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 …
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.
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 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.
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 …
My work is about stuff like land reform, invasive plants, squirrels, deer, marine plastic, youth hostels and outdoor sports.
I suspect some of my journalist colleagues, the wonks who love wall-to-wall discussions by over-confident hacks speculating about economic futures that no-one can ever really know, or getting responses to the latest piece of dickery from one political party or another, see it as a light sideline, a wee bit of colour before they get back to the serious stuff of men in suits and well-coiffed women saying what they think should happen to us all.
But almost every time I write about the problems and challenges of our countryside I am struck with the same thought: it is massively political, and it’s all about tax.
Take the heated debate about camping byelaws in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. What’s happened here is that over the years people have been visiting the park and breaking the law: vandalising trees and fences, dumping litter, getting drunk in public, fighting and worse.
That’s given as the cause for byelaws that control camping (and while in principle I don’t like it, I’ve spoken to the people of Balmaha about what a relief it has been that people no longer steal their garden furniture for lochside bonfires, threaten them outside their homes and generally cause mayhem on their doorsteps).
But all the things the bad campers do are illegal, and they can be arrested for them: if there were enough police they could patrol the loch-shore and other areas where problems are caused by the small minority who behave in this way, and make sure this behaviour is ended.
Why don’t we have enough police to do this? We can’t afford it, we are told.
Invasive rhododendrons are a major environmental menace: they will eventually destroy most of our native woodland and blanket many open hillsides, unless they are controlled.
As I discovered this year, getting rid of them across the whole of Scotland over the next 10 years would cost £400 million and rising. It would be money well spent, preventing an environmental catastrophe in the future, and, through local contractors, injecting much-needed cash into remote and rural areas.
Will we do it? Will we buggery. We don’t have the money.
Most recently Argyll and Bute Council have hiked their car-parking charges in Arrochar to £9 a day, an 800% increase. Cue outrage in the outdoors community, justifiable purely on the grounds of harm to the health and well-being of thousands of people in the Central Belt who use those car parks for healthy exercise. It seems insane. But if you saw the figures that the council is looking at to balance its budget you would understand how it came to this. They almost scrapped more than half the public lavs in their area. They don’t have enough money to do the things we expect councils to do.
Of course, the land and outdoors issues might seem minor in comparison to roads, the health service, education and more, all screaming for money. It’s just that outdoors issues are what I deal with all the time.
But railing at the councils, the cops, the park authority won’t cure this: they will just shuffle the money about and give it to the causes that shout loudest.
We live in a society where, to put it bluntly, we all have Netflix and indoor shitters. We have fridges, cars, flight to Spain, takeaway dinners, clothes and shoes delivered to our doors: in short, we’re a very rich society. And we can’t afford the cops, the environmental measures, the car parks, the things we need and want to be a society? Pull the other one …
Yet the suited and coiffed of this world still don’t dare put up taxes, to raise the money for the society we want. Something happened, maybe around 1979, that gave tax a bad name. Whether the politicians are scared of the Daily Mail or their own shadows, I don’t know, but it’s time for us all to dip our hands in our pockets and reconnect with the cost of the services we expect.
We should all pay more tax, even if for the low-paid it’s just a tenner a year more. The rich, yes, should pay loads, but we all need to realise we get what we pay for. And if people bleat about the impact on their household budget, well, can the Netflix; scrap the next takeaway; and get what you really want, not what Jeff Bezos or some other grasping bastard wants you to buy with your tax cuts.
In my case it would be well-made footpaths that protect the environment they pass through; freedom to camp where I want in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, protected by efficient policing; a car park that doesn’t cost me £9 a day; a recycling system that really worked.
See how much better off we would all be? What we really can’t afford is to NOT pay more tax.
I’ve been having some good days out with my son Joe this week. After a wet start looking at the grim bouldering at Dumbarton, we’ve walked in the Kilpatricks, snorkelled out on the far side of Knapdale, biked at Comrie Croft, and plunged into the great swimming hole just up from Comrie at Dalrannoch.
In between we put the world to rights and discussed algebra, rocketry, algorithms and all sorts – Joe is a highly-qualified engineer and science buff.
The highlight was at Kilmory Bay, seeing two otters swim up to a rock not more than 20 metres away, climb out, scurry about for a moment in a tangle of sleek snouts and slick tails, and then plunge back into the water, oblivious of the watching men.
There was other wildlife too. On a small hill above Glasgow, on a warm sunny evening, we were strolling back along the grassy track when Joe said quietly: “Dad, snake.”
It’s not what you expect to hear just there and I stopped dead, looking down to see a beautiful, black-and-gold hatched adder, making its way in leisurely fashion along the path less than a metre from my boots. We just stared at first and by the time we thought of getting a picture it had disappeared into the long grass at the side of the path.
Would you be expecting adders in that part of the world? Although a quick Google reveals a few stories about them in the area, I suspect most people like me would think they would be found in wilder or warmer places – the last one I saw before that was in my memory huge, as thick as my wrist, beneath the cliffs at Bosigran in Cornwall.
This one was a good size, the thickness of a dining-chair leg, and maybe 45cm. Although adders will not attack unless provoked, and bites are exceedingly rare, if it did go for you it would be no fun at all.
So now, knowing there is at least one venomous snake there, would that deter anyone from strolling in the Kilpatricks? If it did, would it be logical? Cue a small debate …
The snake was there before we saw it, so it would be foolish to think that merely by having seen it the chances of a bite would be increased.
But could you reduce the probability of being bitten by avoiding a place where you knew there was a snake? We looked at probability, choices, how you use the information you have … and I’m still not sure.
It won’t deter me from using Clydebank’s green lung, but I will take it as a sign that the environment up there is cleaner and wilder than I had thought, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for reptiles on my next visit.
Skye is an almost unbelievably beautiful place: the Cuillin are the mountains of our childhood imaginings, great black pyramids and spires, still spattered in snow when I was there last week. The nearby Red Hills rise steep and barren: again there is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the Highlands. Then there’s the cliffs and spires of the northern hills, the sea cliffs, the shimmering lochs, the small white cottages …
It’s easy to see why the place is a magnet for tourism, with the roads thronged, Portree rammed with people… and yet my visit there last week left me wondering just what the visitors really get out of it.
I had heard before that a few select spots such as the Fairy Pools have become overrun with visitors, but nothing quite prepared me for seeing perhaps 200 vehicles parked in every possible (and a few not-so-possible) places on the main Staffin road below the Old Man of Storr.
One group of young guys had got out their car and were standing, shirts off and slung over the shoulders, looking up at the hills from a fine vantage point in the middle of the road, while traffic slowed and drove around them. It’s not a single-track or anything: it’s a main A-road.
Sure, the Old Man is a fine place for a wander, and I’ve been up many winters ago for a scramble round; then there was no other soul there. But go there with perhaps 400 other folk? I might as well be out in Kelvingrove Park on a sunny Saturday.
Skye is blessed with a decent road network, plenty of access to many wonderful places, plenty of great sights; why on earth people think it is essential to see the ‘five best’ or the ‘ten best’, the place that featured in a film or on telly, when almost every square mile of this island provides another natural wonder, is beyond me.
Maybe if the tourists are stuck in the honeypots it’s a blessing. I was shown a fabulous spot on a sea-cliff top not far from the Storr by a couple of locals who use it to watch otters and whales, dolphins and porpoises. Not many people go there, and those who seek out the less-easy, less pre-digested experience, can find plenty of these places. If they become popular they could be ruined.
But I can’t help thinking that the ant-like visitors are missing out when they stick to their guide-books and follow the rest of the mob to the same old spots to take the same old pictures. Lift up your eyes, look around and see where else you can go: your life will be richer for it. I don’t know if tourist guides and information sites point this out, but maybe they should lay a bit more emphasis on it for the sake of locals, tourists and the places themselves.
Those of us whose idea of a good time is to get out climbing walking, cycling, surfing and the rest take it for granted, but there is a growing appreciation of the benefits of the outdoors on our mental health.
How much being in green space helps me was brought home by my best job recently: a trip out with a group in Cumbernauld set up to help people with mental health concerns get the benefits of being outdoors with good company.
It was organised by Paul Barclay of the Conservation Volunteers, and we ended up making a really nice tape for the Kaye Adams programme on BBC Radio Scotland, followed by a discussion with me and Paul and a few others – I think it made good listening and we certainly spent enough time to get right into the topic.
The trip out itself could not have been simpler: Paul , Claire and their volunteer Rebecca, plus group members Sharon, Jaz and Judy, all met up in a shopping centre and then walked through the surprisingly extensive green spaces of Cumbernauld to get to a quiet bit of woodland by a burn. We picked a bit of litter, lit fire (eventually!) and used the Kelly Kettle to make tea, listened to the birdsong and chatted quietly. It was all the good things about being outdoors rolled into one.
A week later when we were on the radio a caller said she organised outdoor wellbeing sessions with a Japanese element, and a proper tea ceremony – and it struck me how common that is to a good day out in the country. Making a brew, sharing a flask or even just stopping to have a cold drink and eat: those are the times we probably communicate most with those around us, and take in the scenery we’re surrounded by, whether it’s a day on a wild beach or a cragging session.
We’re often goal-focused when hillwalking, climbing, skiiing or whatever, but what we should value more is the just-being-there element of it all.
At the start of the week we took and couple of days off and on Monday night took a barbecue onto the headland east of Coldingham beach, cooked some food, swigged from a bottle of beer and watched the sun set and the tide fall. There was the occasional person with a dog on the sand, a gannet diving for fish, some smoke curling up and the still blue sky of a May evening.
The surf we’d hoped for had failed to materialise but perhaps the evening was all the better for it, and we went to bed feeling soothed by the place, the view, the company, the colours … as Paul Barclay had said, we’ve all got mental health to look after, and that was what we’d done.
It’s easy for people like me who seemed to spend half his childhood damming streams and fishing for trout in Welsh rivers and Scottish burns, but for those of us who are not used to it, or can’t afford to travel, or who don’t feel safe, anything like a club or a group or even an NHS prescription that gets them into the simple green spaces on their doorstep, is just so much better than anything else for making us feel well.
I use the cycle track which runs behind my home in Scotstoun a lot – more now that I am training for the Etape Caledonia in just three scary weeks. I often praise the track as a linear park for the local community. It saw the regular Kiltwalk charity parade at the weekend with lots of colourful outfits and kilts strapped to people of all shapes, ages and sizes.
On their way to Loch Lomond they may have noticed some litter on the track, although as green spaces go it’s not the worst.
They might also have been baffled along the track – as I was all the way to Luss yesterday – by the small black plastic bags of dog-shit scattered on the verge, stuffed in hedges, left on walls…
At least I assume it’s dog-shit – I haven’t looked in them all, and there may be piles of Smarties or cheese sandwiches in some of them, but from the outside I would guess it’s dog-shit all right. It comes in dog-shit bags and some of them are open at the top or have begun to decay, to reveal the dog-shit within.
I love dogs and plan to get one when I have the time and the space to look after one properly. The thing about dog-shit is this: if you leave it out in the open, without going to the slightly nauseous trouble of picking it up in a bag, it’s just a nuisance and unsightly. Kids and people like me step in it and bring dog-shit into houses; your bike runs over it and it leaves your wheels all dog-shitty, but this dog-shit does eventually disappear, helped along by the slightly-higher-than-average-for-the-UK rainfall here in the west of Scotland.
However, if you put dog-shit in a plastic bag, it lasts a lot longer. On a recent litter pick we find someone’s secret stash of bagged-up dog-shit, hoarded and half-buried behind a tree at Scotstounhill, like the gold in a dog-shit version of Treasure Island.
You can imagine the refrain from the pirate’s parrot: “Pieces of shite, pieces of shite…”
It all begs the question: why do people go to the unpleasant trouble of picking the dog-shit up but then can’t take it home or put it in the local dog-shit bin? And who are the people who leave this ready-wrapped dog-shit? I have never seen it being done, and no dog-owner I know admits to leaving plump parcels of dog-shit around for others to admire.
One of the more bizarre things I have seen in the past year or two is dozens of bags of dog-shit dangling from a tree on the access track to the cycle-track. Was this an effort to create a sort of dog-shit Christmas tree?
Perhaps that’s a clue: it’s all down to just one magical dog-shit Santa, who travels through the sky on a flying toilet seat, pulled by flying cocker spaniels, resplendent in a suit of dog-shit brown-and-white (oh yes, remember white dog-shit?). He leaves his gifts of dog-shit everywhere we like to walk and enjoy. And his working calendar is not stuck to December like his dull old non-dog-shit counterpart, but makes every day his dog-shit Yuletide.
If it isn’t that, then tell me who the hell it is. Answers on a Christmas card please.