The Black Wood of Rannoch, situated in highland Perthshire, is arguably the largest patch of functioning semi-natural pine forest in Scotland and is home to a rich variety of plants and animals. The forest is an important habitat, having been classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Forest Nature Reserve since 1947, and is widely considered one of the most biodiverse forests in Scotland. It is now under the protection of Forestry and Land Scotland.
Human interaction with the Black Wood has occurred over centuries, shaping its habitat through introducing new species or threatening the forest through logging. During the First World War there were plans to fell it entirely. It also played an important role in, and was shaped by, local history, having been home to Jacobite rebels and used as a deer hunting estate. However, there is little available public information concerning the forest and its history and it is not well known beyond the local community of approximately 750 residents. Although it is accessible to the general public, signage and maps that might encourage this have not been readily available.
The Black Wood of Rannoch thus has significant importance for both ecology and culture. Artists Tim Collins and Reiko Goto felt that while its ecological importance was admirably safeguarded its cultural significance was not addressed and that its true preservation hinged on having both. The artists were interested to discern whether the arts could contribute to a renewed cultural relationship with Scotland’s ancient forests.
The project was instigated in 2012 when Collins and Goto made an appointment with David Edwards to discuss these issues. This led to further informal introductions and discussions, which were followed by bids to Creative Scotland and the Landscape Research Group for project funding. The project sought to use the Black Wood of Rannoch to examine the ideas, knowledge, values, and experiences that enable and constrain public access to, and awareness of, forests with significant ecological and cultural importance.
The project took place through a series of residencies and research efforts starting with the Black Wood community in Rannoch and the archives in Tay Forest District, then within the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, and then Forest Research’s Northern Research Station. The process involved archival research, on-site experience, and walking and talking in the Black Wood itself with experts and stakeholders. The results of this process included workshops, works of conceptual art, blogs, a map, conference presentations, exhibitions and articles.
The project commenced with research, largely at the Forestry Commission Library, and developing discussions with Forest Research and the Rannoch Paths Group. A collective walk took place in the forest in August 2013 to discuss plans to encourage visitors to the forest. This led to the realisation by the artists that among conservationists the social and cultural value of the forest tended to be understood as being in competition with its conservation. There was concern that renewing a cultural relationship with the forest and encouraging more people to visit would conflict with attempts to preserve it as a habitat.
Participants in the Future Forest workshop
In response to this issue, a two-day ‘Future Forest’ workshop was held in Kinloch Rannoch in November 2013. The intention was to explore the social and cultural potential of the Black Wood and examine its present meaning and future value from a broader social and cultural perspective. Those present included arts practitioners, humanities scholars, government agency scientists, NGO representatives, and a range of local residents.
The workshop used the cultural domain provided by the artists as a safe space to interrogate the relationship between humans and the forest, trying to find solutions to the issues that had arisen in August. The artists suggest that arts approaches can value subjectivity and differences of opinion as positive and useful, leading to the development of new ideas and perspectives.
The workshop began with presentations from local stakeholders, ecologists, and cultural practitioners followed by intensive breakout groups on the themes of ‘ecological community’ and ‘planning and management’. The workshop led to the clarifying of common ground between the varying interest groups and shared plans for the future of the forest, agreeing that nothing should change the biodiversity and character of the forest, that the forest should become the focal point of meaningful cultural experience, and that all approaches should be developed by or with, rather than for, communities of interest.
Suggestions for the future of the forest included:
- Deep Mapping: working with local communities, artists, and experts to produce a multi-layered map of the Black Wood that would make its intangible sources of cultural value visible.
- Forest Way Initiative: This would use and expand on existing infrastructure to either develop paths linking the Black Wood to other remnant and recovering forests or to develop a literary trail based around local poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre.
- Black Wood arts, humanities and ecology residencies: Setting up a local residency programme that would allow practitioners to come and progressively restore the relationship with the forest, developing an archive and contributing to the local community.
- Forest Planning: commissioning an independent planning group to help local residents work productively with Forestry and Land Scotland on the management of the Black Wood.
With the issues of cultural access to forests raised in this workshop in mind, the artists used social practice methodologies and critical creative inquiry to initiate a public discourse about the role of culture in ancient semi-natural forests. The methods used included photography, film, writing, strategic workshops and conferences to explore the values that enable and constrain the cultural narrative. From the beginning the work was intended for a local, regional, and national audience.
A video installation produced by Collins and Goto
Exhibitions were held in Perth, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, which sought to bring the issues that had been raised about developing relationships between humans and forests to an urban setting and raise the profile of the wood itself. Works presented included a sculpture of the Gaelic words for The Black Wood of Rannoch (Coille Dubh Rainich) that utilised materials found in the forest and a sculpture of the Gaelic word for ‘deer’ or ‘wild’ (Fiadh), designed as a maquette for a larger sculpture that could also function as a deer fence to protect sensitive areas of woodland. These works bring to the fore remnants of an earlier cultural relationship that elicit a dialogue about forest futures while refencing the physical forms that are embedded in natural history museums and galleries. They also produced video works that aimed to bring the quality of their experiences within the forest to a wider audience that might not visit in person.
The production of a map showing the Gaelic names for area of the forest proved to be an effective means of engaging residents, by discussing the meanings of the names with them and involving them in the search for the origins of these names, which often illuminated local history. Locals were also able to make contacts with forestry staff to help produce a better dialogue and some residents were inspired to put together their own projects, such as walking tours and a one-day walking festival.
A full report on the project was written by Collins and Goto and David Edwards and was published by the Landscape Research Group Press and Forest Research in 2015. Chapters on the topic were also included in Creative Scotland’s Imagining Natural Scotland and the book Bio Cultural Diversity in Europe as well as in the peer reviewed journals Landscape Research Journal and Ecosystem Services. These choices of publications transcended divides between cultural and forestry sectors, aiming to spread the cross-disciplinary discussions to further audiences.
The collaboration had a substantial impact on David Edwards and some of his social science colleagues in Forest Research and its partner institutions by introducing them to a form of socially engaged art, where the artists act as leaders or equal collaborators in a critical and creative enquiry into the meanings and values associated with the environment. They have since worked with Collins and Goto and other artists that employ similar approaches to improve their understanding of the mechanisms and benefits of transdisciplinary working between artists, environmental researchers, and land managers.