Only a few species of large wild mammals continue to exist in the Highlands of Scotland, and many of these are now managed on large private estates for the pleasure of a few élite landowners. Although there are many local legends about the killing of the last wolf, some of these claim that the last member of the species was killed in 1743. Whether or not this is an accurate historical event does not concern me as much at present as the fact that it dovetails conveniently with the last Jacobite Rising. That is to say, the collective Gaelic “folk mind” seems to make a rough equation between the extinction of this emblematic wild creature with the conquest of the Scottish Highlands, so often portrayed as the last stronghold of wild savagery on the island of Britain.
These were some of the thoughts on which I was pondering on Friday as I joined a large crowd of protestors expressing their concerns about the future of this planet and its diverse environments and species. Our ability to survive as an interconnected set of organic beings and spaces depends on allowing for the integrity and self-determination of Nature over the human enterprise to dominate, and exploit it. As Henry David Thoreau surmised, “in Wilderness is the preservation of the World.”
Wolves are particularly interesting in the Gaelic context because we have some 1,500 years of information which reflect perceptions about and relationships with canines. Wolves are dangerous predators that threaten to destroy and consume the domesticated creatures that humans keep for our own subsistence. Their close cousins, dogs, however, are long-time allies that defend us and our “property” from the incursions of such intruders. The ambiguity of the canine – attacker or defender, wild or tamed – has been an endless source of fascination and symbolism of reflection for Gaels.
The figure Cú Chulainn, the “hound of Ulster,” is arguably the best known Gaelic hero with some deep totemic connection to canines, but there are many others. Warriors who operated outside the normal bounds of the settled community were said to have worn wolf skins and behave as wolves, that is, outside the normal constraints of morality. I have explored elsewhere how the legend of the Grey Hound of Meoble, which survives to the present in Nova Scotia, reflects similar concerns and motifs.
Saint Fáelán (anglicised as “Fillan”) was active in Perthshire in the early eighth century. He name means “little wolf.” According to an early sixteenth-century account, he was building a church in a place designated by God when his oxen were unyoked. A wolf came and ate one of the oxen and Fáelán, realizing that he could not continue his work building the church, made a prayer to God. Straightaway the wolf returned, tame and ready to take the place of the ox he had killed. The wolf remained in this tame state, on the oxen team, until after the work for the church was complete, after which it returned to its “wild” state of Nature.
What does this story mean? It is a parable about harnessing wild Nature for human – and holy – endeavor, thus demonstrating the superiority of the Christian God. Such was the power of the saint, and God, that those things that were formerly beyond human control, typified by the wolf, could be domesticated. It is a relief for me to know that the wolf was not killed or changed permanently after it made restitution for the damage that it had done, but allowed to return to its natural state and role.
This small sampling indicates the tension between wild and domesticated, human-controlled and nature-beyond-human-control, in Gaelic literature and tradition. It is an inherent conflict that exists in all societies: How do we co-exist with the plants and animals that share the same ecosystem with us? How do we set limitations and boundaries on our behavior so that we do not over-consume and destroy the resources available? What is the meaning of place, of life itself?
The questions that we must confront to assure our survival on this planet are not just technological or economic or political, but ultimately spiritual. In a characteristically insightful article highlighting the disturbing accelerating extinction of species, anthropologist Wade Davis summarizes the worldview of indigenous cultures and their relationship to Nature:
“What these cultures have done, however, is to forge through time and ritual a traditional mystique of the earth that is based not only on deep attachment to the land but also on far more subtle intuition — the idea that the land itself is breathed into being by human consciousness. They do not perceive mountains, rivers and forests as being inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination, sustained by memory.”
Humankind will not survive if we do not allow space for undomesticated, wild Nature to exist and thrive in its own right, beyond our desire to dominate and exploit it. We need to allow not just physical space, but also cultural and spiritual space. A space in our imaginations and hearts for relationships that are not just based on money, objectification, and transactions. We can gain great awareness about the issues and choices available to create better potential futures by looking deeply into our own history and across to other cultures. These are some of the main aims of Hidden Glen Folk School – to provide you with the tools and resources to come to significant insights that inspire you to make changes that have a positive impact on your life and the world.
There are currently efforts to reintroduce wild species like the wolf back to the Scottish Highlands At the same time, many people in Scotland and Nova Scotia are making a concerted effort to revitalize Gaelic and restore its resilience after centuries of persecution and marginalization. We can, though collective consciousness and sustained effort, undo some of the harm of the past. How will you make a space in your own life for wildness and Nature? Can engagement in Scottish Highland tradition help you regain a sense of rootedness, of balance, and meaningful relationships?