The James Hutton Institute

Living off The Facts of The Land

The James Hutton Institute is one of the biggest agricultural and environmental research centers in the UK and the first of its kind in Europe.

The institute is an internationally networked organisation with two main centers located in Aberdeen and Dundee and four farms in eastern and central Scotland.

Work carried out at these sites is interdisciplinary, drawing on expertise in crops, soils and land use, and environmental and ecological research, as well as investigating the social and economic aspects of land use and the effects of a shift to a low carbon economy.

Employing more than 600 scientists and support staff, the James Hutton Institute brought together the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute and SCRI (Scottish Crop Research Institute) on April 1, 2011.

The new institute is one of the Scottish Government’s main research providers in environmental, water, crop and food science and plays a major role in the Scottish knowledge economy.

Thanks to strong Highland heritage, the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research, subsequently the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute was established in 1930 to carry out research in support of the agricultural industry.

Its benefactor, Dr TB Macaulay, was a Canadian-born descendent of Macaulays from the Isle of Lewis who remained true to his Hebridean roots throughout his life. He often gave large donations to the island, funding various projects including anew library and anew wing at the hospital in Stornoway, and the Macaulay croft on Lewis is still signposted today.

SCRI was the centre of world-leading crop research and breeding programmes for a wide variety of plants, including brassicas, lilies and grasses, latterly focussing mainly on soft fruit, potatoes and barley.

Its research portfolio also included work on pests and diseases, sustainability, the impacts of climate change and biodiversity, as well as high quality and healthy food. The new institute is named after James Hutton (1726–1797), who was a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, an 18th century golden age of intellectual and scientific achievements centered in Edinburgh.

He is internationally regarded as the founder of modern geology and one of the first scientists to describe the earth as a living system, and his thinking on natural selection influenced Charles Darwin in developing the theory of evolution.

Land use
The James Hutton Institute –with a research focus on providing solutions to the challenges facing the use of land and natural resources, both now and in the future –is well placed to contribute to the Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy drawn up a year ago.

“This strategy is the first in the world to have such scope, and sets out a vision for guiding our thinking about the use of Scotland’s land, built around the economy, environment and communities,” says Professor David Miller, research leader of the Realising Land’s Potential research theme at the James Hutton Institute. “It identifies a clear desire for longer term changes in our approach to the planning and management of land, with a view towards recognising the potential for multiple benefits of land uses, and increasing the links between people and the land, so much of which has been lost over the last century.

“Forces for change, such as globalisation and climate change, are interacting with changing demands for food, fuel and fibre, and coinciding with shifts in patterns of our population.

“The difficulties this can cause are easy to recognise in Scotland, with our needs for affordable and quality homes, changing leisure and work patterns, and expectations for our quality of life.

“Our research is designed to help inform the implementation of the strategy.

Soils and land capability
The planning of land use options requires some knowledge of what can go where, such as how steep the land is, whether a site is too windy or sheltered, if the land causes problems of access when it is too wet, whether it is prone to flooding, and what can grow there now and in the future.

To the last of those questions, the James Hutton Institute can turn to its origins and the physical archive of soil samples built up since 1930 from around Scotland and overseas, and the national mapping of Scotland’s soils.

This knowledge is now being made available via the internet ( for anyone to obtain information about the soils in their area.

“Environmental, economic and social issues associated with agriculture are often fundamental for rural prosperity and sustainability, with consequent implications for any debate about future land use,” says Professor Miller.

“A key to supporting the planning of this is to understand the capability of the land for uses such as agriculture, but for tomorrow as well as the present time, which is helped by a knowledge of the soils and what land uses they can support.

“To this end, the Land Capability for Agriculture (LCA) system for Scotland is being reassessed using both recent changes in climate since the original mapping (early 1970s), and projections for future decades to 2050.

“The findings suggest there is now greater flexibility for the types of crops we can grow in areas around northeast Scotland, the Moray Firth and Caithness, and possibly more such change to come. This could provide new opportunities for agriculture but their realisation will require adaption of our land management systems.”

However, it is also possible that the sandy soils of the Moray Firth may become more prone to drought as climate change may operate in different ways depending upon the soil type.

“Whatever emerges, it is highly likely that the agricultural land resource of Scotland will be more important in both a European and global context as other parts of the world, even southern Europe, will be less resilient to the changes we may see,” adds Professor Miller.

Future landscapes
Over the last 10 -15 years, the growth in the development of onshore renewable energy in rural Scotland, such as windfarms and small scale hydro projects, has raised well publicised issues. These include, for example, the potentially adverse impacts on landscapes, ecology and water quality as well as benefits through reducing carbon emissions, and financial returns to individuals or communities.

“However, it’s often not a simple assessment of pros and cons,” Professor Miller points out.

“Agreeing on balances and trade-offs requires reliable information on potential impacts, and effective means of communication for exchanging views from different technical and social perspectives.

“The Land Use Strategy also encourages new opportunities for people to contribute to debates and decisions about future land uses, recognising that changes impact on people and the environment in a range of different ways.”

One mechanism being used by the James Hutton Institute is the use of virtual reality tools to enable public input to the development of scenarios for future land uses.

The Virtual Landscape Theatre is a mobile virtual reality theatre in which audiences of all ages can explore landscapes of the present or future, consider the pros and cons of alternative land use options, and provide feedback by using voting handsets (

Events with this theatre have been run in communities across Scotland to explain how land uses could change over the coming century, and to obtain local views on what might be more or less desirable.

“As greater interest is directed towards gaining multiple benefits from land, so a challenge for our research is to increase the understanding of the opportunities, and consequences, of combinations of uses, both now and how they might change in the future,” says Professor Miller .“To realise the potential of our land is as much dependent upon the behaviours and skills of people as it is about the physical capability of the land.

“Tools such as the landscape theatre provide one mechanism for heading off disbenefits and making the challenge of identifying and delivering multiple benefits more interesting and inclusive.”

For more information on the research on the Realising Land’s Potential, contact Professor Realising Land’s Potential, contact Professor David Miller (davi… David Miller (davi…

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