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[An Extract from Guy Shrubsoles ‘Lost Rainforests of Britain’. Appears by permission of local resident & founding director of Friends of Glenan Wood, Eve MacFarlane]

On Argyll’s southern coast, not far from the Isle of Bute, lies the Cowal peninsula. A quick peruse of Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland website tells you most of the peninsulas moorlands and forestry plantations lie in the hands of various baronets, absentee lairds & shady offshore companies. But at Cowal’s southernmost tip lies something more interesting: a sweep of Atlantic rainforest called Glenan Wood, owned and managed by the local community.

‘Glenan Wood’s always been a very special place to me,’ Eve told me. ‘It’s on a beautiful rocky coastline, where the woods roll down to meet the sea. The oaks are so gnarled and old, really mossy and covered in lichens. The woods smell sweetly of bog myrtle, and burns tumble down through them. It’s a very wild and sensory place.’ Eve’s evocative descriptions told me everything I needed to know about her love for the wood.

‘We’ve had a long family connection to Glenan Wood’ she continued. ‘My great-grandma used to go camping there at the turn of the last century, and I remember running wild in the woods as a child.’ After living in England for a while, Eve moved back to Cowal some years ago, and set up a coffee roasting business and cafe. Then, in 2016, Forestry & Land Scotland – up until that point the owner of Glenan Wood – announced it was up for sale.

‘When I saw it was on the market, we only had two days to put in a bid showing our interest,’

‘When I saw it was on the market, we only had two days to put in a bid showing our interest,’ remembers Eve. She recalled local residents gathering to discuss the sale at a neighbour’s house, with lengthy conversations about what to do. ‘The wood’s such a beautiful place, there were a lot of people in the local community driven by a sense of wanting to protect it.’ Her account brought back memories for me of my mad dash to find buyers for High Wood in Cornwall shortly before bids closed. But the newly formed friends of Glenan Wood had Scottish law on it’s side.

In 2003, the recently devolved Scottish government brought in a community Right to Buy. This powerful piece of legislation gives community groups first dibs when some local land comes on the market. If the community group expresses an interest in purchasing it, the ordinary sales process is paused, giving time for the group to raise funds. The breathing space allows residents to set up crowdfunders, bid for grants and draw up business plans for how the land would be used by the community in future. A Scottish Land Fund also allows communities to draw on public funding for buyouts. At the time of writing, more than half a million acres of Scotland have been bought by community groups, rejuvenating local economies and reversing some of the rural depopulation that came with the Clearances.

At Glenan wood, Scotland’s Community Right to Buy law came to the rescue of a rainforest. ‘That absolutely helped,’ Eve told me. ‘It gave us an incredible feeling of power.’ It was still a long slog to complete the buyout: three years of campaigning, fundraising, and consulting with everyone in the local area. But, in Eve’s eyes, it was absolutely worth it: ‘So much private development is just done to communities, with very little control over it. But, for this, the community can decide on the future of the land themselves.’ In 2019, Friends of Glenan Wood took ownership of 360 acres of temperate rainforest.

The wood’s former owners, the Scottish government body Forestry & Land Scotland, had somewhat neglected it – perhaps seeing this remote pocket of ancient woodland as peripheral to it’s core business of managing commercial forestry plantations. But the new community owners employed a forest ranger who got straight to work, organising groups of volunteers to root out invasive rhododendron and removing non-native conifers shading out the old oaks. Deer fencing has been erected to reduce overgrazing and encourage fresh sapling growth. Local schoolkids have taken part in a ‘bio-blitz’ day to learn about rainforest botany. And an old plantation of larch has been felled, with a community orchard planted in it’s stead. Future plans include making the wood more accessible to visitors, and potentially investing in glamping pods to generate a fresh income stream for the community. ‘The power of it being community owned is that we can focus on things like this,’ said Eve.

Just up the road from Glenan wood, meanwhile, is another community-owned woodland. Kilfinan is a commercial forestry plantation, in which plots have been let out to new woodland crofts, giving more people the chance to make a living from forestry.

Having a thriving community ownership sector, however, doesn’t mean there are no arguments in Scotland about how best to use the land. Over the past few years, there have been rising tensions between some Scottish land reformers and proponents of the growing fashion for rewilding. In some quarters, rewilding is increasingly seen as the pastime for wealthy toffs, foisted upon local communities by a new wave of ‘green lairds’. Some fear that the big estates are using rewilding to greenwash their reputations or, worse still, enact a modern version of the Clearances, swapping sheep and deer for wolves & lynx, it’s understandable that some worry ecological restoration without popular consent could simply mean eco-colonialism. Others point out that it’s perfectly possible to make rewilding and land reform go hand in hand.

In the run up to COP26, these debates spilled over into a minor scuffle about Scotland’s rainforests. The @DailyGael, an English-Gaelic Twitter account with a caustically cynical sense of humour, seized on a post by the Scottish Green Party about rainforests on Scotland’s west coast. ‘Focan’ rainforest cove… the Greens are out of their tree’ they fulminated. ‘Just when you think rewilding narratives couldn’t get any more craicte and mythical’ – craicte being Gaelic for ‘crazy’.

But the tweet ended up getting ratiod with a string of responses from the Gaelic and English alike – pointing out that, actually, Scotland does have a rainforest; that it’s a recognised habitat, not some mystical invention; and that it’s something many in Scotland feel justifiably proud about. I saw that pride in Gaelic Speaker Adhamh O Broins face when he took part in the rainforest blessing ceremony at Cormonachan, making common cause with indigenous activists from the Amazon.

What I hadn’t realised when I witnessed that meeting was that the term ‘Gaelic’ itself derives from a word meaning ‘forest people’. The Clearances not only removed people from the land; they severed their connection to nature. The landowners who expelled them introduced ecological monocultures in their place, for profit and sport. Sheep, deer and rhododendron ravaged many of the surviving rainforests, erasing places once cherished by the Gaelic speaking peoples who once lived in their midst. Given such a heritage, restoring Scotland’s rainforests seems less like an exotic imposition and more a mission of natural reclamation.

And I’d argue that restoring our rainforests, far from it being a form of ‘eco-colonialism’, is actually a decolonial endeavour. After all, we can hardly expect Brazil to protect it’s rainforests, yet hypocritically do nothing to bring back our own. We can’t simply place all the burden of reversing biodiversity loss on the developing world.

But to have any hope of success, rainforest restoration has to be done with people at it’s heart. If we’re going to bring back our lost rainforests, it’ll prove impossible to do so without the active engagement of the communities who live in and around the: the people who will walk in them, root out our invasive species, mend fences, cull deer, plant trees, nurture saplings. In short, the people who will love them and care for them. As Gordon Grey Stephens said to me: ‘You can’t restore a rainforest without people.’