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From Collection to Cultivation


Doctoral Project: Zsuzsanna Ihar

Over the last decade in particular, the Hebrides islands archipelago, off the west coast of the Scottish mainland, has turned into a jewel of UK biodiversity, glinting with expansive possibilities for environmental science, agricultural development, and wilderness conservation. Swathes of scientists, tourists, cultivators, and activists regularly arrive to the region, eager to delight in the seemingly untarnished and arcadian landscapes which promise ideal case-studies, rare specimens, abundant wonder, and rest. Whilst much of the allure of the Hebrides can be found in the wildness of its islands, centuries of crofting land practices and crushed shells, blown ashore by Atlantic gales, have left the Hebridean soil calcium-rich and highly arable. As a result, the region has also become somewhat of a hotspot for the cultivation and revitalisation of Scottish landraces, with small oat (corce beag in Gàidhlig), rye, and bere barley framed as critical to the preservation of agricultural heritage, climate change adaptation, and the development of new industry. Yet, the yarrow and barley obscure a historically entrenched and ever-growing military assemblage, composed of missile testing ranges, training areas, weapon repositories, and disposal sites. Starting with the 1940s, the dissertation will trace the simultaneous militarisation and greening of the Hebrides, focusing on knowledge produced by military-affiliated scientists, civilian-scientists, and local members of the community—in the form of governmental reports, policy recommendations, oral history accounts, and folklore. The dissertation will pay attention to colonial, imperial, and Cold-War era legacies, as well as pastoral and environmental movements, to examine the way expertise has been mobilised to justify particular land-management strategies. It will be suggested that over the last eighty years, the region has functioned akin to an open-air laboratory, with both experts and civilians trialling a range of (often opposing) approaches and epistemologies. Some have chosen to depict the Hebrides as an extraterritorial patchwork of military activity, where leftover munitions accrue in the littoral and barracks displace traditional homesteads. It has rendered knowledge capable of enforcing spatial, epistemic, and cultural forms of violence, affecting humans and nonhumans alike. Others have held onto the belief that the neglected plains can be cultivated so that a more just food system emerges in its wake, with ‘Community Right To Buy' (CRTB) initiatives, environmental remediation projects, and a Hebridean history of radical thought complicating the story. Ultimately, the dissertation will present an archipelago which remains contested and contesting—a place where experts encounter lay-knowers, promissory narratives emerge from doomsday schemes, and the distinction between protection and securitisation lays the groundwork for both demur and dissent.

Keywords: military, agricultural science, Hebrides, crop revitalisation, Scotland, scientific expertise