THE outlook from the flat where I grew up in the Gorbals was pretty grey. From the living room, we could see a single tree standing forlornly, surrounded by concrete paving. My pals and I spent many hours digging out the slivers of earth wedged between the paving stones, looking for worms driven up by the rain.

All around our relatively new council housing, the remnants of the old Gorbals were being torn down, leaving ribbons of wallpaper flapping in the wind and old mirrors dangling from lopsided walls. Amid the debris, shrubs and trees sprouted from the rubble, as nature mounted a comeback.

I didn’t understand the natural world back then. It never crossed my mind that the creation of these endless expanses of concrete stretching in all directions had involved the destruction of the habitats of birds, small mammals, butterflies, ladybirds and a multitude of other living creatures.

Progress comes at a high price.

For the last six years I’ve lived in a rural area. Oh, I miss the vibrancy of the city, my pals, the acerbic Glaswegian humour, the culture, the food from every corner of the Earth. But in the tranquillity of nature, something primeval, kicks in and all the stress of complicated western life can be discarded like a butterfly shedding its chrysalis.

During lockdown, I couldn’t help thinking of my family and friends who live in urban tenements and how difficult these months must have been for those surrounded by deserted city streets rather than woodland, hills and rivers.

It’s a staggering fact that more than 80% of our population is concentrated into just 6% of Scotland’s total land area – the towns, cities and suburbs that are classified as urban.

Scotland’s population distribution has for centuries been imbalanced. After the Act of Union, our geography and economy were shaped and distorted by the needs of the British Empire. People were cleared from the land in the Highlands and the Lowlands. Teeming masses flowed from the countryside to mine coal and iron, to build ships and work in textile factories.

Vast areas, especially north of the Great Glen, were almost emptied from coast to coast, while in areas such as the Gorbals, 50,000 people were herded together in just 300 acres of disease-ridden tenements. Even today, many children in Scotland grow up without sight of our mountains, lochs, rivers, glens, islands, and coastline.

Scotland’s wild landscapes are renowned across the world, and rightly so. Last weekend, I visited the Mar Lodge Estate, Britain’s largest National Nature Reserve, which extends across almost 300 square kilometres of the Eastern Cairngorms.

The heather, now taking on its trademark purple hue, spread around regenerating native woodland. Many trees were familiar: Scots pine, birch, rowan. Others I didn’t recognise, such as the aspen with its leaves shimmering in the warm breeze.

The National Trust for Scotland has had more than its share of controversy and strife in recent years, but under its ownership – and thanks to its workers on the ground – the Mar Lodge Estate has blossomed into a magnificent example of a vibrant, living landscape where nature has been given room to breathe.

The same cannot be said for many of the huge, privately owned sporting estates in other parts of the Highlands. When I first started venturing north, I was just awestruck by bleak, towering, mountains formed by molten lava and ice. Yes, some of our brooding mountain landscapes are dramatic. But the north and south of Scotland also have endless expanses of burned, drained earth, grazed bare of vegetation and crisscrossed by ugly, bulldozed 4x4 vehicle tracks. These are Scotland’s sporting estates, managed for the sole purpose of encouraging wealthy clients to come and shoot grouse and deer.

TODAY, there are around 350 sporting estates in Scotland, covering 20,000 sq km – around one-quarter of Scotland’s total land mass. Although there are exceptions, it’s generally not a profitable industry.

You don’t own a sporting estate to become wealthy; you own a sporting estate because you are wealthy. One of these estates, on the edge of the Cairngorms, was sold a couple of years ago to a Russian vodka billionaire for £25 million. It’s the ultimate status symbol, like having a private helicopter, or a luxury yacht, or a Premier League football club.

When you’ve an urban-centric outlook, it’s easy to assume these bare moors and desolate hillsides are natural and therefore good and wholesome. It’s tempting to take your picnic, breathe in the air, go back to the city (hopefully taking your rubbish with you), and leave it all to the rural politicians, businesses, landowners and voters to manage as they see fit.

City people naturally feel uncomfortable about expressing an opinion. I certainly did. But that 94% of Scotland’s land that is non-urban belongs, morally, if not legally, to all of us. It is one of our most important national assets.

We should remember, too, that many of us came from the land just a few generations ago. Many ended up in densely packed cities because our ancestors were either physically cleared from the land, or forced to flee from famine and starvation. How our land is owned and managed is everyone’s business.

For centuries, the fate of Scotland’s land lay largely in the hands of the House of Lords. Even when MPs did try to make changes, they were blocked by the unelected dukes and earls, the viscounts and barons, many of whom flocked to the Scottish Highlands during the months of parliamentary recess to maraud across our hillsides in their tweed plus-fours, rifles at the ready.

Since Scotland was given some autonomy 20 years ago, there has been a succession of land reform legislation. More of our land than ever before is owned and managed democratically by local communities, or cared for by environmental and conservation organisations, such as the National Trust for Scotland, the John Muir Trust, RSPB Scotland, the Woodland Trust, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Trees for Life.

Public agencies such as Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry and Land Scotland also do some great work on the land they look after. But a tiny number of individuals, fewer than 500, are still very much in the driving seat when it comes to deciding what happens across most of our land.

Concentrated land ownership together with extensive sporting estate management brings human marginalisation as well as impoverishment of nature.

It’s not an issue that will be solved overnight. Redressing the balance of ownership may take a long time to sort out. But there is plenty that can be done in the short to medium term. Like making more funding available for community ownership. And, at the very least, supporting changes to land management through regulation and licensing.

Grouse moor licensing is being discussed by the Scottish Government. There is a whole host of issues, from illegal persecution of raptors to the sheer waste of vast areas of land. We can and should do so much better – for the ecology and beauty of our landscape and to bring the people back to places that are silent and deserted.

A lot more of Scotland can and should look more like the Mar Lodge estate.

I used to think that wee girl playing on the concrete in the Gorbals was a world away from the land, our land. But I just needed reconnecting.