A starter for 10 – the puzzle of Fraser Darling

On my bookshelf lies my parents’ Readers Union copy of Frank Fraser Darling’s ‘Island Years’, this edition from 1952, although I think it was first published in 1940.  Reading this as a child, my imagination transported me to Hebridean islands I didn’t visit in person until many years later.  In 1969, I heard some of FFD’s BBC Reith Lectures ‘Wilderness and Plenty’ and was inspired to a life in environmental conservation. By that time he was long gone from Scotland, established as a conservation figure of international renown.  In 1970 he was knighted, retiring to Scotland where he died in 1979, aged 76.

As a young researcher in the 1970s I discovered the ‘West Highland Survey – an essay in human ecology’, commissioned in 1943 by wartime Secretary of State Tom Johnston, conducted between 1944 and 1949 but not published until 1955. Its main conclusion, that: ‘…the Highlands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation….’ 1, remains controversial to this day. I heard vague rumours of disputes which were said to have led to FFD’s departure, first for the USA and later to Africa and other parts of the world.  What really happened, and why were the findings of the WHS set aside for so many years?

Some clues may be found in the work of several authors but nowhere have I found a completely satisfying account. I have been told that FFD was done down by civil servants who found his perspectives were not to their liking.  After a working life dealing with their successors I find this too simplistic to be convincing. There must surely be a deeper, and more compelling, narrative allowing for more constructive interpretations. What might this be?

I turned first to the work of John Morton Boyd, my first senior boss at NCC and a close collaborator with FFD.  His 1986 book ‘Fraser Darling’s Islands’ includes a whole chapter on the West Highland Survey: “…there is little doubt that the ideology employed by Frank in the Survey resulted in the work being non-conformist in the agricultural lobby and disregarded as a serious basis for policy and planning in the Highlands and Islands…”2. There are hints of other disputes, around the establishment of the Nature Conservancy and the management of red deer.

The historian Chris Smout (2011) bluntly describes: “…a man of charisma and little tact…”3, which chimes with some of the evidence.  But FFD’s later achievements outwith Scotland rather contradict any implication that he was simply a maverick.  Another historian, Jim Hunter, makes a more sympathetic pitch (1995, 2014), suggesting that the Survey’s conclusion is difficult from ‘both sides’4 . This frames the dispute as a bilateral argument between ‘highlanders’ and ‘environmentalists’ (excluding, for example, public officials). The former, Hunter argues, feel slighted while the latter seem unwilling to accept a vision of rehabilitation which includes human beings.

Puzzled by these varied points of view, I consulted the public record, official files held by the National Records of Scotland.  These are voluminous, for example detailing routine correspondence between the Survey and its sponsors in Government. Here I came across a letter from FFD to the Department of Agriculture dated June 1950 which includes: “…the government has so carefully sealed off the WHS….because no Government wants to start a 100 year job; the Highlander won’t like it because he takes it as a personal slight…..and your Department won’t like it because you can’t do very much about it….”5. Quest over?  Not really, because the files reveal so much else of what was going on at the time.  For example, coincident with the WHS was an interdepartmental group charged: “…to prepare a statement of what had been and what remains to be done for Highland development…”6– the Anderson Committee, which reported in 1945 and led to a White Paper on Highland Development in 1950. Nowhere in these papers could I find a single reference to the WHS despite its original sponsor and public funding. So perhaps the issue was that the WHS, for all its long-term significance, was ploughing a lonely furrow, so to speak, making no effort to engage with other work addressing similar challenges?

Much was made at the time of the delay between completion of WHS fieldwork in 1949 and eventual publication in 1955; there are some implied official reservations about giving the Survey’s findings the ‘oxygen’ of publicity.  But equally, there’s plenty of evidence of delay in simply completing a write-up. The correspondence shows FFD was clearly distracted – by his involvement in setting up the Nature Conservancy and especially by his lengthy absences in the USA from late 1950 onwards – but equally these experiences fed back into his adoption of terminology such as ‘human ecology’ in the subtitle and informed his final verdict of a ‘devastated terrain’.

So my puzzle remains incomplete. Constructive tension?  More of the latter than the former, I fear.