Public bodies and Government agencies are usually the target of  journalists, and rightly so: without that scrutiny God knows what the likes of Alexander Johnson would get up to.

I was reminded of this talking to a Polish friend recently, when I  mentioned that journalism is … ahem … not the best-rewarded profession in the UK.  She was shocked as she knows from her own country the value of a free press, and I have done my fair share of badgering politicians and local authorities and other people in power.

But just for once I want to big up the work of a Government agency:  Forestry and Land Scotland.

Who they?  you say… it is of course the new name for the part of Forestry Commission Scotland that’s been turned into a separate agency. Anyhow, they are sometimes maligned for charging for parking, and obviously the many acres of Sitka spruce they planted back in the day are not the most popular part of our landscape.

But they do lots of good things. Before the name change they supported the archaeological dig I worked on in Glen Nevis a couple of years back …

The Dun Deardail dig in Glen Nevis

Then they have constructed all sorts of mountain bike tracks in their woodland, which I’ve used for years and thoroughly enjoyed.

Most recently I visited their woodland at The Lodge at Aberfoyle. Not my usual idea of a day out, too touristy. But with an eight-year-old and a disabled person along, what could be better? We were able to borrow a wheelchair and our wee pal could run around through the woods, exploring the tasteful but exciting added extras on to the Waterfall Walk.

Much of the site is given over to the Go Ape operation: the zipwires and treetop trails don’t seem to be too intrusive, and in fact Go Ape run the pretty decent cafe too.

It feels like this particular public body has got the message that it’s looking after an asset that belongs to us and we should be able to use it. I don’t want to spoilt the positive mood, but perhaps this could be an example for others …

 

Land ownership in Scotland is a tricky subject, with the classic figure “432 people own more than half the country” guaranteed to leave most reasonable folk envisaging the tweed-clad ruling class and hankering after change.

It’s a useful number in summing up many of the wrongs of what I call the Big Land system, but the truth, of course, is far more complicated than that: an awful lot of the land they own is economically useless hill and bog, and I suspect conservation NGOs and even community owners are among the 432 “people”.

Ripe to rewild: Rothiemurchus in the Cairngorms National Park. Pic: Scotland:The Big Picture

(Do the maths: for instance the Knoydart Foundation community owner has 44,000 acres, about 0.2% of the whole of Scotland, and if 432 owners had 0.2% each they’d own 95% of the land; so they’re a player, as will be other community land groups, the John Muir Trust, and the National Trust for Scotland. Unless, of course, I have made some order-of-magnitude error and my sums are way out…)

Anyway, leaving my geekery and dodgy maths behind, I was interested in a couple of mentions of land ownership at last weekend’s conference on rewilding at Stirling University, organised by Scotland: The Big Picture.

It was a fascinating event, with great speakers, including old friends such as Nick Underdown from Open Seas, outdoor education guru Peter Higgins, and Ian Mackenzie of Scottish Wildlife Trust, plus the charismatic American rewilder, Sean Gerrity. One point many emphasised was the importance of people in the “rewilded” landscape, giving the lie to the idea that rewilding is about parkifying or de-peopling.

Franz Schepers from the Rewilding Europe umbrella group stood out as giving us a very different perspective. Over there, on the mainland we’re about to become even more disconnected from, they’re bringing back large herbivores of the sort that cause us so many problems here in Scotland, because their woods are growing too well. I could see Steve Micklewright of Trees for Life going slightly green as he listened to that one.

It tells us that getting the balance right is not that simple, but Franz went on to make another very practical point. He was talking about rewilding in Portugal, including the Greater Coa Valley , and mentioned how hard it is to get the hundreds of small farmers, some of whom only have a hectare or two, on board.

He looked enviously at Scotland’s much derided land-ownership situation: get one laird with 44,000 acres on board and you’ve gone a long way towards rewilding a whole river catchment.

I guess there are two ways of getting landowners into with rewilding: make it pay or tug at their green heart-strings. Incentives to grow trees, cull herbivores, or tolerate carnivores can work; in Scotland’s case, kind-hearted environmentalist billionaires who have bought into rewilding are proving very useful.

Another speaker on Saturday was Jeremy Roberts from the Cairngorms Connect project, who is building a wildlife and woodland corridor across around 150,000 acres of the beautiful mountain and forest landscape on the great northern apron of the range.

A very big part of that 150,000 acres belongs to Anders Hoch Povlsen, the Danish billionaire whose holdings centre on the alpine and imposing Glen Feshie.

There’s an old saying in conservation: Grab it when you can, ’cos there’s not a lot of it about. Actually I just made that up, but it is what conservationists have to do, and by connecting up the Povlsen land with NGO and Government estates, Roberts and his team are taking a pragmatic approach. Povlsen has already proved that, whatever you think of him as Scotland’s biggest landowner, conservation is a major concern, and his wingman in Scotland, Thomas MacDonnell, has a great reputation for pushing the conservation agenda and being one of the good guys.

Roberts, who also gets other philanthropic cash, told the conference: “That funding, that support, is vital to us.”

The idea that we’re dependent on handouts at the whim of the wealthy to improve our environment will stick in the craw of many of us, and perhaps in the longer term a growth in community land can change things, but for now pragmatism dictates that Big Land in the shape of the rich is part of the answer to our environmental problems, in the short-to-medium term, at least.

 

 

 

 

I’m in Barra for a holiday, staying at Ardmhor on the edge of the vast Traigh Mhor: cockle bed, big sky, and of course, airport extraordinaire.

Icy swims, walks across the sands, surfing down at Vatersay, watching the weather come sweeping in, laughing a lot – my kind of beach holiday.

Traigh Mhor

But the most extraordinary part of this trip happened the other morning when we braved  torrential rain and wind to go for a walk over the back to the big west-facing beach which is the opposite of the flat calm here.

We watched the swell, leaned against the wind and marvelled at the wind-blown breakers, then trekked back to the airport cafe for a warm and a drink.

It was there that the really weird stuff happened:  we walked in dripping wet to the sound of a full 40-piece orchestra bashing out Scottish tunes, then Toto’s Africa … Violins, saxophone, trombone, French horn, bongos and drums, filled the tiny departure/arrivals lounge/cafe/shelter.

Unknown to us it was a stopping point for the amazing Nevis Ensemble, a group of young musicians who have the habit of popping up in all sorts of unusual places.

The Nevis Ensemble

There were probably more musicians than audience, despite a flight being just in, but the sheer joy the live music brought was stunning – you couldn’t not tap your feet, start to sway, sing along, even if your boots and shorts were soaking, and water was still trickling down your neck.

No stuffy suits or formal wear, just talented young people in jeans, wearing rucksacks, teeshirts, mixing with the crowd – giving it their all. We were grinning from ear to ear throughout the whole thing.

It seems they’re on a tour of the Hebrides and Barra was their first stop, rounded off with this airport show, before catching the ferry north.

Jon Hargreaves, conducting part of the show, looked as pleased as the audience and was still slightly breathless when we spoke to him afterwards to thank him for an unmissable experience. The musicians were still grinning too.

I doubt I will ever have another experience quite like that again, but you never know – if you come to a place like Barra, get out in the wind and rain, put yourself out, magical things do happen…

If you didn’t see the film of this earlier, here’s the wee clip:

This Nevis Ensemble …

 

We were looking for somewhere to  swim, and had driven out along  Loch Ard in the Trossachs, just west of Aberfoyle.

Camping and parking bans, access problems and grumpy landowners were all in the back of my mind as my son Rob kept saying “This looks good” … “Why not here?”

We’d struggled to find the spot referred to in a  guidebook as “perfect for swimming” – no grid ref, map or directions that made sense – and had turned as a last resort onto the road that leads on to some houses and the sailing club at the head of the loch.

So imagine my pleasure at seeing the welcome laid on by the good people of Kinlochard. We’d actually gone past this sign and I reversed back to it expecting to see the usual “keep out”, or a list of charges and what was banned.

Not only were we being made welcome to use this green field running down to the loch, the car-park at the village hall opposite was open and we were invited to use it.

We had a great swim in the loch, including the novelty of watching a heron on the bank from the water, and seeing ducklings scurrying down the bank for what may have been their first swim.

Next it was up to Loch Chon, just up the road, looking for somewhere for a quick dip to round off the trip. The spot recommended in the guide could be found easily this time  – but signs told me I was forbidden to use the car park there unless I was officially resident at the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park camp-site there.

We went back instead to the scruffy car park 300 metres back along the road, where we swam but found a pile of broken glass and hundreds of nails, evidence I’m sure of the former misuse that the LLTNP camping rules and regulations are intended to prevent.

I couldn’t  help wondering, though, what harm it would have done to park at the other spot, and wander down to the loch through the campsite, or on a path round it.

They’re two contrasting  attitudes to how to manage outdoor spaces in popular tourist areas, close to towns and cities and therefore well-used .

The good folk of Kinlochard clearly have the right idea:  I’m not sure if local  tourist businesses feel the benefit but they deserve to as  visitors who are essential to the  area’s economy are made to feel welcome, as  if something is laid on for them.  It probably also stops some people blundering through livestock or private grounds to get to the loch.

And of course we put a small donation in the honesty box when we had finished and packed up there: why wouldn’t you?

I’ve been cycling down to the office in Partick fairly often recently and it’s a joy to make a swift green journey, only five minutes longer than by car.

EXCEPT for this piece of appalling cycle  lane, and what follows…

I waited to see if a cyclist would come to make it a nice picture but none did. No-one uses it.

I don’t know if it’s the worst bit of cycling infrastructure in Glasgow but I’d love to hear about any that are worse.

From Shawlands I can use back roads and  the Shields Road quiet cycle route and subsequent cycle lane.  Then you’re directed on what appears at first to be a proper cycleway under the M8. Apart from being a bit ill-lit (there are plenty folk who would not use it at night) it’s not bad – and then it pops out into a cobbled wasteland: technically setts, but you know what I mean:  pavé, like in those nightmare Belgian bike-race  surfaces for men with cast-iron arses. There is an ever-narrowing stretch of tarmac next to it that almost  disappears. It feels like you’re being directed through an old bombsite.

Then you are shoved out through the industrial estate and onto Seaward Street, with the busy junctions through Kinning Park and on towards the BBC, all mobbed with traffic straight off the motorway, and some terrible road surfaces.

Now I’m pretty road-hardened, and can tackle the worst of junctions, but I don’t particularly like this bit of road: it’s busy, congested, there is painted-on cycle lane alongside part of it but not much, and until you can swing off past the Premier Inn next the BBC to Bell’s Bridge, you’re on your own. For those more tentative cyclists who we are trying to encourage to cycle to work, get fit, go green etc, this could be a real deterrent.

And like many of the worst cycle lanes we see – the ones that run right next to rows  of parked cars, ready to door you; the ones that stop dead, the ones that cars HAVE to go through or be stuck forever at traffic lights etc – a simple  cheap solution to much of this is at hand.

First, we could find a trailer full of tarmac and get it down on some of those setts. Some nice white paint to make it look a bit smarter, and even a few planters to make it feel you’re not going through the  set of Mad Max: problem solved.

Then we get clever. Instead of shooting out onto  Seaward Street, you could go straight on, past Forrest furniture which already has a private road there, down through the fence onto Paisley Road and then down to the Clyde through the Festival Park flats.

There is perfectly good riverside path there, and it would only take a minor excavation under the Squinty Bridge to make it safe for bikes. Except, of course, that for some reason developers have been allowed to claim this bit of riverside as private, fence it off and put keep out signs up along it, so from the Atlantic Quay commercial park to the Squinty is a no-go zone for the public.

The promised land: the city council says it’ll try to do something about this private riverbank

Like the true rebel I am I rode along this recently, flicking the Vs at that “private” sign, and it’s just the same as the rest of the riverside track. It’d be good if the city council claimed this back as another rather faded sign says it’s trying to do.

Anyway that’s my cure for this particular area but I am posing this challenge: Is there a worse piece of cycle track in Scotland? Post up, with pictures and description of why it’s so crap…

And this might be of interest:  http://bit.ly/2LgPGDJ  

 

I was at a fascinating event at Strathclyde University this week: A Social Justice Approach to Community Land, Energy and Forestry. which touched on many of the topics that I write and rave about – land reform, hydro schemes,  tourism, the NC 500’s impacts, and tax, along with the state of local democracy.

Massed campervans at Gairloch on the NC500

The speakers were uniformly excellent – Angela Riddoch and Andy Wightman are always good value, with excellent points about one of my pet subjects, the lack of local democracy in Scotland and the way community trusts and companies are filling that gap.

There was a blast of reality from Angela Williams from Knoydart, who fuelled the idea that all the noble community efforts which lead to community power generation schemes and buyouts have to happen because people in often remote areas don’t get the stuff that we all take for granted. If we had to make that effort just to get electricity or secure tenancies in cities most of us would be permanently exhausted, or give up, so don’t expect that it doesn’t happen to volunteers in the less-privileged areas of the countryside.

Engineer Paul Tuohy from Strathclyde came up with a remarkable observation about Kinlochleven where he has been looking at energy use.  There are huge amounts of power generated there by the hydro scheme, originally installed for the bauxite smelter and now feeding power into the National Grid, yet local people still pay normal rates for electricity, often burn wood to heat their homes and have to travel 13 miles to Glen Coe and back to fill up their cars. Why can’t they just tap into the turbine stuff, and use a small fraction of it to run electric cars, heat their homes and make the world a wee bit greener?

Agricultural subsidies came up, and a member of the audience asked the question about whether they could be reformed as a result of  Brexit, with EU subsidies being replaced.  I think we all agreed that this at least might be a benefit from Brexit (probably the only one…) and I was reminded that some time ago (almost two years, I fear) I sat down with Jonny Hughes, who just a month ago stepped down as the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

The result was a tape setting out the Trust’s pans for reform of agricultural subsidies, and I still think it bears a listen, I think.

I was back in Mull last week, as seems to be my habit now, and it’s so good to be able to take the car and myself on the CalMac for just £34: the road equivalent tariff makes it affordable, and is one of the reasons I have been able to cover stories there.

It’s also brought a boost to tourism, and some of it is good and some bad… I suspect there will be many more day trippers who take the car over and don’t stay, so providing less of a boost to the economy than might be hoped, and there has been talk of the island being overrun and roads clogged, but where tourism is essential to the economy it’s likely to be generally beneficial, and for locals travelling it has to be a good thing.

Of course, how the tourists are treated is another matter: this magnificently churlish sign on the island made me wonder …

Swap shop …

The smiley only makes it worse, I think.

Anyway, to get to the point, I think I might tend towards the churlish if  I had to put up all the time with one particular  seven-mile stretch of the main route from Craignure to Tobermory, starting at Salen.

South of it the A849 is a good fast road; for the last three miles into Tober  the main  road is good too. In between it’s single-track with passing places that gets a bit wider from time to time and then gets a bit narrower. If you know your single-track etiquette and you’re a bit brass-necked you can get along it fine, but lots of those new tourists will be encountering single-track for the first time.

I know Tobermory is not the biggest of places – Wiki tells me the population is about 1,000 – but it is the capital of Mull, and the handiest town too for Ardnamurchan. It’s one of only a handful of places on our vast West Highland seaboard with anything like the concentration of services that people need; in short, it’s a big deal in the region.

The council has recently said £1m will be spent on upgrading Mull’s roads, but that won’t change the single-track bit, and that of course raises another question about the island: why is Mull part of a local authority area, Argyll and Bute, that includes Campbeltown, Bute, and Helensburgh, and whose HQ is in Lochgilphead?

One can only assume that the remote powers that be have no real idea what it’s like to have a major town with the only access by single-track road, and the extra time and trouble that gives to everyone on the island .

I know road-building is not usually an environmentally-friendly solution to problems, and avoiding it where there are alternatives is fine, but there are no alternatives here.

Mull folk will know all about this and  probably roll their eyes at my presumption in mentioning the matter, but sometimes an outsider’s view is helpful. I think single-track roads are fine in many places, and are maybe even a good way at times of slowing us down and making us see what’s around us. But in this case it feels like a throwback to the 1960s, when I first came to the Highlands and two lanes seemed like luxury. Surely someone can sort this out?

I recently saw the excellent film Of  Fish and Foe, about the last salmon netsmen of the north-east of Scotland. The film-makers had gone along to chart the last bit of a once-thriving industry, but instead walked into a  simmering, nasty conflict between the netsmen and animal rights activists.

Worth watching …

This is a film everyone should see, for its calm objectivity and focus on telling the story – a superb piece of journalism. It did not set out to take sides, but at the end of the film I for one had not doubt who I sympathised with most.

The activists were determined to achieve what many would subscribe to  – an end to seal shooting by the netsmen, and they deliberately got in the way of this legal activity.

It was the ruthless, clever-dick, self-centred way they appeared to be determined to make themselves into heroes that turned my stomach. The netsmen weren’t angels, but the protesters were shown, as far as I was concerned, to subscribe to misinformation about their opponents’ practices; they seemed to have no sense of the others’ humanity and struggle, with a sneering attitude.

I’ve got to be careful here because the organisation involved sent what I believe was a representative to the showing we attended – part of the Glasgow Film Festival – whose question to the film makers at the Q&A that followed focused on a publicity line from the film festival that may have misconstrued slightly what the protesters were up to. That they monitored such things and were prepared to attack on such grounds just emphasised, for me, the way they will lash out at anyone who questions their behaviour.

The rights and wrongs of salmon netting in a place where salmon runs have been diminishing is another argument, but this film showed that by being there, quietly documenting events, being objective,  a true picture away from the hysteria, misinformation and headline-grabbing of web reports and even some daily mainstream journalism, a truth – not the truth, but some of it – can be arrived at.

Instead of being clever and manipulative the netsmen were prepared to let the cameras in, let them film stuff that a PR person would never have allowed, and be honest and open about their views and activities. On a human level, you had to sympathise with them.

There’s a lesson there for a lot of big organisations: I for one have always found that when as journalists we take our time to tell it like it is, and people are open and honest with us, everyone wins and the debate moves forward. Sure, smokescreens and spin win sometimes, and set an agenda… but if we do our jobs properly the truth will out.

I took a walk over Beinn an Lochan in Arrochar on Sunday, with rain turning to snow and icy conditions for summer boots near the steep top of the north-east ridge. I came down the other side, above the summit of the A83 Rest and Be Thankful and the Lochgoilhead Road, traversing round grassy hummocky slopes.

On my way I came across the remains of a landslide, lots of mud and rocks, and the vegetation battered down. This wasn’t a huge event, I suspect, by local standards, but it still looked pretty grim close up.

Looking across the valley I could see the roadworks on the A83, close to where the last landslide down the side of Beinn Luibhean closed it in October.

The landslide scar dwarfs the roadworks

The sheer scale of the landslide scar, and the tiny size of the works, puts it into perspective, I think. Having seen my small local landslide up close, I can imagine a slide coming down this vast slope, with rubble, mud and boulders crashing down, all lubricated by heavy rain. While the mesh barriers at the bottom designed to stop landslides reaching the road are probably massively strong by engineering standards, they look pretty insignificant – well, almost invisible – on this expanse of mountain.

(Looking at the photo the slope looks steeper than maybe it is. The OS map seems to say it’s about 400m up in about 500m distance. Anyhow it’s bloody steep.)

Anyway the point is that from the point of view of this reasonably informed layman, putting mesh barriers up looks like a  pretty poor way to stop the landslides hitting the road. They do seem to be excavating some big holes next to the road now, which would catch a lot of the crap, but I can’t help thinking that the time, cash and effort spent on all this would be better spent on a concrete canopy.

The best chance of dealing with these huge forces is to deflect them , over the top, rather than to stop them dead. I don’t want to get started on the cost of the pointless new Forth Bridge versus west of Scotland infrastructure, but a few million quid of that cash could have probably done the job….

It also struck me how the top end of the road down to Lochgoilhead from the Rest, which has similarly angled slopes above it, with similar geology, doesn’t as far as I know get closed by landslides, even though as I saw for myself, they do happen here. The difference I would guess is all the conifers growing on both sides of the valley, anchoring the soil and blocking the biggest surges.

I’d like to know if the Forestry Commission Scotland report from 2012 suggesting planting native trees such as alder, blackthorn and oak on the Beinn Luibhean slopes has received any attention at all ? The landslides have been happening for years, and it would have been sensible to start planting years ago, but as far as I know nothing happened, and we still see sheep, cattle and deer on parts of that hillside, cropping the vegetation to within an inch of its life.

The impact of road closures in this region, where they are the only effective route to vast areas, has a disproportionate effect on the population, as those areas depend so heavily on tourism. Tourism businesses will probably dread these A83 closures, just like they hate the A82 along Loch Lomond being closed by accidents.

It’s time to think, come up with a proper solution, and let those people that depend on the A83 rest easy…

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have earned their place as one of the top must-see destinations in the world in 2019,” a press release from VisitScotland tells me.

They’re quite justifiably having a brag about the Lonely Planet guide’s decision, revealed today, to include the Highlands and Islands among its top 10 ‘Best in Travel’ destinations for 2019.

Me and Suilven

The presser goes on to say that among the ‘unmissable experiences’ in the guide are “climbing a mountain, with the iconic peak of Suilven referenced; savouring seafood at one of the Highlands and islands many fine restaurants and joining a nature watching trip to discover the wealth of wildlife that abounds.”

“Mountain-climbing”, aka hill-walking. is my favourite of those things (savouring seafood, ie stuffing my face with it, is a close second) but while restaurants and guided walks obviously create jobs and income, and walking pulls in tourists to local hotels, shops and eateries, there’s a disconnect between the actual activity and the money it generates.

Suilven itself is a really good example of this. £200k has just been spent on renewing the main path up this splendid inselberg (look it up!) and it is hugely popular. The money came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Outdoor Conservation Association, John Muir Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish    Mountaineering Trust.

This has prevented worsening erosion and will improve the experience for walkers – it was a proper bog to cross to get to the foot of the hill proper, and the steep bit was a loose stone-fall hazard.

The fact that the cash had to come from voluntary donations is because the group that owns Suilven can’t make a bean out of it, even though it is a community organisation whose sole purpose is to bring benefit to the area.

No-one wants to see charges made to walk or climb in Scotland’s mountains, and it would stick in many a craw to stump up to wealthy landowners, but the Assynt Foundation is the opposite of that, and has struggled to monetise its assets while being left with the management issue of thousands of people accessing its property.

Anyone who’s read what I have written before will expect that at this point I’ll say we all need to pay more tax for these things, and that’d be right, but it’s unlikely to solve the specific problem in the immediate future.

That’s because income tax is collected centrally, so there’s no connection between the increased employment generated by tourism and the cash available to local authorities to pay for stuff.

The answer has to be a tourist tax: however much the tourism businesses complain, a quid extra per bed-night, hypothecated for tourism infrastructure, should not be a big deal.

It would be great to see that being paid to real local authority with say just 10,000 to 20,000 or so people in its area, but that’s another argument …