27/11/2016: I once broadcast to every other news programme producer at BBC Scotland a highly amusing but rather vulgar conversation between myself and a well-known presenter about beavers. Remember to press the mute button if you’re chatting while holding for a conference call…

Damage caused by beavers. Probably in the States so a different species, but you get the picture...
Damage caused by beavers. Probably in the States so a different species, but you get the picture…

I think of that every time beavers are in the news, as they have been this past week, but I’m also thinking about the consequences of the Scottish Government’s decision to grant protected status to the beavers living in the wild in Scotland.

The population in Knapdale is part of a deliberate Goverment-backed reintroduction experiment – it was a report about the beginning of that that started my ill-fated chat at BBC Radio Scotland – and those in the Tayside catchment are the descendants of accidental or illegal deliberate releases.

The designation, according to the Guardian,  makes them legally the same as native animals.

Frankly there was never much chance that the Scottish Government would be able to say “No, Knapdale hasn’t worked, get rid of them, and while you’re at it shoot the ones on Tayside.” There’s been beaver tourism in Knapdale (stop giggling at the back…) and though the beavers in Tayside have been less than popular with landowners for cutting down trees and blocking burns to make lakes, animal enthusiasts would have made life pretty tough for any Government minister who announced a cull.

The deal that’s been struck with landowners to allow the beavers to stay lets them disrupt beaver dams where they cause a nuisance and cull them in some circumstances with a licence. Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham also said that any future releases would be met with the full force of the law.

That last is a bit weird, isn’t it? How on earth will they know if it’s a release? And if they are just the same as native animals, isn’t that like saying releasing red squirrels into the wild will be clamped down on, or voles or otters or red deer? Sounds like stable door, horse, bolted kinda country.

They will spread: numbers in Tayside are said to have reached 250 already, and that’s with farmers “controlling” them. There will be conflict between them and people, because they alter the environment in a very obvious way and we often want to control that for ourselves.

The big reintroduction success of recent years has been sea eagles, and they are amazing to see, but farmers have concerns about predation on stock, so none of this stuff is easy.

And I suppose I also have this idea at the back of my mind about how dependent the Highlands has become on the tourist dollar. What we’re saying is some damage to forestry and farming interests – and it could be a lot or it could be a little – is OK because people want to see these attractive, charismatic creatures in the wild, and that helps the hotels and tearooms.

But not everyone wants to work in a hotel or tearoom. There’s an argument to be had about the romantic dream many of us have for the wild land that makes up much of Scotland and the conflict that creates with development and jobs – dare I say industry?

It’s a bit like folk in the UK telling Brazil not to cut down all their trees, when we did it here about 300 years ago so we could get rich quick. The other side of the coin of course is the alleged impact of industrial-scale fish-farming on the west coast rivers where even young lads like my brother and I with an old cane rod and a  fat worm could hook the occasional sea-trout back in the 19longtimeagos. Not very likely now, I gather.

Is more protection for more species, making the land (and water) less available, less useable, the right way to go?

A strange mixture of traditions was being celebrated on Cochno Hill in the Kilpatricks above Clydebank on Saturday, November 5. For a start there was the Lomond Mountaineering Club tradition of odd-ball social events: seven club members plus my son Joe, on a visit from down south, marched up the hill to light a fire and enjoy the fireworks across Glasgow – it’s a great viewpoint.

Picture: Holly Duncan
Picture: Holly Duncan

So there was Bonfire Night, where we celebrate the execution of a Catholic plotter; Bommy Night to me and Holly who are from Merseyside, and we both remember when bonfires were held in every back garden down there, instead of the tame neutered public displays. Oh for the days when dad could burn the shed down by nailing a Catherine wheel to the door …

We toasted marshmallows – in my case amateurishly, setting them on fire and sticking them to my teeth. That’s from the States, I think.

We carried firewood up, other food and and gluhwein, with Klaus bringing about a gallon of it and force-feeding half  of that to Joe, who wasn’t complaining. Klaus explained that there is a German festival at this time of year, I can’t remember its name but it involved fire, religion and possibly strong drink.

And of course what we were really doing here in Scotland was marking Samhain, the pagan  autumn fire feast that was subsumed into Halloween by the clever Christians, the ones who turned the winter solstice celebration into Christmas and household gods into plaster saints. Samhain’s last fiery traces were probably later turned into the Guy Fawkes auto da fe.

The wind whipped in from the north and we huddled round the fire, laughed, ate and enjoyed the fireworks from below and our sparklers, flapjack, and stories.

It felt slightly crazy in the freezing cold, uncivilised and invigorating, a few hours to enjoy the raw elements away from the city spread out in lights and flashes below us.

Just the thing for celebrating Samhain, and perhaps the spirits of those from the old, mysterious Celtic communities that once lived along the shores below and in the hills to the north  were drawn to our light and slipped among us.

I think they would have felt at home.

28/10/16: I’ve lost a bit of the fitness I built up hillwalking in the summer with a few weeks of a cold and post-viral knackeredness, but I’m still starting to think about a bit of winter climbing, the most fickle, tricky, but most rewarding of activities.

Good ice: Me on SC Gully
Good ice: Me on SC Gully

That trickiness means climbing ethics tend to be a bit more flexible om winter. There has been plenty of comment and debate about hammered pegs, although I still carry them in winter as a get-out-of-jail card. There has even been bizarre talk about the ethics of hanging on leashes. If you still have them, that’s what they’re there for  …

But are those things the ethics that should bother us? After walking in the north west I have been talking about winter trips up there: the guide Iain Murray was enthusing about the climbing on Liathach and getting round the back of there does not look too hideous a trek in. I’ve been tempted too by a suggested trip to Norway and then to Italy to bag ice.

There’s always this thing in the back of my mind about travelling long distances to winter climb. It’s obvious, isn’t it: We like winter,we want it, we want those big freezes – but those big trips contribute to global warming, surely? We can  justify it by saying the plane would be going anyway, my small bit of diesel used to get to Torridon is insignificant, and ‘if you take that attitude you would only go to where you can walk, cycle or  train it to,’ and none of those options are very practical for winter hits.

I’m certainly not going all holier than thou on this, and I’ve certainly made many a long drive for a brief encounter with the outdoors in the past

But a couple of years ago I managed to get six or seven good routes in over the winter, mainly with Gary Wroe, and never travelled more than an hour and a bit from Glasgow. That included steep ice on Good Friday (Taxus) and a couple of other decent IVs. It was mainly in the Bridge of Orchy area, and I think I had a day or two on the Cobbler too. Living where we do made it easier, but there was definitely a buzz from keeping the whole day shorter, spending less to get there, and climbing on the local hills.

Something to aim for?

Good time with my son Rob on Sunday when we spent an enjoyable afternoon in the rain at Comrie Croft mountain biking centre, a great spot which manages to project a relaxed vibe while providing excellent service: maybe it’s something to do with the element of employee ownership/community awareness there …

Stormy Sundays ,,,
Stormy Sundays

It was stormy – well, wet and rainy – and we were riding. And we listened to The Doors’ magic track on the way home, one of rock musician Rob’s current favourites, and that big pompous voice of Jim Morrison was as thrilling as ever. So yeah, we were Riders on the Storm, dudes …

It was wet too on Saturday for our second Scotstoun Community Council litter pick. Big thanks to the five others who turned out, and in just an hour and a half we had Larchfield Avenue looking a fair bit better. Best litter finds? An electric heater and three old car batteries.

There’s no point in me ranting on about litter, we all hate it, but I couldn’t help compare the streets in Glasgow to the roads and lanes around Comrie, which seem to be litter free …

I don’t know how it’s done in Perthshire, but I really believe that litter is dropped because people see there is already litter there and so they don’t care. The answer is to clean up, and get local people involved in looking after their own environment. Let’s face it, with Scotland’s local government gap yawning ever-wider, councils are never going to do as much cleaning up as we want.

Back to Bowling Harbour this weekend to get further in to this fascinating place. I headed along the top of the inner harbour wall until it became more broken and then went down onto the muddy seaweedy silt, fortunately not sinking in too much as my wellies were back in the car.

Towards the inside end of the basin there are these great pyramids, sort of semi-detached moorings complete with a capstan apiece.

The head of the harbour by Bowling Station
The head of the harbour by Bowling Station

From the end of the basin you can get on to the long arm of the harbour wall and head back out east along the bar. At the start you can look west to this enormous rotting wooden pier setup – I am sure local historians know all about it but if you don’t know it’s there it’s amazing.

 

Capstan full strength ...
Capstan full strength …

The bar is rough and rocky, broken in places but has been a tremendous piece of stonework in the past.

I think Jax may have been here ...
I think Jax may have been here …

This waterfront is stunning, looking out to green fields and low hills in Renfrewshire. The old stonework is tremendous, the big iron capstans speak of strength and all the while the water glitters and shifts around you.

On the north bank of the Clyde from the city centre out there are the odd bits of waterfront development, and of course places like the BAe Systems yard near my home, which need and use the river. But there are miles, great tracts, of brownfield land that could be turned into something much better, with good devopment, some parkland, a cafe … Even in the city centre itself much of the waterfront is a dull stony steppe.There are sites like Bowling Harbour and the old pier beyond which could be modestly restored so people could access them properly for leisure instead of climbing through holes in fences, as I did to get there. In Yoker a tarmac road runs in front of wasteland along attractive waterfront for probably half a mile, with nothing there other than weeds and dog-walkers.

If you go to Bowling canal basin, east of the harbour, with its little cafe – which really has found its market in dog walkers – and shops (with more to come), bright small boats and accessible paths, you can get an idea how other places could look.

But most communities seem to have turned their back on the river, and often you can hardly tell it is there, just a few hundred yards away. If this was London people would die for this waterfront space. Instead so much Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire’s waterfront space has been left to die.

 

Community Land will be in the news for sometime, so I headed down to Wanlockhead on Sunday to meet some of the folk there who are trying to lever 14,000 acres out of the Duke of Buccleuch’s various holdings.

The village is an odd, attractive place full of character and reminiscent of slate towns in Wales, with steep, steep hillsides rearing up immediately around the homes, and industrial land-gone-green threaded through the community to form a patchwork of cottages, turf, burns and stones.

Cottages at Wanlockhead
Cottages at Wanlockhead

Wanlockhead is in the vanguard of the community land movement outside the Highlands and islands, and the team there feel they could be a template for others.

They’re hoping not to have to use any of the upcoming legislation that in certain circumstances can force landowners to sell, but that and other changes, giving communities the chance to get public bodies to hand over property, and to get land where they can put it to better sustainable use, will drive forward the community land movement, and help to bring about the urban land reform which is now on the agenda.

I was thinking of this as I wandered west from Bowling Canal basin the other night to have a look at the old harbour, where the rusting and rotting hulks of ships and boats lie amid the tumbledown harbour walls, seaweed and silt. You’ll see them if you’re on a train going west from Glasgow. As usual I just missed the golden hour for my photographs, but this is must-see for lovers of the beautiful dereliction of our industrial and commercial past.

The old harbour at Bowling
The old harbour at Bowliing

I have no idea if there is supposed to be any public access to this area but I climbed through a large hole in the steel fence that seems intended to keep us out. Looking at the map it appears the empty Clydeside space stretches quite a bit further along, and I’m keen to take another walk further along here.

But what a place this would be for a community to buy and restore … or even just to preserve in its salty, rusty, tumbledown glory, so people could wander through it and think about the people and the journeys whose memory is softly sinking into the muddy sand along with the boats they sailed.

Land reform is a big deal in Scotland at the moment, with the new Scottish Land Fund with millions to spend, and legislation making community buyouts easier. If you thought this was just of interest to rural and outdoorsy types, think again: Land reform is coming to urban areas too.

The move to urban land reform to enable better local development  was a strong theme at Friday’s Community Land Scotland event, with the Scottish Government  Land Reform Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and Professor David Adams of Glasgow University both emphasising it.

 

Demolition. Kingsway flats, Scotstoun
Demolition. Kingsway flats, Scotstoun

Good new developments in urban areas can be transformational – the demolition of the old Kingsway flats here in Scotstoun and their replacement with a smart, green, well-built housing development is evidence of that – so  anything that lets broken-down, derelict sites be improved more easily in cities by people who care has got to be a good idea. Community buyouts coming to cities and letting communities like mine buy derelict land off land-banking owners is terrific, and with my community hat on and set at a jaunty angle I’m all for it.

But as I don the slightly shabby brown trilby of my profession and pull it low over my eyes, the dewy-eyed community councillor who organises litter picks and believes that everything can be done with goodwill and positivity vanishes and  is replaced by a cynical old reptile.

The first urban “community land” buyout after the new Scottish Land Fund opened this year was a church-turned-boxing-gym, the Broomfield Road Centre and church house in Glasgow. Great for that community, a chance to step forward.

It does however beg the question: isn’t acquiring and establishing community facilities like this that what local authorities are supposed to do? And from that comes the other question: how democratically accountable is the Barmulloch Community Development Company? I’m not singling out the good folk of the BCDS, who no doubt work tirelessly for the public good, and other community trust reps I spoke to at Friday’s event are adamant that they are democratic: they have even held secret ballots.

But community development trusts are taking on much of the work of councils: in Achiltibuie they told me they needed cash from a wind turbine to rebuild the pier because owners Highland Council didn’t have the cash; many are setting up industrial units and building infrastructure, and housing is usually a priority for them.

Lesley Riddoch has written about the democratic deficit in Scotland compared to the rest of Europe, pointing out that the average population of a local council with any real authority in Europe is a less than tenth of that here – real local accountability.

The fact that community deveopment trusts are springing up and doing so much good is great, but perhaps it’s also a symptom of that lack of democracy, and the move to urban land buyouts by community development trusts might bring home to the bulk of the population that lack of any really local elected authority with clout.

So this wasn’t me surfing at Belhaven Bay on Saturday:

surfer

Although, obviously, I am that good, I just didn’t happen to have my staff photographer on hand.

We headed off on the promise of a pretty good weather and surf forecast and we weren’t wrong. As a result the beach and especially the water were really busy, the first time I have ever seen it like that. When I first got onto the board I nearly ran into a young lad and his dad, and then another guy nearly hit me twice, the first time going over my head as I dived out of the way. I scooted off to a less crowded bit but the waves weren’t quite so good there, of course.

On Sunday I was out on my bike on the Glasgow-Luss-Helensburgh 50-miler. It’s a good one for those who’ll do roads but prefer not to, as much of it is on cycle tracks.

The problem for road bikes on such tracks is lack of maintenance. Hard skinny tyres combined with root-bumps and ancient shattered tarmac are not much cop; at this time of year deep wet leaf-litter is a bit scary too, especially when you get a bit of speed up. I have no idea if anyone has a statutory responsibility for cycle-track maintenance, but I suspect it’s a voluntary effort by local authorities.

I’ve only been surfing and road cycling in the last 10 years, so I don’t know if busy beaches and worn-out bike trails are just a modern phenomenon, but I do know with (ulp!) nearly 50 years of hill-going experience that the outdoors is getting busier and busier, and certainly in Scotland there is no real budget to fix bits that get worn out.

Amazingly no-one has any statutory  duty to maintain or repair or build our hill and mountain paths, and with the exponential (OK not really, mathematically, but allow me a bit of hyperbole …) growth of  Munro-bagging there are bigger and bigger trenches all over the place being rutted into hills.

Conservation owners and national parks do their bit, and a well-made path with proper drains and set stone is a joy,  but I hear ‘lottery funding’ and ‘grant from such and such’ and I know that that will mean capital funding for big projects that funders can pin their names to, not the day-to-day funding needed to repair and maintain footpaths every year. Volunteers can do some work, but not the hundreds of kilometres needed on the Munros alone.

With governments all advocating healthy outdoor exercise it’s time they put their money where their mouth is and coughed up for such paths, and for the cycleways for that matter. It would prevent scarring of the landscape (and on the cycleways, bruised bones …) and damage to delicate ecosystems, make paths properly walkable, benefit the tourism industry and provide employment in rural areas.

I don’t think they could stop the overcrowding at Belhaven Bay, and the sand will probably survive without maintenance, but the car-park there could do with some holes filling in …

Part of the Coulags hydro scheme
Part of the Coulags hydro scheme

So is hydro the green power solution with no downsides?  I was back in the north-west this weekend and took a walk up Maol Chean Dearg – Gary Wroe’s penultimate Munro.

On the way we came through the workings for the new Coulags hydro scheme, a run-of-river scheme (there’s no dam or reservoir) which will eventually have the capacity to generate 1.5MW.

There is a bit of mess –  a new road, diggers in the glen, a new turbine house which will be screened by trees, but this Coulags Sign  tells you more about the scheme, and it does seem that everything is being done responsibly, and the ground is to be restored. I am all for development in the glens if it helps keep people in the area, but there is just a niggle in my head.

We are pouring resources into hydro schemes. We later met the bloke who maintains the MBA bothy up the glen, and I think he said there were something like 14 new hydro schemes between there and  – was it Lochalsh? However much care is taken, anglers I know suggest they will affect aquatic life. There’s a stretch of the Fionn Abhainn just above the work that is breathtaking, a long water slide with curls of foam, dark water on smooth rock. I’m not sure if the new scheme will take water out above this or not, but if it does it will affect its appearance.

These may seem all not unreasonable prices to pay for green energy and local employment, but throw in the fact that there seems to be little debate about it, and as far as I can tell renewables are only economic because of subsidised feed-in tariffs … and it raises questions … or should it?

IMG_3223
The view from the Liathach ridge

Well there was a bunch of us, and there was some windy weather, but it was a bit more sedate than that. I won’t go into our combined age and hill experience but laid end to end it would be the equivalent of three times in a double decker round all the football pitches in Wales, so not much wildness ….

I was in Torridon courtesy of SYHA, the weather  was changeable, blowing us almost off our feet yesterday when we had basked in sunshine on Sunday.

Thumbs up for the Torridon hostel, as popular as ever and a great service – it’d be nice to see more  of these – and to our guide Iain Murray with nineonesix-guiding – whose professionalism convinced me of the guided hill-walking concept.

He also gave me some good pointers on the climbing in the area, and if my knees hold out I’ll be back.