This article was published as part of our 16-page Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

IT’S a place that’s fascinated me since I first came across Coignafeuinternich, on a walk in the upper reaches of Strathdearn, six miles west of the A9 at Tomatin and 25 miles south of Inverness.

This empty glen has a strange “something” – neither desolation nor tranquility – and since photographing the ruined farmstead five years ago, I’m drawn back every now and then to wonder. This place was once teeming with life and is now deserted. Does it have to be this way?

When local families and their grown children are having to leave the area, because of a pressurised housing market around Inverness, why can’t we re-people these empty glens?

The answer, of course, is that this land, like so much of the Highlands, never comes up for sale. And if it ever did, the price-tag would be quite unaffordable for locals and it’s possible planners would object to a small co-operative community being self-built there because no services currently exist. And yet. People are capable of producing all kinds of solutions. And we desperately need these empty glens brought back into commission.

Look around. There’s plenty of hidden demand.

Refugees are an increasingly common sight in the high streets of our towns and villages and on roads throughout the Highlands and Islands. They come in all shapes and sizes – some escaping war zones, some escaping problems in this country and many looking for new ideas about the shape of their post-Covid lives.

Some come for two weeks, others zip around the North Coast 500 in a couple of days, admiring the emptiness of the Highlands from the tail-end of a motorhome queue. Then most of them leave.

In an independent Scotland, it could be so different.

The National:

Before we can have glens fit for the future, though, there are big issues to sort out, not least of which is that the land is currently neither affordable nor available – and as long as Scotland remains locked in a dance with its feudal past, nothing can change.

More than 400 years ago and before the advent of “the Great Sheep” to the Highlands, Timothy Pont’s maps showed Scotland’s glens were well populated with townships and summer sheilings in a delicate ecological balance.

We need to restore that.

In Professor Jim Hunter’s words: “There are millions of acres in the Highlands doing not an awful lot, producing not very much. When you think a very small plot … in many parts of the Highlands would sell for £100,000, there is something completely bizarre … when there is so much empty land.”

However, until we achieve an independent Scotland, and a new confidence to embrace radical ideas like Annual Ground Rent as our baseline revenue, we’ll not free ourselves from the straitjacket of the landed-gentry and their rigid class system.

As an architect, I’m not looking for an off-grid nirvana, but simply a formula to reconnect 21st-century lifestyles with nature and the use of appropriate local resources such as wind farms. There’s certainly no shortage of technical solutions available.

The technically refined timber systems for which Scotland has an enviable reputation would allow a range of house-sizes for singletons and intergenerational extended families, and all homes would be designed as close to zero-energy standards as possible. By using clusters and courtyards, we could avoid introducing suburban blight into these glorious spaces, so they’re designed for people, not cars.

Sheltered pockets of outdoor space using free-standing stone walls could anchor the settlements in the natural landscape to reference the traditional cottages and farmsteads left behind.

Glens of the Future will be populated by home workers, supported by satellite WiFi and self-sufficient with homegrown food.

The technology already exists.

There’s the bio-dome of the Eden project, not unlike a huge poly tunnel, made from material that weighs less than 1% of glass, is strong, transparent and a good insulator. These could support a range of fruit and veg grown on vertical frames fed by hydroponics – as demonstrated in pilot projects by Intelligent Growth Solutions in Inverkeithing.

If pineapples can grow in Cornwall’s domes – and tomatoes can grow in similar domes in sub-Arctic Iceland – how’s about Strathdearn pineapples with minimal food miles?

Biogas derived from the harvesting of vacuum toilets (used in planes) could heat the domes and water and, carefully managed with state-of-the-art graphene filters, would help minimise the community’s footprint.

This horticulture would sit alongside goats, sheep and pigs. We could have a buy, swap and sell market between different glen communities – just like the barter system of old. And shared mobile slaughterhouse facilities.

Refugees, whether fleeing war and persecution or merely escaping the pressures of urban life, could connect with young locals hoping to avoid the trek to the cities, and live together with a rootedness on the land that’s evaded previous generations.

I’d envisage a Re-imagined Highland Glens Authority in the new independent Scotland to kick it all off – and let new life emerge in Coignafeuinternich and all of Scotland’s other empty glens.