Palaces and perspective

“Perspective is the Temple of Decision” – inscription in Falkland Palace

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No grander – nor, in some ways, more unseemly – could have been this year’s setting for Reforesting Scotland’s Blue Skies weekend retreat but Falkland Palace. I decided to write this article from a great vantage point atop the Palace where I shared a visual perspective with centuries-old gargoyles and large stone shingles atop the decorative battlements, a sight I certainly hadn’t imagined to be taking in a couple days prior. The Blue Skies meeting takes place once a year in Spring to take stock for the year ahead; the charity’s Directors and Staff are those present, taking a welcome break from engaging with their colleagues solely by phone or screen and spending a full weekend focusing on what the charity should be doing next to bring Scotland closer to having more “healthy communities in a well-forested land”. (In case that sounds more serious than fun, be assured that we were well-fuelled with sumptuous Borders roe roasts and plenty of wine to go round.) Standing there on the battlements of this ancient Palace got me thinking – about perspectives through time, and perspectives through space – so I decided to write a quick summary of the weekend’s business through this lens. [Note: Although this was written just days after the Retreat (7/8 March), during which Coronavirus was mostly just small dinner talk, the government’s first measures to clamp down on society came into force just a week later which delayed getting this article published.]

Falkland Palace by Brian Forbes / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

This was my first Blue Skies retreat with Reforesting Scotland, having recently been invited to consider joining board at the Gathering in Aberfoyle. Being such a new member as well as a busy dad, I felt simultaneously honoured and slightly concerned: honoured to be asked to help steer RS’s course into the future, concerned about where in my life I might find capacity to take on another unpaid responsibility to people and planet. Ultimately, I took up the gauntlet for the exciting opportunity to convene and converse with people whose skills and experience I look up to and aspire towards; people who could challenge me in my own learning journey and whom I could challenge with my own ideas in return – a fair exchange! I also knew that it was the only such meeting I would ever attend alongside Ninian Stuart, the Hereditary Keeper of the Palace and host of the retreat, someone whose experience in life is quite rare and perhaps even unique. I wanted a chance to share in his perspective before he formally stood down from the RS Board, after 11 years of service, and I certainly wasn’t let down.

The subtitle to this article (Perspective: is the temple of decision) is taken from the words of a poet, written on the wall of our meeting room. The wall it is written on is three storeys above Falkland, in a tower many hundreds of years old, and on the other side of the wall are those battlements I mentioned earlier. The line is a reference to the ruined folly, the Temple of Decision, that stands on the hill above the Palace. When I first arrived at the tower and Ninian was showing us around, suggesting which rooms we might use that weekend, I gasped when I stepped onto the battlements and took in the village below me. I joked to Alan Carter, Chair of RS and there beside me, that everyone ought to have their own palace to get a good look down at the land. He chuckled back: “And see that hill, that looks down on the Palace.” Sure enough, if the palace makes the houses in the village look small then the peak of East Lomond dwarfs the Palace! This reminded me to pay close attention to that poetry on the wall, and yet another reason why I came to ruminate on ‘perspective’ as a main theme for the retreat.

At the meetings, we discussed a range of matters but a very large chunk of it kept revolving around Falkland – so it’s a good job we were there! From huts, to the next Gathering and even to the long-fabled ‘RS Home’, the special place that Falkland Estate has been stewarded into being made it quite the focus of the Board’s attention. It seems as though the Estate is entering a brand new and exciting chapter just as its owner closes his chapter with Reforesting Scotland, although I’m sure that it would be hard to overstate RS’s influence over that planned direction given Ninian’s length of service. At the same time, Ninian’s departure means a new leaf turns over for the charity whilst it keeps trying to get across its simple message through all the noise of ‘chaos’, ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’, and trying as ever to engage people to take action.

[Note: To highlight even further the power of perspective, this was written specifically in reference to climate change and ecological breakdown which has been described in this language more and more loudly over the last few years. However, this same language is now being used to describe Covid19 with vastly different results, and at last the global economic and political systems are proving that they do indeed understand what these words mean, and will adapt dramatically and swiftly when it understands it needs to. When we have left this period of crisis, will the environmental movement be able to take up this language again with the same effectiveness?]

Thomas Dick / East Lomond snow covered from the fields of Falkland House

In the last 18 months there have been three ‘young ones’ brought on to the Board, and with recent departures we now see the average age of a director suddenly taking a plunge (shock horror!) – what this means for the charity is yet to be seen, but hopefully what is lost in wisdom is gained in enthusiasm.

The biggest change on the horizon for the Falkland Estate is its managed transition from being a traditional, family-owned holding with its own distinctive natural and cultural heritage to being a complex web of homes, businesses and land uses all held in trust by a locally-rooted community of stewards. Ninian is inspired by Patrick Geddes’ notion of a “good place of the future” and Folk-Place-Work trilogy prioritising social justice, ecological regeneration and economic resilience; whilst ‘giving the land back’ may be a simple appeal from a radical land reformer (and that is indeed what it seems the intention is here) it can take many years to reach that goal in a way that both minimises disruption to those tending the land and respects the character of a place. The approach being taken in Falkland utilises the unique privilege held by the aristocratic class – that of being able to steward the future of vast tracts of land – but for the common good, where otherwise selling the land on the open market risks industry interests snapping it up for misuse and abuse.

Ninian shared with me some of the insights of being born into aristocracy: a feeling of belonging to a family larger than your own, of belonging to a place, of remembering stories from long ago which are about your family and your place, and of your own life belonging to stories yet to be told. Whilst such insights could easily come across as entitlement, it was instead Ninian’s humility that came through as he told me this. In ways, he was describing a sort of indigeneity that he felt connected to, albeit an unusual (and largely unpopular) form of it. Indeed if anyone could still be considered indigenous in Britain, there are probably not many who could claim it more than the landed gentry and aristocratic class. This was, without a doubt, a perspective which I had never come across myself and I was surprised to receive it with contemplation in place of contempt.

It was within these conversations that the theme of ‘RS Home’ repeatedly raised its head – the idea of Reforesting Scotland owning or managing a piece of land which, in some way or another, could be considered ‘home’ to its members. Could RS assume the management of some outlying forest in the Falkland Estate? Could it become a joint owner during the transition of ownership, build some huts, conduct work and volunteer days there? It was all a bit unclear, a bit fuzzy, and the purpose of it was not immediately shared between everyone, but a small task group was set up to keep that conversation alive to find out where the most exciting collaborations might lie. It may be that the future of such an idea has nothing to do with Falkland at all, in which case we came up with a lot of ideas about that too!

Ninian has really been at the forefront of the Thousand Huts Campaign from the start, following the building of his small hut on the estate in 2010, so a lot of conversation focused on ‘where now?’ and ‘what next?’ for huts with a lot of energy pulsating through the campaign off the back of the Hutters’ Rally in Dundee back in February. The estate also has a hut site development underway with a group of hutters building 15 huts in the Falkland Forest. With the new website launch, and RS being at the forefront of this cultural movement in terms of both passion and expertise on the ground, a lot of work was identified going forward to try and get a lot more huts built (by us and by others). Looking back 10 years ago to the very beginning of the Thousand Huts Campaign, a small group of dedicated people has been able to get a lot done but there is still so far to go before woodland huts become a culturally normal and easy-to-access resource for everyone in Scotland. ‘Hutting’ may now be a common and normal term within Reforesting Scotland and beyond, but take your perspective back just a decade ago and no one would have known what you meant.

And lastly, the Gathering, which is taking place in Falkland in September this year [Note: The 2020 Gathering is now going to be an online event.] All those who come will get to see the huge amount of work that the Estate has been doing these past few decades.

The Palace from the Orchard by Immanuel Giel / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

During our four-hour stroll meandering through various sites of particular interest (such as the hut site, the Gathering venue etc), Ninian tells me he estimates six times more people being involved in the Estate now – whether through tenancies or joint ventures – than when he inherited it, and a lot of this progress will be plain to see throughout the weekend. The Gathering will be linked up in some way with a Build School [also, unfortunately, cancelled] happening concurrently at Falkland, where folk from across the counry will be learning how to make sustainable structures using sustainable materials, which we’re hoping will be a great skill- and knowledge-sharing opportunity for RS members and builders alike.

Climate Change will be a central theme and undoubtedly a hot topic running through our minds at the time (if it isn’t already) with the UN Conference of Parties in Glasgow (COP26) taking place in November [now scheduled for November 2021].

We briefly discussed how RS might like to stage a presence at the conferences to make sure all the delegates remember that, amongst all the pledges of millions of trees, there is nothing more powerful than the right tree in the right place – and we’d be interested to know how many members would like to put in some voluntary hours helping in this effort. If this is you, don’t hesitate to contact .

In closing, I am still reflecting on many of the conversations that were had over the weekend past. I felt truly welcomed even though it was my first time really meeting anyone there, and my contributions seemed to be valued despite being the newest and youngest member. Some folk have been involved with Reforesting Scotland since the very beginning and, indeed, since well before I was born, but again we bump into perspective – the grounds we met in have been passed down ‘noble’ lines for close to a millennium, so if I am a young’un to Donald then RS is but a glint in the milkman’s eye to the Estate! I had many of my thoughts and ways of thinking challenged in equal measure to how much I challenged the thoughts of others, but I cannot describe how much I treasure and cherish the opportunity to argue – to properly argue – where the aim is not to win but to most clearly get a point across. It makes a healthy change from snappy Facebook ‘debates’, and seldom does a full time parent like myself get a chance to explore my fullest tree-geek, so for that I am thankful. I am also thankful for the food and wine which was ample and generously served, and the ideas and discussions outside of meetings as well as within. (Even in a couple thousand words it is impossible to capture all that was shared!) I am also hopeful of a long relationship with Reforesting Scotland, as its vision rings so true with all that I believe in, and I also hope that I have many more opportunities to work in and around Falkland as it’s an exciting place to be right now.

And as for Perspective, well…They say the more you know the more you know you don’t know. But to maintain good perspective is to know that you know that you don’t know, and when you know that you can at least act like someone who doesn’t know, which would be wiser than pretending you do know. Or better yet, you’ll know to ask someone who does know! And that is where, as is prophesied, you can find the Temple of Decision.

Written by J. Finn Weddle

11 March 2020

Notes added 18 April 2020 and 23 June 2020

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