8.3 Perceived Landscapes

For those involved, the practical and bodily engagements through which landscape is experienced are not always the subject of explicit reflection. Landscapes are known, as much as anything else, as practical knowledge: the culturally, socially and historically-specific common sense which allows people to get on with things. But, in certain circumstances and also from time-to-time in daily life, people do perceive landscape in a conscious way. It is important, then, that we complement and connect our knowledge of the landscape-as-experienced with understanding of the landscape as perceived and represented. This includes investigation of particular traditions of thought relating to landscape, and it includes matters of meaning, significance and value. We should take account of the material and non-material culture of landscape apprehension and representation, including art, poetry and literature, cartography, political discourse and public policy. And the ways in which people have intervened in the world under the direction of particular philosophies and understandings of landscape should be explored and, conversely, how certain material interventions have changed perception and meaning.

Is there a modern way of perceiving the landscape? Many archaeologists have answered 'yes', arguing that our singular 'modern world view' is particular to us and not to be projected back into the more distant past (e.g. Thomas 2004, 178-9, 199). This modern world view prioritises vision above the other senses and separates the human subject out from the world: the modern person is a disengaged observer looking in on the landscape. This is the root of landscape painting, of cartography and archaeological landscape survey. It is the root of a Renaissance-derived capitalist understanding of landscape as commodity - a resource to be exploited, manipulated, bought and sold - and of an understanding of the world which separates nature from culture, conceptualising the natural as distinct from the human and in need of protection from the harm that can be caused.

There is something in this narrative of a modern way of perceiving landscape. It is possible, for instance, to point to the coincidence of the beginnings of the modern era and the emergence of 'objectifying technologies' such as the map (Timothy Pont's maps of the 1580s and 1590s being the earliest surviving detailed maps of Scotland - http://maps.nls.uk/pont/). However, research must move beyond the idea that any simple belief in the inexorable rise of the 'modern world-view'. Research should seek to cast critical light on this subject, understanding the so-called 'modern world-view' as a particular, historically-specific way of perceiving landscape and asking: How did this manner of perceiving emerge in practice? How has it been instilled in modern human subjects? The effects which this perception of landscape has had on the world, through its manifestation, for example, in landscape design, management and planning, might be considered. And it might be asked: if this way of perceiving is particular, not universal, what other (modern) ways of perceiving landscape are there?

The matter of landscape perception is open to archaeological enquiry because there is a close, if not straight-forward relationship, between conscious perception, the material character of the world and people's engagements with that world. For the modern era, enquiry into this relationship benefits from rich archaeological evidence complemented by rich documentary, artistic, literary, toponymic and other representations of the world. Yet, despite the availability of these other sources, the question remains an archaeological one because people in the modern world, just as at other times, come to perceive and understand their world through particular engagements with it, and not least with its material, tangible characteristics. It is not possible to understand modern perceptions of landscape without researching the varied and changing ways in which people have acted in relation to their landscapes and the ways in which conscious perceptions of landscape have emerged from such interactions. Landscape perception is a subject for meaningful disciplinary collaboration.

Research should uncover the genealogy (Sensu Johnson 1996) of objectifying modern perceptions of the land, as some recent work has begun to do. Such work has considered, for instance, the emergence of the modern landed estate in the 16th and 17th centuries through changes to the geography and landscape connections of castles (as they became less centres of lordship and more the homes of property owners (Dalglish 2005a). Environmental historians have charted changes in land use, revealing a dynamic balance of arable, pasture and woodland cover linked to the increasing commercialisation of the land (e.g. Davies & Watson 2007). Moving forward in time, studies have seen agricultural improvement as a series of changes to the physical landscape which were linked to the Enlightenment and its concern for rational and transformative engagement with the world, and to emerging capitalist understandings of land and society (e.g. Dalglish 2003). And, for urban areas, archaeologists have considered civic improvement as a material playing out of the same ethos and impulse (Tarlow 2007).


Aerial photograph of Loch Katrine ©RCAHMS.  Loch Katrine represents many of the different landscape relationships which have come to characterise modern Scotland.  It is a Romanticised landscape, leisure destination and tourist hot spot, known through a body of literature and art which includes Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.  It has a functional purpose as the cornerstone of Glasgow’s water supply – the still-functioning Victorian dams and sluices, aquaducts and pipelines built for this purpose form part of its modern-era archaeology.  And it is a landscape known and inhabited for centuries by farmers, shepherds and foresters: their lives are evidenced in the archaeological remains and long-established woodlands (some recently dated to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries) which fringe the loch.  

The counter-point of Enlightenment rationality is the equally-objectifying Romantic sensibility which is so strongly associated with the Scottish landscape. We might seek to know how particular landscapes have developed in relation to the emergence, popularisation and perpetuation of Romantic landscape visions, as exemplified by the works and legacy of Walter Scott. Archaeologists have studied the popularisation of Scott's landscapes through their representation on ceramics (Lucas and Regan 2003; Lucas 2003) and  investigations might be extended to consider how Romantic understandings of particular landscapes have inflected their development in material and lived terms.

There is much for future studies to do in tracing the genealogy and biography of objectifying perceptions of landscape and the relationship of this kind of perception with past (and present) actions and interventions in the world and this is a research problem for archaeologies of all Scottish landscapes: urban, rural, coastal and maritime; designed, industrial, cleared, 'improved', Romanticised and contested.

Future research on this topic must adopt a critical stance, challenging easy assertions about the universality and uniqueness of such 'modern' ways of perceiving the world. Explorations of the genealogy of the object landscape must include and be contrasted with explorations of other modern perceptions of landscape: we need to consider that the landscape has always been multiple and varied in its perception. It might be considered that processes of landscape modernisation, commercialisation and industrialisation may not have been simple expressions of an underlying rationality. They may, rather, have been improvised and negotiated processes: negotiated in particular environments, in relation to established customs and practices and to the contingencies of changing circumstances. And we might consider how other, different but no less modern, ways of knowing the landscape emerged or were sustained.

The same physical space can be perceived in different ways, in connection with the different ways in which people approach and engage with that space: the Highlands of the 18th century were familiar and re-assuring for some but alien and threatening for others, and this might be explored in seeking to understand the 'opening up' of the Highlands through military roads, barracks and forts and other means. Landscapes need to be understood in terms of their social difference: landscape perception can vary with gender, age, class and other co-ordinates of self. Research should be carried out into the enactment of the modern Scottish landscape as a matter of religion, spirituality and belief: the relevance, meaning and practical implications of the idea that the landscape is a revelation of God; the ways in which theological understandings of the landscape have justified or challenged modern ways of using or interacting with the land; the supernatural or magical landscape; landscapes of healing or witchcraft; landscapes of folk belief and folk meaning. Here, a connection between the material history of the landscape with the landscape as revealed through place-names, poetry, song, folklore, collective and individual memories and other evidence should be sought.


See also the ScARF Case Study: Landscape Belief

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