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:

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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?

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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.

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The team hard at work in Trench 1

It’s an example of all sorts of sectors working well together, and in two days we actually made some finds. This year’s trip to the Dun Deardail archaeological dig in Glen Nevis was as much fun as last year’s. It’s done under the auspices of  the Nevis Landscape Partnership, which is made up of public, private and third sector groups.The digging is carried out by volunteers and it’s run by AOC Archaeology, a commercial firm that knows how to enthuse amateurs, keep them in check (sorry about the over-vigorous trowelling!!) and deal with the public while at the same time carrying out some  good science and investigation. The reason why iron-age people burned hill forts until the rocks within them melted might never be known, but we should at least get a good idea from this dig as to how they did it: the temperatures and techniques required.

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Jessica Lumb of AOC Archaeology explains the dig to volunteers from Nevis Partnership

As usual the volunteers were a great mix, from local people who visited the place as kids to expat Aussies to me and some local archaeology enthusiasts and more … the work is often wet and dirty but if as volunteers did you find a rare iron ring, or a piece of slag from a metal-working furnace, you know you are actually contributing something to the big picture. And even just exposing stones that haven’t seen the light of day for 2,000 years or more, the packed earth and charcoal  spills of someone’s home, is continually fascinating.

I will be back next year …

 

My feature on the 20th anniversary of the launch of the community buyout on Eigg has been well received – Future Island … more community buyout stuff to come, I hope, and I’m talking to people in that sphere over the next few weeks.

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A rare view from the top – mountains everywhere …

Not sure whose ground we were on at the weekend, and whether the community wants to buy it,  but Gary Wroe has been dragging me up more Munros, this time three north of Glen Carron, including Maoile Lunndaidh, a remote monster. We used bikes to get in the first three or four miles and they were a godsend coming out. It was one of those rare Highland days when you worried more about heat, sun and windburn than the cold and wet, but we were all good after a decent meal and beer at the Loch Carron Hotel. Thanks to Gerry’s hostel at Craig for top accommodation, and the Tore Diner near Inverness for breakfast, where men are men and can read endless publications which have no other content than adverts for trucks and diggers, and the sausage sandwiches are so good they hurt.

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Gary on the worst rope bridge ever

 

The RSPB's Fraser and Dave were very helpful - thanks!
The RSPB’s Fraser and Dave were very helpful – thanks!

It’s been a busy few days with some fun over the goats of Inversnaid – the RSPB has put them on “the pill” – well, darted them with contraceptives to stop them eating the valuable woods in the charity’s Inversnaid reserve, but that doesn’t fit a headline … Radio Scotland, the Herald, the Daily Mail and The National all used my reports, getting a prime slot at 0820 on the radio,

and a very good spread in the Herald, here, although Colin McNeill’s byline went on it in the Herald in print, a by-product of the clunky Knowledge system.

Visiting the Inversnaid reserve was interesting: the RSPB has put a lot of time and effort into it, and their new buildings at the Garrison show they’re investing. As well as visiting the Pollochro Woods where the goats are doing the damage, Dave Beaumont and Fraser Lamont where kind enough to take me up to see the new growth trees on the moorland area of the reserve that has been fenced off from herbivores. There’ll be more to write or broadcast about in the future on this, I’m sure.

I also learned the limoitations of my camera skills: with a prime opportunity to snap a couple of the goats, I discovered that black goats, a dark cave, a gloomy day and aquarter-second exposure were never going to work. The goats came out fuzzy no matter how I processed them!

Fuzzy - it might have felt it too if it had been darted ...
Fuzzy – it might have felt it too if it had been darted …

I’m not a Munro bagger, and last weekend reminds me why that is. On the Friday I head up to the Alltbeithe SYHA hostel in Glen Affric with my pal Gary Wroe for a big Munro-ticking walk – three remote peaks sit above the hostel, including the mighty Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan 1151m (think Caravan, Kerevan, and you’ll get it), a hill I have long wanted to climb.  On Saturday the weather is changeable – with breaks in the rain and wind – and we go up over the big east-west ridge of the massif, then across the fine coire behind Ceathreamhnan, to get onto the ridge running north-north-east. This is interesting walking, as is the ridge up to the first Munro, Mullach nan Dheiragain.

Coming back along the ridge we climb steeply up the fine arete to Ceathreamhnan, then down the ridge east and back to the point where we came onto it. The most natural thing in the world at that point would have been to head for the hostel, warmth and warden Hanna’s fresh scones, but no, the Munroist is compelled to trudge over a bog and back for an hour more to take in An Socach, a smaller hill to the east. If you come back and do it on its own it takes seven hours from the road, instead of being part of this eight-hour round, so if it has to be done this makes sense, but of course my slight problem as a non-ticker, non-bagger is … it doesn’t have to be done. It’s not a natural part of the walk, and it’s dull. There is a sense of achievement, granted, and I was happy to go with Gary, who’s very close to completing his Munros, but I don’t think I could be motivated enough by a tick-list to be bothered with that extra slog.

So I won’t be joining A E Robertson et al, unless enough of my Munroist friends take me along enough times to accidentally do them. My current count stands probably at more than 120 but there are some lost in the mist of time and some I have been near the top of but never saw a cairn: will I repeat them? I doubt it … Maybe eventually when someone asks if I have done the all the Munros, I’ll be able to honestly say: “I don’t know…”

Munros, I Dunno