Landscape and community development in the Scottish Highlands: successes, barriers and actions to achieve a sustainable future for fragile rural communities

Authors and Affiliations: 

Dr Chris Dalglish, York Archaeological Trust

Corresponding author: 
Dr Chris Dalglish

The future of the Scottish Highlands is uncertain. This region of mountain, coastal and island landscapes is home to many fragile communities who are threatened by a declining population with too few young people, lack of economic opportunity, low income levels and difficulty accessing services (1). Such community fragility is undesirable in itself and for the region’s rich cultural heritage (which will diminish without a vibrant population to keep it alive) and ecology (which has developed over time in relationship with people).

This fragility is deep-rooted but it is not inevitable. Taking the region as a whole, there has been a significant degree of success over the past 50 years in reversing depopulation and economic decline (2). Much remains to be done but there is now a good understanding of what works. The Highlands is rich in cultural and natural wealth and capable of providing established residents and much-needed newcomers with a high quality of life (3). As Government development agency Highland & Islands Enterprise has recognised, the key is to enable communities to avail themselves of the opportunities that their heritage and landscapes afford them. This means building community capacity and confidence, and empowering communities to acquire, manage and sustainably develop community assets for community benefit (4). Not least amongst these assets is the land.

As a contribution to the symposium 'From Fragility to Empowerment', this paper will use the case study of the Scottish Highlands as a means of elucidating what is required to achieve sustainable development in practice, bringing about transformative change which is simultaneously good for communities and good for the landscape.

The paper will advocate an approach which has landscape at its core and is driven by communities with the capacity and opportunity to effect change for the better. It will:
• describe the Highland case: the characteristics of the region; the historical causes of its current state, and; the positive changes which have taken place since the mid-20th century;
• discuss the evidence for the importance of community landownership, culture and a community-centred landscape approach to sustainable development;
• identify barriers to the wider and continuing adoption of a landscape approach to community/landscape development. In particular, the focus will be on the problems arising from centrally-managed, single-interest approaches to landscape conservation, management and planning, which provide a poor understanding of landscapes, deny communities opportunity and frustrate attempts to address complex interconnected social and environmental problems (5);
• extract lessons from the Scottish Highland case which have relevance for places facing similar challenges elsewhere in Europe and beyond. The focus here will be on the question of how to enable communities to adopt a landscape approach that achieves sustainable development in practice.


1. Highlands & Islands Enterprise 2014 Review of Fragile Areas and Employment Action Areas in the Highlands & Islands: Executive Summary. Available at:

2. Hunter, J. 2016 ‘Population trends in the Highlands and Islands, 1750-2016: How the
Highland Problem originated and how it began to be solved’. Written evidence submitted to the Scottish Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament. Available at:

3. Hunter, J. 2007 ‘History: its Key Place in the Future of the Highlands and Islands’, Northern Scotland 27, 1-14.


5. e.g. Dalglish, C. & Leslie, A. 2016 ‘A question of what matters: landscape characterisation as a process of situated, problem-orientated public discourse’, Landscape Research 41:2, 212-226; Dalglish, C., Leslie, A., Brophy, K. & MacGregor, G. forthcoming ‘Justice, development and the land: the social context of Scotland’s energy transition’, Landscape Research.

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