Kintail in the summer heat.

One day, on the snowy approach to another ice climb, it happened: I fell out of love with the hills and simply walked away. I put away my ice axes, hung up my crampons, and closed that chapter of my life. I had done with the hills and convinced myself I would never return. Yet I found I couldn’t quite close that door, I felt the need to say goodbye, so I wrote The Last Hillwalker, a memoir of my time in the hills.

I thought I might sell a few copies and move on but, to my amazement, it became a bestseller. But something else had changed. In writing the book I had relived my time in the mountains and that stirred something inside me. I started doing short, lowland walks. Something I had never done before. One snowy day up on Dava moor, on the fringes of the Cairngorms, a stoat hopped onto the snow in front of me unaware, in the cold silence, that I was there. I watched fascinated, as this ermine clad creature scented the air and danced nimbly amongst the crystals. Then, in a comedy double take, he realised I was standing a few feet away and vanished into the undergrowth.

I couldn’t get that creature out of my head, something about it touched a part of me. I began to realise that the pull of wild places and the hills was too strong for me to resist. More importantly I realised, that what had drawn me into the mountains all these years was not the adrenaline fix of climbing or the conquest of endless hills, but contact with the natural world. It was a need to be in wild places that had seeped into my bones and would not be denied. Since that cold day and my encounter with the stoat, I have spent more time in the hills than ever before. My relationship with the mountains has grown deeper. I understand now what our hills could look like, how they could be reforested and once more be home to creatures like lynx and even wolves. Over grazing from sheep and deer prevent our hills returning to the way they should be. Our hills are exploited by wealthy men who own vast tracts of land, especially in Scotland where I have made my home. Here driven grouse shooting damages our environment and destroys our wild life and the huge numbers of deer, artificially managed by shooting estates prevents the forest from returning.

I believe land is not something that can be parcelled away and placed in the pockets of wealthy men. The land literally is our nation, it is our heritage and belongs to all of us. By accidents of history a few hundred people claim that land, our land, as theirs and aggressively defend their right to do as they wish with it. It’s time we reformed how land is owned and managed. It should not be up to the whim of a land owner whether he supports the creatures who live there or whether he turns the landscape into a blood soaked desert. At the heart of issues about our environment, about re-wilding and conservation, lies the fundamental question of who owns our land and decides what happens to it.

I decided I wanted to do something about what is happening to our landscape. I’m a writer, not a politician, a scientist, or even a naturalist. The only thing I can do is to write. In my latest book, Sky Dance, I raise all these issues. I want to bring them to the attention of the outdoor community in a way that will draw them in and perhaps even encourage them to get involved in the way our land is managed. I write about the hills I know, their people and the creatures who live amongst them. Maybe even have a laugh along the way. There will come a time when the land will begin to heal, when the scars we have caused will start to fade. That is the landscape I want to see.

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